Committee or Single Person Translated Bible?

Something I’ve grown to love is translations of the Bible, and not just those such as NASB, ESV, or NKJV, but single-translator editions. When David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament was published, I was eager to receive it. I actually preordered a copy before it was released. Only after have I learned that N. T. Wright has a translation of the New Testament, an edition I’ve yet to acquire. In my library, I also have Alexander Campbell’s The Living Oracles as well as Hugo McCord’s translation of the New Testament—a gift given to me by Phil Sanders who received the very copy from McCord himself. I count this as one of my prized possessions. Additionally, I have nearly if not all of Robert Alter’s translations of the Old Testament books he’s produced.

These single-translator editions I use in study to prepare lessons, but employ the committee translated NKJV when I preach and teach since this is what Glendale Road is accustomed to using. Some may chide the single-translator editions for being the product of only one person. The negative comments I’ve heard against them have been that with a committee translated Bible, two heads are better than one and three heads are better than two, and so on. I don’t disagree with this, but a committee ultimately has to reach a consensus which may not allow for the best or better translation of a phrase. Sometimes the single translator has greater liberty to do what may be best—as in the case of commentaries—whereas a committee’s hands can be tied.

In the New Testament, there are often times when better translations should be permitted, but because of denominational or theological bias, they aren’t as accurate as they could be. Take, for example, Acts 16:16. Here we’re introduced to a “female slave who had a spirit” (NIV); “a slave-girl having a spirit of divination” (NASB). Most committee’s word the English in a similar way, but an individual—we’ll stick with David Bentley Hart—translates it as “a certain slave girl who had a Python spirit.” How does Hart’s translation differ so much from that of a committee? His is truer to the original and shares a nuance with the reader that a committee translated passage doesn’t. Those who know their Greek mythology realize that Luke is setting up the Holy Spirit in Paul to combat and defeat a spirit of a mythical god, which proves important in proper exegesis.

Another example is James 2:2 where we read, “Suppose a man comes into your meeting” (NIV); “For if a man comes into your assembly” (NASB). Hart rightly translates, “For if a man were to enter your synagogue.” How is this important? A Christian author is writing to a Christian audience about their having met in a synagogue. History would attest to some early Christian meeting places being synagogues, especially if the leaders of said synagogue converted at the preaching of Christ. This closely links the Christian with the Jewish identity of our Lord and such heritage, especially in the earlier years the faith during which adherents were mostly Jewish. In 1 Timothy 1:6, Paul refers to Timothy as being a good “minister” (NIV); “servant” (NASB). However, the audience then would have missed out on the term we have translated as “minister” or “servant”  in this place was the same term used of the office of “deacon” from 1 Timothy 3:8. Therefore, the idea is that Timothy was a deacon just as those whose description was given earlier. This also should help us define the role of the deacon according to that of the “preacher.” Timothy was never called a “pastor,” though he appeared to have pastoral duties, but was a deacon.

There are certainly drawbacks to single-translator editions, but there are also strengths. Furthermore, if you want to revive your Bible reading habit, or make it richer, pick up a single-translator edition. There are often nuances in the text, especially for those who don’t read original languages, that committees aren’t able to represent. After all, many good commentaries will break down the original languages, and single-translator editions do just that but without commentary, and most classical works are translated by single-translators. My copies of Homer, Aristotle, Plato, and various other classical authors are produced in English not by a committee, but by a learned scholar such as Hart, Wright, McCord, and Campbell.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.