Why the NASB?
December 01, 2021
Here's a bit of a longer piece . . .
At the end of 2020, I switched from using the King James Version to the New American Standard Bible (1995); I had used the KJV from my elementary years until I was 27 years old, and, more incredibly, I used a certain, leather-bound copy of the KJV for 6 years (from when I was 21 until 27) and really struggled with the thought of switching to a new Bible, with a new font, with a new arrangement of text placement and especially with the thought of having none of my notes in the margins. As I'll mention shortly, switching to the NASB wasn't difficult because of switching translations – I had already become “sold” on the NASB before I made the switch – but it was a slow process because I had become attached to my specific copy of the KJV in a personal way. I knew that switching Bibles would bring certain (odd) new challenges of unfamiliarity; but, while I resent change, sometimes, it is inevitable. So, here I am, now, using the NASB (1995).
But, of course, once I started reading from the NASB and incorporating it into public use – I had been using it privately for about 2 years – questions and comments started coming in. More than one person asked, “What translation are you using?” and others, not so kind, insulted both my intelligence and agenda for Christianity. (I must add, here, that a discussion with one older lady – I'd like to think that I was being very loving and “Christian” about it?! – led to her explicit, heated statement of “I ought to jack you in the jaw.” Hmm . . . the KJV – like my NASB – still says, “Love your neighbor . . .” Maybe, our Bible translations shouldn't be our biggest concerns just yet. It seems that some of the staunch KJV advocates might want to put their Christianity in check before insisting that the fellow that is carrying the NASB is a “liberal” and “rank” before God.) But, the question remains, “So, why does Drew Leonard now use the NASB?”
Here, I'd like to break the remainder of the article into 3 sections: 1) the big reasons, 2) smaller reasons and 3) a comparison to the KJV and a few other translations.
Let me give you the more weighty reasons, for me, that have led me to using the NASB. First, go ahead and type “most literal Bible translation” or “most accurate Bible translation” into Google and see what you come up with. Consistently, you're going to find that the NASB holds the honor. For whatever reasons, the NASB has come to hold the reputation of being the most literal translation or most accurate translation from the ancient (Greek; Hebrew; Aramaic) texts. Now, you have a right to question the scholarship and the translation committee of the NASB, but I simply see no reason to do such here. After all, I have no real credentials in translating Hebrew or Greek, so most of my knowledge is “secondary” anyway. Why, if you had told me that the KJV, ESV, ASV or NKJV or something else were the most “literal” or “accurate” translation of the Bible – before the status was awarded to the NASB – I'd not have debated it for a moment. I'd have thought, “Well, I suppose that's probably right.” So, if you're using another translation, I'd at least ask, “Is it the most literal or accurate to the original texts?” But, this leads to another similar point . . .
Second, the NASB uses an “eclectic” method for providing us with a translation. In other words, the NASB gathers a wide variety of sources (manuscripts) and reassembles the “final” text of the Bible for us based on a wide assessment of those sources. (This is based on the most recent, up-to-date Greek text, the Nestle-Aland text, which is now in its 28th edition, which also includes footnotes where questions about the manuscripts might still arise.) You'd need to do a little more reading on “textual criticism” if you're unfamiliar, but basically, after the “original texts” (of Paul, Peter or whoever) were written, the “copies” (manuscripts) were then made, which now total somewhere around 6,000 found Greek manuscripts, I'm told. A few scholars, Westcott and Hort, 19th century scholars at Cambridge, were able to trace those later manuscripts back to earlier “traditions” and found that there were four streams or text families; every “copy” belonged to one of four “streams” and could be traced to one of the four by evidences within the manuscripts. (Later texts that had a misspelling, in a certain place – for instance – if matched with earlier texts that had precisely the same misspelling, could easily be recognized to “owe” the mistake to the earlier text from which the later text was being copied.) So, by assessing both the 1) earliest and 2) most numerous “readings” of the manuscripts, the Greek text and thus the NASB have assembled a more “critical” reading and have “weeded out” more instances where the text might have been more questionable (and thus translated/handled poorly in other versions).
