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« The New Rules of Flying | Main | Review: Game Change by Heilemann and Halperin »

Obvious? Maybe Not: Why the HCSB and NLT

Over on Ancient Hebrew Poetry, John Hobbins has written an insightful analysis (that I highly recommend) of Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 in the updated NIV. See "A Review of the New NIV of Qohelet 11:1-2." Incidentally, I agree with John's assertion that Eccl 11:1-2 in the updated NIV is more interpretation than translation.

In the introduction of John's post, he mentioned my post from a couple of days ago regarding my initial thoughts about the updated NIV. Following that mention, he referred to the fact that I stated that I had moved on from the TNIV, and that now my two primary translations were the HCSB and NLT. Then John wrote this:

What Rick never explains is why he makes primary use of HCSB and NLT. It ought to be obvious: he is Southern Baptist. For the same reason, a United Methodist might make primary use of NRSV and CEB; a Roman Catholic, of (say) RSV and NAB. The sociological reasons for choosing one Bible over another tend to go undiscussed. But they are often determinative.

Initially, I began writing what you see below in the comments on John's website. However, because I can sometimes be a bit longwinded, I decided to move my response here to This Lamp.

Here is how I began my response:

John, actually, I have explained why I currently make primary use of the HCSB and NLT before in other posts. My initial take on the updated NIV was already long enough and rehashing this other issue would have been too far off subject.

However, to say that my choices for the HCSB and NLT are merely (obvious was the word you used) because I am Southern Baptist is a bit reductionistic, and frankly, I feel, sells my preferences, and perhaps me, a bit short.

I've been a collector and student of Bible translations before I ever studied biblical languages. Initially, I thought that perhaps after studying Greek and Hebrew, my interest in English translations would wane, but that was not the case. In fact, it increased because I found that I had a better understanding of why particular translational choices were made. My most valuable M.Div level class in the nineties was the elective I took on textual criticism taught by John Polhill, which gave me further tools for understanding translators' choices.

Most of my personal study of the Scriptures takes place on a computer—usually in Accordance, but increasingly in BibleReader on my iPad. I like using Accordance because I can have the original languages side-by-side with my own translation of the text as well as all the standard English translations. Sometimes I throw in Luther's German Bible, too, because I want to see how a phrase reads in the German (although I don't claim any great skill in German, I'm usually interested enough to look up what I can't work out on my own).

The English translations I favor tend to go through cycles, rising and falling like investments on the stock exchange. Four years ago, I created a "Top Ten" list based more on my print collection than what I have access to electronically. Recently, I updated that list to better reflect where I am now. Yes, there are more Protestant Bibles on that list, but not exclusively so. And yes, about half tend to be rooted more in Evangelical use, but there tends to be more of these kinds of translations to begin with. All things considered, I believe I have a more eclectic of a list than one might have predicted.

Nevertheless, it's important for me to point out that I do not begin with translations in my study of the Bible.

Study of the scriptures, for me, begins with the original languages, although admittedly my Greek is still better than my Hebrew.  My study of the Bible is currently focused over three areas: (1) I am still working on my dissertation which focuses on Paul's "prayer wish" in 1 Thess 5:23-24; (2) I teach a weekly Bible study at church and occasionally find opportunities to preach; and (3) sometimes like many of us, I become interested in a subject or a passage, and I study it for no other reason than the fact that I am simply interested.

When I speak about "primary Bible translations" and my own preferences these days, I am primarily referring to what I use publicly. I have two regular public audiences: my church and the classes I teach as an adjunct for Indiana Wesleyan University. Any exposition I do at church is fresh. My presentations at IWU do not require new preparation, although I do try to review my previously used material and tweak it now and then as I see fit.

My choice of Bible translation is something I consider very seriously. And while not an exact and always division, currently I use the NLT a lot with my college students and the HCSB a lot at church.

Forty to fifty individuals attend my weekly Bible study at church on any given Sunday (I'm actually taking November and December off to focus on finishing my dissertation). I spend on average about six hours in preparation to teach one of these studies. If I had unlimited time in my week, I can assure you I would spend longer. I enjoy it. It is my best worship of the week. Yet when I've compared notes with other Sunday School teachers at church, I find that most of them do not put this much time into their lessons. And that's fine.

