Orthodox America

Which Translation Should I Use?  

    The Church calendar gives readings from Scripture (Old Testament readings, the four Gospels, the Epistles) for every day of the year. This is a minimum expected of all Orthodox Christians. St. Seraphim of Sarov made it a rule to read the entire New Testament each week, in addition to the other appointed readings for the liturgical cycle. While this schedule lies far beyond the capabilities of the average layman--or even monastic, most spiritual fathers today would urge those in their care to read the Scriptures more extensively, particularly the New Testament, knowing the great spiritual benefit to be gained from such a discipline.

     For us in the English language, the question naturally arises: which of the many available translations should one use? The Orthodox Church has made no definite statements on this question which has largely been left to the discretion of the local priest or even the individual layman. The problem here is that most of the faithful are quite ignorant about the difficulties and dangers of translation. And those priests not well acquainted with English might themselves experience some confusion about this, not knowing the history of biblical translations in the English language. Meanwhile, the growing number of these translations--some of them very poor and even blasphemous--makes imperative the need for some vigorous recommendations on this subject from those in authority.

     The difficulty is that there simply does not exist an approved Orthodox translation of the Scriptures in their entirety in the English language, although an excellent translation of the Psalter [1] from the Greek Septuagint is today in widespread use wherever divine services are conducted in English in whole or in part, in many different jurisdictions. With this exception, English speaking orthodox must rely on non-Orthodox translations, and the question remains: which of these translations is preferable? Given the absence of any authoritative guidelines, what follows--aside from statements of fact about the mind of the Church concerning Holy Scripture, and the history of translation--is not "official" in any sense, but only represents my own thinking, based upon my own experience.

    In examining this subject we must understand that the Orthodox Church regards as divinely inspired only the Greek Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. [2] Not even the Slavonic, as holy and theologically precise a language as it is, can be ranked on the same level as the Greek Scriptures. Translations are still translations. They are not, and can never be themselves the revealed word of God. But since very few people today have a reading knowledge of biblical Greek, the overwhelming majority of Christians the world over are dependent on translated versions of God's word. And this carries some inherent problems, Translation is not just copying, but it is the difficult art of studying the numerous copies available and trying to select the best way of translating into English the-best of these copies. And it is not enough to be a proficient--or even brilliant--Greek scholar to produce a good translation. If a translation is to serve any useful purpose at all and not lead one astray, it must 1) be as faithful as possible to the original language and, 2) reflect the mind of the Church, which is the mind of the Holy Fathers: those who lived in thought, word and deed the theological content of Holy Scripture. The old Slavonic translations fulfill these two requirements inasmuch as the venerable translators, being of Orthodox faith and living fully and completely an Orthodox way of life, indeed possessed the mind of the Holy Fathers. But what about the English translations available today? Before answering this question we must briefly review the history of the Greek texts and their translations into English. 

The four Evangelists 

    The Greek text of Scripture (both Testaments) comes to us from a collection of about 5200 manuscripts. Many of these are only fragments, but at least 80 date back to the second century and earlier. For the first thousand years the Eastern Orthodox Church knew only these Greek texts. [3] We can rightly call these Greek manuscripts the Orthodox Text, although Western scholars today refer to them trove vaguely as the "Received Text." After 1453, when Byzantine scholars fled to the West, the Orthodox Text became an object of much interest and study in western Christendom, particularly at the time of the Reformation, when Protestant scholars wished to render "Holy Writ" in the common languages of the people. Thus, a Greek New Testament (the Orthodox Text) was printed by Erasmus in 1516, and a disciple of John Calvin printed another edition in 1598. It was this particular edition that became the basis of the justly famous English language "King James version of 1611."

    The King James was not the first English translation of the Bible. In fact, almost a dozen major translations had appeared in England before it was published. They include the Wycliffe Bible (c. 1380) translated from Latin, the Tyndale Bible (1526), the Coverdale Bible (1535), Cranmer's "Great Bible"—so called because of its size (1539), the Geneva Bible--financed and annotated by the Calvinists of Geneva (1560), and the Bishop's Bible (1568). As a note of interest we might add that although the Pilgrims came to America some time after the King James Version was published, they chose not to bring that particular translation with them because they did not like either King James himself or what they regarded as a"newfangled" translation. They preferred the more traditional Geneva Bible.

      But gradually the King James Version outdistanced all the other English translations in popularity. And with good reason. Many object that the language of the King James version is too difficult, too "archaic", too formal. It is, of course, the language of Shakespeare, the language of poetry which has, unfortunately, become foreign to most people in our modern culture. But the King James Version offers to Holy Scripture the finest the English language has ever produced. It is incomparable for it is lofty and rich, and above the everyday language of modern man. The English of this version maintains the proper reverence, the right "distance" between creature and Creator, between man and God. Modern English has lost this distinction, so essential to Orthodox spirituality. In the King James translation, language has been elevated to the highest spheres, where it serves an invisible reality rather than the mundane reality of the everyday world.