This isn't an article on textual criticism or to make one question the accuracy of the text, but I'll just hang this out there anyway: even radically-liberal scholars, like Bart Ehrman, attest that the New Testament hasn't been changed in any of its Christian doctrine, and others, like, Westcott and Hort, said that 98.33% of the New Testament was unchanged or unquestionable. In other words, only 1.66% of the Greek New Testament is even still worthy of being “debated” in light of the manuscript evidence. But, one more thing is this: James White reminds us that the correct “reading” is still in the manuscripts, in the cases that there are “scribal errors” within the collection of manuscripts, and so, he tells us that it's like having 102 pieces of a 100 piece puzzle – it's not that we're missing pieces, but we're attempting to weed out the few pieces that don't belong. In other words, while the manuscripts might diverge from each other, the methodological approach of the critical Greek New Testament and thus the NASB are set up to approach these minor, scribal or manuscript differences better than some of the other translations.
And, another point along this line is that the NASB has incorporated the use of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in the late 1940's. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, our oldest text for our Old Testaments was the Leningrad Codex, which was from the 10th century A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls predated that manuscript by nearly 1,000 years. So, the point is that by incorporating other, earlier texts like forms of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, we get even closer to an original reading of the biblical text. As implied, any Bible translation that was made before 1947, then, cannot have used the Dead Sea Scrolls. So, also by implication, translations, like the NASB, that post-date the findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls are able to incorporate earlier readings which are closer to the original texts than translations that were unable to use such materials, having only later manuscripts, like the Leningrad Codex. This hardly means that the earlier translations are inaccurate or flawed; it actually shows that the copyists of the Old Testament were remarkably precise – nearly 1,000 years had passed and the biblical text was substantially the same! But, for a critical reader, getting as close to the original texts of the Bible is always a good thing. The NASB, as an English text, might help serve this purpose better than some of the others, I think.
Third, one of the big, personal reasons that I switched was because of consistency in translation. I was finding that some of the other translations were very poor about translating a certain Greek word in multiple ways within the same context of scripture. So, for instance, the same Greek root (“paraklesis”) might get translated as both “comfort” and as “consolation” in 2 Corinthians 1 in the KJV, but the NASB consistently renders the word as “comfort.” Again, it's a minor difference, but it helps a critical reader see that the English word reflects the same Greek word, whereas other translations might leave the false impression that two different Greek words are being used. For someone who is trying to dig a little bit beyond the surface of the text, little helps like this are very appreciated. It sends a signal to the reader about the original text that lies beneath the English translation.
And, there's another point that I'm even more passionate about on all of this . . . In fact, this was probably the point that really pushed me over the edge to switch translations. The NASB is much more effective than other versions at pointing out connections within the text and making that clearer to the English reader. One of the most striking examples that I've found to be interesting personally is the use of the word “servant” in Acts 3:13; the text uses three words (“edoxasen”=“has glorified”; “paredokate”=“delivered”; “paida”=“servant”) to echo Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (in the Septuagint [LXX], the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the climactic song about “the suffering servant” in Isaiah's text. Not by explicit quotation, but by “echo” or “allusion,” Peter grabs hold of the entire text of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and loudly presses that Jesus “fills” the role of “the suffering servant.” Other translations render “paida,” here, as “son,” which is an adequate, possible translation for the word, but that misses the allusion to Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which Peter is clearly making, especially in light of the two other Greek words that echo the text. It is consistently the case that the NASB makes translations more consistent so that these kinds of “echoes” and “allusions” to other texts are more easily seen, whereas other translations might not provide such a consistency, having the word “servant” in Isaiah 53 and the word “son” in Acts 3. The lack of consistency clouds the connection and makes it more difficult – rather than easier! – to see; the English reader, in this context, would be more benefited and prompted in the right direction if there were more of a consistency in translation.
