Revising the New Living Translation

I like the New Living Translation (NLT).

This translation of the Bible was produced in order to help readers have a better understanding of what the Bible says. For this purpose, the translators did not attempt to produce a word for word literal translation of the Bible in which the original word order was preserved. Rather, English words used in the translation reflect the message that the original author intended to communicate to his audience, but in a language that the translators believe today’s readers can easily understand.

The committee responsible for translating the New Living Translation selected three scholars to translate each book of the Bible. The purpose was to eliminate personal biases and ensure that the translation provide an accurate rendering of the ideas and message the original author was communicating to his intended audience.

Recognizing the difficulty of the task and acknowledging that no translation is perfect, the committee responsible for the translation wrote, “we sought God’s guidance and wisdom throughout this project.”

It was in light of this statement that I was surprised when a few days ago I was reading the New Living Translation and noticed something that amazed me. I was comparing the 1996 edition of the New Living Translation with the 2007 edition and noticed how different the two translations are.

Below is a short sample that highlights the two editions of the New Living Translation. In order to show the differences between the two editions, the translations will be presented as follows:

The 2007 edition of the New Living Translation will be presented with bold letters.
The 1996 edition of the New Living Translation will be presented without emphasis.

The sample translation is taken from Genesis 1.

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

1:2 The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
1:2 The earth was empty, a formless mass cloaked in darkness. And the Spirit of God was hovering over its surface.

1:3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
1:3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

1:4 And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness.
1:4 And God saw that it was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness.

1:5 God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.
1:5 God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Together these made up one day.

6 Then God said, “Let there be a space between the waters, to separate the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth.”
1:6 Then God said, “Let there be space between the waters, to separate water from water.

1:7 And that is what happened. God made this space to separate the waters of the earth from the waters of the heavens.
1:7 And so it was. God made this space to separate the waters above from the waters below.

1:8 God called the space “sky.” And evening passed and morning came, marking the second day.
1:8 God called the space “sky.” This happened on the second day.

1:9 Then God said, “Let the waters beneath the sky flow together into one place, so dry ground may appear.” And that is what happened.
1:9 And God said, “Let the waters beneath the sky be gathered into one place so dry ground may appear.” And so it was.

1:10 God called the dry ground “land” and the waters “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
1:10 God named the dry ground “land” and the water “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

I am the first one to recognize that no translation is a perfect translation. I also recognize that the needs of readers change with time and that a better translation will communicate a better and more accurate message.

However, to a reader who does not understand the art of translation, all these changes in such a short time are very confusing. Readers who are not Christians will find these changes perplexing. How can the Bible change so much from one edition to the other?

Atheists can use these changes to ridicule Christianity. If the translators “sought God’s guidance and wisdom throughout this project,” what went wrong? Was God’s guidance and wisdom in 1996 not good enough?

I still like the New Living Translation. However, if you have the 1996 edition of the NLT, be aware, the translators are saying that you must have the 2007 edition because it is a better translation that the 1996 edition.

As a professor, I have an argument with the NLT’s translation of Genesis 1:16. This is how the NLT translates this verse:

Gen 1:16 God made two great lights, the sun and the moon– the larger one to govern the day, and the smaller one to govern the night. He also made the stars.
1:16 For God made two great lights, the sun and the moon, to shine down upon the earth. The greater one, the sun, presides during the day; the lesser one, the moon, presides through the night. He also made the stars.

The NLT is the only translation of the Bible that mentions the great lights by name. In the Hebrew text, the words sun and moon do not appear in verse 16. The reason is because the author of Genesis was making a theological statement.

In the Ancient Near East, the sun and the moon were considered to be gods. Together with the host of heavens, these gods had a powerful influence on the lives of their worshipers.

The writer of Genesis did not name the great luminaries in order to declare that they are not gods, but simply part of God’s creation, whose primary function is to give light during the day and during the night.

People in the Ancient Near East believed that names expressed the character and nature of a person. The Hebrew word for sun is the same word used to name the sun god in the Ancient Near East. It is for this reason that the writer of Genesis refrained from naming the greater luminary. Words convey powerful messages. By omitting the name of the sun god, the writer of Genesis was saying that the sun was not a god. The sun is a creation of the true God.

Most people reading the NLT will not know that the sun and the moon were gods in antiquity. They also will not know the theological significance of omitting the name of the two greater luminaries. By naming them, the NLT missed a good opportunity to teach people an important theological statement that was in the mind of the writer of Genesis: no one should worship the sun and the moon as gods.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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