Which is the most accurate translation of the Bible in contemporary English?
Answer (Part 3 of 4): Old Testament Examples and Discussion
Please remember the “Disclaimer” in the first post.
In the previous post we examined some issues regarding the text of the New Testament. Here we look at some examples from the Old Testament.
In the previous post on the Old Testament text we observed that differences between translations often reflect legitimate differences in the choice of English words to represent the Hebrew text. This often arises because Biblical Hebrew contains relatively few words (8000 or so) compared to English. At the same time, there is often sufficient redundancy of thoughts to allow us to accurately understand the divine intention of a passage. Here we see a few examples. But, as before, we recommend comparing multiple versions and consulting reliable commentaries.
What About the Darby Translation by J. N. Darby?1
I will refer to this translation by the abbreviation JND2. I have not referred to it before simply because we have been considering “modern” English translations. However, a special note is required here where we are considering the accuracy of a translation. I will save my reasons for trusting the JND translation for a future post previously mentioned which will deal with other translational questions. I do realize that it has been disparaged because it is thought to be a translation by a single person and is thus influenced by his particular bias. A moment’s reflection shows that this may not be a bad thing, if the person is a truly godly man subject to the Spirit’s guidance.
However, Mr. Darby was not really alone in producing this translation. It needs to be remembered that those among the so-called Plymouth Brethren associated with Mr Darby sought to only glorify Christ and so did not like to draw attention to themselves. Many who may have contributed to the JND translation chose to remain anonymous. Obviously, we would not know who they are.3
I choose to reference the JND translation in this post and the following post because over the years I personally have found it to be exceptionally helpful. It should be among the translations you refer to in your study of the Scripture. The language is a bit archaic and so it would be difficult for most readers to use it as their principal translation.
An Example from Genesis 4:6, 7.
And Jehovah said to Cain, Why art thou angry, and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, will not thy countenance look up with confidence? and if thou doest not well, sin [or, “a sin-offering”] lieth at the door; and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
This is an interesting example where two translations differ considerably. Guidance must be obtained from the rest of Scripture and our knowledge of the character of God. The key difference is in the relation between the pronouns in the last phrase. So, although I do not know Biblical Hebrew, I can believe that the original text could be translated either way. When we understand the difference we can see why all modern translations would be similar to the ESV reading.
Why then is the JND translation different? The key lies in understanding what God’s message to Cain really was. The ESV reading puts God in the position of telling Cain he must “try harder”. That is, “you must rule over it [the sin].” This is the legal principle. God could never lay that principle down for anyone. The JND translation has a footnote on “sin” which reads “Or ‘a sin-offering’, Heb. chattath, the word having both senses.” So, the text could be read that a “sin-offering is ready [crouching] at the door.” Then, the message to Cain is: if you will accept it for yourself then you “shall rule over him” (i.e., Abel) and thus maintain the place of the first-born. Cain refuses this opportunity and so this becomes the first illustration of the universal principle in Scripture that the second born (representing the new creation) takes precedence (replaces) the firstborn (the natural man). (Rom. 9:12; 1 Cor. 15:46) This lesson is truly profound coming right at the beginning of human history. All of us have the legal tendency to choose the “try harder” route. So, the translators fall into the same way of thinking and mistranslate a very important verse. This illustrates how spiritual wisdom is just as necessary as good scholarship in the translation process.
This example clearly demonstrates the necessity of understanding God’s ways in order to understand Scripture. The insight of how to translate this passage requires a general understanding of Scripture principles. It also illustrates why the JND translation should be included in your study of Scripture.
An Example from Daniel 9:26a.
And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing.
After the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing.
I find this difference interesting. In a post I wrote referencing this verse, I chose to use the NIV version for (I hope) obvious reasons. This illustrates the danger of being too dogmatic about what translation you use. We need to read Scripture thoughtfully and develop our own sense of the wording most consistent with the rest of Scripture.
Here we come to the problem of using the JND translation exclusively. Even having grown up reading the King James Version and frequently referencing the JND version, I have been misled by both because I did not fully grasp the meaning of a phrase whose meaning had changed since the 19th Century.
But, there is another issue that is easy to overlook. It is not just the meaning that is conveyed by language but language has a force to its expressions. Reading a passage in a modern translation I have sometimes been struck by the force of a particular verse even though I had understood it and even memorized it using the KJV. So, even if you are totally familiar with KJV and understand the meaning, it might be worthwhile reading a passage in a modern translation to see if the force of the passage leads you to see it in a new light. We may be fluent in 17th Century English (KJV and Shakespeare), but modern English is our “heart language.”
When we were deciding on using the ESV as our principal translation for Patterns of Truth, we compared ESV and NKJV to JND at over 200 passages. In most cases, ESV agreed more closely to JND than NKJV. In some cases, NIV or NASB agreed better with JND than ESV. We decided to use ESV generally and leave room for authors to use other versions as they see fit. For this reason, you will see variation, but always translations other than ESV are noted.
We will examine some examples from the New Testament in the next post.
Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences. What has been your experience with different translations? Have you found a particular verse or passage in a translation that was particularly good or bad?
1 There is a revision of the original Darby Translation which has modernized the language somewhat. It is referred to as the New Darby Version. I have not spent enough time with this version to include it in these posts.
2 The abbreviation DBY is also often used.
3 There are references to collaborators for Darby’s German translation, which helped further his English translation. See footnote 1 in http://www.bible-researcher.com/darby.html for Carl Brockhaus, Voorhoeve, and other names listed. It appears Julius Anton Eugen Wilhelm von Posek was instrumental in getting Darby to begin his German translation, as well.