Bible Translations and the Democracy of the Dead

bible translations english compare

G. K. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. (85)

I can say a hearty Protestant amen to this pithy Chesterton quote, in part because “tradition” is a fully biblical word (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 3:6); and in part because the Bible tells us that all people are created, fallen, and redeemable. They are created in God’s image and therefore have something good to offer. They are also fallen, so human tradition must never trump Scripture and the majority isn’t always right. But they can be redeemed—and then called and gifted, so some writers will have much good to offer.

Cue another highly quotable Englishman, Charles Spurgeon, who also values “tradition” of a definite sort:

In order to be able to expound the Scriptures, and as an aid to your pulpit studies, you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others. (11)

I could stop here by saying, “Logos gives you the power of a general to marshal that glorious army of commentators whenever and wherever you are (especially if your mobile device is waterproof).”

But I want to apply this praise for tradition, for the democracy of the dead, to something you may not expect: the use of multiple Bible translations. I think it applies in two ways:

  1. There are multiple Bible translations, and all of the major ones, at least, have earned the title “major” because they have something good to contribute to Bible readers.
  2. Bible translations themselves exist in a tradition, and this is worth remembering.

The democracy of the best-selling Bible translations

One good way to measure the quality of a translation is to see how well it sells. Tying quality to sales volume is not always a safe bet (Elf on a Shelf sells well, too). But, by and large, the high-quality Bible translations are the ones that people actually buy. Here they are in order of line length in order to make a pleasing slope on the right-hand side.

  • King James Version
  • New Living Translation
  • New King James Version
  • English Standard Version
  • New International Version
  • Revised Standard Version
  • New American Standard Bible
  • New Revised Standard Version
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible
  • New International Reader’s Version

There are many honorable mentions, and of course I’m leaving out all the many translations in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch, that anyone who can read Roman characters can get some use out of.

But let me combine Chesterton and Spurgeon (please don’t let that form an image in your mind) and offer some advice on this embarrassment of translational riches: don’t assume that the translation you have on your desk is the only one you need simply because it’s the one that’s walking about; heed the democracy of the dead (and living) Bible translators, and get assistance from the many other learned divines who have labored in the field of Bible interpretation before you.

And let me toss some Paul in there:

All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Cor 3:21–23)

God gave for our benefit all the sound teachers of the church who in his providence were given the task of translating Scripture. None of them is perfect, but “all are yours”—from Luther to Tyndale to Moo. Honor the democracy. Learn how to use these translations.

Bible translations come from a tradition

I’ve run across many passages that could have legitimately been translated a (slightly) different way. I’m by no means the only one who’s had this thought. Sometimes the reason why the translators went one way and not another is fairly obvious. But sometimes, I look at the way all the translations are going and I think, “The only reason I can see that they’re all agreeing is that they’re sticking with tradition.”

And let me be clear: I think that’s perfectly fine. We’re not talking about massively significant biblical doctrines falling and rising on the translation of one line; we’re talking about understanding Paul’s word picture a little differently, or Haggai’s aside, or one of David’s more obscure laments. If the church has been pretty happy since Tyndale—or maybe since Jerome—with one particular rendering, it isn’t generally necessary to rock the boat. Let commentators and other scholars try that, perhaps, but Bible translations have to serve a “public”—church people who are justifiably suspicious of too much innovation.

I hope to talk about this passage in more detail in an upcoming post on the Logos Academic Blog, but one example I’ve come across recently is the translation of ἀγωνίζομαι (agonizomai) in 2 Timothy 4:7. Here’s the very popular English Standard Version:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Now take a look at the New American Bible (Revised), a translation produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

The difference between these two translations is not a doctrinal one, as if Protestants “fight” and Catholics “compete.” It’s a lexical one: the Greek word can be translated both ways. Sometimes it means “fight” (or, by metaphorical extension, “struggle”) and sometimes, especially in athletic contexts such as 1 Cor. 9:25, it means “compete.”

2 Timothy 4:7 is, arguably, an athletic context. After Paul “fights the good fight” he “finishes the race.” That seems to me to be a good reason to go for “competing the good competition.”

Except that it’s pretty ugly English—and “fight the good fight” is just so (forgive me) punchy. It has passed into the Christian lexicon, not to mention the cultural. It has established itself as part of the tradition of English Bible translation. And it does work well in this context of Paul’s letter; it’s a legitimate option. So I’m happy to honor the tradition (which, in this case, goes back at least to Tyndale) and keep it.

A concluding exhortation

If you never use multiple translations in your study, you’re missing out on one of the most enriching and helpful Bible study practices I know of, and one I myself have made constant use of for at least the last 16 years. You’re neglecting a valuable “democracy” of gifted translators, who have worked in a tradition that has benefited the Christian church immeasurably.

For practical help on using multiple Bible translations in Logos, check out this video on the Text Comparison Tool.

***

strauss_shrinkWe’ve got some fantastic Mobile Ed courses which go into much greater detail regarding Bible translations and how they relate to one another. I always find Mark Strauss thought-provoking and linguistically aware, and he has a course called Introducing Bible Translations (Bi 181) that I recommend highly.

Leland Ryken wrote a book, The Word of God in English, describing and arguing for the translation philosophy adopted by the popular English Standard Version.

And R.L. Thomas has written a straightforward and workmanlike little volume discussing the comparative value of our major English translations, How to Choose a Bible Version.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his Ph.D. from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Share
Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

View all articles
Written by Mark Ward