A very active and faithful member of our parish came by the other day and we talked for a while. As she left, she asked a familiar and awfully difficult question: “What translation of the Bible should I read?” In reply, I began as I usually do: “It’s a shame there’s not an Orthodox English translation….”
Although several Orthodox scholars in this country have begun translations of Scripture, there has been little cooperation among those interested, and the project remains a distant hope. Although many of our faithful are qualified to undertake the task, it remains easier and more practical, at least for the moment, to rely on translations by professional teams that have been organized (and funded) especially by the mainline Protestant churches.
Here I’m sharing with you what I suggested to her: nothing definitive or even particularly helpful; just a few thoughts that might serve as guidelines in the selection of a translation that we feel comfortable with and can make our own.
Multitudes of translations exist, from the venerable King James or Authorized Version of the early 17th century to the Good News Bible of the 20th (which, as I warned my students, is bad news for both Scripture and the English language). There are paraphrases such as the rendering by J.B. Phillips, and literary inventions like the New King James Version (both of which are useful but should be read with other translations). Also useful, but with certain limitations, are the New International Version (the highly popular [and very Protestant—cf., for example, 1 Tim 3:1f; and the “atonement” renderings of hilastêrion in Rom 3:25 and hilasmos in 1 Jn 2:2] NIV) and the Jerusalem Bible (overly dependent on the French original), together with the New (very) English Bible.
Those who still appreciate the beauty (and linguistic challenge) of the 1611 Authorized Version may well appreciate the Third Millennium Bible (TMB), although some of its renderings remain archaic rather than merely “classical” (“Holy Ghost,” “thee/ye” and related personal pronouns referring to persons as well as to God, to “draw nigh,” the “strait gate,” etc.), and I find curious its disdain for the Sinaiticus Codex. But these are personal preferences—which guide the choices of most of us in selecting biblical translations.
The Orthodox Church in America, to my knowledge, is the only jurisdiction in this country that has issued a formal statement forbidding use of the New Revised Standard Version in liturgical services. This was a difficult call to make, especially since the translation committee did all in its power to persuade some of us that it represents a significant improvement over the Revised Standard Version, or RSV, which most of us had been using since its initial publication half a century ago (2nd NT edition, 1972). I felt sympathy for the bishops’ decision, particularly because of a number of unfortunate renderings that seem theologically motivated. The most egregious is perhaps John 1:14. The Greek can be rendered literally “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father…” (capitalizing to make the point that the context refers unambiguously to God, Father and Son). Use of the term monogenês, as in Jn 3:16-17, makes it perfectly clear that the reference in 1:14 is to the Logos, the “Son of God.” The NRSV, however, translates the verse “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son….” (with a note offering “the Father’s only Son” as an alternative). This reading even appears in the “Catholic” version of the NRSV, leading one to wonder just what priorities guided the Catholic biblical commission that achieved an imprimatur for “their” version.
Enough of that polemic. Let me conclude as I did with our curious parishioner. That is, by recommending the Revised Standard Version as the translation that is closest to the Greek while expressed in good, reasonably literary English. This may be hard to find, since in some quarters attempts were made to suppress it in favor of the NRSV. If enough people ask for it, demand it and otherwise insist on its availability, we might nonetheless succeed in getting it back on the shelves of our local bookstores.
Every Orthodox Christian is invited, indeed called, to “peruse the Scriptures daily” (look up that word; it doesn’t mean “skim”). This obligation and this privilege is not restricted to tonsured Readers. The written Word of God can provide for all of us nourishment for our souls and light in the darkness of our daily lives, together with knowledge of and communion with God.
Despite problems of theology and biblical translation with our Protestant brothers and sisters, we have much to learn from them. I remember very well a dear friend, the late wife of a Swiss Reformed Church pastor, who pored over her Bible for an hour every morning, beginning at 6 a.m. Her life of service and devotion to others testified to its impact on her entire being. I remember as well a German Lutheran professor with whom I studied, telling me, with tears in his eyes, of his experience in a Soviet concentration camp during the Second World War. He and fellow Christian prisoners wrote out from memory long passages from the New Testament and Psalms, using bits of charcoal and scraps of toilet paper. Their very life and sanity depended on remembering, reproducing and constantly re-reading the Word of God.
From them, as from the Church Fathers, we can reacquire a love for Scripture and a thirst for the water of life that it offers. Again, we need merely to “take up and read,” with determination, constancy and gratitude to the One who is Himself the very “Word of God.”