Making Sense of Bible Translations

types-of-bible-translations
Romans 8:1-8 Translation Comparison

(NKJV) New King James Version – Formal Equivalent

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (190)

(NLT) New Living Translation – Functional Equivalent

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The Law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God. (216)

(MSG) The Message – Paraphrased Version

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored. (298)

Question #1: What are the most obvious differences between these translations?

At first glance, one of the most obvious differences is found in the word count for each translation. The NKJV has one hundred and ninety words, the NLT has two hundred and sixteen words, and the Message has two hundred and ninety-eight words. While there was not a huge difference between the formal and functional equivalents, with a difference of twenty-six more words in the NLT, there were over one hundred additional words found in the MSG translation.

The formal equivalent version reads like a Shakespearean play, using beauty and elegance; the functional equivalent speaks to the heart of the matter, with clear, concise, and understandable vocabulary; and the paraphrased version reads like a narrated novel, with descriptive words and added insight to make the pages come alive. Each of the translations has advantages and disadvantages. The only translations, which cannot be used on their own, are the paraphrased translations as these versions are only meant to be a companion translation to a more literal one. Craig Blomberg stresses paraphrased translations, “Should never be presented as if they give insights into the authorial meaning of the biblical writers… [And] no theology, ethics, or any other didactic point should be based on the distinctive form of the paraphrase.”

Blomberg asserts, “Serious Bible students who have not learned to use the original languages should consult a formally equivalent translation when they want the most ‘literal’ translation, that is, when they want to see what most closely corresponds word for word to the Greek New Testament.” He also emphasizes, when key doctrinal issues or controversial text are being investigated, the formal equivalent translation will be the most useful in research. However, when it comes to preaching and teaching, Blomberg believes, “Either the NIV or TNIV is probably most useful for capturing the best balance between accuracy and normal contemporary English.”

Question #2: What are the most theologically or exegetically significant differences between these translations?

Romans 8, considered by many to be the greatest book and chapter in the Bible, deserves immense scrutiny in order to provide the proper translation of the text, while also making its message understandable. I am drawn towards the NLT because it is what I grew up with, while many of my mentors would prefer the rendering of the NKJV because it is what they are most familiar with.
Douglas Moo illustrates how:

Paul’s focus is not so much on the Spirit as such, but on what the Spirit does. And perhaps this is the best way to learn about the Spirit. For, as important as it may be to define the nature of the Holy Spirit and His relation to Christ and the Father, the Spirit is best known in His ministry on behalf of Christians. It is those blessings and privileges conferred on believers by the Spirit that are the theme of this chapter. If we were to sum up these blessings is a single word, that word would be assurance.

With this information, we will analyze the three different translations in search of this common theme because it was Christ’s death and resurrection, which secured eternal life for all who would believe in Him. “For those who are in Christ Jesus,” proclaimed “there is no condemnation.” Moo highlights how, “Many interpreters, noting that Paul focuses in this context on the new life in Christ, think that ‘no condemnation’ includes the breaking of sin’s power in all its aspects. It is, of course, important that we not separate the destruction of sin’s power from the removal of its penalty.”

In verse one, the NKJV reads, “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” the NLT reads, “There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus,” and the MSG reads, “Those who enter into Christ’s being.”

In the second verse, the NKJV speaks of the law of the Spirit overcoming the law of sin and death, the NLT phrases it, “The life-giving Spirit” freeing us from the power of sin that leads to death, and the MSG eludes to the Spirit of life being like a strong wind freeing us from tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

In the third verse, the NKJV speaks of God sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, the NLT says, [God] sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have, and the MSG phrases it, “God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, He personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.”

In verse four, the NKJV says the righteousness of the law means; we must walk by the Spirit and not the flesh, the NLT says, Christ’s sacrifice was the just requirement of the law and would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit, and the MSG says, we must embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

In verse five, the NKJV and NLT are fairly close in their translations. The NKJV says, “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit” and the NLT says, “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.” Even the MSG sums up the general message of this verse stating, “Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God!”

In verse six, the NKJV reads, “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace,” while the NLT speaks of, “Letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. The MSG translates this to mean any obsession with self, leads to a dead end.

