James R. White | The King James Only Controversy

by Glenn on January 21, 2020

In 2011, the New International Version was updated. I should get over this, soon (I hope), but there was something that felt underhanded about that update. It wasn’t the fact that there were changes, although I am change-averse. It was that the changes were not clearly announced. Creating a new version of the New International Version and not identifying it as such felt like it was, perhaps, an attempt to make changes and hope no one noticed or at least not make a big deal about it. There was a transition period that I was aware of where both translations were readily available. The website Biblegateway.com had, for a period of time, both versions. But as some point the publisher stopped printing the 1984 version, printing the 2011 version exclusively and, today, a site, like Biblegateway.com now only has the 2011 version without any indication of the fact that there were, at one point, two different translations that were both called the New International Version. (You can still find the 1984 version online here.)

Obviously, many things are updated in the world and I accept it, for the most part, without grumbling. New versions of software, models of cars, textbooks, etc. appear regularly. The thing is, most of those things appear to be clearly marked if not actually self-evident. For example, you can see that the Subaru Forester looks different than it used to and so you ask, “What year is this?”, understanding that things change from year to year. Continuous improvement is the way of the world. [1] I am beginning a course of study at a seminary and so I now have the ninth edition of Turabian’s Manual for Writers on my shelf. I am pretty sure the last time I was in college I was working with the fourth version. It’s clearly marked on the cover that it’s the Ninth Edition.

Part of my issue with the new NIV was what I perceived as a lack of forthright communication, noting that I am not certain exactly how they were supposed to notify consumers of the change. Calling it the NIV 2011 on the cover would have been great in, you know, 2011. But what happens as time moves on and now the name makes it appear dated? The publishers could have included a card with the Bible:

“Thank you for choosing the New International Version for your Bible. For nearly 40 years, this has been the preferred translation for pastors, churches, and Christians around the English-speaking world. The New International Version was revised extensively in 2011 and the copy you are holding reflects our increased scholarship and understanding of the best way to bring the background languages into the English language. One change you will see is more inclusive language.”

I don’t know. That’s a first draft. But something like that would have been an acknowledgement that changes had been made.

I don’t criticize the update itself to reflect less man-centric language when the words in the original languages clearly include both men and women. But the change meant I had a problem. The Bible that I had been using in my study—the one with things marked up and notes included in the margins—was no longer the Bible that was being used in church services. Part of my problem with the change was that I was just plain irritated that I had memorized certain passages in the NIV (1984) which don’t read the same in what was identified on the cover as the same translation but was an extensive revision with a copyright date of 2011 on the inside.

What began as an irritant has turned into a quest. Now that I am a pastor, I have some freedom to choose a translation for public use. I recently asked members of the congregation to complete a survey that included questions about what translation they used personally and if they had a preference for one to be used in services. The NIV is by far what most of them own and read. On the survey I tried to ask for a distinction between the 1984 and 2011 versions. For those who put a year, most of them indicated 1984, which suggests that the purchase of a new Bible is not something that happens regularly, or at least with the members of my rural congregation has not happened in the last eight years. People seem to buy a Bible and then hang on to it. On the survey, most people chose not to make a recommendation in answer to the question of whether there was a particular version that should be used as the version for us to use as a congregation. According to the survey results, I could probably continue using my 1984 version, but I am trying to think all this through.

What translation should I read, study, and memorize? As a pastor, what translation should be read out loud in public worship services? (And is “should” even a part of this?) The NIV (1984) seemed like the obvious alternative thirty years ago in my part of Christendom. As I begin seminary classes, I see that the New Revised Standard Version is referred to quite a bit, though I’m uncertain if it’s the “official” recommendation of the seminary. Is there an obvious Bible translation today? There are many choices. Perhaps there are too many choices.

On the one hand, this is very American, isn’t it? We love our choices. And we think that more choices are good for the consumer. In this case, I’m not so sure. Well, I’m not so sure anyway. According to Malcolm Gladwell—was it in Blink or Outliers?—more choices can actually lower consumer demand. I seem to remember a study having to do with strawberry jam. I think there was also some discussion of this in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. At any rate, let’s say you want to go and read a Bible in English, because your understanding of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek is, you know, non-existent. What do you do? Well, you walk into the book store and find, for starters:

The King James Version (KJV)
The New King James Version (NKJV)
The English Standard Version (ESV)
The New International Version (NIV-2011)
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
The New English Translation (NET)
The New Living Translation (NLT)
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The New English Bible (NEB)

All of this just for starters. And then there are Catholic Bibles and various paraphrases like The Message. Which one do you read? Well, in one sense you should read them all to understand better what the Bible is talking about. My own bias is that there is no perfect translation because the process of translation is a difficult one. But which one do you use to make notes and memorize things? That’s not at all clear to me. So I have begun reading about Bible translations.

I recently finished reading The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 1995, 2009). I read one book previously on this subject. That approach was sort of a back door, try to persuade the persuadable effort. Maybe there is someone “out there” who is open to the idea that while the King James Version is a beloved and was once a ubiquitous translation, it may not, in fact, be the best or at least certainly not the easiest translation to read today. So that if you want to understand what God is saying through his word, modern translations are helpful.

Translations are translations. One of the things that appears to have happened for some is that the King James Version is not thought of as a translation. For them, it is the actual word of God in English. Not that God spoke and people wrote things down in ancient languages and, good news, we can read them today because smart and respectful people know how to bring those words into the English language. But that this one English language version in particular was not simply an effort to translate the Bible into English, but was a perfect accomplishment. The King James Version is the Word of God. It cannot be improved. It’s as though God wrote the King James Version of the Bible. All at once I admire the high view of scripture but wonder about the ideology that doesn’t seem to allow any thinking around the issue.

It seems to me from my informal survey of YouTube discussions that many scholars can discuss rationally the various translations of the Bible. You will get a mix of history and explanations and opinions about and preferences for certain translations. In general, they will tell you how we got the Bible and why they read the translation they do and what you should think about when choosing a translation. Then you get to decide for yourself. They will express their caution when it comes to certain translations, but they don’t actually elevate any particular one far above others or impugn the motives of people who created other translations. And they don’t tell you that you need to read a certain translation. Most of these people recommend multiple translations. At any rate, those discussions are very satisfying. They feel like attempts to get to the bottom of something. To get to the truth.

Hearing someone with the King James Only perspective feels very different. Rather than inform, they ask: Do you believe the King James Version is the word of God and that other versions are corruptions? It’s a litmus test. You are dealing with a religion or ideology that must be spread and defended and not trying to get to the bottom of anything. You simply establish who is in and who is out; who is for us and who is against us. “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists,” to borrow a statement from a completely different context, but which sort of captures the mentality. “Really. Are those the only two options people have?”

In fairness, there are people who elevate the KJV because of the history of the manuscripts that were used to create it. I can understand and respect that. The problem is that there are at least two translations which use the same manuscripts that were used to create the KJV—the New King James Version and the Modern English Version—but these versions to one degree or another are treated like other translations which are lesser than the KJV.

The problem with the KJV for me begins with the fact that there are words you don’t know the meaning of. And it’s not so simple as looking them up because when you do, you need a dictionary that has definitions of words as they were understood in 1611 as the meaning of words has changed over time. A further problem is that because the meaning of words has changed over time, there are words that you think you know the meaning of, but you don’t. And you don’t know that you don’t know. And so it’s possible to read a passage of scripture, think you know what it means, and you don’t. Even if you wanted to check that you understood the meaning of a word, you would still need a dictionary with historical or at least a history of meanings so you could make sense of them.

James White’s book goes farther and into greater depth on this issue than the previous book I read. There is nothing subtle about his approach. He is not trying to be, say, diplomatic about what he is saying. Part of that comes from the fact that some of the proponents of the King James Only viewpoint don’t seem to be all that diplomatic. So his book is a frontal assault on the idea that the King James Version is the word of God and that other English translations fail or, worse, are perversions. I feel as though the subtitle is not quite accurate, though. “Can you trust modern translations?” should be something more like “Modern translations get right what the King James gets wrong” or “The problems with a beloved translation.”

Some thoughts about the issue and this book:

1. Who knew this was a thing? I started to watch YouTube and read books because in an attempt to address this personal point of confusion about what translation to read I came across a number of people who put forth this point of view that you should only read the KJV.

In my youth in The Salvation Army, the King James Version of the Bible was replaced by the New International Version (NIV 84). I didn’t realize that that was something of a progressive decision. An organization as idiosyncratic as The Salvation Army (wearing uniforms to church and using an English-style brass band to accompany congregational singing) and with an English heritage was rather brave to say, “Let’s use a modern translation of the Bible.” (I have since discovered that The Salvation Army supported the creation of another English translation, the Revised English Bible.)

