Random Rants 07/31/2017: Bible Nerd Edition (NLT issues …)

I’ve decided to do some if not most of my blog entries on one topic so interested parties can read while those who aren’t into a topic can skip it. 

Before I start let me say my intent isn’t to add to the Bible translation wars but rather to offer a perspective on Bible translations and how passages are translated. If you are easily offended or equate mild criticism and analysis to bashing and hatred of the target you might want to skip this one.

First off my perspective: the Bible is the Word of God. All of it. What is written in it informs my Spiritual life which in turn guides all my life. That isn’t to say that one can pull any passage at random and say it’s from God and live by it. Readers must be discerning and most of all be guided by the Holy Spirit. Anyway point being I find it to be of premium importance that the Bible is translated accurately. 

Speaking of translations one thing that concerns me is that most of the Bible translations are controlled by major publishing houses. This concern is exasperated because most of those publishing houses are owned by secular publishers. The bottom line of any publishing house is to make money. That’s not good when it comes to the Bible. Nothing against secular publishing houses, their job is to make money. It’s our job as Christians to preserve God’s Word as He directs us.

All that said lets talk. The NLT – New Living Translation. Popular with churches, Christians and Christian writers. It’s one of my primary translations when I study and its very useful to those unfamiliar with the Bible. It began as a paraphrase but subsequent editions have focused on making it more of a traditional translation but in easier to understand language. Extensive footnotes (which are presented as study notes in my NLT study Bible) provide a more literal translation where they rephrased something to make it clearer to modern readers.

First issue, gender inclusive pronouns. I get it. Often times the Bible in its original language uses the male pronoun when referring to both men and women. It smacks of political correctness but I do understand that some modern readers might think those verses only apply to men. I dare say I give most modern readers more credit than that. But I think that concern would be better addressed by keeping the male pronoun and explaining in the footnotes that it applies to women as well every time it comes up. Basically the reverse of what the NLT does. This teaches those who don’t know about the assumptions made in those times and critical / contextual reading skills. In addition the translators don’t take the chance of using a gender neutral pronoun when the passage is referring to men exclusively. Now I personally have not noticed a situation where a verse that was referring to men specifically using a gender neutral pronoun. My friend Mark has noticed a case when a gender neutral pronoun was used when referring to a group that was exclusively male. So this is more about a principle.

To summarize on this point I think what the NLT does here is acceptable but I’d rather they keep the male pronoun when used in the original language and footnote every time the translators believe it applies to men and women. 

But that is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on three verses the NLT “simplifies” or changes to what it meant. I think they get it right in all three cases but yet get it wrong. So lets look at them. I will use the New King James Version as the reference. It’s one of the more literal translations available. It is also my primary translation. I’ll also post the NIV as well as its the most popular translation. I do not use it, mostly a personal preference issue (I also use the ESV and the HCSB but those may change soon).

‭‭II Corinthians‬ ‭11:24‬

NKJV‬‬ – “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one.”
NIV – “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.”

NLT – “Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes.”

‭‭OK so what’s the issue with this short verse? Look at forty lashes minus one. The NLT “simplifies” this as thirty nine lashes. They did the math for us. So that’s good right? In my opinion no. You see there was a reason its referred to as “forty lashes minus one”. In the Hebrew law the sentences was forty lashes, never to be exceeded. Because of that they later reduced it to 39 (or minus one) in case of a miscount. This shows the Jewish concern for justice. They were not allowed to exceed the sentence. When the NLT “simplifies” this to 39 we are losing that subtle but significant reminder that God’s people in the Old Testament were called to be just. More so than many of their contemporaries. 

Now to the second verse:

‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭4:8‬ 

NKJV – “You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you!”

NIV – ‬‬“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!”

‭‭NLT – “You think you already have everything you need. You think you are already rich. You have begun to reign in God’s kingdom without us! I wish you really were reigning already, for then we would be reigning with you.”

‭‭So the NLT tells us what Paul “meant” and not what he said. But the NLT rendering takes away the sarcasm. Paul was sarcastic. Each Bible writer had a unique style that shows through in the writing. The NLT masks that in this case, Sarcasm becomes another corrective phrase and robs the verse of the strong emotion Paul was expressing. And how many readers really thought “Oh wow, Paul thought they were kings”. Especially when the second half of the verse clarifies that they were not and Paul knew they weren’t ( I wish you could reign …)

One more. This time not from Paul but from Jesus Himself:

Mark 2:17

NKJV – “When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.””

‭NIV – “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.””

‭‭NLT –  “When Jesus heard this, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.””

‭Ok so Jesus clearly meant those “who think they are righteous”. But again He didn’t say that. He said “those who are righteous”. Maybe there’s a reason for that. I think it should be translated how He said it, not what the translator think He meant. For one thing someone who only read the NLT mighT try to use this as proof text that we are all sinners. And yes we are but using this verse would be circular reasoning since it was reworded to reflect the point you would be using it to prove.

Again my intent was not to bash the NLT as I think it does many things right. It’s a sad reality that all Biblical translations are different and have their strengths and weaknesses. I could probably write this blog entry about many if not most of them. I just happen to be familiar with the NLT. It’s my conviction that we should always lean toward being literal while still understandable and use footnotes and study notes to explain where needed. May we all as Christ Followers pray that we read His Word with understanding provided by the Spirit. 

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