     As much as the King James is to be commended, one must be aware that the translators had a definitely Protestant outlook on the work at hand. The Preface to the first printing in 1611 gives their philosophy: "In what part did these assemble? In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of wit, or deepness of judgment? At no hand. They trusted in Him that hath the Key of David, opening and no man shutting, they prayed to the Lord, O let Thy Scriptures be my pure delight; let me not be deceived in them, neither let me deceive by them. In this confidence and with this devotion did they assemble together." We can see from this that although undoubtedly sincere and even pious in their own way, these translators were not concerned with the testimony of the Church, Of the Holy Fathers about Scripture, but asked God for direct enlightenment--a reflection of their Reformation bias.

      This element of bias is a problem common to all translations, in a greater or lesser degree, and an awareness of this problem is critical to any attempt at evaluating them. Translation, as we have said, is not a mechanical science. It stands to reason that if there were only one way to translate a given word or phrase there would only be one translation of the Bible, not the plethora we see in our bookstores today. Among the sectarians (Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) there are actually quite astounding and blasphemous so-called translations, which are necessary to sustain the age-old heresies of their particular group. Among respectable biblical scholars it is seldom that a translator would intentionally skew his work to support his own particular theological view. But a different sort of bias can exist when a translator who is accustomed to understand the meaning of a passage in a particular way may not have considered alternative interpretations. This danger 'is particularly great when a translation has been produced by a single scholar.

    A prime example of bias at its worst is Martin Luther. Having divorced himself from the authority of Holy Tradition, Luther declared that the only source and guide of faith lay in the Holy Scriptures; "Sola Scriptura" became the rallying cry of the Reformation. Disregarding the fact that the Sacred Scriptures had been collected by the Orthodox Church, belonged to this Church in her historical, apostolic succession and could only be correctly understood within this context, these Protestant Reformers believed that individuals have a right to interpret the Bible as they read it. Luther therefore felt justified in leaving out whole sections, or books of the Old Testament because they contained doctrines and teachings that did not agree with his own personal religious convictions. To this day, Protestant translations lack 14 books, called the Apocrypha, contained in the Septuagint and sealed by the Lord Himself as part of the Old Testament canon. (Only Orthodox and Roman Catholics have retained them.) Luther also made bold to reject the epistle of St. James because it seemed to deny his interpretation of justification by faith. Such is the pride with which many translators approach these most holy of all sacred writings.

    As the modern world moves ever further away from the Christian ideal and leans to its own understanding, we cannot expect much improvement in the accuracy of biblical translation, despite new discoveries of ancient texts. Many modern scholars and translators believe the Bible to be like any other book from antiquity, one that has been expanded, shortened, changed, and gradually filled with copyists errors, and therefore in need of careful "analysis" and "restoration." Some paraphrase or reword the text, thinking to make it more easily understood by the modern reader. However sincere the attempt, it is bound to reflect the translators' bias. The general absence of the fear of God in the world today, the predominantly casual attitude towards life, the spiritual immaturity of most Christians--all this has dramatically increased the bias of most recent translations.

    The earliest of the newer major translations still being bought in significant numbers is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), first published in 1952. Most Evangelical Protestants are not happy with it because of the liberal views and leftist politics of the National Council of Churches which sponsored the translation. Although it retains some of the flavor of the Authorized Version (KJV), it is less lit oral and more given to paraphrase than the older versions from which it is derived. For example: "He took not on Him the nature of angels" (Heb. 2:16) reads "It is not with angels that He is concerned.'

     The Living Bible is popular today because it reads very easily. But, as its subtitle 'The Paraphrased Epistles' accurately implies, it is more of an interpretation than a translation. First published in 1962, it was an attempt by one man, Kenneth Taylor, to put the Bible into language that his own children could understand. His interpretive comments, reflecting his doctrinal views, are not limited to the footnotes but also appear in the text. Hebrews 13:10 reads: "We have an altar --.the cross where Christ was sacrificed."

     The J.B. Phillips is another example of a popular translation authored by one man. Its appeal lies in its very vivid and idiomatic language which modern readers find comfortable. As the author' s preface indicates, his approach is highly subjective, giving the text a dangerously strong bias. "I tried to imagine myself as each of the New Testament authors, writing his particular message for the people of today.” The simplified language distinctly bears the stamp of Phillips' personal interpretation or "feeling" for the text: "The Son of Man came eating and drinking" (Matt. 11:19) reads "The Son of Man came enjoying life." Like the Living Bible, this version is a paraphrase rather than a translation and should be avoided.

    The first British Bible to break completely with the King James tradition was the New English Bible (NEB). The effort here (1910) was to produce a translation that would be both accurate and beautiful. Although many Americans object to its aristocratic tone, a far more serious charge may be made with regard to the liberties taken with the text itself--showing that while a greater number of translators working together may reduce the degree of bias, it does not insure its elimination. To cite one example, Matthew 16:18 is rendered: "You are Peter the Rock, and on this rock I will build my church" The unwarranted addition of "the Rock" only spell s out the erroneous Roman interpretation used to justify the papal claims.