I am an experienced church-goer and had never even heard of the King James Only Controversy. But it’s real. And, apparently this has been a thing for a while. I’ve read two books, now, and have another on deck. There are churches whose doctrinal statement includes the idea that The King James Version of the Bible is the word of God—which is to say that not only is the Bible inspired, but that particular translation of the Bible is inspired. Further, that idea of inspiration is inclusive to the KJV only. That’s stunning, if only from the standpoint of my own lack of awareness.

2. I suppose the broader point is that I really don’t know anything. I know what I know. And while some of us may know more than others of us, always we need to bring humility to the learning process and be on the lookout for What don’t I know? In the world of religion, this means there are things that are big things for groups of people and there are big groups of people who gather around certain things, and it’s not just possible, it’s a certainty, that I am simply not aware of them. King James Only is just one of those things.

And there’s more to it. Something I read or heard about recently says that we tend to think of our group, whatever that is, as full of distinctions. You can think about your congregation and easily identify unique qualities that people have which mean your group is not totally homogeneous—”We are very different people.” But then you think about other groups—the Catholic church down the road, the Latter-Day Saints, the Seventh-Day Adventists and sort of think of them as the same. The truth is, those groups, united around a certain set of ideas, are full of very different sorts of people who, I imagine, believe very different things about their beliefs.

And so I continue to discover from time to time, that I am far more insular than I think. There is a Christianity I know. I’m aware of some diversity in it. It is divided (roughly) in three—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. There is high church and low church, one where the pastor wears a robe and one where the pastor wears jeans. (Admitting the possibility that a pastor could wear jeans under his robe.) There are congregations with choirs and congregations with rock bands (and, of course, The Salvation Army with its brass bands). There are mega-churches, with thousands gathering on weekends, and small churches, where one family not showing up on Sunday morning means a significant percentage of the congregation is missing. In some parts of the Church, women are allowed to preach and/or participate in leadership; in others they are not. Some congregations are fully in control of their destiny. They are self-contained entities who choose their own pastor and own their property. Other congregations are part of an association where a governing body owns and is in control of everything, including who will pastor a particular congregation. (With variations, of course, and everything in between.) For some congregations, the pastor is hired to do a job, but is accountable to some sort of board. In others, the pastor is something like the owner of a small business and can say, “It’s my way or the highway” (perhaps, though, practiced and expressed necessarily with a little more nuance and deference to members and attenders, although one can never underestimate the power of charisma to allow people to be controlling and manipulating of large groups of people).

So I’ve felt like I had a reasonable understanding of the Church. And then you run into this idea of King James Only, find out how many proponents there are, and see that there are actual conferences about it,[2] and you wonder what else is out there that I am missing?

A danger, though, is thinking that everyone who holds the King James Only view holds it to the same degree or for the same reasons. For example, there may be people who are defending an ideology. But it’s possible that there are people who have come to their beliefs honestly. So while you address the idea, you need to treat the people who hold the idea differently. White is correct to take on this issue. Groups of people can become possessed of an ideology. But I think White does a good job of not treating everyone the same who holds that point of view. He does refer to and quote extensively a group of people who are proponents of the King James Only viewpoint.[3] It’s a combative group and it sounds like White has taken his fair share of heat from different members of that group. But I get the sense that he thinks of those people as unique. That’s encouraging in the Christian community. He divides them into five groups of people: There are those who: one, “like the KJV best;” two, make a textual argument for the KJV; three, subscribe to the idea of the “received text only;” four, say the KJV is inspired; and five, suggest that the KJV is a new revelation of God’s word. For the latter group, it’s as though they worship the King James Version as “the central aspect of their religious faith.” It’s certainly not a monolithic group. White says that we should not be critical of those who “find its poetic form, its rhythmic beauty, to be preferable to ‘modern language.’” His agenda is with those who don’t speak in terms of preference, but with doctrine.

3. A third lesson from this study is that you can drill down pretty deep in things. I mean really. This is an impressive book that way. It’s well-researched and documented. It has a feel of being definitive. Something I take from this book is the level of detail he’s gone into. As a generalist, I am dependent on people like White, who have drilled down deep into the topic. I have the same thought about biographers, who know their subject so well so that I can have a joyful experience reading what they’ve learned, knowing that there is no subject that I know as well as the author knows this one.

Further, I am really impressed by his efforts to take on this issue and give all sorts of evidence in great detail about why he holds his point of view. If he is correct, the other side doesn’t actually do a good job making its argument. It begins with premises that shape their arguments, which ends up making them circular.

4. Is there another side to this argument? Should I read a book from someone with a King James Version Only point-of-view. I hesitate because it appears when you do, you are dealing with ideology and not ideas. The books I have read thus far, while they are on one side of he issue don’t actually seem overly critical of the King James Version itself. They point out some problems with it, but their main issue seems with those who advocate for it in unreasonable sorts of ways. They recognize there is a problem with the KJV in terms of reading comprehension, for example, but their real issue is with people whose advocacy of the KJV becomes a doctrinal issue. I found White’s arguments utterly fair and compelling. Was I bamboozled by White? How do you know when it’s time to seek out another perspective?

The question I think after reading a book like this—well, any book, actually—is what am I to take from this? What am I supposed to remember? What is worth remembering? I am so impressed by how deep into the weeds he has gone on this and the question is to what extent should I be able to walk into the weeds on this or any other issue. I don’t have a an eidetic memory, so 100% resolution of the text is not really possible for me. So then the next question is how much resolution do I need? I suppose a thumbnail image is fine, knowing that the book is on the shelf and can be consulted when higher resolution is required.



[1] Or at least the stated goal. Sometimes it’s a question of whether things are actually improved by changing them. At some point there are diminishing returns. For example, does the beep in the car that tells you that you are drifting out of your lane make you a safer driver? It keeps you safe in that moment where you are drifting, but does it make you a lazier driver?

[2] For example,

[3] Peter Ruckman, Barry Burton, Gail Riplinger, and William Grady.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4 | Christoph von Dohnányi | Cleveland Orchestra

by Glenn on January 1, 2020

With the prospect of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Concert still ahead today, some music with a Viennese quality seemed appropriate while trying to bring order to a chaotic home office. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the least angsty of Mahler’s symphonies and seemed to fit the bill well.

I don’t have notes from any previous experiences with this particular recording:
Christoph Dohnányi |The Cleveland Orchestra | Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Recorded: Cleveland, Ohio, Severance Hall | May 1992
Decca | 466 342-2

I wasn’t listening too carefully, so I don’t have any well-formed opinion about the overall quality of this performance, but one moment leapt out at me from the third movement. It is the transition into Figure 9:

This is how it sounds:

I thought the viola slide (portamento) with the cello slide (glissando) was just lovely. The care exhibited by the orchestra here is wonderful. There are some magical moments in the third movement if they are handled well. This one certainly was.



A Year in Review | Reading and Listening

by Glenn on December 31, 2019

This was a good year for reading. I had two things going for me. First, for a good part of the year I had work that included a lot of driving, and I chose to listen to books, as opposed to podcasts, sermons, music, or NPR which are my normal go-to in the car. Second, when I became the pastor at Aims Community Church in June, I realized my schedule had to include some disciplined reading time. For most of my life, reading has been a marginal activity, something you do when there’s nothing else that has to be done. It was the thing that you did if there was nothing else interrupting you. Now I realize it is the activity that should not be interrupted.

I have never had an opportunity like this one, where at least a portion of my working day has to be devoted to reading or else my work suffers. One of the questions for next year is how to be more serious about reading, both the quality of my reading as well as what I am take from the experience. What exactly are you to take from books? How is what you find in the book supposed to be incorporated into your life? With some books, there isn’t really anything you are trying to add into your life. The experience of reading is all. But there are books that are worth thinking about. And there are books where the ideas talked about are actually useful in life. And there are books that teach you things worth remembering. How do you make all that happen? That seems to be the trick.

For now, I simply rejoice that I had a pretty good year reading. And thinking about the books I’ve read allows me to reflect on the year past. What follows is a lightly annotated reading list from 2019. Read the rest of this entry »

The Jordan B Peterson Podcast | S2, E 37: “Struggle Between Chaos and Order”

by Glenn on December 6, 2019

I have been enjoying the Jordan B. Peterson Podcast a lot this year. It has become routinized this year around a weekly delivery on Sundays. I think the plan was for Dr. Peterson to interview people for these podcasts, but you learn through his daughter, the podcast host, that he has been dealing with some health issues this year—first with his wife, then himself. So, instead of interviews, there have been a number of talks he has given from his 12 Rules for Life Book Tour. What is extraordinary about this tour is that it’s not a scripted presentation. No talk is ever the same. As Dr. Peterson describes his process, he spends about 45 minutes before the show thinking about a problem he wants to solve. Then he walks out onto stage, states the question, and for 70 minutes or so tries to answer the question before answering audience questions at the end. It feels like a high-wire act.

