I'm a fan of the New King James Version. It's a solid, accurate, literal translation of the original languages into standard English as written by today's educated native speakers. It flows well, and it accurately represents the original. But it has a problem. The problem is that, as the name suggests, the NKJV is heavily influenced by the history of English language Bible translation. This doesn't sound so bad, but there are a couple of serious problems with it. The first is that the King James Version of the Bible (aka the Authorized Version of 1611) was one of the first major literary works in modern English (Shakespeare notwithstanding), and is perhaps the most widely read book in the English language. Before it, Wyclif, Tyndale, the Bishops' Bible, etc. were all widely circulated, and the KJV was based on all of these, just as the NKJV is based on the old one. I don't mean to insinuate that the original texts were not consulted; they were (with the exception of Wyclif, who didn't read Greek or Hebrew and translated from the Vulgate instead - we'll get to that later). What I do mean to say is this: these editions form a tradition of Bible translation which has a prevalent and lasting influence to this day. Furthermore, they have been so widely read that the decisions of translators have actually altered the English language. To understand this, think of the English word "soul." According to EtymOnline this word was in use with the meaning "person" or "individual" as early as 1320 (which is, incidentally, around the time Wyclif was making his translation). It had some connotations of immortality in its etymological history, but these were as much cultural background as part of the actual definition of the word. The translators decided (correctly) that this word was a fair parallel of the Greek ψυχη (or, in Wyclif's case, the Latin anima). Centuries later, this word has an almost exclusively religious meaning. It is no longer the "self" or "consciousness" (and as a result is no longer equivalent to the Greek), but has some "otherwordly" connotation. A friend of mine reported that a friend of his he had been witnessing to once complained to him, "you only care about my soul," as though there were some her distinct from her soul, a concept completely foreign to the meaning of the Greek word.
The second problem, is that Bible translation has become, in some cases, a rather "inbred" field, where scholars look at only the work of other Bible translators, ignoring the broader work of scholars of classical Greek. The occasion which precipitated this post was a word, οκνηρος, occuring in Matthew 25:26 which the NKJV translates as "lazy." According to LSJ, the standard lexicon for classical Greek used among secular scholars, the word means hesitant, timid, or "shrinking back from" doing something. The only example LSJ gives (and keep in mind that LSJ is based on the entire classical Greek corpus, including the NT) of a usage like the one in the NKJV is an obscure reference to a philosopher called Hieroclitus who wrote in the fifth century AD. In the context, hesitant or timid actually makes more sense than lazy. Why then this translation?
I checked other translations as well. Every one I had lying around (KJV, NAS, NIV, ESV) had something roughly equivalent to the NKJV rendering; none said anything about timidity or hesitancy. The same translation was suggested by my theological lexicons (Strong, Zodhiates, Moulton). I thought at first this error (if it was an error) might have propagated down from Wyclif, but it turns out it goes farther than that: it originates in the Latin Vulgate. The word used there, "piger," means precisely the same thing as these English translations, and, interestingly, Hieroclitus is pretty much contemporary with Jerome, so this may be Jerome imposing the Greek of his day upon an earlier text. I am slightly hesitant in this criticism, because all of the earlier uses of the word that I found are Attic, dating some 500 years before the NT, so whether the usage 500 years before or 400 years afterward is more representative is something of a quandary. However, every usage of this word in the NT (the other two noun uses are Romans 12:11 and Philippians 3:1; the verb form is used at Acts 9:38) is perfectly compatible with the classical definition, and so it is not clear why this departure was made, except for reasons of tradition.
All this is to say that I really want to see a translation of the NT that isn't afraid to part ways with the tradition of English language translation and find the closest English word possible, regardless of what Wyclif or Tyndale or the KJV or the NIV did, and regardless of what St. Jerome did. The way that the Bible has shaped the English language and the way that previous translations have shaped new translations and theological lexicons requires radical departures in order to make the text fresh and prevent us from bringing our theological prejudices with us in our reading.Posted by Kenny at May 14, 2005 1:30 AM
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