Listen, I entreat you, all that are careful for the Christian life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul. If you will not get any others, get at least the New Testament, the Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels for your constant teachers. If grief befalls you, dive into them as into a chest of medicine, and take comfort from them in your troubles, be it loss, or death, or bereavement… or rather do not just dive into them, but take them wholly into yourself, keep them in your mind. For this is the cause of all evils; not knowing the Scriptures.  St. John Chrysostom

     The Good News Bible (GNB), first published in 1976 and also known as "Today's English Version," has sold over 65 million copies of the New Testament alone. It is what is called a "dynamic equivalence translation "--an attempt to linguistically adapt the meaning of the biblical text to its contemporary American equivalent. Since language is an expression of culture, we should not be surprised by the democratic tone of familiarity in the GNB which grew out of--and now helps support-the same Christian experience which has manufactured T-shirts and bumper stickers advertising ' Jesus loves you.' Although one may sympathize with the desire to make the word of God more widely accessible, the casual tone of the GNB--more pronounced than either the Phillips or Living Bible--portrays Christ more as man's best friend than as God Who is to be worshipped "in fear and trembling." This emphasis is directly related to the American dream of 'Christianity with comfort' which, as Fr. Seraphim so often pointed out, is spiritually devastating. True, given the insecurity of today's world we need to be assured of Christ's love, but not at the expense of diminishing the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.

    Before concluding, we should mention two other versions of the Bible, both of which have created storms of controversy. The first is the Reader's Digest Bible (1982), specially designed for today's generations of non-readers. Although alterations, based on the RSV, were not major, the trimming left 50% of the Old Testament and 25% of the New Testament on the cutting room floor, including the passage from the Apocalypse: "If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life." The second version is a fulfillment of a typically American option: ‘Have it your way.’ Feminists, long outraged by what they perceive as ‘male bias’ in the Bible, now have it ‘their way’, compliments of the NCC which in 1983 produced An Inclusive Language Lectionary, a list of 209 Scriptural passages stripped of male gender references to God--including pronouns. Not only is it theologically in left field (with the goats), it is also ludicrous: John 3:16 becomes "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child..,"

      We have deliberately chosen these examples to illustrate our point concerning the problems--and even dangers--of scriptural translation. But with the exception of such plainly adulterated versions as that last mentioned, translations, just because they are flawed, should not be dismissed as some kind of heretical writings. It may be that a spiritual father would suggest one of the more easy-to-read translations to someone having great difficulty with the King James. (Such recommendations, however, should be limited to private use and not used for reading in church.) Without diminishing the importance of the issue, we might add that the question 'which translation' is more critical for a Protestant than for an Orthodox believer whose understanding of the Scriptures is guarded by Holy Tradition.

       I routinely ask my spiritual children to use the King James Version. Although it does reflect the Protestant mentality of its translators, this element is in most instances less intrusive, less offensive, to the Orthodox Christian than in other translations. It does not, traditionally, contain the Apocrypha, but in recent years the American Bible Society has published an excellent edition of the 1611 KJV with the Apocrypha, thus meeting the needs and respecting the wishes of English-language Orthodox Christians. (A 1611 version of the Orthodox Altar Gospel has also been made available in recent times, arranged according to the traditional Orthodox numbering.) There is no reason, therefore, not to make use of the very best English translation.

     Beautiful language, although sometimes difficult to comprehend with the mind, still speaks to the heart and the soul. Therefore, to those whose education or cultural background make it difficult to easily understand the King James, I suggest: make the sacrifice of your time and energy to master this wonderfully rich kind of English. You will not regret it. The whole process of learning will have a deepening and refining effect on you-which is an essential aspect of spiritual development. One hopes, of course, that an Orthodox translation will someday be available, one that will be both theologically accurate, reflecting completely the mind of the Fathers, are the very best English, the most noble, the most powerful that can be found, an English that will stir the depth s of the heart in the way the King James translation can still do today, nearly four hundred years after its appearance.

Fr. Alexey Young


    "If you read worldly magazines and newspapers, and derive some profit from 'them, as a citizen, a Christian, and a member of a family, then you ought still more and still oftener to read the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; for it would be sinful for a Christian who reads worldly writings not to read divinely inspired ones. If you follow the events of the outer world, do not lose sight of your inner world, your own soul besides; it is nearest and dearest to you...  St. John of Kronstadt


[1] Published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in 1974.

[2] Although the Hebrew text of the Old Testament predates the Greek translation of the 3rd century BC, all four Evangelists cite not from the Hebrew but from the Greek – called the Septuagint version.

[3] Latin-speaking Christians of the West had St. Jerome's 4th century translation called the "Vulgate," used as the basis for the first Roman Catholic translation into English in the 16th century, known as the Douay-Rheims – which lies outside the scope of our study. 

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