I’ve heard him describe how he became a lecturer who could talk without notes while maintaining audience interest and, I might add, actually saying something coherent and edifying. He says it started with the three hours a day he spent over a period of fifteen years writing his first book, Maps of Meaning. He says he was pretty ruthlessly protective of those three hours. He could have been doing other things and he was frequently asked to engage in other things (including by family), but the time he spent thinking seriously about deep things, allowed him to get down to the bottom of some things. (Did he envision what those three hours would produce? Are there people who have spent an equal amount of time and it didn’t produce the kind of results that includes a best-selling book and a world-wide lecture tour? Is there more to the picture? I think it doesn’t hurt that he tried to wrestle with the hardest questions he could think of. And, clearly, the man is brilliant.)

Dr. Peterson has been a college professor for a number of years and he talks about how he learned to talk without scaffolding (i.e. lecture notes). As he lectured, he tried to get away from using notes to the point where, today, he can walk on stage and talk to an audience off the top of his head. It is a bit like a jazz performance (I think he has used that metaphor himself) where he knows his scales well and that allows him to take the performance in a different direction every night. On the surface, it appears as though he is winging it for a 70-minute talk. Most of us would need to spend hours preparing for that kind of talk. He has spent those hours, they are just in the past rather than in the days and hours before each talk.

A recent podcast—Season 2, Episode 37: “Struggle Between Chaos and Order”—I found particularly impressive and moving. The talk was given in Zurich, Switzerland. He had been interviewed earlier by some reporters and he was annoyed by a particular question—actually, he was annoyed by his answer to a particular question. He decided he would use this night’s lecture to give a better answer.

The question of the journalist was about chaos and order. In particular, why are men considered order and women considered chaos? I really enjoyed his answer. First of all he doesn’t think it’s his idea. It’s his observation of “how stories work.”

Aside: Dr. Peterson’s talk of stories is probably his greatest contribution for those of us in the Christian faith. We live in an age when—well, it’s a funny time—stories have never been more popular in one sense. We still go to see movies. We still read novels. We still attend church (ish). But we’re in this scientific age which attempts to reduce everything to facts, to the things we can measure, sense, and experience. Dr. Peterson has said that the path to truth does not come solely through science. Science gives us facts where stories carry values. Both are truth. And the stories we need as much, if not more, than facts. Further, we pay a price when we jettison those stories.

He thinks of thought structure as a map. “You want an accurate map to stay out of pits.” And one of his goals as a lecturer is not to convince people that he is right, but to make his map better. The better your map, the easier it is to move in the world. He says “a story is a kind of map … a way of perceiving the world and acting in it.” He believes stories are “so deep and important” you re biologically prepared to enjoy them. “Stories are at the bottom of everything.”

The fundamental metaphors of the world are chaos, order, and the force that mediates between the two of them. Order he describes as “when what you want is happening.” We have desires and the world is in order when those desires are being fulfilled. This is not to say that whatever you desire is right, but that we understand that things are in control when we’re getting what we want. The result is that “You’re not anxious.”

On the other hand, chaos is “antithetical . . . where all hell breaks loose.” Sometimes chaos comes from the outside—natural disasters bring chaos, but chaos can also come from interpersonal relationships—from betrayals. And chaos can come from within when we betray ourselves.

The great stories of the world talk about order and chaos. The opening of Genesis is the one I am most familiar with. Genesis 1:1 describes order:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Then verse 2 introduces chaos:

“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters.”

Now, at this point, order sounds like a good thing and chaos is bad, but this is too simplistic a view. Initially, the former seems like a positive and the latter is a negative, so that men are good and women are, you know, chaos—a pejorative. A simple answer is that chaos and order are not good vs. bad; they are opposites. Dr. Peterson reminds his audience that we need both order and chaos. Too much order actually means you have tyranny. He references the Exodus story from the Hebrew Scriptures. They left the oppressive tyranny of Egypt but then found themselves in chaos. I love the psychological application he brings to the Biblical stories, like the departure from Egypt: “You’ve escaped from pathological tyranny and now you’re trying to orient yourself.” That’s chaos. It’s not good or bad, it’s reality. It’s important to know if we are in order or chaos, though “We’re constantly moving between the two things.” The truth is you’re neither completely in order or chaos. When you participate in the process of the movement between these states, you find meaning in life.

There is a cycle: Order is followed by collapse, which introduces you to chaos, which leads you to the Underworld, where you re-constitute yourself and re-emerge with a new order. (This pattern is based on ancient stories he will re-tell momentarily.) The result is a good:

“When you put yourself back together, you’re more together than you were.”

Here’s a truth:

“Life is punctuated by painful bouts of learning.”

The next step of his explanation is that we tend to experience order and chaos as personalities. Our distant ancestors wrote stories that captured this. He references three of them, from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Genesis, the latter which he describes as a variant of the Mesopotamian story. He goes into some detail telling the Mesopotamian and Egyptian stories, explaining how they relate to order and chaos.

In the process he introduces a story about a grizzly bear that is grimly funny, but a captivating reflection on how you can think you are one place (in order) but instantly find that you were “off the path.”

He relates these stories to actual living. They are not simply stories from the distant past, but stories about how life works. The application of the Egyptian story is “when things fall apart, open your eyes … see what’s in front of you.” The dilemma is found in a question: “What’s in front of you? That which you don’t want to look at.” Dr. Peterson says,

“It’s your moral duty to keep your eyes open. The consequences are fatal.”

Dr. Peterson explains that there is something worse than death: “a lot of suffering, followed by death. … There’s plenty of hell if you’re incautious.”

The last part of his talk is the difficult connection he wants to make—how does order get associated with men and chaos with women? As far as order, hierarchies have been male. Until recently, women had a hard time competing with men because of their vulnerability in the area of reproduction. Though there are some women more dominant than some men, the most dominant humans are males. But this “doesn’t mean that women didn’t contribute or that men are exclusively masculine.” But there is a masculine quality to hierarchies.

Why is chaos represented as a feminine trait? Because “new things emerge out of the feminine.” And what follows is a really interesting but complicated discussion of natural selection and sexual selection. Encounters with either may throw you into chaos.

The end result is that he is “just trying to understand … symbolic patterns that have manifested themselves in gendered form.”

Near the end, Dr. Peterson offers a helpful prayer :

“What can I see
that I’m unwilling to see
that would guide me out of the hell.”

The reality is that “you will be in chaos … You won’t want to, but you can see if you want to … It’s useful to know that you can be in chaos … Open your eyes, it can be a place of renewal.”

I thought the Q & A for this talk was particularly insightful. Here’s this line: “I would rather have my corporations greedy than virtuous.” That’s one to chew on, though he gives some other thoughts about it. He notes this about the political left and the political right. The political left is deeply suspicious of large corporations; the political left is deeply suspicious of large government. What do they have in common? “Both don’t like large.” He referenced that phrase, “too big to fail,” from the financial crisis and turned it into a truism: “so big it will fail.”

There’s a strong moral message at the end of the Q & A:

“The more powerful we become, the more ethical we have to be.”

The decision of what we are going to do is made at the level of the individual. And Dr. Peterson believes “the direction of the world rests on your shoulders.”


The Bible in Translation Pt 4 | Book Review: “Authorized” by Mark Ward

by Glenn on November 27, 2019

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to help me think through Bible translations. I used the King James Version growing up. “Everyone” did. While I have no data to support this, my belief is that in the 1980’s, the trend away from the King James Version began in earnest for a good portion of the evangelical part of the English-speaking Church and the obvious (read only) serious choice was the New International Version. (I imagine would be telling a different story if I was in a different part of the Church.)

I found myself more than a little bugged in 2011 when the NIV underwent a major revision but didn’t call it a major revision. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hobbit 19 | The Last Stage

by Glenn on November 25, 2019

On May 1, Bilbo and Gandalf arrived at the valley of Rivendell. Where before the company (which of course included the dwarves) was taunted by elves in the trees, this time the elves sang a song about the death of the dragon and welcomed the two weary travelers. When they met with Elrond, Gandalf did most of the talking about what they had experienced. Something merely referenced here I can imagine might be a major feature of the film trilogy:

“It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.”

Gandalf spoke of how things should improve in Mirkwood. Elrond was more pessimistic about things. (More good material for The Hobbit prequel.) The storytelling continued and Bilbo fell asleep, waking up in a bed where, outside, elves playfully sang. After teasing each other, Bilbo went back to sleep.

After a week of rest, Bilbo said goodbye to Elrond. Bilbo and Gandalf continued on their way. Bilbo was excited to be nearing home which prompted Gandalf to say, “There is a long road yet,” to which Bilbo responded, “But it is the last road.” It had been a year since he had traveled in the other direction and everywhere they went Bilbo contemplated what had transpired. When they arrived at the frozen trolls, they found gold they had buried and split it between themselves. Gandalf apparently has financial needs, although he gives every indication of being above those concerns. The ponies were not too happy about the added weight. Finally they arrived at the Shire and Bilbo found himself full of poetry:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have done
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Gandalf was astonished.

“My dear Bilbo!” he said. “Something is the matter with you! You are no the hobbit that you were.”

