The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Common English Bible
This article started as a review of the CEB (Common English Bible) Study Bible. However, I found myself talking more about the translation than the study bible. The reason is that the chief reason the CEB Study Bible even exists is to be a study bible for the CEB translation. It is a good study bible (that review is still coming), but I doubt that all the stuff that makes up the study bible would have come into existence in the form and order that it has if the publisher of the CEB had not needed a study bible product to market for the translation. So, before I talk about the CEB Study Bible, let us take a look at the translation that it has to thank for its existence.
The Common English Bible is an English translation of the Bible that was first published in 2011. It is a blend translation that aims to find a happy medium somewhere between strict formal equivalence (word-for-word) and liberal dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought), utilizing the strengths of both methods while minimizing their weaknesses. The most commonly used blend translations include the New International Version (NIV), the New Living Translations (NLT), and the Christian Standard Bible (CSB, formally the Holman Christian Standard Bible, or HCSB). Of these four translations, the NIV and CSB are slightly more word-for-word while the NLT and CEB lean slightly more toward thought-for-thought. All four of these translations are, therefore, more word-for-word than the God’s Word translation, the Voice, or the Message, but less word-for-word than the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New King James Version.
The Unique Adventurousness of the CEB
Rather being a comprehensive review of every feature and facet of the translation, I want to focus on what it is at its core that makes the CEB unique, and how that uniqueness is both a strength and weakness. While the CEB is like the NIV, the NLT, and the CSB in its placement on the “word-for-word/thought-for-thought” spectrum, it is actually very different from these other three translations in other important ways. The NIV, NLT, and CSB were all commissioned by conservative Christian organizations, so despite the fact that they aim to be up-to-date with reference to scholarship and to be as accurate as can be, nevertheless one can see in close readings of them how they reflect certain traditional evangelical ideas, traditional readings of texts where scholarly opinion might actually have provided a superior alternative.
In contrast to this, the CEB exhibits a certain adventurousness in its approach to re-rendering traditional language. It does this under the banner of “clarity”. The idea is that traditional renderings of biblical texts can, over time, serve to obscure the meaning of the text rather than clarify it. We get so attached to a particular word or phrase that we stop understanding what the term means, taking its meaning to be self-evident. Or sometimes a traditional theologically loaded term takes on a life of its own and becomes more specialized in the history of Christian discourse than it may have been in the biblical text itself. So the CEB’s adventurousness, which, I argue, is its most characteristic feature, has the potential to be a great asset.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is not.
Let me illustrate this point with a number of examples. One of the standard talking points when it comes to Bible translations (which really is not that important, but some people have a serious fit over these kinds of things) is gender inclusive language. The CEB’s approach to gender inclusive language is generally to use it only where it is necessary for the meaning of the passage. Otherwise, it finds ways to neutralize the language. The standard example I look for this is Psalm 1:1, who first three Hebrew words translate literally “Blessed/lucky/happy is the man who”. Does this psalm apply to women as well? Of course it does. I doubt anyone worth listening to would argue otherwise. Therefore, some translations choose not to translate Hebrew ish simply as “man”, realizing that the conventional way we use English is a little different at this point in history than the way most other languages throughout human history have been used. Whereas masculine pronouns and forms used to be used as gender neutral forms in English, a large portion of the English-speaking populace no longer accepts this kind of usage. So some translations account for this by translating ish in a way that includes femininity. Sometimes translations pluralize (“Blessed are those who”). The CEB translates Hebrew ish as “person”: “The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.” This translation leaves no room for doubt that women are included in Psalm 1’s beatitude.
I, personally, don’t have a problem with trying to minimize gender inclusive language generally (neither, though, do I have a problem with gender inclusive – I’m kind of chill about the whole thing, really). However, it gets a little weird when the CEB begins translating Jesus’ use of the term “Son of Man” as “the Human One”. For example, in CEB rendering of Mark 10:45 Jesus says, “for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” This is just bizarre. The argument is that Aramaic bar enosh (lit. son of man) was an idiomatic way of simply talking about human beings as human beings. A bar enosh was “a human being”. Clearly, though, it’s not that simple, because while presumably bar enosh sounded kind of normal to the Aramaic-speaking Jewish ear of the 1st century, neither “human being” nor (especially) “Human One” sounds at all normal or meaningful in this passage. Rather, Jesus sounds like a Ferengi: “For the Hyoo-Mahn didn’t come to be served … .” It seems to me very likely that, despite the lack of mention of this justification in the translation’s official preface, a skittishness about gender inclusive language was part of what drove this decision. “Human One” is not in any way preferable – in style, clarity, or accuracy – to “Son of Man”. It is a strange and distracting translation decision.
