It was on this day, the 31st of July in 1970, that the Lockman Foundation first published the New American Standard Bible (NASB). While new vernacular and sometimes sectarian translations might not cause us to bat an eyelash, the history of translating the Bible into various English vernaculars has been a bloody affair. The momentous publication of this early modern “conservative” and textually rigorous translation in America would be the first of its kind, but certainly not the last. This is the brief history of the translation of the Bible into English and a few practical tips for reading translations today.
A Brief History of Translations
When we think of early Bible translations, the names Wycliffe and Hus might ring a bell. These two proto-reformers from England and Bohemia, respectively, argued for the translation of Scripture into the vernacular and were declared heretics for doing so. Hus was charged and condemned at the Council of Constance (1415) and burnt at the stake. Wycliffe, being dead from natural causes, was exhumed from the grave and his bones burnt as further condemnation.
While individual and idiosyncratic translations would dot the next 250 or so years, the King James version remained the only “authorized” version in the English language.
In 1536, that partly-cloudy Protestant, Henry VIII, in an anti-Roman fit decreed that every English parish should have a vernacular Bible. However, death-sentence-for-translating punishment meant not many people had ventured into translating the Bible into English. But now legal, a flood of English versions would fill the void. From the Geneva Bible (an English translation with notes written by Calvinist theologians) to the Bishop’s Bible (a translation with notes and errata that skewed pro-monarchy), there was no single agreed-upon or authorized version in English until the King James Bible of 1611.
While individual and idiosyncratic translations would dot the next 250 or so years, the King James version remained the only “authorized” version in the English language. With the discovery of codices like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, older and more reliable manuscripts called for changes. As the humanistic disciplines of the Renaissance became the sometimes rigid ideologies of post-Enlightenment translators, it seemed clear that the church was going to need a new authorized version.
Never known for its nimbleness and dexterity around cultural issues, the church dragged its heels. The general European “liberalism” in the 19th century slowed the acceptance of newer textual criticism amongst conservatives. But by 1885, the ever-mediating British put forth the first “Revised” version using both modern English and the most reliable manuscript sources recently uncovered in the Sinai peninsula and the Vatican library.
This English Revised Version was given a few more revisions and an American accent for the 1901 American Standard Version. The adoption of the newer manuscripts for modern translations coincided with the modernist-fundamentalist kulturkampf of the early 20th century. Sectarian suspicions led not only to a splintering of denominations but of preferred manuscript traditions. The essential distinction is between fidelity to tradition or advances in textual evidence and grammatical-historical corrections. The “traditional” texts (textus receptus) were handed down through the Catholic church in its Vulgate (Latin translation) from St. Jerome. A tradition in some conservative churches doesn’t follow the Vulgate, but instead some variation of the King James Bible, which uses the “traditional” manuscripts used by Jerome in the English translation.
The Importance of the New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The publication of the NASB on this day, 49 years ago, marked a newer translation based off of the newest codices, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the most recent Novum Testamentum Graeca compiled by German Biblical Scholar Kurt Aland et. al. These new texts and manuscripts, while not altering the message of the text, can give us better insight into particular historical and grammatical issues.
The NASB broke ground by accepting the more reliable textual variants even when controversial. The most famous case occurred over the translation of the Hebrew word ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7 as possibly “maiden.” While translated as “virgin” in the book of Matthew, the NASB board explained that the original context for the Isaiah reference was an Ancient Near Eastern birth announcement. This reference pointed to both the King Hezekiah in the immediate sense and the Christ child in the “fuller” sense (sensus plenior).
The immediate reaction to the production of the NASB was a new perceived “liberal” threat as it fell within the new manuscript tradition. Some conservatives refused to give the more modern textual variants any play and decided to stay within the older tradition of the textus receptus (the Vulgate and King James’ manuscripts). Thus, the New English Bible (NEB) was created. To avert introducing any more acronyms and avoid further confusion, I’ll leave the story of the NIV (1978), NRSV (1990) and ESV (2001) for another time. But it’s good to know that the creation of idiosyncratic translations has exploded in a world of digitization and worldwide connectivity.
But Which Translation is Best?
With over 4500 English translations today, each available in a snap and often in parallel with each other, the question of which one translation you should use may seem archaic. But where is the practical advice? What is the takeaway? What do you need to know about English Bible translations today!?
First of all, remember whatever you choose, you are reading in translation. Translation implies interpretation as no language corresponds perfectly with another. Thus, you are not just reading a translation but a specific interpretation. As you keep that in mind, realize that fallible humans do all translations. None of them are going to be perfect, so perhaps a collection of translations would be helpful. No one is without error, but it seems unlikely that they would all err in the same direction.
Whatever translation (and interpretation) you favor (or tolerate) remember that there is a God who has chosen to communicate to us through a reliable Word.
My very basic advice is to use whatever translation your church reads from during service. I won’t tell you what translation my church uses, but I think it is solid with a few questionable interpretations. I think the rhythm of the Word said aloud is a powerful tool for memory and devotion, and thus, I prefer uniformity over precision in public worship.
Whatever translation (and interpretation) you favor (or tolerate) remember that there is a God who has chosen to communicate to us through a reliable Word. All the mistranslations, bad interpretations, and limitations on our knowledge can’t keep the God of the Universe from communicating to you with clarity and through sound reason. Consider St. John’s words to us from his first epistle:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life that was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete (1 John 1:1-4, NASB).
So what is the only translation you’ll ever need? Well, you probably need more than one. Just remember any translation, as long as it works to remain faithful to God’s word, should make your “joy complete” as you hear Christ proclaimed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, and the redemption of all things.