When they arrived at Bilbo’s home, there was a commotion. Bilbo had been gone so long, his relatives were having an estate sale and planning to move in. He was “Presumed Dead” and the worst part is that “not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.” Getting his furniture back was an ordeal. In some cases, it was easier to purchase it back.

As a result, one of the ways of looking at this adventure is that it was a loss for him. But loss is a kind of gain, too. The narrator tells us

“Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons—he has lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way, but he was no longer quite respectable.”

Years later, Balin and Gandalf came visiting and Bilbo learned of how Bard had rebuilt the town of Dale and how Lake-Town had a new start and a new level of prosperity. One problem: things didn’t end well for the Master of Lake-Town. When he possessed a lot of gold, then the gold possessed him. We are told he took most of the gold, ended up by himself, and starved in the desert. But a new Master had come along who was “of wiser kind.”

The Bible In Translation | Pt 3 Dipping a toe into the King James Controversy

by Glenn on November 25, 2019

The problem for the serious generalist is that you know a lot and you know nothing. You know a little in a lot of areas, but in any one particular area, you don’t have any great depth. The generalist doesn’t worry, though, because he or she knows that there are people who are singularly focused on particular areas and have expert knowledge. They go way down. As a generalist, you can depend on these experts to drill down so you can take a more horizontal view. Or, you can follow their lead and increase your knowledge in any one particular area. As a generalist I am grateful for experts.

Of course, you’re always trying to figure out who is actually an expert. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hobbit 18 | The Return Journey

by Glenn on November 19, 2019

For the second time in this book, Bilbo woke up and was alone. Waking up meant he wasn’t dead, but he was sore from getting hit on the head. He heard someone nearby call out to him and then remembered that he was wearing his ring, which meant he couldn’t be seen. He wondered if had he not been invisible, might he have woken up in a bed. Gandalf had sent a man out looking for him in his last known location and he carried Bilbo down to the camp where Gandalf (with an arm in a sling—also injured in the battle) was delighted to see him. Gandalf took Bilbo in to see a dying Thorin, who took back the last words he uttered to Bilbo. He wanted “to part in friendship.” Death has a way of making the right things matter and among Thorin’s final words to Bilbo were these: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” It was a sad farewell for Bilbo who, afterward, needed to spend some time alone.

Bilbo learned everything that had gone on after he was knocked unconscious “but it gave him more sorrow than joy, and he was now weary of his adventure. He was aching in his bones for the homeward journey.” The narrator fills us in on what happened. We hear how the eagles had been watching the goblins assemble for battle and so they, too, had assembled. But even after the eagles joined the battle, they along with the men, elves, and dwarves were outnumbered. But “In that last hour Beorn himself had appeared.” Where the dwarves had taken a stand around their critically injured leader, Beorn came and carried Thorin away to safety. And then, with “redoubled” wrath, Beorn returned and brought victory.

(Am I right in thinking that Beorn doesn’t appear in The Lord of the Rings—either the book or film? Seems like he would have been a helpful figure in all that had gone on there. Then again, there are characters actually in the book of TLOTR—Tom Bombadil—that don’t make it into the film.)

After a burial for Thorin (plus Fili and Kili who had died defending him), Dain became the new King under the Mountain and a new plan was created for dividing up the gold. Bard placed the Arkenstone in Thorin’s tomb, so the dwarves gave a one-fourteenth share to Bard to “honour the agreement of the dead.” One-fourteenth was a huge amount and Bard shared it with the elves and the Master of Lake-Town. When Dain told Bilbo that he wouldn’t be able to have the share he had been promised because too many people had claims to the gold, Bilbo was gracious:

“Very kind of you,” said Bilbo. “But really it is a relief to me. How on earth should I have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don’t know. And I don’t know what I should have done with it when I got home. I am sure it is better in your hands.”

Bilbo did accept “two small chests, one filled with silver, and the other with gold, such as one strong pony could carry” and with tears on both sides, Bilbo said farewell to the dwarves (and to Thorin) and headed home. Gandalf and Bilbo followed the elves as far as Mirkwood, where they said their good-byes then made their way around the forest, which was now made safe because the goblins had been crushed.

The narrator tells us that the return trip for Bilbo included “many hardships and adventures” as “The Wild was still the Wild,” but Gandalf was with him and Beorn also for part of the way so “he was well guided and guarded.” It was mid-winter when the three of them arrived at Beorn’s house where they stayed through the cold. When spring arrived, Bilbo and Gandalf set off again. At the peak of the mountain (the Misty Mountains) where the goblins had captured them months before, Bilbo and Gandalf could now look back and see Mirkwood and, “on the edge of eyesight,” the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo came up with a saying, “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!” The Tookish part of Bilbo had its adventure, but the Baggins inside Bilbo wanted to be home.

*    *    *

When the makers of the film version of The Lord of the Rings decided to make a film version of The Hobbit, it seems to me that they had a decision to make: either they turn the book into a film or they create a prequel to the film version of TLOTR. The tone of the respective books is so radically different that the film-makers either needed to honor the book as it is or do some revising.

I watched the first part of the theatrical version of The Hobbit. (At least most of it. I was pretty sleepy when we started and I dozed through the departure from the Shire—I think the dwarves singing darkly about gold did me in—waking up for the torrential rain just prior to the encounter with the trolls.) The producers definitely went with the latter option, creating a prequel for The Lord of the Rings and ignoring the feel of the book.

There is a lot to recommend in the film:

Characters are more three-dimensional. The dwarves are all given distinct personalities and, together, are this rather hapless, rag-tag outfit in pursuit of a pipe dream that perhaps Gandalf is using as part of his efforts in Middle-Earth.

There’s a note of tension that enters the relationship of Thorin and Gandalf that I don’t remember in the book. (I suppose part of that is adding dimension to Thorin.) They use this tension to provide reason for Gandalf to leave the group prior to the encounter with the trolls. In the book, Gandalf has other things he is taking care of that don’t play into the story. In the film, the other things aren’t important here, but I imagine will be developed later.

Characters that are simply mentioned in a line—for example, Radagast, the brown wizard, and the goblin, Bolg get complete back stories and full treatment. (And, one assumes, the Necromancer will become a large part of this film.)

Characters not in the book are in the film—Galadriel and Saruman, for example. Although, what are they doing at Elrond’s Last Homely House?

And there’s this sense of looming danger in the Middle-Earth that ties this film into TLOTR. (That’s the central issue, isn’t it? Some combination of Tolkien as a writer and the story he is telling evolved over time. The differences are not reconciled in the books, but the film-makers decided to do that work. I appreciated giving depth to the dwarves but the film has such a very different theme—a homeless people wanting a home and a hobbit leaving home for a time to help them in their pursuit—so that, ultimately, the film is more a story about Middle-Earth than an adventure that a hobbit takes.

The film does a good job of creating forward motion, abandoning the episodic feeling of the book.

Interesting, the film is actually a flashback. It opens with an older Bilbo preparing for the all-Shire party that begins TLOTR. He is beginning his book, There and Back Again, that he intends to give to Frodo. The idea, then, I suppose, is that the film is the older Bilbo’s memoir. This doesn’t seem right, though. My feeling is that in it’s “a book within the book” and not the book. Too many things are introduced to or overdeveloped in the story that are not part of the book.

For that reason, this trilogy is not something I want to watch just after reading The Hobbit. It’s too different. Because it’s been a long time since I’ve watched TLOTR, I was struck by how literal a representation (by necessity) the film is of Middle-Earth. I need imagination to read. I need no imagination to watch.

I do think I will want to watch this trilogy it when it’s time to read The Lord of the Rings again and enjoy those films one more time.

The Bible in Translation | Part Two: “How we got here”

by Glenn on November 19, 2019

I’ve begun thinking about Bible translations. It began not as a thought, but a particular emotion that is hard to define. Perhaps a sense of loss is the closest. I’m trying to get past the vague feeling to try and make sense of where I am and decide what needs to be done.

The Bible I grew up with was the King James Version. In my part of the Church it was the only game in town. I suppose I might have been vaguely aware of other translations out there somewhere but no one in my world seemed to be paying particular attention to them on a large scale. Other translations (or paraphrases) were used to enhance the study of the KJV or to color a sermon that featured the KJV. I remember references to The Amplified Bible or the Living Bible or to translations by Moffatt or Phillips, but none of those felt widely adopted. For the most part it seemed like the KJV was what most of us owned. It was the Bible in the pews and what was read publicly in church and the text the pastors I knew preached from.

There was a kind of sea change in the 1980’s when the KJV fell out of fashion and was replaced by the New International Version (now known as the NIV 1984 or NIV 84). I don’t remember any great controversy at the time and thought it was received largely as a blessing. I was part of The Salvation Army at the time and, I assume because of its strong command and control, assume a decision was made within that denomination/movement to make the switch (at least in the English-speaking world). I’m certain there must have been some controversy, but that was out of my awareness or interest. All I knew was that the NIV was much easier to read.