The fact is that there is no way we can reconstruct the linguistic and cultural setting for bar enosh or Hebrew ben adam. The closest we can come to reconstructing it at this point is by letting the traditional rendering stand and then explaining this rendering in a footnote (or maybe letting the readers take responsibility for researching something for themselves). By the time Jesus came on the scene, the phrase had a life of its own that is totally unlike any English term we might use. In Ezekiel, we are justified in translating ben adam as “Human”, because that’s what it means. In Daniel 7:13, we could translate kebar enosh (notable as a stray Aramaic term in the middle of the Hebrew portion of Daniel) “one like a human being”, i.e., a being in a vision who looks like a human being and not a beast or an angel. Even here, however, the sudden intrusion of an Aramaic term seems to belie the presence of some significance to the term to which we are not now privy. But in Jesus’ usage, there is clearly a history behind ho huios tou anthropou (Greek for “the son of man”). Jesus is just as capable as anyone else of simply using a first person pronoun: “for I did not come to be served”. But he did not do that, so rather than pretending that there is nothing more going on here than Jesus saying “human being” as a circumlocution for himself, we need to find a way to let the mystery of Jesus’ language come across in the translation. The CEB’s eagerness to re-render every bit of traditional Christian language obscures here rather than clarifies.
Now, that’s not always the case, and before I go any further I want to make clear that I, personally, like the CEB, though I do not think it a perfect translation, by any means. Sometimes its willingness to revisit some old translation issues that are largely passed over in even the newest Bible translations is a real strength and results in marked improvements. One of the best examples is Hebrews 12:2. Most translations more or less follow the KJV version in understanding ton tēs pisteōs archēgon kai teleiōtēn Iēsoun as “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”, inserting the word “our” before faith. The KJV rendering makes it sound like Jesus is being depicted as the one who gives us faith and the one who brings that faith that he gives us to maturity. But reading this verse as the conclusion of the preceding chapter, it is at least arguable (if not far more likely) that what this verse is actually saying is that Jesus is the ultimate example of faith – all these other guys in “faith’s hall of fame” are merely foreshadowing the paradigmatic and climactic faith of Jesus. So it can be argued that inserting “our” before “faith” is a mistranslation, especially given the personal pronoun’s total absence from the Greek text (the only argument I can see for inserting “our” is the presence of the definite article tēs, which is hardly conclusive, particularly in light of the verse’s clear literary context). Even where a newer translation improves on “author and finisher” (e.g., NET Bible’s “pioneer and perfecter”), they still tend to retain the word “our”, keeping the meaning of the verse in English connected to the faith of the individual believer rather than the faith of Jesus or faith as a virtue in the abstract. The CEB, however, breaks from tradition and interprets this phrase: “Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter”. This is, in my opinion, a good example of the way the CEB’s adventurousness pays off.
The CEB rendering of Romans 3:22 is also noteworthy. It revisits the issue of pistis Christou, which is traditionally translated “faith in Christ” but which, more recently, scholars have been arguing may very likely mean “the faith/faithfulness of Christ”. There are theological as well as exegetical issues at stake in the translation of this phrase, which is why it is so hotly debated in scholarly circles. But where there are significant theological repercussions, Bible translations tend not to want to rock the boat, even where evidence is strongly in favor of a revised translation (offend conservatives, who are the ones most likely to buy Bibles, and you doom your new translation to sales obscurity). Again, the CEB is more adventurous than is typical, tending toward “faith of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ” so that Romans 3:22 in the CEB reads, “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” Again, this is an example where, I think, the CEB does well to go its own path in translation.
Again, though, sometimes this adventurousness produces translations that, while novel, are not actually an improvement over the traditional understanding. Lest you think I am making too big a deal out of “the Human One” issue, consider Genesis 15:6, which, in Hebrew, is:
וְהֶאֱמִין בָּיהוָיה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶיהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָֽה
wǝheʾĕmin bǝYHWH wayyaḥšǝb̠ehā lô ṣǝd̠āqā(h)
The KJV translates it this way:
“And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”
But the CEB translate it this way:
“Abram trusted the LORD, and the LORD recognized Abram’s high moral character.”
This one leaves me scratching my head, exegetically as well as theologically. First, the translation of Hebrew ḥāšab̠ as “recognize” is puzzling. To “recognize” something is to acknowledge the presence of something that already exists inherently in a situation or object, regardless of whether or not it is recognized. But typically, ḥāšab̠ is better translated with words such as “reckon”, “impute”, “think”, “account”, “consider”, “attribute”, or the like. The fundamental idea I find in ḥāšab̠ is the imposition of structure on reality by an act of the mind. The act of ḥāšab̠ creates something that did not previously exist, whether it be a totally new invention of the mind or the placing of a phenomenon within a new category. In other words, the illocutionary force of “recognize” is not at all like the illocutionary force of ḥāšab̠ (or maybe that’s perlocutionary force; I get the two confused).
