Friday, January 2, 2015

Neil Says: Read The Bible! But Which One?


A recent blog post noted how, back in 2011, Neil DeGrasse Tyson participated in Reddit's 'Ask Me Anything' series of public Q & A.  When asked which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet, Neil suggested eight books.  The first book he listed was, interestingly, the Bible.

I'll list the other seven books Neil recommended in a little bit. But first, I wanted to spend some time on this blog post helping people out with his first suggestion. I wholeheartedly agree with it, of course. I became an atheist largely by learning what the Bible really says, and so I enthusiastically recommend everyone read it - especially Christians. (The polls tell us that only about 20% of Christians have ever read the Bible all the way through at least once, which explains a lot about why they are so clueless.) But there are some pitfalls to reading the Bible which the layperson might get tripped up by.  Certain versions of the Bible are incomprehensible. Others are so watered down that they don't constitute scripture at all. And the different kinds of versions out there are a veritable alphabet soup of confusing titles.  There's the King James Version (KJV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), The Living Bible (TLB), the New American Bible (NAB), the New International Version (NIV), the American Standard Bible (ASB), the Good News Bible (GNB), Today's English Version (TEV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB), among many others. Which, if any, truly constitute a "good" bible over a not-so-good one?

First, if all you want is the general gist of it, any one of the above might suffice. But most people want the authoritative version. After all, we're talking about what some people consider to be the Word of God, here! It might help to get it absolutely right. Paraphrasing might make something more comprehensible, even accessible, but it also might alter the meaning to such an extent that you aren't really reading what the original author intended to convey. On the other hand, if you read a version which is not paraphrased at all, but written in a style which is too closely matched to a language other than English, or worse, written in a version of English which is too old to be understandable, then most of what you read will be missed. To make matters worse, some Bibles use source texts which are outdated.  The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, while the New Testament was originally written in ancient Greek. Older, more reliable manuscripts of the earliest versions of the Bible have been unearthed by archaeologists in recent years, such as the Nag Hammadi library, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But many Bibles do not incorporate these manuscripts into their translations and in so doing leave out the best possible source material. What criteria should be used when selecting a Bible?

Let's establish some basics. The ideal Bible:
1.) Should be written in a clear, comprehensible, modern version of the English language.
2.) Should utilize the oldest and most reliable Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic source texts.
3.) Should be a literal word-for-word translation of these original texts as closely as possible, something scholars refer to as "formal equivalence."

Most Bibles meet the first criteria. In fact, making the Bible more understandable has been something of a crusade for many scholars, as they want as many people as possible to understand what it says. We find far fewer candidates which meet the other two criteria, but there are some good ones. Let me evaluate several popular versions of the Bible using the above three criteria.

The King James Version. No version of the Bible carries as much weight with certain Christians as the King James, or KJV. In certain circles, anyone who quotes the Bible using anything other than the King James is not truly quoting the Bible at all. But how does it truly measure up?
1.) Clear and understandable English? Not even close! Most of the King James is written in a classic Elizabethan style of English which is not used anymore, and so the reader is often left baffled. Here's a great example: A classmate of mine was once reading, along with the rest of us in the class, a passage from John 19:24, "They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots."
The student then raised his hand and said, "Lots of what?"
A few of us giggled at the question, but I helped him out. "Lots as in lotteries," I told him. Then he understood. The Roman soldiers were essentially rolling dice to see who would get Jesus' clothing after he'd been crucified. But this poor student had no idea at first what the text was talking about. And that's just one of thousands of such misunderstandings which can occur when a modern speaker of English tries to make sense of the Elizabethan. Unless someone happens to be well schooled in Shakespeare, the King James is somewhat baffling. And yet there is something to be said for the old-style language. It carries with it a certain beauty and poetic style which modern English does not. Perhaps therein lies some of the appeal.
How about 2.) oldest and most reliable manuscripts? Again, not even close. The source text used for the King James is the Textus Receptus (Latin for 'received text'). Back in the 1500's, this was the best Hebrew and Greek text available, but it was far from perfect, especially for the book of Revelation. Segments of the book of Revelation had rotted away from the only extant Greek text, and so had to be replaced by taking the Latin Vulgate translation and translating it back into Greek. Thus, there are segments of Revelation which were translated from Greek, to Latin, back to Greek again, and then finally translated into English! But the older texts which archaeologists have found since do not factor in at all.
Finally, we evaluate 3.) to see if it has a clear, word-for-word translation from the original manuscripts. Here, finally, we have a winner. The King James does translate literally, perhaps better than any other English version. That, and it's pretty language style, are its primary saving graces.
Final Grade: 1/3; D+

The New International Version. This version of the Bible has won the popularity contest among most Christians. Outside of the King James, it is the most often-quoted text among evangelicals. How does it do? Well, in some ways, its an improvement, and in other ways, an abject failure.  Let's go through the criteria.
1.) Clear and modern English? You bet! The New International Version is among the most understandable Bibles to be found. But this is both a blessing as well as a curse.  We'll see why shortly.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts used? Again, yes! The New International Version does, in fact incorporate translations from the oldest manuscripts to be found.  This is quite forward-thinking, and is one of this version's strongest points. But alas, it almost doesn't matter, because:
3.) This version does not give a literal, word-for-word translation. Not even close! Ostensibly, the translation technique uses something called "dynamic equivalence," which means a sense-by-sense translation instead of a word-for-word translation. But the method used when determining how the English text was to be phrased was to assemble a committee, comprised of scholars from all leading Christian denominations, and then take a vote as to the best way in which to phrase certain passages! This makes the NIV the proverbial camel-as-racehorse more so than any other version of the Bible, and thus erases any of the benefits involved with using the oldest, most reliable source texts.  What good does the correct source text make if the paraphrasing thwarts this advantage anyway? On the other hand, if what you want is a Bible to quote errors and contradictions with, you would do well to use the NIV, because the phrasing committee has already done its level best to erase as many contradictions and errors as they could find! If the contradictions are still there in the NIV (and they are!) then they're genuine! As such, this is always the version I use when "Bible battling."
Final Grade: 2/3; C+

