We were boldly plodding our way through Philippians and making great progress until we came to 3 v 3 — and the evening descended into utter chaos. I won’t cloud the issue with the rather complex questions that came out of that particular verse, but the problem was that we had too many Bible translations around the table for our own good.
“He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” 1 Tim 6 v 4
The blessing of translations
In the developed world, we are blessed with an extraordinary number of brilliant translations that help us get to the core of what the original text of the Bible is and means. We have literal word for word translations in the tradition of the AV, RV, RSV – the most modern being the New King James, and the English Standard Version.
And we have what are called the Dynamic Equivalence translations that try to translate phrase meanings, rather than words. The versions, like the now almost universal NIV and the New Living Translation (NLT) gain readability, at the expense of their making some decisions about interpretation for us.
And finally there are the paraphrases that do a lot of interpretation, and are more concerned with delivering the impact of the Bible using punchy language and modern idioms and expressions. Like The Message and before that the J B Phillips translation and the Living Bible (or the Living Libel as Ian Paisley used to call it).
Taken individually and together, these translations are a wonderful blessing to us. They help us see the richness and the nuances of the original Bible text. They give insight into what a difficult passage may be talking about, and, in the case of the Paraphrases, suggest brilliant ways of expressing these truths in pithy memorable ways, or even illustrating them with word pictures.
The curse of translations
But when you have a variety of translations around the table, especially when you are with young Christians, or even with those who are not yet Christian, they can be a curse. What could be a fantastic opportunity to talk about the challenge and nature of Christian discipleship, turns into a painful slog through the various semantic registers of the word “Confidence” – the whole study grinding to a halt as we run out of time, energy and willpower.
The tragedy is that the really brilliant things we could have been talking about have been hijacked by the fact that we have too many translations round the table. At their best, they can enlighten discussion. At their worst, they can completely derail it.
My solution? Simple.
Insist that there is a main translation that everyone works from in the group. Choose the translation you use, according to the lowest common denominator. And if “the least of these in the Kingdom” can only cope with the New International Reader’s Version, or the excellent NCV, then that’s the version to use. For most groups this will mean that you gravitate towards a well used standard version like the NIV.
Of course, un your preparation you will, as leader, make sure you have a look and a read of the passage in a variety of the above translations, so that you will be able to give a steer if a question is raised, without going off on a tangent.
And you won’t ban people from using other translations. It’s just that you will insist that there is one translation that you all default to. That way, you will spend your time talking about the substance of the passage, not nit picking over the details.
Do people think this is the right approach? What versions do you prefer to use, and why? Answers on a postcard (or alternatively, click the button below).