Second, the translation of ṣǝd̠āqā(h) as “high moral character”, while possible (I guess), seems oddly empty of meaning. What does “high moral character” mean? As a general rule, ṣǝd̠āqā(h) designates that someone is in the right in their actions, and it is in this sense primarily a juridical term – in a lawsuit between two people, the one in whose favor the judge decides is considered ṣed̠ek̠ (“righteous” or “just”) and ṣǝd̠āqā(h) (“righteousness” or “being in the right”) is reckoned to him or her. More abstractly, ṣǝd̠āqā(h) is roughly equivalent to “justice”, especially when it designates a virtue of a society. Practically, in this context, ṣǝd̠āqā(h) means that courts are deciding cases fairly and rightly rather than in a biased manner. In all these senses, ṣǝd̠āqā(h) is focused on action rather than personality. A ṣed̠ek̠ is one who acts rightly, not a fundamentally good person (though one who acts rightly consistently would be considered a fundamentally good person because of those acts). On the other hand, to translate ṣǝd̠āqā(h) as “high moral character” focuses attention on Abram’s personality and virtue rather than his actions. The CEB says that when Abram trusted God, God saw that Abram was fundamentally a good person. This sounds suspiciously like modern Western moralism rather than any biblical concept of “righteousness”.
Theologically, is the CEB really intending to suggest that Genesis 15:6 is really about the LORD realizing that Abram is a really good person and so, presumably, worthy of the covenant made in the second half of the chapter? Obviously, that would go against the grain of the way this verse is used in Romans, but it is always possible that Paul was just using the text in a new and playful way to make his point. More problematic for me, however, is that this interpretation goes against the grain of Genesis, which is not about how the moral superiority of the patriarchs earns them favor with God over all other people. They make plenty of mistakes, just like everyone else – disqualifying mistakes, in fact. Not just Genesis but the Torah as a whole is unified on this subject: Israel are not chosen by God because of their superiority in any way whatsoever, but only because of God’s grace. If the CEB is not intending to contest this theologically, why the strange new translation? In this case, the adventurousness of the CEB backfires, producing not a fresh new reading but a jarringly wrongheaded one.
In fact, there is a reason to revisit the translation of Genesis 15:6, but it has nothing to do with whether ḥāšab̠ meaning “recognize” rather than “reckon”. It has to do with whether the subject of ḥāšab̠ is God or Abram. It is very possible that the verse in Genesis (regardless of how the LXX translates it and Paul uses it) is saying that it was Abram who considered God righteous via faith. In other words, he considered that God would make good on his promise on no other basis than faith. And while this translation reconsideration has considerable scholarly support, translating it as “the LORD recognized Abram’s high moral character” has none.
Many more examples, both good and bad, could be given. Overall, I detect in the CEB not simply an eagerness but really an over-eagerness to toss out traditional renderings in favor of virtually anything. Sometimes as I have said, the traditional rendering desperately needs to be revisited (Hebrews 12:2). Sometimes there is a legitimate debate over the traditional rendering, but the traditional rendering is not clearly wrong (Romans 3:22 – is it “faith/faithfulness of Christ” or “faith in Christ” – the Greek supports either), so the CEB’s choice of a non-traditional rendering is fine but not necessarily better. But sometimes a traditional rendering is tossed out in favor of something clearly inferior. So what results from all this is a translation of highs and lows: sometimes it is really, really good, and sometimes it is really, really bad.
I cannot help but feel that this eagerness is driven by a mainline Protestant desire to distance itself theologically from their conservative evangelical brethren. It is largely American mainline Protestant denominations that commissioned the CEB (The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the United Church of Christ). One way or another, there is certainly an eagerness to replace any word or phrase that sounds like “Christianese” with totally new language. Now, I am sympathetic to intentional distancing of ourselves from the text so that we can read it with fresh eyes. Oftentimes, that process is best accomplished by altering the way we render traditional readings. The problem is that sometimes, what we call “Christianese” is simply biblical language for which, if we try to avoid using it, we end up having to invent some other word or phrase that means exactly the same thing, and then we are left trying to define these new words or phrases. And if we don’t use biblical language to define the new replacement for biblical language, what ends up defining these new terms instead is popular religious nonsense. There is no way to avoid talking about faith, as complex a concept as it might be. There is no way to avoid talking about the atoning quality of the shedding of Jesus’ blood without doing violence to the Bible, because it is right there in the biblical text. When humanity pretends to sit in judgment over the language and images of the Bible, what is actually happening is that the Bible is sitting in judgment over humanity. But that’s a post for a different day.
I fear that my review of the CEB has come across more negatively than I really want it to. The fact is I think we as the church need the CEB because of its adventurousness. On account of the unevenness of the resulting quality of the translation, I don’t think it makes the best choice for one’s primary translation. I do think, however, that it, like the Message, makes an outstanding partner translation, something to read alongside your primary translation to give you an alternate take on the text at hand. The NIV, NLT, and CSB all make better primary translations precisely because of their conservatism and willingness to maintain contact with tradition, but they sometimes overlook places where the traditional translation really ought to be revisited. On the other hand, the CEB, more than any other translation I know of, will consistently offer an alternative translation that tries not to read American evangelicalism into the Bible. That is admirable and necessary, and it is why I say that we need the CEB.
You can buy many different printings of the Common English Bible at Christianbook.com
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