(I imagine there are other accounts of a sea change that took place for other believers in other parts of the Church when one Bible translation was introduced to replace another. I assume, though, that in English the KJV had a kind of ubiquity for all “back in the day, ” though you never know if your part of Christendom is idiosyncratic or is representative of other parts.)

The change seemed good because the KJV was tricky. It was full of words which either I didn’t know because they had fallen out of use or only thought I knew because the definitions had changed over time and so they didn’t mean what I thought they meant. These latter are tough to recognize—if you have a KJV, you almost need an edition that highlights them so that you are reminded not to assume a particular word means what you think it means.

The NIV was much easier to read because the words were (more) familiar, even though theology and the world of the Bible was not always easy to understand. Many of the questions raised by the Bible—for example How do you reconcile a good God with this corrupted world?—don’t have easy answers regardless of the translation you are using. And while you can change the word “propitiation”—as in “And he is the propitiation for our sins …” (I John 2:2, KJV)—to “atoning sacrifice,” I’m not sure the concept is any easier to understand. Propitiation seems rather opaque, making it hard to think about, and perhaps “atoning sacrifice” is too easy not to think about because the words sound like they should be familiar. You still need an answer to the question Why did Jesus (have to) die?

But at least I lived in this circle that said the NIV (84) was God’s word. When we “looked to” or read together or memorized God’s word, we were all referencing the same words. Perhaps this was a naïve view of things. But it was the understanding I had of the world I lived in for a long time.

When the revised version of the NIV came out in 2011, early adopters were, of course, quick to go with it. But not everyone rushed to pick up this new version of the NIV. To be fair, there were people still reading the KJV. (There still are.) And there were those whose NIV (84) study Bibles were so full of notes that they weren’t eager to make (and may still not have made) the change. I remember feeling not a little bugged about the development. Some of it related to the fact that I had some things memorized from the NIV (84) and wondered if I needed to start over with the new translation, but I think part of the complexity of my feelings comes out of the fact that changing a translation (and I don’t think you can say this wasn’t a significant change) without changing the name feels a little disingenuous. I don’t want to say that the publisher was sneaky, but the lack of announcement (though, to be honest, I’m not sure how one goes about making this sort of announcement—and perhaps there was an announcement that was outside my awareness) felt like they were pulling a fast one.

The change in the 1980’s was a newer translation that used vocabulary and syntax from our own day supplanted a venerable (archaic?) one. The change in 2011 amounted to a publishing company discontinuing a translation of the Bible and offering a replacement under the same name. This was confusing at the very least. For one, rather than update language to be more comprehensible to our current culture, language was changed to respond to concerns of our current culture. In other words we were getting more interpreting than translating. That was different. It was a big change that we were not calling a change. (Which is not to say that the change was bad. But we needed to talk about and think about it rather than mindlessly adopt this new thing that we said wasn’t new. We needed Toto to pull on the curtain a little bit so we could understand the machinations that were going on.)

I also wonder if and how this relates to other changes we have been seeing in the Church over the last couple of decades. This change in the NIV wasn’t in isolation. Our culture has become more casual and, accordingly, worship in church has as well. For example, you are now as likely to see the pastor in jeans as in a coat and tie. We attend church services less than we used to and churches have fewer services (especially no Sunday evening services). We’ve largely removed the organ and piano as accompaniments of worship and introduced the guitar-led band. The choir has been replaced by a worship leader/team. We are very much aware of churches that are backward in their worship. And while I have no data to support any of this, I feel like there has been a change within churches to no longer identify publicly with a particular denomination. For example, Smalltown Baptist Church is now often known as Smalltown Church. (This may be a west coast phenomenon. I know there are parts of the country where Smalltown First Baptist—or whatever denomination—can be the going concern in town.) When we move to a new town, our first consideration may not be to find “our” denomination, but to find a church that we like, which likely will not be identified with a denominational label. (Alternatively, when we move, even if we want to find a particular tribe, we may have trouble doing so because it no longer wants to be identified as a tribe.) Does this mean the Church has and by extension church members have more of a consumer mindset.

Perhaps none of this is connected to Bible translations, but the change in 2011 was not simply within the church, but within a church that had changed dramatically. It does seem to me that there is a kind of informalizing of things in the church that renders the KJV even less popular today and encourages translations that sound like common speech, though this may actually be a good thing. And while denominations seem to be less important today, cultural issues have become elevated. In fact, denominations are splitting over these cultural issues.

When the NIV 2011 was introduced to (foisted upon?) us, it was no longer the primary option to the KJV. The English Standard Version had been introduced and was adopted by many. I knew people who liked The New Living Translation. Today, if you search for a Bible, there is a bewildering choice of versions and multiple editions within those versions. And while our churches may not always want to be identified with a particular tribe, we seem to be looking for a Bible that makes sense with our tribe. (For example, a complementarian group may like a translation that uses the word “man” or “men” or “brothers” even when the word being translated likely includes “woman” or “women” or “sisters” in the meaning. It’s likely the more literal translation. The egalitarian church may want a translation that refers to “a person” or “people” or “brothers and sisters.” And there are those options out there.

One of the things I’ve grown to understand is that more choices is not always better. For example, while one brand of spaghetti sauce in the supermarket isn’t enough (strictly speaking, that isn’t even a choice), the decision among a dozen or more isn’t helpful.

As the pastor of a small church, I am searching for a translation that is faithful to the original languages which I can read in public and the language of which I can incorporate into my life. And I’m not sure what that is. What should be my primary study Bible? Go back to my old NIV (84)? Adopt the ESV? Try the mainline NRSV? Get nerdy with the NET Bible?

In the past, the choice (again, in my circle) of which Bible to use was relatively straightfoward—use the King James Version if you are traditional, use the NIV (84) if you are trying to be more contemporary. But today it doesn’t seem like there’s any clear line of authority for making the decision of which Bible to use. It all feels very individual and personal—in the same way that we now feel like we should dress how we like and enjoy music that we like.

My understanding is that there are some groups who have attached themselves to a particular translation. I’ve heard the Holman Christian Study Bible is enjoyed by some Baptist churches. There is a King James Only movement that tells us there really is no other choice. I’ve heard some pastors make a recommendation for the New American Standard or ESV. The New Revised Standard Version is nearly the only option (along with the KJV) for those who want to follow the reading plan in the Book of Common Prayer, which includes the Apocrypha.

What I don’t hear (at least not yet) is a lot of acclaim for the NIV (2011), perhaps because we haven’t had a good conversation about what the implications of those changes are.

The present situation feels like a buffet line without a carving station for the main course at the end.


The Hobbit 17 | The Clouds Burst

by Glenn on November 14, 2019

As I near the end of Bilbo’s adventure (just two chapters remain after this one), I haven’t decided if I will watch The Hobbit trilogy. I suppose I should want to because I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings films so much, but I find myself thinking that three films seems like a lot. The Lord of the Rings was turned into a trilogy as well, but it was a much longer book. Additionally, I’ve noticed that at first consideration, the three parts of The Hobbit films, “An Unexpected Journey,” “The Desolation of Smaug,” and “The Battle of the Five Armies,” don’t appear to match up proportionately to the book as it is laid out. In other words, the portion of the book beginning with The Battle of Five Armies to the end is a rather small part of the book, but it’s given extended treatment on film. It isn’t even a third of the book and if Tolkien doesn’t dwell on the battle, why would the makers of the film? Perhaps curiosity will get the better of me.

Normally, watching a film is a kind of reward for finishing a book, even though the book always seems to be better than the movie. The question is never Will the book be better than the movie?, it’s How close does it get to capturing the book? (For me, the film version of The Remains of the Day, Pride and Prejudice, the first Harry Potter—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, A Good Year, and Howard’s End all got really close.)

An issue factoring into this is one of tone. The Hobbit (the book) has a light touch. The narrator frequently talks to us, often reassuringly, in a way that suggests he is checking on us to make sure we are okay. There is plenty of danger, but it’s a story that, though it deals with a reality that includes the gravest of dangers, has been made safe for children. Will the film capture that playfulness of a hobbit going out on a perilous adventure that we know he will make it through, in contrast with The Lord of the Rings where both the book and the film have a dark tone because civilization (of Middle-Earth) as we know it hangs in the balance? I’m sure I will watch, it may just be later rather than sooner.

*   *   *

Bilbo was hired to be a burglar on an adventure to retrieve gold from a dragon. At a couple of points early on, Bilbo needed assistance (thinking of the incident with the trolls, specifically), but as the story has gone on, Bilbo has come through in a big way for the dwarves, keeping them alive following an encounter with spiders and managing an escape for them from the dungeon of the Elvenking. I don’t think that without Bilbo, the company ever would have gained entrance into the secret door of the Lonely Mountain, which gave them safe and secure access to the treasure—at least initially.