In verse seven, the NKJV continues to speak of carnality declaring, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be,” and the NLT does a better and more concise job displaying how, “The sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will.” The MSG translates this, as focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God.

In verse eight, the NKJV concludes by declaring, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” while the NLT says, “Those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.” The MSG paraphrases this to mean, “God isn’t pleased at being ignored.” Interestingly, this is the only occurrence where the MSG uses fewer words to convey what the NKJV and NLT did.

Question #3: What are some advantages and disadvantages of each translation in this particular passage?

One of the major disadvantages for the majority Americans is the country’s average reading level is barely at a seventh-grade level and that is only becoming worse over time as now the average college freshman can only read at the seventh grade level. For translations like the NKJV, Craig Blomberg indicates, “A twelfth-grade reading level is needed to understand the scripture, [as well as] an acquaintance with a fair number of archaic English words and forms.” Blomberg goes on to state even the NASB requires a tenth-grade reading level and the NIV requires a seventh-grade level. According to Paul Wegner, “The average American adult reading level is between sixth and ninth grade,” so less translations available today are academically accessible to the general population. In this passage of scripture, there are several instances where the meaning would be lost due to not understanding the vocabulary used.

Blomberg emphasizes functional equivalent translations, like the NLT, “Prove to be ideal for those at lower levels of English comprehension, such as children and young teens, people for whom English is a second language, or adults whose literary skills are below average. [In addition,] they render expressions more freely, to ensure understanding of the meaning rather than merely preserving the form.” This statement is verified through the rendering of this passage’s meaning; each verse is clear, concise, and to the point.

Of the formal equivalent translations, Blomberg cites the NKJV as being the most popular due to its beauty and elegance despite those attributes not being present in the original Hebrew and Greek text. Chadwick Thornhill illustrates, “The language of the New Testament is common Greek – ‘Koine’ and as the language spread across the world as a result of Alexander’s conquests, the language encountered other dialects and went through various metamorphoses. [This means,] language itself is never static, [it is] always evolving through usage.” Blomberg concludes saying, “For readers using the functional equivalent translations, Blomberg encourages them to, “Aim to progress in their understanding of English so that they can eventually handle intermediate and perhaps even formally equivalent translations.”


Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. with Jennifer Foutz Markley. A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2010.

Moo, Douglas J. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Thornhill, A. Chadwick. From Alpha to Application: Grasping Greek to Study Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2016.

Wegner, Paul D. The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1999.

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2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Bible Translations

  1. Terry Pool says:

    EXCELLENT piece, Jeff! Definitely helpful. Thanks!

    Terry

  2. John says:

    The historical perspective is a realistic gradual collection of the sayings of Jesus relying of oral tradition , interviewing of direct witnesses, writing small pieces for circulation, and as the witnesses came towards the ends of their lives, perhaps the violent dispersal of the Jewish church in Jerusalem in AD 70, the early churches saw the greater need for writtten recording and perhaps had access to paper and the amanuensis skills.
    It is quite feasible that they compiled, edited and made collections of sayings of Jesus, substantial documents such as Q, and then got into the hands of very skilled editors producing probably preceded by circulating copies of the letters of Paul. Numerous ‘gospels have been made. A lot of conflict and disputes took place before the New Testmant canon was confirmed and generally adopted by 300 AD , with Gospel accounts attributed to Matthew ,Mark, Luke, John.
    We must remember to use every creative media available, from DVD like the LUMO project of the gospels, Visual Bible, Audio Bible recordings, and comic illustrations such as the Action Bible.
    The key to communicating God’s message is to keep the cutting edge, the violence of the assault on Jericho by Joshua and co. to avoid sanitising the stories . I recommend watching the mini series AD Kingdom and Empire, not for its accuracy, and straying from historical understanding, but capturing the tension and conflicts as the baby church developed in the pressure cooker of Roman occupied Jerusalem. Other writers like Max Lucado in The Story have helpfully taught churches to grasp at the Big Picture, rather than the dissection of the Whole Biblical library into verses to justify Theological and social positions

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