Now, let me tell you the smaller reasons that I've switched to the NASB. First, there's something to be said for the NASB in that it's a modern translation. So, it incorporates the Dead Sea Scrolls and provides textual accuracy. But, I'm talking here about even the speech or rhetorical structure within the translation. There's something archaic about the “thees” and “thous” that makes us lose touch with people who were not reared in Christian homes. Right or wrong, the “sacredness” of the KJV comes off as feigned piety, I think, to those who have been reared in “naturalistic” environments. (Don't misunderstand me! If you ask me which Bible translation is the most beautiful – well, I think the KJV holds that reputation without contest! But, would an atheistic teenager find the language of the KJV to be beautiful or compelling? Maybe so! Maybe there is a case to be made for that?! But, I'm one of those who thinks that he'll probably just look at it like another “try hard” book, like the Quran or the Book of Mormon, which smack of false attempts to be wise and sacred.) If we're trying to reach a postmodern world (outside of the church), then I think that part of making the Bible “approachable,” personal and relatable is critical. By all means, I don't mean changing the text! I mean that the Bible should be translated – translated not transformed! – in our modern speech – speech and not views! – that might be more along the lines of being “all things to all men.” To those of us who have been reared in Christian homes, we might stomach the archaic speech of the KJV, and to those of us who have been educated to know “why” the KJV is the way that it is, we might see no problem, but I simply wonder if thinking, intellectual non-Christians will find the Bible as compelling if we pitch to them the KJV? Would they understand more if they knew about textual criticism and the development of the text? Would they appreciate the Bible more? Ugh . . . Too many variables with each individual to know what might be best. Maybe, this isn't even a problem? Maybe, I'm only dreaming this up from my own “read” of sociological and psychological habits of people?
Second, there's something to be said for the clarity, understandability and readability of the NASB. My wife and I had been trying to become better Bible readers, so we bought a stack of various translations and started rifling through them. Ultimately, for reading purposes, we came to like the NASB and the NIV. But, the NIV is a “paraphrase” and doesn't stay close to being a “literal” translation out of the original texts. I think it might have its strong points if one understands what it is and what it isn't – like we might treat a commentary, written by a fellow – but I also think that the NIV has its really poor points and has too much bias in the committee that worked on it. For the purpose of reading the Bible – the Bible . . . and not a paraphrase or an adaptation! – we landed on the NASB as suiting our purposes best (and we really liked all of the facts that I listed above about its literalness, its methodological approach and its connection and inner consistency).
Now, when we started reading different translations for the purpose of finding out which one read well and would serve as our standard translation, I had already been using Blue Letter Bible (an application on my phone) that allows for very easy translation comparison. I found myself consistently opening BLB to perform “translation comparison” so that I could use the NASB to help myself understand what my KJV was saying. At the time, I was teaching the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and 2 Corinthians, and I kept finding myself making notes in my KJV that basically “rewrote” the passage in understandable, modern English rhetoric in 2020. As I reread my marginal notes, I found that many of them would be obsolete if I were simply using the NASB. Now, instead of reading a text and having to make sense of both the outdated English rhetoric and the theological content, I've reduced my workload (and thus saved time also) to only having – in most cases – to handle the theological content. I find that I'm no longer having to reword the passage just so I can even understand what is even being said. Now, my focus is more solely on the theological content.
Third, a point that I'll state and move on from is that the NASB is simply superior in the Old Testament. I've found myself spending much of my study time in the Old Testament. In many cases, the NASB is very accurate, and so, this point also meant a lot to me as I've been trying to make up for lost time in Old Testament texts like the wisdom literature or the prophets. A comparative reading between the NASB and the KJV on the Old Testament simply pushed me to seek a better, clearer, more precise translation (which also bears out many of the connections with itself and with the New Testament, as I've already noted above).