Bilbo is an independent contractor and in the last chapter he exercised that indepedence in an extraordinary way. Things were at an impasse. Thorin wanted all the treasure for the dwarves. Bard wanted a portion of the treasure (one twelfth) for his help killing the dragon. Neither side was willing to negotiate. Meanwhile, Bilbo had pocketed the most precious piece of treasure in the pile, the Arkenstone of Thrain, for himself. He had been promised a one-fourteenth share and he rationalized his appropriation of this stone as his portion, knowing that Thorin clearly wanted it for himself and this might prove a troublesome decision.

Aside: I have only a vague idea of what this stone might look like. Returning to the idea of the film, will my seeing a specific realization of the film-makers’ idea of what this stone looks like make me more appreciative of the worth of this stone? Or is it better simply to let it be something in my imagination?

Using his ring of invisibility, Bilbo sneaked away from the barricaded entrance to the Lonely Mountain and went down to meet with Bard and the Elvenking. He gave the Arkenstone to Bard to use as a bargaining chip and then he returned to the dwarves. On his way back, he was delighted to come across Gandalf who had, obviously, returned (though he was now with the men and elves), and who praised Bilbo’s decision-making.

The next morning, Bard, the Elvenking, and an old man “wrapped in cloak and hood” (who we assume is Gandalf in disguise—because we’re in the know) approached the entrance to The Lonely Mountain to renegotiate. The presence of the elf didn’t help things. Thorin had wanted the elves dismissed as there was still a fair amount of resentment over his having been locked up by them. Thorin assumed the meeting was happening because the men and elves had figured out that Dain and his army of dwarfs would soon be arriving.

After some preliminary verbal back-and-forth where it was determined that both sides remained intransigent, Bard asked, “Is there nothing for which you would yield any of your gold?” As readers, we know this is a set-up, so when Thorin answers no, we are prepared for what’s coming even though we don’t know how it will play out. Bard immediately asks, “What of the Arkenstone of Thrain?” at which point the old man produced the stone from out of a box. This was a blow for Thorin who in anger cried that he shouldn’t need to negotiate for something that belonged to him. He accused Bard of being a thief and asked how he had come by it. Bilbo then piped up, “I gave it to them.” Thorin went a little crazy stating that he wished Gandalf was here to manage things and grabbing Bilbo with the intention of throwing him down on the rocks. At this point, Gandalf emerged from under the costume of the old man and said, “Stay! Your wish is granted.” He quickly came to Bilbo’s defense, which further enraged Thorin, who thought there was a conspiracy against him.

Bilbo defended his action by stating that the Arkenstone was his promised share of the treasure and that he disposed of it as he wished. Thorin demanded that Bilbo leave and stated that he would give a one-fourteenth share of the treasure in trade to Bard to divide up however he saw fit and that was to be the end of it. Secretly he was trying to figure out how to get the stone back and keep the one-fourteenth share.

Aside:This is a theme in the story—the effect a pile of gold has on the heart, whether it’s the heart of a dragon or a dwarf. Some in this tale are more or less susceptible to a corrupting effect of treasure.

Thorin sent word by the ravens to Dain of what happened, encouraging him to “come with wary speed.”

The next day Dwain arrived. Bard had no intention of letting him join the dwarves up in the Mountain. The arriving army of dwarves were loaded with supplies and it would prolong things. Bard thought he had the upper hand with the dwarves in terms of warfare. Their specialty was fighting below ground. The Elvenking was none too eager to begin a war for gold, though, and he was hoping for something that would create reconciliation. Just as things were heating up and it appeared a battle with the dwarves would begin, blackness came over the area and Gandalf called for peace. Something else was happening that needed to be dealt with:

“Dread has come upon you all! Alas! It has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the North is coming, O Dain! Whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! The bats are above his army like a sea of locustsl They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”

It’s the classic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, or perhaps it’s merely a case of “We’ve got bigger problems, now,” butt the men, elves, and dwarves join together to fight “a battle than none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies and it was very terrible.”

The trip the dwarves made through the Misty Mountains earlier (resulting in the death of the Great Goblin at the hand of Gandalf) had re-kindled hatred of goblins for dwarves. When they heard that Smaug was dead, that was all they needed to know to motivate and mobilize themselves.

Again, the question of how much Gandalf knows (and how he knows) comes up. And, again, the narrator doesn’t know or isn’t saying: “How much Gandalf knew cannot be said, but it is plain that he had not expected this sudden assault.”

Battle plans were drawn so that the elves, men, and dwarves would cooperate effectively. Meanwhile Bilbo put on his invisible ring. The narrator tells us: “A magic ring of that sort is not a complete protection in a goblin charge, nor does it stop flying arrow and wild spears; but it does help in getting out of the way, and it prevents your head from being specially chosen for a sweeping stroke by a goblin swordsman.”

Initially it goes well for the good guys, but as the day wears on, they begin to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. At this point a great shout and trumpet call came from the Gate to the Mountain. Thorin and company had joined the attack. Things went well for a while, but then they were surrounded.

Bilbo could only watch “with misery.” He had joined the elves in their particular location in the battle. Just as things looked really bad,

“The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow. “’The Eagles! The Eagles!’ he shouted. ‘The Eagles are coming!’” He had terrific eyesight. “[B]ut at that moment a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm, and he fell with a crash and knew know more.”

And that’s where this chapter ends.

For the second time in this book, Bilbo was rendered unconscious. The first was underneath the Misty Mountains when in an escape from goblins he fell off the dwarf who was carrying him and he hit his head. And now there is this moment during the battle.

The Bible in Translation | Part One

by Glenn on November 12, 2019

I grew up with the King James Version of the Bible. Somewhere in the 1980’s, I switched to the New International Version, I think simply because of its popularity and readability. I assume the latter had something to do with the former. Most of the churches and pastors I knew had begun using it. The KJV was and is spectacularly beautiful (see Psalm 23 for a high-water mark in the English language) but at times it required a lot of background knowledge to uncover the meaning (as with 2 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ constraineth us …”) because so many words (like constrain) have changed over time. I dabbled with a New American Standard version for a while, but the NIV is the Bible I have used since college, especially when I wanted to memorize something. For example, I learned Psalm 1 by heart.

Somewhere along the line, the publishers of the New International Version decided to update their translation. But they didn’t call their update the New New International Version. They simply changed the publication date so that you now had the NIV from 1984 and the NIV from 2011. For a while, a source like Biblegateway.com provided both versions identifying each by copyright date. Today, that website only lists the New International Version in its latest version and without a publication date. (The 1984 version may still be found here.)

Admittedly, I am change averse, but this new edition of the NIV really messed with me. Things I had memorized from the Bible were no longer in the Bible so to speak, at least in this new version. Do you go back and re-memorize? It’s hard to hide God’s word in your heart when God’s word changes (you know, every 27 years or so, which still is a lot for the “unchanging word of God”). I shouldn’t be so dramatic, but something in this change was demoralizing. Do I still have the Bible (God’s word) memorized (at least this portion of the Bible)? Do I need to re-learn it using the new revision?

Admittedly, the changes are not severe. Here is Psalm 1, line by line, with the 1984 and 2011 (in italics) editions of the New International Version:

Blessed is the man
Blessed is the one

who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way of sinners
or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the seat of mockers.
or sit in the company of mockers,

But his delight is in the law of the Lord
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord

and on his law he meditates day and night.
and who meditates on his law day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season
which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither
and whose leaf does not wither—

Whatever he does prospers.
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked.
Not so the wicked!

They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
They are like chaff  that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish.
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

A number of the lines are exactly the same. (Where this is no bold typeface.)

One change has improved clarity. Changing “or stand in the way of sinners” to “or stand in the way that sinners take” seems to be a better rendering for the simple reason that the former sounds like you should not impede a sinner (as in “Blessed are those who … get out of the way of sinners, or “Blessed are those who … don’t get run over by sinners”), where the latter tells you to stay off the path that sinners take. This seems like better English, though, admittedly, this is without consideration of what the original Hebrew says (which should be a consideration).

The main change you can see is that the translators avoided the use of the word “man.” I’m not sure the word “man” to the exclusion of females was intended (or, rather, I’m fairly certain the word man was meant to include women), but I don’t know what it would be like as a woman to listen to or try to memorize the 1984 version. It’s probably easier as a man to say that the word man includes both men and women than it is for a woman to hear the word man and know that she is included. This new version appears to want to use more inclusive language. (Actually, I am certain it does, but am limiting my claim solely to this one passage.)

I like the idea in principal of inclusive language where appropriate, but there is one thing that bugs: It’s the singular “they,” as in “Blessed is the one … that person … whatever they do prospers.” It seems like the NIV has done a couple of things that I want to think about a little bit. First, it has gone beyond direct translation of the words into an interpretation of what the words mean. And perhaps this is a good thing in this case. The translators have said that “man” really means man or woman and I don’t argue with that. But second, it is making stylistic/linguistic changes to the English language by using a third person plural pronoun as a third person singular pronoun. This latter decision I find more troubling than the decision to use a less exclusive word (“man”) in a passage that seems to mean both men and women. I’ve used the formulation of they as a singular pronoun from time-to-time, but I feel awkward and it feels clunky when I do. You are changing grammar when you do that. Additionally, the word “they” has been politicized recently, to go beyond inclusivity of both genders to be an acceptable pronoun of choice for the so-called non-binary. I wonder if this confuses issues.