For many years, I carried my Greek New Testament to church every Sunday. I tried to be inconspicuous about it. It's not that I was ashamed of it, but I never wanted to come across as showy in these kinds of habits. Sometimes, I also carried my Hebrew Bible, and occasionally I carried my LXX, too. I used to carry an entire bag with me to church every Sunday with my laptop (for teaching) and a stack of books. Now, it's conveniently all on my iPad, so I'm much less weighed down. My pastor preaches from the NLT (partly my influence I admit, but not exclusively), and I enjoy following along with the Greek or Hebrew text as well as I can on my iPad.

For whatever reason, I've still chosen to teach from English translations in a church context. Maybe this is a lack of confidence on my part, but maybe it is also a recognition that I'm not going to instantly produce a translation on my own in a few hours that's as polished as one for which a group of people have spent years.

Everything above, John, has been a longwinded route to come to my respectfully intended rebuttal to what I realize was a minor point in your post. For me, when I began talking about the HCSB and NLT as preferred translations, it's primarily in the context of public use, public proclamation.

I like to say that I still see the scriptures from an "Old Testament" perspective—that is the idea that God's Word is not something stale and stagnant, but living—just as the writer of Hebrews expressed it: "The word of God is alive and active. It cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, piercing so deeply that it divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it discriminates among the purposes and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12, REB).

This belief alone makes me take translation choice very seriously.

On one hand, I want a translation that accurately reflects the original languages (who doesn't?). On the other, I want a translation that communicates the biblical writers' meaning in a way that is not just clear, but also in a manner that seems natural.

I hear you, John, when you say you would prefer a common Bible more closely rooted to the Tyndale/Geneva tradition. I understand that and even value that tradition. But I don't use Bibles in that tradition in public. For those who have never heard the scriptures before, or are at least are unfamiliar with them, I want the language to sound contemporary. I want it to sound as natural as possible. Because I believe the Bible is "alive and active," I don't want newcomers to to hear God's word fully in their language and not the language of a century ago (or four centuries ago).

The church is more important to me than the academy. Church has played a central role in my life since (my mother tells me) I was two weeks old. I love the church, and I love the people in the church. But I often notice that people in the church are so used to doing the same church routines over and over again that on some level, their faith has lost real meaning for them. The Bible has lost real meaning. So sometimes, I believe it's important to hear the Bible in a "new way." That is, to hear the same familiar passages in unfamiliar words—not the words of the Authorized Version or even a later revision in the same tradition. Rather, I want these people to hear God's word fresh.

As for the HCSB, I do not use it only because I'm Southern Baptist. This does play a small part in that our Bible study curriculum uses the HCSB, so there's a nice connection. But for years (decades), I used translations that were not the same as the one found in the curriculum. In fact, I know of only two other individuals at my church who use the HCSB. It's heavily in the minority at my Southern Baptist church. As already mentioned, my pastor preaches from the NLT. But the majority of the Bibles I see carried by members in my church (and I do look for such things) are 1984 NIV Bibles. And then a few KJV or NKJV and a few NLTs. No ESV at all that I've ever seen.

And I don't keep up with what other Southern Baptist churches are using, but I can only guess that we are not that unique. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that the NIV is still quite dominant in Southern Baptist churches, for better or worse. And I would guess that the NIV and KJV numbers combined trump all current use of the HCSB.

No, I use the HCSB because I'm impressed with the accuracy and boldness of the way that the translators let the original text be itself without apology. So, John 3:16 is changed for sake of accuracy, in spite of the fact that no doubt a "new" reading turns off a lot of people steeped in traditionalism.

Recently, Michael Horman wrote an article for Biblical Archaeology Review, "Did the Ancient Israelites Drink Beer?" Horman rightly points out (para. 2) that most English translations of the Bible never mention beer. I'm fairly positive that when he wrote that assertion, the HCSB was probably not on his radar. But if you run a search for beer in the HCSB, you'll get 25 hits in the Old Testament and one in the New (which is quoting the OT). That's because the HCSB translators were honest enough to translate ‏שֵׁכָר as beer as it should be translated. And consider that faithfulness to the text in light of the fact that Southern Baptists have been associated with teetotalism since at least the Prohibition Movement!

These are the kinds of issues for which I choose to teach from the HCSB at church. That doesn't mean that I like all of the HCSB's translational choices. While the updated NIV has mankind in Gen 1:26-27, the HCSB has the even worse choice, man. Yet for me the positive value of the HCSB's technical accuracy overrides these other issues. And this technical accuracy is achieved while the HCSB, stylistically, is still considered a median translation, between formal and dynamic equivalencies. As I continue to say, if I study a passage first from the original languages, I reserve every right to correct it on the fly when I read from it in public.