Now, we come to our last section, where I want to take a moment to address some comparisons with the NASB. First, let's compare the NASB to the KJV on a few points . . . Like it or not, the KJV just simply didn't have the amount of manuscripts to work on as the NASB does; the KJV didn't use the Dead Sea Scrolls and is therefore relying on a later, “more distant from the originals” source for the Old Testament, and the KJV isn't really too consistent with its translation and its connections. For a critical reader, who wants to get as close to the original texts as possible (while still using an English translation) without having to learn Hebrew or Greek, the KJV is simply inferior for this purpose to some of the other translations.
Next, I think that the NASB offers a modern, clear, understandable, relatable “rhetoric” whereas the KJV is obviously outdated rhetorically and thus loses connection with a modern audience. This isn't the fault of the audience; kids today won't know about VCR's or phones with cords, and it's not the fault of the kids; the manufacturers have learned – or they always knew! – that they shouldn't be pushing VCR's onto kids that are running around with iPads. Successful marketing – whether we like it or not – has to be “in touch” with the consumer. Sure, both the iPad and the VCR can show a “film,” so instead of changing the end result (to watch a video), maybe, we should just change the packaging while still providing precisely the same experience?! How do you think that fits here?! Does the rhetoric of the KJV, an ancient translation, connect with the modern audience? Why wouldn't we look for a translation that more easily connects with its audience?
Next, there's a question about Matthew 19:9. The KJV and the ASV have “fornication” where the NASB has “immorality.” It looks to me like “immorality” is simply too vague and open. I think that “fornication” is the better translation . . . and apparently, the NASB translators thought something similar, too, in spite of their primary translation of “immorality,” since they placed a footnote in the text that says, “literally, fornication.” The Greek New Testament has a critical apparatus with footnotes where the text might be questionable; the NASB follows a similar line and has alternative (even, more preferable translations?) in the footnotes also where there might be a question about the primary translation. But, even if there were no footnote, in light of the other areas above, I'd still feel that, as a whole, the NASB suits my own purposes best, but even with the KJV, passages like Matthew 5:28 demand familiarity out of the user. You can read nearly any staunch KJV advocate scramble for an explanation of “lust equals adultery” and always appeal to the Greek and insist that the translation, while an accurate translation, is being used accommodatively and that technical adultery has not been committed and that one can't be “put away for adultery” because of something like mere lust or watching pornography. My point is that the translation isn't going to do interpretive work for the reader; the reader is still forced to 1) be familiar with the content of the text under consideration, 2) use good interpretive principles and 3) even at times analyze a few Greek words in a lexicon or two. So, if those that insist on Matthew 19:9 alone that the KJV ought to be preferred above the NASB, I'd have to disagree because 1) this isolated issue doesn't handle all of the above points that impact the usefulness of a Bible translation, 2) interpretive work needs to be done with a text whether the translation is poor, fair or good and 3) one issue in the NASB, where one might have to appeal to the original (Greek) language underneath the English text, is similarly an issue for the KJV, only on a different passage.
“Now, all of that it much too 'in-depth' for the casual Bible reader, and 'immorality' instead of 'fornication' is still a bad translation,” one might insist. Here, I'm not even arguing that “immorality” is a good translation; I'm simply stressing the point that interpretive work and digging beyond a surface reading is always going to be “a must” for the real Bible student. If Matthew 19:9's translation is really that big of a hiccup to a reader – one that a little explanation and homework won't fix – then I'd argue that the reader in mind is possibly 1) incapable of understanding, 2) very ignorant, 3) disinterested, 4) biased and/or 5) in the same boat with Matthew 5:28. Again, “interpretation” is the responsibility of the reader . . . And, has Matthew 19:9's translation in the NASB or the NKJV or the ESV really been a big hangup for anyone?! I've not heard of any MDR disputes over Matthew 19:9's translation in the NASB or the others? In fact, all of the MDR disputes that I've witnessed have existed before and without the translations of texts like the NASB. I'm just wondering if this translation issue hasn't been blown out of proportion? Don't misunderstand me; I think that the translation is “liberal,” could lead to problems and is ultimately inaccurate and could leave the wrong impression, but I'm just not seeing that that is happening. Again, I've never heard of/read of an appeal from anyone to the NASB as allowing justification for MDR for a cause other than “fornication.” I have heard of preachers branding the entire translation as “useless” because of this one issue, and I just think that such a view misses the boat and handles the discussion about it quite carelessly.
