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John F. Hobbins on Bible Translations and Christian Unity

John F. Hobbins is passionate about biblical languages and Bible translations. He pastors First United Methodist Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and teaches in the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s religious studies department. He blogs on Ancient Hebrew Poetry. In this edited email conversation he talks about choosing Bible translations and maintaining the communion of the saints.

John F. Hobbins is passionate about biblical languages and Bible translations. He pastors First United Methodist Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and teaches in the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s religious studies department. He blogs on Ancient Hebrew Poetry. In this edited email conversation he talks about choosing Bible translations and maintaining the communion of the saints.

How important are ancient languages for understanding the Bible?

If you are serious about reading the Bible, and God has gifted you with the requisite abilities and discipline for language study, it is paramount that you learn ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—and, I would add, Latin—and read the Bible in those languages.

One kind of translation has a single-minded commitment to the text in the original languages and seeks to bring out features of the original text that are neglected in most translations. A prime example is Robert Alter’s translations from Hebrew to English of the Torah, 1 and 2 Samuel, the Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. One can learn a great deal from translation work of this kind.  I translate with similar goals in mind on my blog. However, translations of this type are not suitable for worship or group Bible study.

Translations that try very hard to be faithful to the wording and stylistic choices of the original have an influence, over time, on revisions of church-sponsored translations. The New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Revised Standard Version (RSV), English Standard Version (ESV), and New RSV (NRSV) incorporate revisions that reflect insights of the kind found with greater consistency in “literary” translations designed for close reading.

But why should Christians who aren’t scholars read essentially literal Bible translations? They seem hard to understand.

The answer to that question depends on your understanding of the communion of saints. Do you want to read the Bible in a translation that allows you to read it along with believers of generations past and present and across language barriers?

I am not impressed by the excuses people make for not taking the time to read the Bible along with its readers through the ages. It is a symptom of a larger problem: Christianity today suffers from a form of amnesia, a loss of memory that shades into dementia. It is as if Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Bonhoeffer understood nothing and we, on the other hand, understand everything. What if the opposite is the case?

Which Bible translations do you suggest for study?

First, if you know a language other than English, read the Bible early and often in that language. You will see things and understand things you will probably miss in an English translation. The rule “familiarity breeds contempt” applies to all reading, including Bible reading, if we think we already know what the text means. This is the main reason why colloquial translations ultimately fall short.

Second, make extended use of a study Bible which represents a faith tradition other than your own, or is ecumenical in breadth. Three examples come to mind:

  • The Jewish Study Bible. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. Michael Fishbane, consulting editor. Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • The Catholic Study Bible. Second Edition. Donald Senior and John J. Collins, general editors. New American Bible Revised Edition translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011 [first edition: 1990, Donald Senior, general editor. Mary Ann Getty, Carroll Stuhlmueller, and John J. Collins, associate editors].
  • The HarperCollins Study Bible. Fully Revised and Updated. Harold W. Attridge, general editor, revised edition. Wayne A. Meeks, general editor, original edition. Jouette M. Bassler, Werner E. Lemke, Susan Niditch, and Eileen Schuller, associate editors. James Luther Mays, consulting editor. New Revised Standard Version with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

Third, for close, personal study, it is helpful to compare translations. For the Old Testament, I recommend the following translations to serious students: the New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPSV), ESV, NABRE, NRSV, and Alter, where available. For the New Testament, study the NRSV, New International Version (NIV), NABRE, ESV, and Revised English Bible. (REB is a revised version of NEB, the New English Bible). When I want to see how a contemporizing translation handles the text, I turn to New Living Translation (NLT).

What are the pros and cons of using several Bible versions in worship?

We have RSV pew Bibles in the congregation I serve, and I encourage the congregation to follow along, so I consistently preach from the RSV. As I preach, I contemporize, of course, in a variety of ways. However, I allow liturgists to read the texts of the day from the translation of their choice, which might be the old Living Bible one Sunday and the King James Version the next. In a previous congregation I had a reader, an English professor, who would always read from the King James. She was a great reader and knew how to read the old language in such a way that people could understand it. Once in a while she would preface the reading with a brief explanation of the gist of the passage.

As a guest preacher, I once preached on the entire chapter of Ezekiel 16, which describes Jerusalem as an adulterous wife. The presider thought he would protect his flock by reading the text in the (incomprehensible) KJV before I preached. Little did he know that I incorporated into my sermon a fresh translation of the text from the Hebrew, including the X-rated language Ezekiel was not afraid to adopt. You could have heard a pin drop that Sunday in church. I had the rapt attention of hundreds of flushed faces for the remainder of my sermon.   

Perhaps you have met people who worry that, with so many translations, there’s no way to know which Bible is truly God’s Word. What do you say to them?

I worry with them! I think it would be better if Christians in the English-speaking world recognized one translation as the translation of record. It would be a cross between NABRE, ESV, and NRSV, with a few brilliant translation choices from NIV, REB, and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) thrown in.

If church leaders—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—were on the ball, they would put together a team to hammer out a common translation. It would read “virgin” at Isaiah 7:14 and use old fashioned words like expiation and atonement. It would have to be moderately but not excessively sensitive to the need for gender-neutral language. It would translate the Greek word for tradition as such wherever it occurs. Still, the message of salvation found in holy scripture comes through loud and clear in virtually all translations.

Churches haven’t united around one translation of record, so how else might worshipers experience the communion of saints?

There are acts of worship that all or most Christians feel comfortable with, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper, the Gloria Patri, and the Lord’s Prayer. There is a translation of record for the Lord’s Prayer, with minor variations. It would be nice if all Christians felt comfortable with imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, anointing the sick with oil, laying on of hands, and making the sign of the cross. Specific words go with each act. It is a sign of unity and a bond across time and space to use traditional wording in whole or in part.  

Read a feature story about understanding differences in Bible translations. Check out this Bible readership survey and infographic.