Every new bible translation adopts a particular ‘style’ or ‘feel’ to its English. For the sake of consistency, translation committees are forced during their work to make many stylistic decisions that will affect how the English will read. These decisions are compounded by the very nature of their work–translation–where a mechanical word-for-word translation of each individual word from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek into English would result in an almost nonsensical translation that read more like a monologue from Yoda than any form of written or spoken English.
Now, when comparing bible translations, people tend to speak of formal vs dynamic equivalence. I am not a fan of discussing bible translations in terms of equivalence because I honestly believe these comparisons are 1) misleading because no translation (bible or not) from one language to another truly presents a consistent word-for-word translation, as anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you and 2) often used pejoratively to discuss why other translations fall short of the one being touted. More than this, these comparisons are both relative (i.e., there is no standard by which to measure equivalency) and, as a result, subjective (i.e., even the most well-intended comparison is ultimately done at the whim of the individual making the rankings). There are better ways to compare and evaluate translations.
With that pet peeve in mind, let’s ask what sort of style did the Holman Christian Standard Bible adopt? Here are a few of the general, stylistic choices the HCSB made that I think are right on the money…
‘Messiah’ vs ‘Christ’
Hopefully this doesn’t burst anyone’s theological bubble, but Christ is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. In other words, they are synonyms, even though we tend not to think of them that way. We tend to think of Messiah in only Old Testament terms and Christ in only New Testament terms–wrongly creating a distinction without a difference.
How does the HCSB handle this? It does not simply translate the Greek word ‘christos’ as either Christ or Messiah, but chooses how to translate it based on the larger context with a footnote at the first use in any chapter reminding readers why. Based on the explanation in the footnote, ‘christos’ used in a Jewish context is typically translated Messiah, whereas in a Gentile context it is translated Christ. The best place to see this is the multiple speeches in the book of Acts. One could probably find specific instances that fail to abide by the general rule–I have not taken the time to look at every single occurrence–but overall the decision so translate ‘christos’ in this fashion is both a helpful and accurate choice.
Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
– Acts 5.42, HCSB
‘Instruction’ vs ‘Law’
English translations traditionally translate the Hebrew word ‘torah’ as law. Presumably, this is done because the oldest Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) translated it this way. The problem is that ‘law’ is not the best way to understand ‘torah,’ especially in Western society, where ‘law’ typically has a very cold, antiseptic connotation. As the Dictionary of New Testament Background points out, “The word Torah is derived from the Hebrew [word] meaning ‘to guide’ or ‘to teach’ …as in Exodus 35:34 and Leviticus 10:11. Thus the more precise meaning of the noun would be ‘teaching’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law.'”
The HCSB breaks with the traditional translation of ‘torah’ as ‘law’ and instead rightly translates it ‘instruction.’ Though non-traditional, it is a superior translation.
How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the Lord’s instruction!
– Psalm 119.1, HCSB
‘Yahweh’ vs ‘LORD’
As mentioned previously, one of the innovations the HCSB translators made was to translate the Hebrew name YHWH into English as the Yahweh. Typically, English bibles translate the tetragrammaton as LORD in all caps or small caps, a tradition that goes back to the style chosen by the KJV translators over 400 years ago. The 1901 American Standard Version consistently translated YHWH as Jehovah, a translation now almost universally understood to be an incorrect rendering of the Hebrew. The 1985 Roman Catholic New Jerusalem Bible translates YHWH as Yahweh throughout the Old Testament.
Recognizing that YHWH is a proper name, the HCSB translators decided to take a non-traditional route and translate YHWH as Yahweh, though not consistently or evenly. I shall go into more detail about this inconsistency in future posts, but needless to say translating YHWH as Yahweh vs LORD is a huge and welcome change. At the very least, when we read Yahweh, we instantly recognize that we are not reading about some ancient, nameless God. At its finest, this translation style makes some passages go from nonsensical to wonderfully vivid. For example, here how Moses and Aaron’s exchange with Pharaoh in the beginning of Exodus 5 is traditionally rendered:
Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. ‘” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.”
– Exodus 5.1-2, ESV
This sounds well and good, but Pharaoh definitely would have known who the Lord was, that is who was God. In Ancient Egypt he, Pharaoh, was god! This dialogue only becomes transparent and makes sense when we recognize that what we have traditionally (and wrongly) read as LORD is actually the proper name of the God is Israel.
Later, Moses and Aaron went in and said to Pharaoh, “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says: Let My people go, so that they may hold a festival for Me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh responded, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey Him by letting Israel go? I do not know anything about Yahweh, and besides, I will not let Israel go.”
– Exodus 5.1-2, HCSB
Read with Yahweh instead of LORD, this exchange makes complete sense. Pharaoh had no idea who Yahweh was…just another god of one the nations around him, who he did not feel compelled to obey or worship.
Each of these stylistic choices goes against the grain of the traditional English bible translation begun by the venerable KJV. While we should not easily dismiss church tradition for the novel and ‘better,’ we must recognize that our knowledge of ancient languages is always improving even while our own language is always evolving…two realities that require us to not become slaves to our translation traditions, especially when there are truly better ways to render the word of God into contemporary English.
photo credit: Creative Commons | Markus Mayer via Compfight