My answer regarding the NLT is even simpler. The NLT has the most natural-sounding, conversational-level English I've heard from any Bible version that is still considered an actual translation and not a paraphrase. Plus the more contemporary gender-related translation choices in the NLT help me mentally balance the more traditional choices in the HCSB. Where I find the NLT to be of less use is in poetic passages and Wisdom Literature.

For almost two decades, I taught and preached primarily out of the NASB. I was under the mistaken assumption for many years, even after studying biblical languages, that "literalness = accuracy." Then, one day in 2005, while teaching a half-year study on Romans, I realized that I was spending more time explaining the language of the NASB than explaining the meaning of the Bible. At that point, I began considering other versions for public use. Since I had copies of all of them already in my collection, it was pretty easy to experiment.

I settled on the HCSB by the time I posted my first "Top Ten" list. However, within a year, I moved to the TNIV, wanting to go slightly further to the right on the dynamic scale. From there I went to the NLT, which I still genuinely like in the right context. But I found it to be weak in poetic sections as I've already said. Too many beautiful metaphors of the Hebrew were "flattened" down to just their basic interpretational meaning in English.

While teaching a study at church from the Psalms, I grew frustrated with the NLT and went back to the HCSB. In doing that, I not only rediscovered the HCSB, I found myself amazed at how well it handled the Psalms. Now I've come full circle. I use the HCSB in some public contexts and the NLT in others. And occasionally, I even use something else. I feel plenty of freedom to do that.

But none of these decisions ever come quickly. And I certainly didn't base my choice on my denominational ties (plus, it should be remembered that half of the HCSB translation team is not Baptist). The fact that I am Southern Baptist may have put the HCSB in front of me a bit easier, but since I have always collected translations, I would have found it regardless. And now that the HCSB is in an updated edition, too, I've found it to be an even better choice.

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Reader Comments (23)

This is great!

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClay Knick

Nice quote from the REB there, Rick!

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Chesterton

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by R. Mansfield, Joel L. Watts. Joel L. Watts said: RT @thislamp: New This Lamp Post: "Obvious? Maybe Not: Why the HCSB and NLT" [...]

Thanks for the post, and response on the Top Ten post.

I have used the NLT and ESV in the past, and started using the CSB recently. Seems like the ESV is gaining like wild fire... I have been using it for 8 years but have become a little tired of the awkward renderings so I wanted to spread my wings a bit. The CSB strikes a nice balance, but the non-traditional renderings threw me at first (Now if they would only kick up the marketing... I serve in a PCA church in California…no one has heard of the Holman CSB):

For Instance the lack of "O" in the Psalms, which improves accuracy, I believe, but sounds different than what I am used to.

Psalm 103:1

"Bless the Lord, O my soul" (ESV)

"My soul, praise Yahweh" (CSB)

The Single Column in the ministers CSB is what helped to sell me. I am BIG on readable formats and single columns are must in my opinion (personally my reading comprehension improves). I think the NLT would be that much more enjoyable if they had a nice single column edition.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Morales

Seems like a quick and dirty false assumption by John when it's really a coincidence. The HCSB will never live down that Baptist thing.

Thanks for the heads up on his post. I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScripture Zealot

I would echo your thoughts on the accuracy of the HCSB, and the clear communication of the NLT. I preach weekly from the NLT. I have a large number of translations that I occasionally check, but the two median translations that I always compare with are the HCSB and the NET. I don't always agree with their readings but they usually stimulate my thinking. It's unfortunate that the HCSB is considered a peculiarly Southern Baptist translation because, IMO, it's one of the best out there.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Parton

I enjoyed this post, Rick. I'll have to give the HCSB a look see. Thanks.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Lane

Hi Mike,

Thanks for a beautiful response. I will try to carry the conversation further in the next day or two.

I'm not convinced that your preferences for HCSB and NLT were made independently of your social and ecclesiological matrix, but then, you do not claim they were. I see you as claiming that you prefer HCSB and NLT to other translations SBs are known to use, such as NIV and ESV, based on characteristics you identify in this post, such as clarity, freshness, and approach to gender-neutral and gender-specific language.

Since I spend time with ancient Hebrew poetry, and have both the old and new NLT on my shelf, I am aware. like you, of how far NLT falls short when translating the third of the Hebrew Bible that is versed. HCSB and NET are two translations I use very little. You encourage me to put them under the microscope as it were.:

Anyway, you blew my britches off with the REB quote, a picture worth a thousand words.