Finally, I need to point out that Jesus and the apostles used the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. (A comparison of passages like Luke 4:16-21 reflects Jesus' use of the Greek Old Testament in instances rather than the Hebrew Old Testament.) This is interesting because it would appear that there are numerous divergences from the Hebrew Old Testament in the Greek translation. For instance, the ages of the patriarchs (Gen. 5; 10; 11) differ; texts in Daniel 9:24-27 have been abused by the Septuagint translator(s); and, those aren't the only instances. But, somehow, Jesus could still use the Septuagint in the place of the Hebrew text. Surely, the Hebrew text was in the synagogue? Didn't they still have scribes and rabbis that copied the texts? Might there be some special circumstance under which Jesus could use such an erroneous translation?! My point is that I think that some brethren would castigate Jesus for using such an erroneous text tradition, but to Him and the Jews, the text – even with errors! – was still “the Bible.” I don't mean to suggest that Jesus endorsed contradictions that might have existed between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek Old Testament, but I mean to say that I think that Jesus was a “discerner” and knew that the translation wasn't 100% faithful to the original texts. I think that all of the English translations aren't the original texts – and you think that too, don't you?! So, again, if Jesus could use a flawed translation – “Oh, but if He could have gotten access to an accurate translation or the best translation, He'd have needed to have used it . . .” – Ah, but that can't be proven. You mean to tell me that Jesus, the Son of God, God-in-flesh, a Jewish boy, attending synagogue, didn't have access to a “faithful” copy of the Hebrew Text and had to settle for the Greek one?!?!?! And, what of Paul's use of the LXX?! And the rest of the New Testament writings?! Why, most scholars insist that the New Testament writers preferred the Septuagint! And, wouldn't that make sense?! It'd certainly make those linguistic/grammatical connections back to a Greek Old Testament more easy to discern and spot! Maybe, they preferred to use the Greek Old Testament because they were writing a Greek New Testament?! And, maybe the Greek Old Testament – though imperfect – suited their purposes just fine?!
One more little note and I'll stop . . . We had a Muslim girl from the Middle East start attending with us a few years back. She defended Islam in our Western world. So, we started talking to her, asking questions and giving answers to her questions. Eventually, we got her to see that the Bible couldn't have been corrupted like she had been taught. Islam had taught her that the Jews had changed the Bible and so it was no longer trustworthy, but we explained to her that the Greek New Testament uses manuscripts that are 3rd or 4th century A.D., and so our English translations today are based on ancient texts that were earlier than Muhammad (6th century A.D.); in effect, Muhammad's endorsement of the Bible in his own day endorses the same Bible that we now use, based on manuscripts that predated him. Either, Muhammad endorsed an already flawed text (but this isn't Islam's position) or Muhammad endorsed an accurate text and is the same text that we have before us today. And, we also mentioned that “corrupting” the Bible would involve doctoring 6,000+ Greek manuscripts after the 7th century A.D. from all over the world. There wasn't just one copy of the Bible that (allegedly) got doctored!
