Quick bit of obvious advice today: Don’t rely on a single translation of the Bible when you’re doing some serious Bible study. Today I was preparing a sermon on John 1:19-34. And, because I’ve been learning New Testament Greek over the last couple of years, I feel like I needed to get my money’s worth by looking at the passage in Greek first.
Anyway, as I was looking at the text and reading the commentaries I noticed that I actually preferred the NIV reading of the text over the ESV. This may not sound like much, but the ESV is often held up as a good example of a ‘literal’ translation for serious study as opposed to the NIV (which is a ‘dynamic equivalence’ translation – i.e. it’s less ‘literal’ but is designed more to convey the sense of the original language). I think many people who move in evangelical circles in the UK hold up the ESV as an example of a good, faithful translation – while the NIV seems to have moved a little bit out of favour.
But I think there are a couple of examples where the NIV gets it right over the ESV in this passage. Firstly, v24 is treated differently in both translations. The ESV translates it as a paranthetical remark, whereas the NIV links it more explictly with the clause in v25. What’s interesting is that in his commentary, Carson goes for a translation more like the NIV’s – and I think I agree with him. It does seem to make more sense to me: the Greek grammar is a bit unusual here but I think the NIV translation is probably preferable.
Secondly, the ESV – again, bearing in mind that its major selling point is that it is a literal translation – makes an unusual translation decision between v19 and v34. Here, two Greek words (μαρτυρία and μεμαρτύρηκα) which stem from the same root martyr- (where we get the English word from, and meaning something like ‘testify’ or ‘witness’) are translated differently. v19 has ‘testimony’ and v34 ‘borne witness’. I think that’s an interesting decision: although conceptually the link is there, verbally it has been obscured a little. This is significant because I think the whole passage is talking about testimony, using several different words, and it seems those two words form the bookends around a little section in John. The NIV goes for ‘testimony’ and ‘testify’, which I think maintains the verbal link better as well as the conceptual.
So, as I said: don’t think one translation is always right. If you’re leading a home group or preparing a sermon or generally trying to understand a Bible passage, it’s always worth at least checking in a few translations to see if it brings something out you might not have spotted otherwise.