*   *   *

The changes to the New International Version have me thinking about translations in general. I’ve never really considered other translations. But for that matter, I never really considered why I use the NIV. What translation(s) do I want to read, study, memorize, and preach from?

Currently, I use the New Revised Standard Version for my daily Bible readings from the Book of Common Prayer because the former includes the Apocrypha, from which the latter often has readings.

I am in the midst of a Bible study project reading through the entire Bible using the English Standard Version.

For now I use the NIV (2011) in my preaching, but my commitment to it is up for negotiation at this point. After a recent church service, I was asked by a church member, “What translation are you reading from?” I sensed a slight bit of exasperation and/or bewilderment in the question. She uses the earlier NIV and told me that her husband uses the New American Standard Bible and that neither of them could follow me when I read scripture in church, which makes sense—they are different translations. Which translation(s) should you use for the public reading of scripture and for teaching?

If you walk into a Bible book store or even visit the Bible section of Barnes and Noble, it is amazing how many translations are commonly available:

King James Version
New King James Version
English Standard Version
New Revised Standard Version
New International Version
New Living Translation
Holman Christian Standard Bible
New American Standard Bible
Common English Bible
The Message
Contemporary English Version

This just for starters. The list goes on.

So, which one do I read? Which one do I study from? Which one do I preach from? Which one do I memorize? I heard someone make this statement: “New American has the finest [New Testament] Greek rendering, NIV has the finest Hebrew poetry … and ESV has the finest blend of both.” But then he goes on to say that he uses the New King James Version for his teaching. So perhaps I need to be thinking in terms of multiple translations.

There’s a lot to think about, so I’ve begun a little investigation into Bible translations. I’m not trying to decide anything at this point. I’m certainly not wanting to persuade anyone of anything. I just want to learn and the best way for me to learn is to write.

As I began the most basic and preliminary research, I noticed that it’s not always easy to separate fact from opinion, both for those who hold strong opinions on this subject and for me as I attempt to tell the truth about what I know and believe. As I’ve listened to people talk about Bible translations, there seems to be two approaches: to inform or to convert, to help people figure out which Bible to use or to create loyalty around a particular translation.

So, this is a first attempt at thinking through some of the basic issues involved with Bible translations. My goal is to say what I think is reasonable. (There is plenty of unreasonable out there and I want to choose carefully what it is I want to be unreasonable about.) Here’s what I understand so far, and I am including visuals as a way to help me let this sink in:

1. Most of us need to read the Bible in translation because the Bible was not written in English. A translation is needed to get us from there to here.

I have all sorts of respect for, say, a Jewish person who can read the Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament) in the original Hebrew (and a little Aramaic) or for Bible students who can read the New Testament in its original Greek. (Although by “read” I don’t mean have some understanding of Biblical Greek, but can open a Greek New Testament and read it and comprehend it without aids. It seems to me that many people who have lots to say about the original languages don’t actually have that kind of fluency with those languages.)

Aside: I have noticed that some who are fluent in Biblical languages maintain that those who are reading the Bible in translation are reading an impoverished Bible at best. Part of me is sympathetic to that idea while another part of me thinks it is a bit snobbish or worse. It would be great to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in French (I wish I could), but it’s worth reading even in translation. It’s possible to understand the story in English. I believe that is true of the Bible as well.

The fact that the Bible was not written in English seems self-evident, but there was a joke growing up—“The King James Version—good enough for Paul, good enough for me!”—which, while funny, illustrates the idea that ignorance sometimes enters these discussions. There aren’t easy cures for ignorance, but it begins by recognizing that no matter what English translation you have or favor, if you’re reading any English translation you aren’t reading what Paul wrote because Paul didn’t write in English. The English that most of us can understand, beginning with the English of Shakespeare’s day (which actually isn’t all that easy to understand) didn’t even exist until the 1500’s.

2. English is neither the first nor the only language into which the Bible has been translated. For a long period of time, Latin was the primary language in which the Bible was read. It was a big deal when the Bible was put into the colloquial language of the common person, as Martin Luther did with German. William Tyndale paid a high price for his work as a translator. His (partial) English translation resulted in his being burned at the stake. At this point in my understanding, I don’t think it’s important to know what all those translations were and when they came about. It is essential to know that there were earlier translations and there are other modern languages into which the Bible has been translated.

It’s fascinating to listen to how impassioned some people are about certain English translations when English is not the only language in which people are reading the Bible. (More on them another time.) It seems rather self-evident/obvious, but I notice that some who are intent on making the case for a certain English translation, don’t seem to have a way to explain their choice in a way that would help someone from another language choose an adequate translation in their language. If, say, you thought the King James Version of the Bible was the best (or perhaps the only appropriate) English version, how do you come to that conclusion in a way that isn’t some sort of circular argument (“The King James version is the best version because it’s the King James Version, which means it’s the best version …”) or simple dogma (“The King James Version is the only authorized version.”) or doesn’t exclude other language groups (“You need to read the Bible in the King James. It’s perfect.”)? (To readers for whom English is a second language I’ve heard the argument, “They should learn English,” but, instead, maybe we should all learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that we can read the Bible in the language God gave it. My view is this is not a simple discussion.)

3. We don’t have the original manuscripts of the Bible. For example, whatever the apostle Paul wrote down and what he wrote it down upon is gone to history. That is true of every book of the Bible. Similarly, we don’t have the first manuscript copies. Those are all lost as well. That’s another story that I haven’t internalized, yet. When we talk about translating the Bible into English, we are not translating from what the writers of the Bible wrote down. All we have for doing the work of translating are early manuscripts and the earliest available manuscripts.

Aside: It’s interesting to read claims on behalf of these original manuscripts (for example, “The Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, is a divine revelation, the original autographs of which were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit.”) when we don’t have these original autographs.

There’s a lot to this discussion as well. At first, the idea of using the “earliest available manuscripts” seems the logical and self-evident choice. However, a problem emerges with the King James Version (and, therefore, the New King James Version), which used early manuscripts, but not the earliest available manuscripts. (I don’t think that last statement is controversial and I am certainly not looking to be controversial. It should simply be factual.) What gets controversial is when you consider the implications of your choice of which manuscripts you use to translate the Bible.

The “earliest available manuscripts” come from different places and times and there are small but not insignificant differences among the earliest available manuscripts depending on where they come from and when they were written. And there are difference between these “earliest available manuscripts” and the “early manuscripts” used for the KJV. The translator has to decide which of these manuscripts will be used to make the translation knowing that the end result will be affected by this choice. People often have strong feelings about this choice of manuscripts and, no surprise, there is no perfect agreement about which of these manuscripts should be used and how this issue should be resolved. I’ve seen reasonable people offer reasonable points-of-view in discussing these issues, but there is no easy way to say which point-of-view is “correct”. Some people seem better than others at stating why they hold to their point-of-view while others seem to believe their point-of-view is correct simply because it is their point-of-view, which is fine until you have two people saying the opposite thing. One of them (at least) is wrong (Why is it we assume it’s the other person?).

Here’s where the choice gets problematic: The translators of the NIV, for example, place John 7:53–8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, in italics and include this note: “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11.” Well, that’s a disturbing message to come across in your Bible. Is this passage in the Bible or not? It is in the KJV. It’s in italics in the NIV with that note in brackets. There may be versions that actually exclude the passage with or without a footnote.

Matthew 17:21 is actually missing in the NIV. In its place is a footnote: “Some manuscripts include here words similar to Mark 9:29.”

When you turn over to Mark 9:29 in the NIV, it reads,

“[Jesus] replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer.’”

There is a footnote to this verse which reads, “Some manuscripts prayer and fasting.” Again, which is it? Did they only need to pray or did they need to pray and fast? How do you answer this?

I’m not ready to draw any conclusions for myself, yet, but at this point it’s worth noting that when we talk about verses missing in modern translations of the Bible (that are present in the KJV), it’s not a long list. See here and here.

This is a complicated issue for some and not for others. On the one hand there are people who are on different sides of the issue but can talk clearly about it and are willing to acknowledge and consider differing viewpoints. For them it is a complicated issue. Alternatively, there are some people for whom this issue is relatively (or just plain) straightforward. And some of them consider this issue the proverbial hill to die on. They are committed to (for this and, perhaps, other reasons as well) “King James Version only.” The words of Revelation 22:19 are the end of the discussion for them: “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (See for example here.)

I will have to sort this out another time. At this point, I see it as a complicated issue and am uncertain how contentious it is (or should be).

4. Translations of the Bible exist along a spectrum/continuum and fall into roughly three categories: Word-for-word translations (also known as formal equivalencies), thought-for-thought translations (also know as dynamic or functional equivalencies), and paraphrases. (There is a fourth category of translation that might be called corrupt or heretical translations. The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is placed into this category by some. But that, too, is for another day.)