Anyway . . . We finally got her to agree to read the New Testament about Jesus, so a couple from the congregation decided that they wanted to buy her her own Bible – she preferred to have a bilingual Bible, one that was side-by-side and had an Arabic translation alongside an English translation, since Arabic was her first language and English was still quite secondary. The couple approached me, insisted that they'd pay for the Bible and wanted to pay for the Bible and simply asked, “Drew, if you'll just find the Bible for us, we'll pay for it . . .” I looked on a few of the bigger “Christian” stores and found an Arabic-English, side-by-side Bible . . . and the English translation was the NIV. I looked around on a few other sites and without any luck, I decided to purchase the Arabic-English Bible that had the NIV translation – it was the only one I could find – and, when is the last time you looked for an Arabic-English side-by-side Bible?! I'll say a thing about this in a moment . . . (For an English language learner, the NIV probably was a good fit just because it reads better than the KJV to a modern learner.) The Muslim girl had some acquaintances who were very influential on her; when these acquaintances found out that I had purchased a copy of the NIV for this girl, one of them became very angry and instead of approaching me about the issue began telling others around about my liberal approach and how the girl could easily become infected by Calvinism by my actions. Some of the people that the fellow spoke to asked if it were true that I bought her a copy of the NIV and asked if it were a problem and as serious as the fellow was making it. I responded with the fact that Jesus and the others used the Septuagint, even with its mistakes, and insisted that such a point be raised to the fellow that was bothered. I also insisted that a little bit of common sense will tell us that a Muslim girl is not simply going to go off into full-blown Calvinism upon reading the NIV, especially in light of the fact that she was surrounded by Christians that were very informative and helpful with her Bible reading. At most, the girl might have walked away from her reading of the NIV with a few slightly misguided points, but I have a hard time seeing that the NIV would lead one into full Calvinism. Sure, it might be used to support those who are already committed to Calvinism, but is that version truly so corrupted that it actually is producing Calvinists right-and-left?! If so, I'm just not seeing it. And, why are so many of the scholarly Calvinists using other translations than the NIV? Thankfully, the girl was later converted to Christ; I understand that she's now left church altogether and is really dealing with some personal struggles, but hopefully, one day, her New Testament reading will pick back up.
I should also tell you that I have a friend from Mexico that has Spanish as his first language and English as his second. He insists that the Spanish “Santa Biblia” is not a great translation, but it's the one that the Spanish people have. Do they have “the Bible”? Maybe, some of the staunch “KJV onlyists” can enlighten us with their deep wisdom and knowledge on the matter. (That'd do us a lot of good, wouldn't it?! Yes, let's castigate our Mexican brethren for not using the KJV.) Look, we've got to get to the point where we're intelligent enough to sift through the data and be honest and unbiased; all of these texts are translations and have their imperfections – and some are better than others! – but, I like what one fellow said, “We have the 'Bible' that God wanted us to have.” Yes, we're sure of that, aren't we. Wonder what Bible the “KJV onlyists” would have used in 1610?! Google that! Look up the date of the King James Version's translation and production. Maybe, we should blister all of the patristic writers for not using the King James Version?! I'm being too sarcastic, aren't I?!
Let me conclude . . .
I think that the KJV is a good, reliable translation. I think that the NASB is a good, reliable translation. Neither of these remarks means that I endorse the translation of “hell” in Acts 2:27,31 in the KJV or the translation of “immorality” in Matthew 19:9. They mean that I think both texts serve their purpose faithfully, which is to give us the word of the Lord in our own, modern language. I think that the KJV was very well-suited for the people of its day, and I think that the NASB is very well-suited for people today. In 100 years, it's quite possible that the NASB is obsolete. Imagine if English is out and China is in . . . If I were to live in such a time, you could expect me to push for a Chinese Bible that faithfully and accurately translates from the original texts and extends God's truth to the people that need it. There are some real jokes for translations, and that's simply not the kind of analysis that we've done in this piece, so I'd stay away from those. So, to end, you might ask, “Which Bible is best for me?” Jack Lewis probably said it best when he said, “The Bible that is best for you is the Bible that you'll read and live by.” For me, I prefer the NASB (1995) at the moment for all of the reasons that are given in this piece.
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© Copyright Drew Leonard 2019