November 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hobbins

The comment by John was bordering on condescension. If he knew you very well he would have known that the last thing you are influenced by is what the SBC or any organization thinks concerning the appropriateness of a certain translation. This type of dismissive critique is done to lessen a reviewer's credibility. I am sure that politics makes its' way into many reviewer's blogs, but not in this instant.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I don't want to come off as too negative, because I really like your posts. I enjoy the way that you handle technology and biblical studies. And I do like your take on translations. However, I do take issue with your statement "half of the HCSB translation team is not Baptist". I browsed the list briefly, and while I am not intimately familiar with all the names on the translation committee, I do think this statement (while perhaps technically true) is slightly misleading. While they may not be Baptist (with a capital 'B'), they don't fall into any of the other protestant traditions. Any casual reading of Baptist history will note the heavy dependency of Bible churches and non-denominational churches upon the Baptist tradition. There is a notable paucity of Reformed/Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Wesleyan and Anglican traditions from the translation committee. It is a translation that is led by baptists for baptists that has managed to transcend its self-imposed borders. Its a good translation that can be used outside of the baptist milieu.

November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShawn

Another excellent post, Rick! I always appreciate your thoughtfulness and thoroughness of explanation when it comes to scriptural selection. That's why I refer to your blog often when I am exploring different Bible translations.

I come from a Pentecostal background, but I also think the HCSB is one of the finest translations available and am currently reading it front to back for a fresh understanding of scriptures (in the past I have generally used NIV/TNIV and more recently NLT). However, once the updated NIV is released for BibleReader next year I will likely switch back to that as my primary translation. I guess I've sort of been "experimenting" with alternate translations other than the NIV I grew up with, during the time when NIV 1984 was becoming outdated but TNIV never gained full acceptance. But, as one person commented on an earlier post, if the NIV had been merely revised in 2005 rather than branching into two versions, I probably never would have seriously used NLT, etc.

There are only two things about the HCSB that will keep me from using it as my primary translation once the updated NIV is downloadable: its capitalization of pronouns for God, and its traditional gender usage. If they were to bring both of those more inline with modern English usage as the NIV has done, then I would promote the HCSB to everyone I know.


November 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Peterson

[...] Hobbins and Rick Mansfield are interacting as [...]

Hi Rick

I always enjoy reading your posts. I find your relationship with the NLT interesting. During the past couple of years, I have been using it more and more during my own Bible reading. I have to admit that I also grow kind of frustrated with certain passages that I feel are just too colloquial. So, I go back and forth between my NLT and NKJV. There is nothing wrong with using more than one.

The funny thing is, however, that eventually I end up going back to the NLT. Some passages are bland and just plain blunt, but I still feel that no other translation gets the message across as loudly and clearly as the NLT. And, like you say, it is a real translation, not a paraphrase.

I have never even picked up a HCSB....perhaps I will get one for Christmas!

November 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClaudio

You know I was thinking that Rick is actually an oddity (in his choice of bible translation), because I've never actually seen a baptist use the hcsb and I was baptist till about two years ago.

November 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

I am glad that God had no denomination in mind when He moved upon men by His Spirit to write His words. Seems to me He simply had truth in mind.
Thanks for the article. It helps me in my neverending quest to settle on a translation with which I am most comfortable. To date the NLT still is my translation of choice, but having just recently received an HCSB translation, I am also enjoying exploring how it reads. I appreciate you!!

November 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Skaggs

[...] (here, here, here, Iver Larsen (and here), Bill Mounce,  Joel Hoffman, John Hobbins, Rick Mansfield, David Ker, Peter Kirk, and Brian Fulthorp. Comparison charts by Robert Slowly and John Dyer (and [...]

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterI’m liking the updated N

I find the comment on being Baptist sort of demanding you use the HCSB interesting and disturbing. Making a "psychological" statement without actually talking to a person is bad psychology. As a minister in the church of Christ, I should get a referral fee from Broadman and Holman regarding the number of people I have referred to using the HCSB. And they have in turn referred it to others. The comment I have heard all of them say to me? "I can actually understand what the BIble says." I have witnessed tears of joy and jump up and down excitement from folks over it. Does this make me a Baptist? Obviously no. I evaluate a translation based on it's merit, not who published it. But I will say, isn't the point of reading the Bible to understand it and apply it to everyday living? I am glad the HCSB is there, because it helps people know God, and that's what it's all about.

