The Best Translation to use for (Public) Exegesis
- How do I do good exegesis if I don’t know Hebrew or Greek? (Part 1)
- The Best Translation to use for (Public) Exegesis
If you’re just joining us, we’ve been discussing how to do rigorous exegesis if you don’t know the original languages. In the previous post I argued that first you should “pick an English (or respective native-language) translation” and trust it, while appreciating its limits.
I also promised that I would tell you which English translation is the best. This post is an attempt to deliver on that promise.
What is the Best Translation to Use when Exegeting the Bible?
There’s a very simple answer to that question: whatever translation your church uses.
In most cases, your default translation should be the one that the majority of people that you are talking to on a weekly basis are regularly using themselves. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only translation you should consult (we will talk about how to do that in a subsequent post), nor does it mean that you need to wave a “Best Translation Ever” flag every time you quote it, but it does mean that any exegetical argumentation you make should usually be grounded in that translation. It means this is the translation you are working from, and it means that if you cannot prove your point from this translation on its own merits then you might want to consider whether or not it is a point worth making.
Perhaps some justification is in order.
Most Translations are Great
First, I think it’s important to recognize that most of the mainstream translations are great. Like actually great. Thousands of years of theological reflection, centuries of English translation tradition and historical research, decades of self-conscious thought in areas like hermeneutics, linguistics, and discourse theory have all contributed to some of the most reliable, time-tested, and artistically sensitive translations known to humankind.
Of course, all translations (even the great ones) are also limited (because they are translations), and all translations have their own goals and values (which we cannot weigh in the present post), but as long as you are aware of this, and refrain from over-concluding, you will be fine with any of the major translations. So stop worrying about which is best.
Having said this, a couple of qualifications are in order. Paraphrases, for example, are sometimes mistaken for translations. The Message comes to mind here. There’s nothing wrong with The Message; I’ve read it, I like it, and I’ve used it in certain contexts, but it’s not a translation and shouldn’t be approached or used as if it was (and I’m pretty sure Eugene Peterson would agree). On the other-end of the spectrum, hyper-expansive “translations” like the Amplified Bible should be avoided. I’d also generally counsel against using an individual scholar’s translation or an idiosyncratic niche translation in a corporate context. While these can be helpful to study in some cases, a committee-reviewed translation is usually preferable because it balances corporate concerns with a defined interpretive framework suitable for a broad audience. Finally, some of our readers may be ministering in countries for which there are only a couple of native-language translations available, if any at all, in which case the present argument still applies, but requires serious practical modifications.
Qualifications aside, here’s the bottom line: if your church is using a non-idiosyncratic and generally well-respected mainstream translation, just go with that and be done with it. For some of you this is going to be disappointing because you’re going to have to “settle” on something less-than-perfect (or, worse, on a translation that is not your personal favorite). Trust me, I know! But it’s ok. We all have to settle in the end, and in the end the payoff is worth it.
Using your Church’s Translation Has a Lot of Advantages
If we can all agree, as argued above, that there is no “best” translation (and if you can’t, just go with it for another 500 words or so, since you might be persuaded on alternative grounds) there are several very concrete reasons why you should just “settle” with you church’s translation. Even if it’s not the best idealistically or philologically or linguistically or exegetically or historically, its probably still the best in terms of your daily (public) use.
How can that be true?! Best is best, right? Nope. Everyone translation is a compromise, which means that we need to consider the many pragmatic advantages of using your particular community’s “favored translation.” And the advantages are legion.
Here’s a short list. (And it’s mostly just a suggestive list here; further argumentation regarding the merits of each element is beyond the present post, but feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments).
- It encourages community dialog. When everyone is using the same version, everyone is able to participate in the discussion. As soon as you bring alternative translations into the mix (especially in a polemical context), you enter a debate that cannot be adjudicated without knowledge of the original languages.
- It “democratizes” serious study of God’s Word. For Paul, “knowledge and insight” is not something relegated to the experts; rather, it is to be corporately pursued. “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Phil. 1:9). Leaders and teachers and preachers have a special and unique responsibility here (Jas. 3:1ff), but that does not invalidate the universal accessibility of the word to all readers (WCF 1:7).
- It encourages ordinary Christians to read their Bibles (by reminding them that they have access to the very Word of God). I’ll never forget the one time I referenced the Greek in a sermon. Someone came up to me afterwards and asked, “So I guess I shouldn’t be using this translation. Which one should I be using?” I had eroded their trust in their translation (which was also the one our church preaches from). This, of course, was not a good and necessary conclusion for the person to come to, and I told them that, but how many people come to the same conclusion and don’t ask the preacher afterwards? Of course we must be cautious about an undue reliance on the accuracy of translations, but we also need to be aware of the dangers of inadvertently convincing Christians that they don’t have God’s word available to them.
- It discourages contentious debates. Paul tells us to avoid contentious debates (Tit. 3:9). Of course he doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for the truth (consider, for example, Galatians!) or reason together about what this or that word “really means in Greek.” Of course we should be (humbly) debating about definitions and clausal structures and whether or not this or that should be translated as an “objective” or a “subjective” genitive! But what we shouldn’t be doing is encouraging people who don’t know Greek to have those kinds of discussions, or to pretend that such debates define what it means to be a “real” Christian or a “true” believer.
- It forces you to prove your point on more exegetically and biblically sound grounds. We will talk about this in subsequent posts in this series, but suffice it to say for the present moment: context determines meaning. If you can’t prove your point from the rest of the sentence or paragraph or book that you are exegeting, then it’s probably not a good argument.
In sum, then, the advantages of using your church’s translation as your own personal “default” translation for study and exposition far outweigh the disadvantages. There are often other and better ways to make the exegetical point you want to make than by saying “our translation is wrong, but this one has it right.” Sometimes that might be true, but it’s usually not the best way to accomplish your goal. This is the case whether or not you have access to the original languages, but it’s particularly important to consider here.
Next up: How to use your chosen translation
To reiterate, this does not mean that the translation you pick is flawless or faultless, nor should you imply that to your congregation. All I am saying at this point is that it’s home base. It’s your go to, your default, your bread-and-butter when it comes to both private exegesis and public persuasion. This is where you start, both in your own study and in your conversation with those to whom you are ministering. Why? Because it’s common ground.
It might not be your favorite translation; it might not be the one you memorized as a kid, or the one that represents your hermeneutical and theological ideal, but you need to regard it as yours. Why? Because it’s the one your church uses.