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Friday
Nov052010

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.