Which English bible translation is the best and contains the fewest errors?

In the following response, I’m going to distinguish between errors in translation, dated language, and divergence of interpretation. All these contribute to differences in English translation.

  • In terms of errors, modern translations are better, especially those created or revised after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the 20th century. These first-century texts are the earliest Hebrew biblical texts that we have, and they’ve taught scholars a great deal about biblical Hebrew that they didn’t know when King James commissioned his bible in the 17th century. For example, scholars now believe God’s name is Yahweh, not Jehovah. The error came from a limited knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language: The Masoretes (a Jewish monastic group) who gave us the only Hebrew texts available before the Dead Sea scrolls wrote only vowels, only consonants. They did not believe in rendering God’s sacred name on the page, and the Greek and Latin translators that followed them followed suit (which is why we get “Adonai” instead of Yahweh in some versions). But studying the ancient  Hebrew of the Dead Sea scrolls helped scholars understand how names like Yahweh should be pronounced.
  • Another problem with older translations is that English itself has changed. Older translations like KJV are misleading because most of us don’t speak Shakespearean English.
    • 1 Corinthians, for example, contains a passage about seeing the world “through a glass darkly.” In Shakespeare’s time, “glass” meant mirror and “darkly” meant “dimly.” Even though I love “through a glass darkly,” it’s easy to misunderstand today.
    • One of my pet peeves is the KJV’s influential translation of the first word in Ecclesiastes, “Hebel,” into “Vanity.” For Shakespeareans, “vanity” meant “emptiness,” not “self-love.” Hebel means “Breath,” and while I think “emptiness” is misleading, “vanity” misleads modern readers. The English word’s meaning has changed.
  • A third problem arises because ancient Hebrew words can’t always be translated in English easily. Although having a scholarly edition of the bible is important, the issue we have with translation stems less from  “errors” than from big disagreements about what the Hebrew words mean. I mentioned three schools of interpretation:
    • Formal equivalence translators try to stick close to the literal meaning, even if that doesn’t make much sense in translation. Take for example the passage in Mark about Jesus’s’ family coming to see him and asking him to stop prophesying. This literally says something like “They were saying he was standing out from himself.” (My Greek isn’t good; I’m taking this from Ehrman’s discussion in https://ehrmanblog.org/does-marks-gospel-actually-deny-the-virgin-birth/). The formal equivalent people would leave it like that.
    • The “Balanced” translators try to clarify passages without changing the passage’s basic meaning–the nearest noun to “they” is the family, so by the rules of Greek: “The family is saying he has gone out of his mind.” (Out of his mind is a pretty good English rendering of  “standing out from himself.” )
    • A Dynamic Equivalence translation such as the RSV clarifies but also changes the text to reflect the editor’s beliefs. So the RSV’s version of this passage says, “People are saying he has gone crazy.” According to Bart Ehrman, RSV’s editors changed “the family” to “people” to correct what they see as a faulty assumption–that Jesus had a mother, brothers, and sisters who didn’t know he was the messiah and wanted him to stop making a spectacle of himself.
  • Your philosophy of translation can make a huge difference in what you believe about the bible.
    • For example, let’s take the opening passage of the bible. Most English translations say “In the beginning, God created…” But Hebrew scholars will tell you that the Hebrew really means  “When God began to create the sky and the earth …”–in other words, it doesn’t say the creation happened before anything else, “in the beginning.” Instead, at some point, El and his “host” of other deities were hanging around and decided to make the earth by defeating the watery chaos that was already there.
    • Does it matter if the world’s creation was the first thing God did or if it was just one of many things that God did? Yes, if you’re trying to figure out how old the universe is or what it’s made of. For centuries, theologians  argued whether God made the world “out of nothing” or “out of himself.” People have been excommunicated for taking the wrong side–and for things that might seem a lot more trivial.

That’s why, if you don’t know Greek and Hebrew, comparing many translations and reading many scholarly discussions is pretty helpful. You can look at annotated texts, but again, annotations are made by people with opinions, so they vary widely, too.

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