These concepts are relatively self-explanatory. A word-for-word translation will take the words and structure of the original language and choose English words on a one-to-one basis. A thought-for-thought translation will take complete thoughts in the original language and find like thoughts in English. With a paraphrase, the translator, will attempt to summarize what he or she (not they!) think the original means in a way that he or she believes will make sense in a modern language.

So here, for example, are two renditions of John 3:16 from the ends of the spectrum. First, John 3:16 from an interlinear translation:

“Thus for loved God the world that the Son the only begotten He gave so that everyone believing in Him not should perish but should have life eternal.”

This translation follows the Greek language in structure and, in my opinion, sounds not a little funny in English because our language isn’t structured the same way.

Out on the other end of the spectrum is the paraphrase. Growing up, The Living Bible was the most common paraphrase, but in recent years, Eugene Peterson’s The Message has become very popular. Here is how he renders John 3:16:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Basically, every translation falls along this spectrum in some way. Here is one picture of where the various translation would be placed along the spectrum (I think this is from the website Biblegateway.com):

(Note: The creator of this slide has only “two approaches” for translations of the Bible and considers paraphrases as thought-for-thought translations. Not everyone does. I prefer the three categories.)

Two things happen when you move from left to right on the spectrum, from the literal word-for-word to the paraphrase. First, you improve readability.

There is no question in my mind that The Message is easier to read and understand than the literal.

Aside: There is another spectrum to readability that has to do with the reading level of the translation. In other words, how educated do you need to be to read the translation? My understanding is that the language of the New Testament, at least, is in a rather simple, common Greek. But English translations can be more or less difficult to read. Someone has evaluated the reading level of various Bible translations and produced this infographic (it mentions 15 translations, but I only count 14):

I haven’t correlated this graphic with the graphic of the various translations along a spectrum, but it appears that in general the more thought-for-thought the translation, the simpler the vocabulary that is used. 

The second thing that happens as you move from left to right along the spectrum of translations is you increase the amount of interpretation. In other words, the more you are trying to translate thoughts, the more interpreting you are bound to do.

There isn’t necessarily an inverse relationship between readability and accuracy, but the less you focus on the words and structure of the original, the more you are answering the question, “What is this saying in our times and language?” This is an interpretive act, because two different people may look at the same passage and conclude it says different things in our day. For this reason, many people suggest that it’s best to think of a paraphrase as a commentary rather than a translation.

From an admittedly small sampling, people interested in offering an introduction to this subject have a sweet spot they recommend for people when choosing a Bible. That sweet spot is larger or smaller for some, but in general it ignores the most literal translation on the far left (the inter-linear) and the most interpreted renditions on the right (the paraphrases). (“Left” and “right” as used here are conceptual and not political terms.)

I’ve heard the following principle put forward: you should try to be as far left on the continuum as possible (again, no reference to politics, here). I’ve also heard the suggestion to find a Bible that mediates between the word-for-word and the thought-for-thought, but there are no rules for this as far as I can tell. There are people who are happy to tell you which Bible you should read and/or condemn certain translations, and I suppose it’s possible to belong to a group that make decisions for you or your congregation, or at least makes recommendations to you, somewhere from “You will use this translation” to “You might consider this translation.” As an individual, I find myself most responsive to those who encourage an informed choice but leave the choice in the hands of the individual, although I can see why a particular church or denomination would tend to gather around one particular translation.

I started my study on YouTube and enjoyed videos featuring (in no particular order) Tim Challies, James White, Todd Friel, Mark Strauss, Robert Plummer, Michael Brown, Mike Winger, and Todd Wagner. More to come as the exploration continues.

The Hobbit 16 | A Thief in the Night

by Glenn on November 11, 2019

The chapter opens with things in a kind of stasis. Outside the hall, Bard and a group of men and elves have declared a siege on those inside the Mountain. Inside the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield, with his small company of dwarves, and Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, have the superior position and plenty of weapons. They constructed a wall across the main entrance and the only way in would be through a direct assault that would be costly on both sides, though likely terminal for the dwarves.

Bard made his demands known—one twelfth of the gold and Thorin needs to do something to help the people of Lake Town. It seems like a reasonable “offer.” He could have been way more demanding and belligerent. While Bard doesn’t have the upper hand in terms of topography, the dwarves have a couple of problems. First, their food supply isn’t endless. While time is not necessarily on the side of those who have besieged the Mountain because winter is coming, waiting means those outside will be cold but those inside will be starving. Second, there is a kind of political problem among the dwarves. Thorin is the kind of ruler whose commands are not questioned. He has said that he is giving none of the gold away and no one seems willing or able to counter his position.

Our narrator says that “days passed slowly and wearily.” There was some organizing of the treasure and Thorin asked for the others to help him find the Arkenstone, which he said was

“worth more than a river of gold in itself, and to me it is beyond price. That stone of all the treasure I name unto myself, and I will be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it.”

These words were, of course, concerning for Bilbo. Early on he had pocketed the Arkenstone, thinking it lovely and the one item he would have picked. It was bound up in what he was using as a pillow.

It’s hard to see how this is going to end well for the company.

Word came from the ravens that dwarves were on the march to come and help. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to arrive unnoticed, which probably meant a battle in the valley. Roäc, the talking raven, asked Thorin, “How shall you be fed without the friendship and goodwill of the lands about you?” And then he stated the truth of the situation: “The treasure is likely to be your death, though the dragon is no more!” But Thorin was pretty well entrenched both physically and spiritually/emotionally. His hope was that the coming of winter might make the men and elves easier to negotiate with. How likely was that?

Then we are told, “That night Bilbo made up his mind.” It was a dark, moonless night. Bombur was standing guard and Bilbo offered to take over his duties, which Bombur happily accepted so that he could go inside to sleep and be warm. Bilbo put on his ring of invisibility and climbed out. He sneaked behind the lines of the elves and after he revealed himself demanded that he be taken to their leaders. Some time later he was in front of both the Elvenking and Bard where he conducted business. Bilbo described Thorin’s intransigence and in the process of discussions learned that Bard and the Elvenking were of similar mind. Bilbo told them something they didn’t know, that Dain and 500 armed dwarves were just a couple of days away. They were on the cusp of “serious trouble.” Bard wondered why Bilbo was telling them this: “Are you betraying your friends, or are you threatening us?”

Bilbo deflected the question declaring, “I never met such suspicious folk!” Bilbo told them he was making them an offer, at which point he brought out the Arkenstone.

“This is the Arkenstone of Thrain, said Bilbo, “the Heart of the Mountain; and it is also the heart of Thorin. He values it above a river of gold. I give it to you. It will aid you in your bargaining.”

The narrator tells us that “Bilbo, not without a shudder, not without a glance of longing, handed the marvellous stone to Bard.”

Bard asked the obvious question, “But how is it yours to give?”

Bilbo admitted, “It isn’t exactly; but, well, I am willing to let it stand against all my claim.” Bilbo then said he was headed back to the dwarves. The Elvenking wondered if it was safe for Bilbo to return, having just betrayed Thorin so profoundly. He offered to let Bilbo stay, but Bilbo declared, “I don’t think I ought to leave my friends like this, after all we have gone through together.” He couldn’t be dissuaded so they escorted him out of the camp.

On his way out of the camp, “an old man, wrapped in a dark cloak, rose from a tent door where he was sitting and came towards them.” It was Gandalf who clapped Bilbo on the back declaring, “Well done! Mr. Baggins!” Bilbo was delighted to see Gandalf “But there was no time for all the questions that he immediately wished to ask.”

One of the questions throughout this tale is how much does Gandalf see into the future. Is he just wise or does he have premonitions or is he extraordinarily well-connected. He tells Bilbo,

“Things are drawing towards the end now, unless I am mistaken. There is an unpleasant time just in front of you; but keep your heart up! You may come through all right. There is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard. Good night!”

Bilbo returned to the Mountain. He woke up Bombur who went back on guard duty and then curled up and went to sleep dreaming of eggs and bacon.

*   *   *

Bilbo is a complicated guy/hobbit. He is an independent operator. The dwarves engaged Bilbo to serve on a contracted basis. He was being paid to do a job and his loyalty to Thorin was based solely on potential financial gain. Since Bilbo’s interest was financial, the extent to which financial gain mattered to him was the extent to which he could be counted on to be loyal. It’s interesting in this chapter that when Bilbo gives away the Arkenstone, it wasn’t “without a shudder, not without a glance of longing.” So the money matters. But other things do, too, and self-preservation is not one of them, because Bilbo wanted to go back to the dwarves. They had been through a lot together. As an independent operator, Bilbo could think independently. He thought of what might get the dwarves beyond the impasse. What he did definitely would be considered traitorous if it had been done by one of the dwarves. It was a combination of wise and shrewd and dangerous and common sense. What remains is to see how it will play out.