Or, The Voice is Like the 1984 NIV on Steroids
Despite the NIV’s generally smooth flow and its broad acceptance, at some point I began to learn that it was not always consistent or trustworthy. (No translation is.)
I have on several occasions noticed that points made by well-meaning people during Bible classes were tied to particular NIV wordings. In other words, if another version had been used, the argument would crumble. Sometimes the points seemed reasonable, but the “Bible” wordings on which they were based turned out to be phantoms. This is the case with Philemon verse 6. First, I should acknowledge that the newest edition of the NIV (2011) has recognized the problem and revised the wording, resulting in a fine translation:
I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.
But here is the older (1984) NIV:
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
The two are really different! Let me flesh out one component.
It’s not that that the 1984 NIV contains bad ideas. Regardless of the arguably odd cause and effect (a full understanding that results from evangelistic “witnessing”), the main ideas seem good. The problem may first be spotlighted by considering English Christianese: sometime in the latter part of the 20th century, the phrase “sharing your faith,” referring specifically to evangelistic speech, took on a life of its own, being used in countless sermons, teen devotionals, and Bible classes. That type of activity, however, is not a subject of this letter to Philemon. Moreover, thorough study of the letter reveals a relational emphasis suggested by the Greek koinonia idea(s)—and this partnership is to be distinguished from “faith-sharing” speech. Admittedly, seeing the depth of this verbal emphasis requires more sustained study, but on the negative side, it may readily be seen by an attentive reader that “evangelism” per se not is in view here. Considering what Paul was communicating to Philemon, it appears clear that “partnership with us in the faith may be effective …” is a better English translation for our day than “be active in sharing your faith.”
Translation might be thought of as an arrow with heads on both ends. The left arrowhead points to the original, but there is another arrowhead on the other end, pointing to the target language. In translation, there should be valid motion from one language to another. The antecedent points to the receptor language, and the translation must also in a sense point back to the original. Said another way: a translator might understand the Greek very well, but if that understanding doesn’t come through in English, the translation is lacking.
You know what? I’ve now found a version that’s worse than the older NIV. Much worse. It’s like the NIV on steroids. I had high hopes for The Voice, based on its solid, well-considered prefatory material and its broad-based committee, including not only biblical scholarship but also poets, musicians, and writers with expertise in English communication. In the case of Philemon 6, though, this relatively new version is, sadly, marooned on a sand bar, having missed the boat:
Thank You, Father, for Philemon. I pray that as he goes and tells his story of faith, he would tell everyone so that they will know for certain all the good that comes to those who put their trust in the Anointed One.
No. Just no. That is not what the text is about there. Several ideas intrude into this verbiage—most notably the emphasis on “telling the story”—with the result that it is more of an obfuscation than a commuicative paraphrase. It’s as though no one bothered to study Philemon. “Well, you know, it’s so short. Let’s just crank that page out in an hour.” But what a shame. Philemon is a gem among the NT letters, and it deserves deep attention, too. (Here is a post about this verse from 8 years ago. It fairly briefly explains the issue.)
A couple more bits on The Voice . . . while I’m immediately partial to its “theater script” format for dialogue sections, another formatting aspect—rampant italics—leaves it wanting. All translations explain things to one degree or another, and The Voice didn’t really need to be over-zealously ethical in this respect. It’s overkill to delineate every explanatory word or phrase. Further, when italics are so frequently interspersed, the experience of reading is halting and unsatisfying.