Why do we need so many Bible translations? A critique of the Common English Bible.

By Contributor Philip Stine

It seems like every time I go to the bookstore there’s a new English translation of the Bible.

If I get on the internet, there are even more. In a number of cases, online versions are available before they appear in print, if they ever do.

For most of these, the express purpose is to communicate the biblical message in a meaningful way to today’s readers. The original texts are millennia old and reflect cultures and circumstances far removed from our own.

The much-loved King James Version is 400 years old, and most of its revisions retain many issues that make it seem impenetrable now. Modern readers need contemporary translations if they are to engage with the text. But do we need so many?

The new translations, for the most part, fall into two categories: market-driven texts and those prepared by individual scholars.

In the first case, publishers realize there can be good profit in translations or editions aimed at very specific audiences. So we find Bibles aimed at women, children, teens, the military, readers for whom English is a second language and many other niche groups. And, of course, many translations are directed specifically to groups of particular theological persuasions.

In some cases, the publishers take the initiative and find scholars to prepare the translations or particular church groups commission them.

A recent example is the Common English Bible (CEB). I mention it because friends tell me it is being promoted quite strongly in several mainstream Protestant denominations. The CEB New Testament has this tagline: “New Testament: a fresh translation to touch the heart and mind.”

The main selling point for the CEB has been the use of a popular level of English, but I find they are only partly successful. Sometimes the colloquialisms reflect the text precisely, but usually do so without reflecting the style of the biblical writers.

Examples are, “No Way!” “Hang in there,” “No strings attached,” “Here comes the Kingdom of heaven!”

The phrases are jarring. More important, however, is an extremely uneven style.

In a second category are versions prepared by individual scholars whose translations reflect their own understanding of the texts.

The Rt Revd N T (Tom) Wright delivering the Ja...

The Rt. Rev. N.T. (Tom) Wright. Image via Wikipedia

N.T. Wright’s 2011 translation, The Kingdom New Testament (TKNT), is an example. Wright, one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, is known for his ability to illuminate the message of the New Testament in a way that is as helpful for non-scholars as well as those trained in the discipline. He emphasizes Jesus’ message as being about God coming to people and believes translating the New Testament is something that every new generation should be doing.

His bible translation avoids the problems of the Common English Bible. The language is contemporary, clear and readable, and at the same time reflects a good scholarly understanding of the meaning of the source texts.

Take for example his translation of John 3:16, – “This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.” This is an accurate rendering of the Greek text of the Gospel of John, and it is readable English.

What do we gain from so many new translations? New and better ways for today’s readers to engage with the biblical text. My guess, however, is that that will happen more often with TKNT than with CEB.

Do you have a favorite Bible translation?

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One response to “Why do we need so many Bible translations? A critique of the Common English Bible.

  1. Book reviewers have an agenda. This review of the CEB is shallow.

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