April 11, 2007

The Bible in English: Paraphrases

The first group of Bible versions in English that I'll give my thoughts on are paraphrases.

As the name of this group implies, these are not actual translations of the original languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic into English. These are merely an individual's or group's attempt to take an existing translation (or existing translations) and reword them into a new version. Usually this is done in order to make the Bible more readable and easier to understand. Also, these paraphrases are usually done with the intent of removing "archaic" or "religious" words such as verily, sanctification, salvation, redemption, propitiation, and other words that the general public may not be familiar with.

The epitomes of this group is The Message and The Living Bible Paraphrase.

My general take on this group is that I don't like them. First of all, I grew up in church and using the King James Version. From the time I was a small child, I heard and used those archaic "thees and thous" and the religious words like sanctification. So, I readily admit, I am not in the target audience for these versions of the Bible. But these versions just don't "sound like the Bible" to me. They sound like, well - what they are, someone explaining what the Bible says - but not the actual Bible itself. As one of my friends said upon reading a passage from "The Message" for the first time, "It sounds like this guy is just talking about [the Bible]. I don't like it."

Aside from my general distaste for them, I have actual reasons for not appreciating this group.

The Bible was not written in English. If you are trying to capture the original intent of the authors (or, better yet, the Author - God), it's better to go as close to the source as possible. Every translation is going to have words that could have been better translated as other words. Translation is an act of humans - it is not perfect. There will be errors. Rewording an imperfect translation only adds a layer of room for error.

It's like the telephone game - where one person whispers into the ear of another, and that person tries to repeat it to the person behind them, and so on. Pretty soon what is said is completely different than the original phrase. Or it's like making a copy of a copy of a copy on a copying machine. The more layers of copies, the less clear the result is going to be.

Another problem I see with paraphrases is that these are usually the work of one man. A single individual sitting down with a few translations of the Bible, and then rewriting it in his own words. There are no checks and balances there. There is no accountability. There is no editorial review. With most modern translations (and there are a few exceptions), there are usually 50, 100, or more people involved in the translation process. Everyone from thelogians to language experts, from novelists to editors, from people who speak Greek or Hebrew natively to those who know ancient customs and cultures better than today's. There is a ton of expertise that goes into a (good) modern translation. Even the King James Version of 1611 had over 40 translators, and has been revised several times since then. One person taking the task of rewriting God's Word on his own... Well, that's bound to run into problems.

Finally, these paraphrases aside from lacking the accountability and expertise that a team of translators have to offer, they often reflect - without question - the personal beliefs of the person doing the paraphrase. Let me put it this way. A Catholic Priest, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Baptist Preacher walk into a store... No wait. If each of those 3 men was given the task of paraphrasing the book of Leviticus - you'd get three completely different books. Even if you narrowed it down to 3 Baptist - a independant, fundamental, KJV-only, Premillienial, Pre-Tribunal Baptist preacher, a liberal, CCM playing, ecumenical-leaning Southern Baptist professor, and a speaking-in-tongues, pew jumping choir director from a big city Baptist church - they will each paraphrase the book of I Corinthians pretty differently.

Because of these reasons, and my resulting relative lack of familiarity with many paraphrases, I don't really have a "favorite" in this category. A paraphrase done by a team specifically for children may qualify, but that's about the only reason I see much value in paraphrases. But even then there are actual translations that are based on the original languages that could better fit the bill. They can be used to give you someone else's opinion of what a given passage is saying - but I would never use a paraphrase as my main Bible, and I would never use it to preach or teach out of - except, like I said, in limited qualities to perhaps illustrate a given point in a hard-to-understand passage.

Disclaimer: (from the previous post on this subject). I am a Christian, and therefore I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and is in its original manuscripts inspired ("Breathed by God" or God - through His Spirit - moved men to write it), infallible (above reproach, withstanding any line of questioning), and inerrant (not one factual, scientific, historic, or spiritual error in the whole book). All of my conclusions on which translation/translations are best are viewed through this bias.

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