Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of the American Literary Version of the Bible

The American Literary Version (ALV) is an update to the American Standard Version (ASV) that was published in 2016 as a part of the Bibliotheca multi-volume set of the Bible. Bibliotheca broke new ground by producing a Bible without any chapter numbers, verse numbers, section headings, or footnotes. It is stunningly beautiful in its radical simplicity. Many other reviewers have focused on the physical beauty of the Bibliotheca Bible, and so I will focus on reviewing the American Literary Version translation, which was produced by Bibliotheca.

What began as a light revision of the ASV (i.e. updating thee and thou) turned into a more in-depth revision as the funding for Bibliotheca increased. The resulting translation is more literal than the ASV, while still maintaining a relatively high degree of readability for those who are well-versed in the Scriptures and who don’t mind looking up an occasional word in the dictionary.

While many modern translations such as the NASB, NKJV, and ESV claim a high degree of literalness, they are not as literal as one might expect. Often these translations make changes to the text to increase the readability for modern readers. However, while the translation becomes more readable, the literal meaning of the actual Greek or Hebrew source is obscured. The ALV more consistently provides a truly literal rendering of the Greek and Hebrew source text.

Consider, for example, 2 Peter 2:4. The NASB reads, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell…” The Greek word translated as cast into hell is ταρταρόω, which is a verb that means ‘consign to Tartarus’. In Greek thought, Tartarus is a place of punishment and torment located below Hades. Tartarus is different from the word γέεννα, which is usually translated as ‘hell’. The ESV and NKJV follow the NASB in translating ταρταρόω with the word ‘hell’ instead of ‘Tartarus’. The ALV is more literal in translating the underlying Greek of 2 Peter 2:4. It reads, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus…” In addition to rendering ταρταρόω more literally, the ALV also translates γέεννα as ‘Gehenna’ rather than ‘hell’, which preserves the imagery of the Valley of Hinnom, the city dump of Jerusalem where trash was burned.

Philippians 1:27 is another example in which the ALV is more literal than even the most literal of modern translations. The NASB and NKJV translate Philippians 1:27 as “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” The ESV translates it as, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” The underlying Greek word for the bolded text is πολιτεύομαι, which literally means ‘live as a citizen’. Philippians is written to Christians living in a Roman colony, where there are many retired soldiers. The people of Philippi were known for their patriotic nationalism. In such an environment, the Christians in Philippi may have been tempted to see their citizenship as being in Rome rather than in heaven. But Philippians 1:27 specifically encourages the Philippians to view their citizenship in terms of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the gospel of the Kingdom of God. But this talk of citizenship is obscured in the NASB, NKJV, and ESV. The ALV, on the other hand, translates Philippians 1:27 as, “Only behave worthily as citizens of the good tidings of the Christ…” This more literal translation highlights Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom rather than as citizens of Rome.

Another example of how the ALV exceeds other translations in literalness is Matthew 5:3. The NASB, NKJV, and ESV all translate Matthew 5:3 as, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The ALV translates it as, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.” The underlying Greek word is plural and so the ALV renders the source text more literally. It may sound awkward at first to say “the kingdom of the heavens,” but that is only because we are used to hearing “the kingdom of heaven.”  The plural form ‘heavens’ is actually quite natural in English. For example, we don’t have any problem with Genesis 1:1, which states, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Neither are we disturbed by Psalm 19:1, which says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

In its quest for preserving the literary nature of the biblical texts, the ALV preserves idioms that modern translations alter. For example, the NASB and ESV translate Genesis 29:1 as, “Then Jacob went on his journey…” (The NKJV is similar.) However, the ALV preserves the Hebrew idiom and translates it as, “And Jacob lifted up his feet…” In another example, the NASB translates 1 Samuel 25:22 as, “May God do so to the enemies of David, and more also, if by morning I leave as much as one male of any who belong to him.” The ESV and NKJV similarly employ the words one male. However, the actual Hebrew text does not say one male. It says, “one who pisses against the wall,” which is a rich idiom denoting a male. The ALV preserves this idiom and the strong imagery it evokes.

In all of these cases, the ALV is not only more literal than the NASB, NKJV, and ESV, it is more literal than the ASV as well. In at least one instance, however, the decision of the ALV translators to retain the ASV rendering results in a translation that is less literal than the NASB, NKJV, and ESV. That is the translation of the word ἀνομία. The NASB, NKJV, and ESV all translate this word with its literal meaning 'lawlessness'. The ALV, however, retains the ASV rendering of 'iniquity', which means 'immoral or grossly unfair behavior'. While immoral behavior is often contrary to the law, such is not always the case, and so 'lawlessness' is a more literal translation.

Regarding textual basis, the ALV translates from the Masoretic text in the Old Testament and the critical text in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the ALV is less likely to follow the Septuagint (and other ancient versions) than the ASV, NASB, NKJV, or ESV. For example, in Exodus 8:23, the ASV, NASB, NKJV, and ESV all follow the Septuagint text with translations like, “I will make a distinction” or “I will put a division.” The ALV follows the Hebrew text and renders Exodus 8:23 as “I will set a ransom.” There is good reason to believe that the Septuagint preserves the original reading in this case, but the ALV seeks to be a faithful translation of the Masoretic text.

