Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Best Bible (you never heard of)

Many Saints don't really have a firm opinion about which English Bible translation is their best. I would even guess that most are confused on why there is a huge variety of versions.  When it is the goal to know what God says to us today--no single English translation gets it completely--we will be more likely to understand the truest meaning of the text by checking several readings and renderings. I am often found with several open Bibles on my desk, scattered about an open laptop with a few more versions tabbed in esword (Windows) or xiphos (Linux).  (I presently own around 30 bound Bibles along with many more on the computer; of these there are over two dozen different translations. This is not an addiction problem for me...well, OK, it may be a slight addiction trafficking in $100-plus Bibles--they really hold their value though and some are amazingly enjoyable!)

I realize that most people are not collecting Bible versions. So when I ask folks their preference, from my experience, people tend to gravitate to the NIV; it is the most common, readable version around for the last two or three decades. If people are really cutting edge, they might carry an ESV or the NASB--these are thought of as the most literal (and are). There are many people at my church that use what our Pastor prefers--the NLT--and I see a lot of the very-literal NKJV too. In Mainline Protestant churches, the NRSV (a somewhat-liberal and 'gender-neutral' version) is common.

 Today, I would like to introduce a version that, for the average reader, far surpasses any of these for use as a General Purpose Bible, in my humble opinion.

Released in 2004, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB, or from here, the hCSB) is a brand new translation from the original languages. The scholar who started on it, the late Art Farstad, wanted to name it Tyndale21 or Logos21, in allusion to the modernity of the scholarship in the 21st Century (if you want to read about this, here is a great interview with the General Editor of the hCSB). Published and owned by Broadman and Holman Publishers, this translation is gaining popularity in spite of it being (mis-)labeled as a Southern Baptist denominational edition.

Surprisingly, most Christians have never heard about this version, though it has never really enjoyed the sheer marketing power that two other recent translations, the ESV and NLT, receive. The first thing about this Bible to understand is that it is not rooted in any past tradition, i.e. the Tyndale-King James line; it is a fresh new version with no limits. This is not to say the translators took translation risks--it is a conservative, gender-accurate, highly reverent gift to the English speaking world. *Note: for a free download of this book on the 'gender-neutral' controversy, click here.* To me, however, the most important aspect of this Bible is that it is actually MORE accurate than the most literal versions mentioned above, while reading smooth and easy like the NIV.

Now, I suppose I need to explain that last sentence. While the hCSB is not translated word-for-word like the NASB, ESV, or NKJV Bibles (i.e. Formal Equivalence), it is also not translated thought-for-thought like the NLT or NIV/TNIV (i.e. Functional, or Dynamic Equivalence) either. Rather, the editors coined the term 'Optimal Equivalence' that, for our purposes here, simply means that it is word-for-word except when the original languages are deemed to need clarity in English. I have found that this Bible reads as precisely as any other but is easier to understand. It is among the few that truly communicates John 3:16 as perfectly as English allows. It also chooses the word 'slave' rather than 'bondservant' or 'servant', e.g. Romans 1:1 which really presents the idea better; a slave doesn't literally get paid like a servant. Another feature of accuracy is that where the KJV, NKJV, and NASB (properly I think) include italics when translators added clarifying words to the text, the hCSB uses half brackets. The ESV doesn't note which words are not in the original languages; neither do the Dynamic Equivalent translations.

As alluded to prior, the hCSB doesn't come from the King James Version line of Bibles which, in order, includes: KJV (1611, 1750), RV (1885), ASV (1901), RSV (1952), NASB (1977), NKJV (1982), NASB-updated (1995), ESV (2001) These essentially retain similar word order and choice of phraseology and, though not necessarily bad, is usually the Bible language that people associate with Holy Scripture. But I might suggest that the shackles of traditions unnecessarily create difficulties when just trying to read the Bible as Story. This alone is why I think the NIV has been so popular and why the NLT is gaining popularity today. However, Where the hCSB surpasses the more literal versions is at this point: while the word order and idea structure to the King James-line is essentially unchanged for 400 years, scholarship has. I have repeatedly been refreshed reading the hCSB and received keener insight to the Holy Word that I never got from old favorites like the NKJV and ESV (though the later enjoys modern scholarship, too). I can even find these to be somewhat torturing to read now; they are just too stylized and archaic for my liking (though I am a purist and originally chose them for their Formal Equivalence). I still, however, really enjoy the uber-literal NASB, though. Weird, huh?

I will say, however, there are some rather odd readings and word choices when translators are seeking to create a fresh, honest, and accurate English Bible. For example, 'Deluge' is chosen in the story of Noah instead of flood. Psalm 23 is going to sound a little foreign to those who prefer the King James tradition (though it more accurately renders the text). The most, well, annoying reading I have found is in Ephesians 2:2 where the hCSB chooses "ruler of the atmospheric domain" where the ESV picks "prince of the power of the air."  To the ESV's credit, I prefer it when reading the Psalms, though this may be a function of the familiarity of the King James line. Additionally, one problem of sorts is that the hCSB uses capitalizations when referring to Persons of the Trinity; this is not necessarily flawed but it does stray ever close to my problems with Dynamic Equivalence as I am concerned that philosophy is inherently interpretive and theologically subjective.

