Comments on English Versions of the Bible and Study Bibles
Study Bibles seem popular At least, publishers introduce, revise, and re-introduce many editions of them and members of study groups or Sunday school classes to which I belong often have study Bibles with various translations and with commentaries from diverse points-of-view. Barnes and Noble and other book stores display them in large numbers. Some editions seem to me whimsical. Others include commentary by distinguished biblical scholars.
I have worn out several copies of succeeding editions of what is now The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Revised Standard Version, my old favorite study Bible that I first used in 1964 in classes at university. My parents gave me that first copy for Christmas, 1963. Today, I own and refer to several study Bibles, though they are sufficiently expensive that I recommend readers by only one or two study Bibles.
I do believe that study Bibles help me read and better understand scripture, even though I realize that they have limited application simply because the commentators largely have to gloss the texts, even in these large books. Nevertheless, I think that to a degree the annotations and introductions can help readers grasp important aspects of biblical texts. The Bibles are still small enough to take to services, groups, and classes. Sometimes a simple reference can deeply enrich reading a text in a group or class.
Many of the study Bibles I know use critical-historical methods to explore scriptures. Some others combine these with a canonical outlook that takes into account the way churches have historically understood the Bible. Further, other study Bibles interpret scripture from an evangelical viewpoint. I personally enjoy and frequently use Catholic study Bibles that uses a combination of critical-historical study methods with some general attention to Catholic doctrine and to what my mother names the plan of salvation. Members of the Disciple of Christ edited two of the best study Bibles.
As I indicated, all study Bible necessarily have limitations. One criticism as indicated involves limitations of historical-critical readings of scripture. I do not know one that satisfactorily explores my theological concerns though there are study Bibles that use the teachings of the Reformed tradition as a basis for notes.
A couple of study Bibles I use are devotional study Bibles. One The
Spiritual Formation Bible (NRSV), published by the conservative Christian
publisher Zondervan and edited by staff from The Upper Room publishers, uses
traditional ways of reading scripture as part of spiritual formation. Another, The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible (NRSV), edited by Richard Foster does much the same thing but from a slightly different outlook with attention to a broad range of matters that concern Christians. A group of editors and commentators from a broad range of Christian points-of-view produced this helpful devotional Bible.
The texts for most of my study Bibles are the Revised Standard Version, its later revision the New Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, and its later revision the Revised English Bible. These are translations from committees of scholar representatives from major Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations. I very much enjoy reading the Hebrew Bible in the Revised English Bible and I find the Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible (REB) with Apocrypha particularly helpful. The 23 articles in this edition are outstanding in their clarity and range for such short articles.
The first two translations are generally one-to-one word equivalent translations. The second two are thought -to-thought equivalent translations. There are formal or technical names for kinds of translations. Formal equivalent is roughly a word for word translation. Dynamic equivalent is roughly thought for thought. There are also paraphrase translations.
These divisions are not absolute. Translations tend to use all these forms because of difficulties transposing meaning from texts in biblical languages to other languages. Interestingly, early Christians, including the Apostle Paul, used Aramaic and Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.
A Google web search reveals articles about translation and about versions of the Bible. There are also interesting blogs.
No translation is perfect and no Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text is perfect or even original. All translations are in some sense interpretations. There are critics of all translations, including my favorite versions. Many critics offer alternative translations.
Apparently, the best selling modern translation is the New International Version, translated by a committee of conservative Christian scholars, including some Mennonite scholars. This translation is largely a word for word equivalent translation, though some commentators find it a freer translation than the Revised Standard Version and even the New Revised Standard Version. Many critics and
many members of groups and classes in which I take part highly regard the New
International Version. I know the NIV New Testament well. During the eighties, I
used it as my devotional New Testament. I do not know the Old Testament text. Zondervan, publisher of the NIV offers a wide range of study Bibles that use the NIV text. For myself, I find the NIV New Testament has a bias toward millennialism; however, The New Interpreter’s Bible uses it a one of its two texts and the Norton Critical Edition of the Writings of St. Paul also uses the NIV version.
Another excellent conservative translation is the English Standard Version, which the translators model on the Revised Standard Version with certain corrections and revisions they deem important. These often have to do with translating the Old Testament from the Greek Bible that the writers of the New Testament used rather than the received Hebrew text. Some commentators find some of its rendering unnecessarily stilted. The publisher of this translation will introduce a study edition in October 2008. You can sample sections of it online.
Most study Bibles that I know do not use other translations I enjoy reading. An exception is The Jewish Study Bible, edited by Adele Berlin and March Zvi Brettler, and published by Oxford University Press. This study Bible uses the text of the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation. A positive aspect of this commentary is that it is Jewish and does not interpret the text in terms of the New Testament. Sometimes that is helpful even to Christians because it opens new readings to us and it helps us better and more fairly grasp Judaism for itself.
By the way, I enjoy reading the New Living Translation as well as both the Contemporary English Version, and Today’s English Version from the American Bible Society. My brother David gave me my now well worn copy of the CEV several years ago. Elsewhere I have written my take on various study Bibles. I no longer have a single favorite.
One reason that I use the Revised Standard Version, The New Revised Standard, the New English Bible, and the Revised English Version is that they include the Deuterocanonical (second canon) books. After all, they were part of the ancient Greek Bible in use at the time of Jesus and included in the
scriptures of the early church. Most Christian churches included these books in their canons of scripture and even many Protestants have found reading them worthwhile. They do not change doctrines but they do nurture spiritual formation. Some modern translations do not include them.
I do recommend, if you can afford to buy it, a one volume Bible
commentary. The scope of these volumes let the commentaries explore topics,
frequently addressed only in abbreviated ways in study Bibles, with sufficient
depth and range for lay readers. For over forty years, I profitably used an edition of Peake’s Bible Commentary as my single one volume commentary.
There are several excellent one-volume Bible commentaries. I use the most recent of them--The Oxford Bible Commentary, The order in this commentary follows Protestant Bibles, but it includes articles on books included in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. I use this commentary rather than The Jerome Bible Commentary simply because it is more recent and up-to-date.
These one-volume commentaries are expensive but often not much more expensive than a study Bible and usually much less expensive than even one commentaries on an individual book of the Bible. The Baton Rouge Public Library offers all of these translations, study Bibles, and commentaries as well as major commentary series such as the Anchor Bible Commentaries.
In addition, I own a copy of The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, edited by several distinguished scholars and published by Cambridge University Press. The text of this work is lucid, the format easy to use, and the commentary scholarly and up-to-date. The bibliographies are evocative and valuable guides to further reading and study.
Study Bibles help me in my studies in small groups, classes, and in private study as well as even in my private devotions. Take a look at some of them the next time you are in the bookstore or library. There are many excellent choices.