Regarding style, the ALV retains much of the archaic vocabulary of the ASV. Personally, I don’t mind this as, in my opinion, it adds to the literary beauty of the translation. It also constantly reminds me that the Bible was not written in modern English. I just keep my dictionary handy so that I can look up words that are unfamiliar. Those who are accustomed to the King James Version probably won’t have much trouble. The ALV does, however, update the words thee, thou, thy, and thine to their modern equivalents and also drops archaic verb endings like -eth and -est. Similarly shalt and wilt are rendered as shall and will.

There is, however, one update introduced by the ALV that does take some getting used to. The Hebrew interjection נָא is used to indicate earnestness and humility and is usually translated in the ASV with the words ‘now’ or ‘I pray thee/you’. For example, in Genesis 18:3-4 the ASV reads,

My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:

The ALV prefers to translate נָא with the word ‘pray’ in every occurrence. (The only time I have ever heard the word ‘pray’ used in this way is in the expression, “Pray tell!”) This often results in awkward English phrasing as seen, for example, in the ALV rendering of Genesis 18:3-4,

My lord, if, pray, I have found favor in your eyes, do not pass away, pray, from your servant. Pray, let a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest under the tree.

This does not make for smooth flowing English. Nevertheless, after spending some time with the ALV, I have gotten used to this idiosyncrasy. In fact, it makes me take notice of speech patterns that I might otherwise have missed. For example, in the story of the ten plagues in Exodus, I noticed that Pharaoh eventually shows more humility in his requests to Moses as indicated by the word ‘pray’. In Exodus 10:11, Pharaoh says, “Go, pray, you who are men.” And in Exodus 10:17, Pharaoh says, “And now forgive, pray, my sin.” Without this somewhat awkward occurrence of the word ‘pray’, I don’t think I would have taken note of this change in Pharaoh's tone. Nevertheless, I think I prefer the ASV’s use of ‘I pray you’ and ‘now’ for translating the Hebrew interjection נָא.

One final note of interest is the rendering of the proper name of God, known as the Tetragrammaton. The proper name of God consists of the four Hebrew letters יהוה roughly equivalent to YHWH. We don’t know for sure how this name was pronounced because the associated vowels are the vowels for the word adonai and not YHWH. Most scholars, however, believe that the name is pronounced Yahweh. The Tetragrammaton has traditionally been rendered in English as ‘the Lord’. The ASV, however, sought a more direct translation and rendered the name as ‘Jehovah’, combining the vowels for adonai with the consonants for YHWH. The ALV simply renders the Tetragrammaton as YHWH. While it might seem that a name with no vowels and all capital letters would be a stumbling block to reading, I find that my mind naturally reads YHWH as ‘Yahweh’, and so it is not an issue for me.

In conclusion, the ALV is the most literal modern translation of the Bible available today. And despite its literal renderings, it has a relatively high degree of readability. It is certainly much easier to read than Young’s Literal Translation, from which it draws some of its translation choices. The awkward use of the word ‘pray’ does detract a bit from readability, but one quickly gets used to it and finds that it becomes less of a distraction over time. I highly recommend the American Literary Version to anyone who has a relatively high level of biblical literacy and who wants to know what the underlying Greek and Hebrew text actually says. And for those who read the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books of the Bible, you will be interested to know that Bibliotheca makes them available as a separate volume in the ALV translation.

Regarding the format, I find that reading the Bible without chapter and verse divisions, footnotes, or section headings is incredibly refreshing. The beautiful layout of the American Literary Version in the Bibliotheca Bible is unparalleled by any other Bible I know of. I can't put it down!

I will leave you with some sample passages from the American Literary Version so that you can get a feel for the translation.

The Beatitudes
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake
     of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in the heavens,
your name be hallowed,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And bring us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

Psalm 23
YHWH is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He guides me in the paths or righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my foes.
You have anointed my head with oil;
my cup runs over.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of YHWH
for length of days.

The Gospel of John Prologue
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
This one was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him,
and without him was nothing made that has been made.
In him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
And the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not apprehend it.

There came a man,
sent from God,
whose name was John.
This one came for witness,
that he might bear witness of the light,
that all might believe through him.
That one was not the light,
but came that he might bear witness of the light.

There was the true light,
which lights every man,
coming into the world.
In the world he was,
and the world through him was made,
and the world did not know him.

To his own he came,
and those who were his own did not receive him.
But as many as received him,
to them he gave the right to become children of God,
to those who believe on his name,
who were born not of blood,
nor of the will of the flesh,
nor of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh,
and tabernacled among us,
and we beheld his glory,
glory as of the only begotten from the Father,
full of grace and truth.

John bore witness of him and cried out, saying,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘He who comes after me has become before me,
for he was before me.’”
For of his fullness we all received,
and grace for grace.
For the law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No man has seen God at any time;
the only begotten Son,
who is in the bosom of the Father,
he has declared him.

Romans 8:31-39
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Is is Christ Jesus who died, yea rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of the Christ? Shall tribulation or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? Even as it is written,

     “For your sake we are killed all the day long;
     we were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.