Now, I am guessing that for readers of the NLT, a switch to the hCSB would be going from something really, really readable to something structured (less so for the NLTse) and these folks may not be comfortable with some renderings. (Here I will repeat that any thought-for-thought Bible--by definition--makes commentary within the translation; I feel that for this reason alone the hCSB is to be preferred over the NLT). Sitting in church, though, I find it encouraging when the Pastor, reading from the NLT and having studied the text for the last week, quotes where the NLT is mistaken and when I look down, the hCSB renders it precisely as he explained.

For those who read the NIV/TNIV, the hCSB will often seem similar though it has an advantage of two decades of scholarship (besides the gender-neutral thing, from which the NLT suffers as well). I note that education is sometimes a good thing--our Lord spent 40 days training the disciples following a certain Empty Tomb.  Suffice it to say that all English versions are not the original Oracles of God. Overall, with very few exceptions, I submit that the hCSB gets the Bible right.

Also of note, the hCSB includes some of the most helpful and extensive footnotes in English Bibles. They include places where, for instance, the text poses problems and lists alternate readings at the bottom of the page--this will help clarity as well as credibility. Footnotes will also give the alternate literal text as Lit. when it has been radically modified for clarity. Further, the hCSB includes Bullet Notes that points the reader to a section in the back with a large list of defined words. Included in these Bullet Notes are words like Hosanna, atonement, Sheol, cherubim, denarius, ephod, Pharisees, Sadduccees, as well as some important characters like Mary Magdelene, Herod (all three of them), Agrippa I & II, Rahab. Bullet Notes is a helpful feature included in nearly all of the hCSB editions. Propitiation and Redemption are to be added to the list in coming editions; I find this encouraging that they seek to expand helps.

Moreover, I have noticed that the construction of the editions released by Broadman and Holman are better than most. For anyone who actually opens and studies the Bible, the typical bound copies on the market today are glued and they will fall apart within a year or two. Most of the hCSB editions come with a sewn binding that is designed to be opened and used. For most readers who don't wish to spend upwards of $50 for a well-made Bible, I recently picked up a large print hCSB with a bonded leather cover and sewn binding for 14 bucks. I gave it to my Uncle and Aunt the other day; they were blessed by it.

I am not seeking to be a hCSB evangelist (though if BHPubs see this, I would love a 'review' edition of the new 2009 Minister's Bible, *wink-wink*). I don't really care which Bible people use, as long as they are reading it on a regular basis (OK--I do care and would council against you who pick up a New World Translation (Jehovah's Witnesses) or Joseph Smith Jr's. Inspired Version (Mormons)). I have, however, seen my whole family move to this version. I have seen my dear wife choose an hCSB I leave around over her beloved NIV Study Bible, and with her experience I am again assured that it is a fine Bible translation. I realize that most are not like me in their zeal for Bible versions and probably don't have a Bible handy in every room of the house and in the car, truck, and coat pocket (Why not? you may need one!), but when I find something that is quality, I want to tell people about it.

God Bless your journey!!!

Some links:

*note: the reason that the 'h' in hCSB is small is from copyright issue that the publishers encountered. There is already a CSB, though not a Bible but a publishing group, and they didn't wish the name to be used. In this interview, the Gen. Ed. believes that one day it will be simply known as the CSB.


  1. I found you on the Bible Design Blog Facebook page and enjoyed reading your Facebook profile, so I thought I'd come check your blog.

    Thanks for the good write-up on the hCSB. I don't yet have one, but would like to have one open while I study from the ESV and NASB. As far as reading, I really like the ESV. I was a NASB user for years and years, and the ESV seems to be far from archaic! However, I know it's all relative. Once I start reading the hCSB, I'll probably think otherwise.

    One of the challenges for me, though, in using the hCSB for simply reading, would be all those alternative readings. I have a hard time ignoring the notes and just reading through the story. Though the alternative readings and notes are a plus, they can also be a hindrance.

  2. Joe: Thanks so much for stopping by!

    Theologically, I was predisposed to hear some popular personalities push the ESV. I read it for years, but then heard Dr. James White mention the hCSB one day and picked up a copy. I, like you will, used it for reference for quite a while until I began to prefer it. I decided to give it a try exclusively and found that when reading long sections it was less fatiguing, for lack of a better word, then the ESV.

    I don't really get hung up on the footnotes. I notice them if studying, of course, but when just reading for Story I usually don't check them. And my review makes it seem like there are, like, dozens on each page; it really isn't too overwhelming at all.
    *I edited the post to be more subtle about footnotes.*

    Another feature I personally really like that I didn't mention is that OT passages in the NT are bold and block indented. I find this helps me retain these concepts and brings the whole Bible together nicely. I suspect, however, that some might not like this.

    Along this line, it really did take me a while to get used to some unique formatting features that the hCSB uses that we don't routinely see in other Bibles. But now using it for over a year, I find these formatting helps are intuitive to comprehension.

    Peace and grace.


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