The New American Bible. This is the official version of the Bible used by Catholics. As such, it has a very scholarly approach, and is not bad as far as content is concerned. Perhaps this is because in Catholic doctrine, it is the Pope which is infallible, rather than scripture, thus leaving scholars more free to revise what needed revising while staying true to the original source texts. Let's evaluate this one:
1.) Clear and modern English? For the most part, yes. The text tries to retain some of the flavor of the original manuscripts while being careful to use modern terminology. For example, Jesus always heals the "mute" rather than the "dumb."
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts? Not entirely. It utilizes the Textus Receptus, but also incorporates some things from the Septuagint (an older Greek text) as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is somewhat better than the King James, but not by much.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation? Yes. For the most part, the NAB utilizes formal equivalence. Only occasionally does it depart from this in certain passages which are uncomfortable to Catholic doctrine.
On the whole, this isn't a bad version to use, especially if you will be discussing the Bible with family members who were also raised Catholic. This version also has some interesting books in the Old Testament which are not included in the Protestant Bible, such as the books of Judith and Tobit. On the other hand, it is not a popular version among Protestants, and lacks acceptance by certain evangelicals who are suspicious of the Pope and Catholicism. As such, I find it to be of use only in certain situations.
Final Grade: 2/3;  B-

The Good News Bible and The Living Bible. These are two different versions, but I conflate them here because they are functionally very similar.  The Good News Bible was originally known as Today's English Version, but was changed to The Good News Bible in the mid 1970's.  Sometimes it was published as a paperback book titled simply as, "The Way." This title still occasionally turns up in used book stores and rummage sales. The intention of this text was to simplify the New Testament in such a way as to make it easier for missionaries to translate it into exotic foreign languages. But the paraphrasing of the text had an unintended consequence: it made it highly accessible for children to read. As such, the Good News Bible has been popular in religious grade schools and Sunday schools. A similar story lies behind The Living Bible. A paraphrase of the American Standard Version, it proved a quite handy Bible for children. However, it was not a translation, and did not pretend itself to be. Because both GNB and TLB are paraphrase versions, the results in their evaluations are identical.  Here they are:
1.) Clear and understandable English? Certainly! In fact, this is their one, redeeming quality. In the GNB, there are even cute little stick-figure drawings which illustrate the stories for the benefit of the youngest readers. But this is also its biggest drawback.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts? Not even close. Both versions are quite blunt in their use of paraphrasing, and the original versions are all but abandoned in the quest for understandability.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation? Obviously not.
Final Grade: 1/3;  F

Revised Standard Version. The RSV has been popular in Protestant denominations, primarily for glossing over certain uncomfortable Old Testament passages which don't fit in with certain dogmas, but which does so in such a subtle way that none but the most ardent of Biblical scholars usually notice. It has been considered to be denominationally liberal. Here's how this one measures up:
1.) Clear and understandable English: Yes, for the most part. The RSV was first made a little after the beginning of the 20th century, and so sounds only slightly dated, but still has modern enough English to be comprehensible.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts: No. It primarily relies upon the Textus Receptus, Septuagint, and limited use of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation: Almost, but not quite. It does take some liberties with paraphrasing, but only situationally.
Final Grade: 2.5/3;  C+

New American Standard Bible. I saved the best for last. This one is a little off the beaten path, but is quite popular among professional Biblical scholars, primarily for the reasons I'm about to list here. The American Standard Bible was not especially well done, but revisions to it in recent years have updated its status, and its standing, making it one of the better Bibles to be had, especially if you are of the type to insist on getting the straight dope. I personally find this version to be most popular in Episcopal churches. Here's how it meets the criteria:
1.) Clear and understandable modern English: Bingo! The NASB has always aimed at being both clear in its language usage while also being grammatically correct.
2.) Oldest and most reliable manuscripts: Again, yes! After 1995, the NASB was revised to incorporate the oldest and most reliable manuscripts available.
3.) Literal word-for-word translation: Absolutely! This has been a standard goal for the American Standard Bible (first published in 1901), and has been maintained with the New American Standard Bible. Students of both Greek and Hebrew will find it easy to compare with the English text on a word-for-word basis, making it an ideal study aide for those who pursue Biblical languages.
Final Grade: 3/3  A+

So there you have it! My preference is for the NASB, and whenever I'm studying the Bible on my own, that is the version I most turn to. On the other hand, when I'm debating with Christians and quoting scripture at them, I most often use the NIV, both because it's more popular with the masses, and because any errors I find in there are doubly legit. But I'll admit, I do love reading the KJV on occasion as well. There's just something about that old style of Shakespearean English which is beautiful to me.

One thing further: Beware of "Study Bibles!" The "Defender's Study Bible" is a good example. Basically, a Study Bible is one which is riddled with commentary below each and every Bible passage, and usually that commentary is aimed at twisting the scriptures towards right-wing politics. If you happen to find such a Bible, ignore the commentary! You want to determine what the Bible says for yourself. You don't need someone else's spin-doctoring getting in the way.

Oh, yes! Neil's other book recommendations! Here they are:
2.) The System of the World, by Isaac Newton.
3.) On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin.
4.) Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift.
5.) The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine.
6.) The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.
7.) The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.
8.) The Prince, by Machiavelli.


Eric

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