Until, say, the 1960’s, there was just about only one translation of the Bible into English that most Anglophone Christians used: the King James Bible (more properly referred to as the “Authorised Version.”) Although newer translations–some derived from the AV, some not, like this one–were out there, it wasn’t until then that lay people in serious numbers began to consider them.
But committees and individual translators were busy, and by 1975, when Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht published their ground breaking study So Many Versions? Twentieth Century English Versions of the Bible they had a lot of ground to cover and versions to review. And they did both well, reviewing the translations in detail and fairly.
Time, translators and committees (to say nothing of publishing houses) haven’t stood still since Kubo and Specht, and the need for such a review–for scholars and bewildered Bible purchasers alike–is still there. The Bible in English Translation: An Essential Guide, written by two professors at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia, is an attempt in one sense to carry on that task. It comes from the “progressive” wing of the Southern Baptist world (as does Bill Leonard, whom the authors cite as an influence) which makes things even more interesting.
The short version of this review? As Lloyd Bentsen Jr. would say, I know Kubo and Specht, and Sheely and Walsh are no Kubo and Specht. The earlier book is an oft cited reference (and one can hear echoes in the text) but this book has deficiencies that carefully considering the earlier one could have avoided.
The book begins with one feature that Kubo and Specht did not have: an overview of how the Bible came into existence. Although it’s not intended as a substitute for a lengthy treatment of the subject, it’s cursory to the point of being inaccurate. Beyond that, it shows a decidedly myopic view of the ancient world that Evangelicals need to get past, especially if they claim the title “progressive.” The most egregious example of this is their explanation of why the Catholic canon of the Old Testament is different. Evidently they are so solicitous to show that only those books in the Jewish canon are inspired that their presentation of Roman Catholicism’s inclusion of the “deuterocanonical” books approaches being intellectually dishonest. (My discussion of this issue is here.)
Past this, they plough into the English translations. And this is where the second weakness of the book comes up. They commendably divide translations into “verbal translations,” “dynamic translations,” and “paraphrases.” The problem is that they list the translations for each category in separate chapters. This not only makes clean divisions out of what are degrees of difference, it also forces the authors to split up different versions of translations that have been revised and, in the course of revision, in their opinion switch categories. This makes for a confusing narrative. It’s a problem that Kubo and Specht for the most part didn’t have to deal with, but Sheely and Nash’s solution leaves a lot to be desired of.
The reviews themselves vary in quality. Those for the dynamic translations and paraphrases tend to be more detailed than the verbal ones. The one review where their professionalism seems to fray at the edge is that of the original Living Bible; evidently the thrill of growing up Baptist in the 1970’s and getting a hold of this is too much to shake off.
At the end some general guidelines for selecting a translation are given. The one item they left out is the general reading level of the text. In addition to the issue of Biblical literacy, the issue of general literacy level–a powerful argument against continuing to insist on the KJV–is one that needs for emphasis, especially considering the quality of modern secondary education.
Sheely and Nash have attempted to give a useful guide in The Bible in English Translation: An Essential Guide. But their subject deserves a better treatment than it gets in this little volume.