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The NET Bible

I regularly get into conversations (online and IRL) about which Bible translations is the best. I use NRSV normally and Inclusive Grail for praying the psalms (with Benedictine Daily Prayer). If in doubt, I check back to the original languages. The NET (New English Translation) has turned up in a few of these conversations – so let’s give that a spin.

Unlike NRSV, NET is a translation from scratch (NRSV is obviously an reworking of RSV, and so on back). NET has over 60,000 translators’ notes – this indicates issues with English translations and indicates why decisions were made and options for alternatives. The idea for the NET Bible goes back to a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1995. It was conceived of as a digital translation, available free on the internet. So it is copyright free, and it has gone through several revisions.

It claims to have resolved the tension between formal equivalence (word-for-word) translations and dynamic equivalence (idea-for-idea). The notes indicate formal equivalence; the text follows dynamic equivalence. I am less convinced of this point: no one translates word for word from one language to another (not even the terrible “English” of the Roman Missal!) Even the most rigorous formal-equivalence translators attempt to rework translated words into coherent meaning that expresses what the original intended.

OK. Let’s have a look. Let’s start with the Gospel reading at yesterday’s Eucharist (Luke 13:22-30). It was noticeable that the question asked of Jesus:

‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’

Luke 13:23

in the original is not in this future tense. σῳζόμενοι is a present participle: “Will those being saved be few?” I only found two translations that have this correct: the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

This question (including its tense, etc) is what I focused on in my homily at yesterday’s Eucharist. Until now, I did not look the NET version of the question:

“Lord, will only a few be saved?”

NET version of Luke 13:23

NB there is no translators’ note about this, no hint that a choice has been made. Yes – online, you can drill down to the Greek and there find the morphology of σῳζόμενοι which you are told is: VPPPNM-P. But I can not find any place where VPPPNM-P is explained (verb, present passive participle, nominative, masculine, plural – or, at least, that is my guess at what NET has as its order; the order of the Ps, for example, could be different for all I know).

Gender translation: In Prov 27:19, the Hebrew הָאָדָם (‘adam) is translated as ‘person’:

As in water the face is reflected as a face,
so a person’s heart reflects the person.

NET version of Prov 27:19

There is no hint in the translators’ notes that there is anything but a gender-inclusive word being translated here. But there is no consistency when they deal with the exact same word in the Genesis 2 creation account, before the earth-creature (for that is what ‘adam clearly means in the Hebrew, made from the הָאֲדָמָה ‘adamah – earth) is split into אִשָּׁה, ʾishah woman and אִישׁ, ʾish man. There, the word that is “person” without comment in Prov 27:19 is simply a male – again without comment:

The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

NET version of Genesis 2:7

When it comes to the fraught translating of ἱλασμός, hilasmos – propitiation/expiation (Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 1 Jn 2:2; 1 Jn 4:10) and our understanding of Christ’s death in relation to God’s salvation, the NET translation and notes vary in usefulness.

Although there is a preface to the NET version of the apocrypha/deuterocanonical books, I cannot locate the actual texts online.

The word “homosexual”, first introduced into any English translation in 1946, is retained in NET – and expanded to “practicing homosexuals”.

All in all, the NET version seems to sit comfortably at the NIV end of the protestant/evangelical end of the spectrum. It is reasonably, though not invariably, inclusive in language without stirring up too much controversy with those who are already comfortable that women are addressed by the scriptures.

Online discussions about translations at the worst end of the spectrum have people liking translations which fit close to their own prejudices of what they think God should have written. At the more academic end of the spectrum, the danger is that those who have not put in the effort to learn biblical languages (and these are often monolingual English speakers who have no idea how different languages work), such people will argue for a version that comes across as doing the need for agility in biblical languages for them. The NET version is in danger of confirming such an approach. It gives the impression that all the translation issues are available to the reader. Even this brief glance at a sample of texts in the NET version highlights that nothing is further from the truth. The NET version is no replacement for careful attention to the original biblical languages and deep research into the cultural and historical background behind our received scriptures. I will not be buying a physical version of this book to add to my shelves of translations.

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3 thoughts on “The NET Bible”

  1. Kia ora, in the case of Luke 13:23 this may a case of the way in which a future participle (very common in Classical Greek) is replaced by the present participle in Koinē Greek or alternative constructions to express purpose.

  2. I took a look at a few footnotes on passages with which I am well-familiar in the original languages, and there are a number of interpretative “whoppers” and eisegesis therein. I wouldn’t trust this edition further than I could throw it.

    1. Thanks, Tobias – yes, I hope I made clear that this version is more problematic because people without your and my agility get the impression that this version replaces the need for such agility. Blessings.

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