December 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

I caught that REB verse as well Tim.

LOVE the beauty of this "under the radar" translation. ;)

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Some additional research about the HCSB's accuracy:

July 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

Total agreement! I come from a Roman Catholic background with time in the Catholic Charismatic renewal, discipled by The Navigators from 1971-1980 and moved to the Southern Baptist side in 1974. Then, after the conservative take-over I finally left for a local Vineyard in 2003 and moved to a Nazarene church in 2007.

I started in 71 with the KJV and moved to the NIV in 85 since it was pretty much "standard" with The Navigators. Then I tried the ESV in 2003 but found it somewhat archaic and moved to the NASB95. Moved to the TNIV in 2009 and am now using the 2011 NIV.

If for some reason the HCSB were to acquire the best points (including gender-accurate (?!) language) of the TNIV and 2011 NIV, the HCSB would be a no-brainer. For good or bad I've decided the fulcrum of my choice lies in the translation's treatment of gender language leaving me to choose from the NRSV, 2011 NIV (In some cases it is a step back from the TNIV...but maybe next time), and the NLT. Using Foote's (SIL) translation types the NLT is a Type 3 while NIV is Type 2 and NRSV is kinda-barely Type 1...I decided that Type 2 was as far towards the dynamic side of the continuum I could safely go, so, here I am.

OTOH I'd rather see the NIV revise itself again and clearly say what the text says, not being afraid to change anything (cf Jn 3:16) and take some other lessons from the HCSB. That might be likelier than for the HCSB to use the gender langauge like the NIV.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarryl Rowe

I got a message from an employee of Lifeway who works for the online study bible of the HCSB that led me to believe a Strong's concordance and other tools for the translation are in the works. The exact words were that he believes a resolution for this situation is coming.

July 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

I love the REB reference. HCSB and NLT are just not as graceful as the REB. Actually, the poetry in HCSB and NLT is downright ugly in spots. REB is majestic.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZach


Just wanted to relate my preferences with versions over the years. I'm a layman with no knowledge of the original languages, just the owner of several English translations and my good ol' Strong's Concordance. ;-) I used to belong to KJV-only church. I mean, to the extreme...if that wasn't your main Bible for study, your faith was in serious question. What happened was various non-orthodox theologies and prophecies (such as British-Israelism) were formed using the KJV, and once you tried to follow them in any other Bible, they all fell apart...poof, gone. They depended on the sometimes quirky KJV language. Once I was free of that (I still like the KJV - the Psalms cannot be beat), I moved to the NIV for a number of years. I loved how it read, but then recoiled in horror at 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10, which were really vague concerning homosexuality. Most other translations were not nearly as vague. This was the 1984 version. I started looking at more literal translations, and settled on the NASB95, and used it for years, up until recently. I still love it and keep it for study...just got tired of having to go "huh?" every once in a while, and reading out loud in Bible class was sometimes awkward. I've recently started using the NLT 2007 as my main Bible, and love it. I had never even gave the TNIV a thought...never even looked at it, because of my disappointment with the earlier NIV. I also just recently purchased a pew Bible version of the NIV 2011 (love the sturdy, cheap pew Bibles), just to see what has changed since the 1984 version, and was pleasantly surprised. I know the gender-neutral language has been added, but the two aforementioned verses were changed...the vagueness was gone! My hat's off to the group responsible, but it's probably too late. Like you have said on your site, the NLT has started to take it's place.

One thing that I have found curious for years now, is why have a lot of translators of these modern English versions not corrected some of the scribal errors in the Hebrew text? Let me mention three verses:

2 Samuel 8:4 David captured 1,700 of King Zobah's horsemen. Septuagint (LXX) and Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) read 7000.
2 Chronicles 22:2 Ahaziah was 42 when he began to rule over Jerusalem. LXX reads 22.
2 Chronicles 36:9 Jehoiachin was 8 years old when he became king of Jerusalem. LXX reads 18.

The above LXX readings agree with the second mention of the events in the Hebrew (cross-references to them are given in many Bibles). Some versions use the LXX to correct the Hebrew in those instances, and some do not. The NIV and NLT do, the HCSB does in two of the three (but corrects the third in a note), the NASB only corrects one, and some others correct none. One version that surprised me was the NRSV, which doesn't correct any of those three, but it uses the DSS to add material after 1 Sam 10, which makes the whole eye-gouging thing make sense. NONE of the others go that far.

Just something I found puzzling.

March 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

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