If everyone in a Community Bible Experience is using the NIV, how can they become aware of valid alternatives for translating specific passages?

Q. The Books of the Bible uses the text of the NIV translation. I agree that the NIV is one of the best overall translations. 

But as some of the conclusions of my studies, I think there are some places where I think they translate the text in a poor way. I accept that translation will always involve interpretation, but I think that in some cases, the translators have misunderstood what the text meant and in some cases it is simply unclear what the authors meant, but the translators made their best guess among a range of possibilities. 

What do you do when you run into these situations when discussing such texts when reading big chunks in community?

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Participants in a Community Bible Experience in western Ireland. Photo courtesy CBE Facebook page.

I personally consider the NIV to be the most accurate and readable translation available in English today.  But I acknowledge that no translation of the Bible can convey every possibility of meaning that’s present in the original languages.

As you say, sometimes a range of possibilities is present in what an author says, and translators must make a choice among these possibilities.  When they do, English readers miss out on the others.  Beyond this, translation necessarily requires a tradeoff between wording and syntax in Greek and Hebrew and meaning in English.  Different translations will favor one or the other in any given case, with different results conveyed to readers.

Ordinarily, one of the best ways to overcome this difficulty is to make sure that a group of people who are reading and studying the Bible together are using a number of different translations.  People will typically speak up when their Bible says something different from someone else’s, and this helps the group appreciate the various ways that words or phrases could legitimately be translated.

But there’s also great value, in an activity like a Community Bible Experience, in having everyone use the same translation.  As they each “read big” using The Books of the Bible and then come together to share their observations and reflections, they’ll be drawing on a shared experience of the Scriptures that will allow them to connect with one another quickly and deeply.

So how can the liabilities of a single translation be overcome in a situation like this?

For one thing, typically a whole church will do a Community Bible Experience together, and when they do, the messages in worship will be coordinated with the readings.  This provides an ideal opportunity for the preacher to point out and explain any places in that week’s readings that have a range of meanings that one translation alone can’t bring out.  (This presumes that preachers will prepare well and study the Scriptures in the original languages, or at least use resources that help disclose their meaning!)

Beyond this, it’s ideal to alternate “read big” experiences of the Bible with “go deep” experiences.  After spending several weeks reading through a big chunk of the Scriptures, it’s good for a church or similar group to go back and study one or more biblical books within that chunk for an extended period of time, before reading through another big chunk together.  And in that time of more detailed study, it’s natural for people to explore other ways that biblical words and phrases can be understood.

In fact, one of the original ideas behind the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series was that they would make a great “next step” for groups that did Community Bible Experiences.  The guides are based on the NIV (it’s a privilege to be able to use such a great translation), but in many places they explain the range of meanings implicit in a biblical word or phrase and suggest alternative ways of translating it.

So the “go deep” season of study that ideally follows a “read big” season can, like preaching during a Community Bible Experience itself, provide an opportunity for people to move beyond the necessary limitations of a single translation, without losing the advantages of using that translation for their readings together.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “If everyone in a Community Bible Experience is using the NIV, how can they become aware of valid alternatives for translating specific passages?”

  1. I agree with the idea of using alternate translations to show sometimes there are variations In the way something is understood. What about when none of the translations seem good to you? You did not seem to address that possibility.

    1. I was imagining a situation where a group of people was studying the Bible together but none of them knew the biblical languages. In that case comparing English translations seemed to be the best way for them to become aware of places in the Bible that could be translated different ways. Even when I was preaching on a text during the 20 years that I was a pastor, I usually found it more accessible for people if I could cite a different translation for the reading I thought was accurate, rather than say, “Now the original actually says here . . .” But there were cases when none of the translations I checked seemed quite to catch the nuance I thought was present, and so I would say, “Another way to translate that would be . . .” In Bible study there’s even more freedom than in sermons to bring in alternative translations and provide the rationale for them. So the answer to your question would be, sometimes a person who does know the biblical languages and is preaching or leading a Bible study has to say, “Here’s how I think this should be translated, and here’s why.” Hope this is helpful.

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