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The Clear Beauty of the Bible

A review of Holman’s new CSB translation

Published on:
April 20, 2017
Read time:
7 min.
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As soon as I knew a copy of the new Christian Standard Bible was coming to my front door I started to craft plans for how I’d use it. My internal seminary nerd trembles with excitement over a brand new Bible. A new translation gets me giddy. #nerdalert

Every translation of the Bible sets out to achieve something specific with its translation. The CSB translation team wanted to produce a translation that accommodates a spectrum of reasons people open their Bibles.

How God’s word is translated either reinforces the availability of the Bible or acts like a sixty-six-book-long Keep Out sign.

Want to spend a quick fifteen in your Bible? The CSB is easy reading. Want to prepare a sermon for a few hundred people? You can count on the CSB to be understood by your audience. Want to read a version for your precept study? The CSB should hold up to academic rigor and textual criticism.

The CSB wants you to taste the Bible reading rainbow. 

My first impression was a good one.

Which verse would I look up first? An old favorite? A controversial saying? One of Paul’s English grammar–defying multi-verse sentences?

Despite my plans, the moment I tipped the black goatskin leather CSB Bible out of its box and into my hand I forgot them all.

How can I explain the feeling of bound leather perfection? Butter and silk are tired expressions and simply not true enough.

I’ll just tell you that a couple days later, in a moment of contemplation, I found myself absentmindedly stroking the cover of the CSB. There were at least seven books, three pens, and two beverages surrounding me, yet as I turned the story of Tamar over in my mind, I looked down, and there was my index finger slowly drawing circles in the leather. So yeah, it’s soft. 

Don’t worry, I did eventually open it.

The translation that doesn’t like to compromise.

Christians get to put the sacred words of God in people’s hands. “Here are the words of God,” we say. “Come read them for yourself.” Yet how God’s word is translated either reinforces the availability of the Bible or acts like a sixty-six-book-long Keep Out sign.

The CSB translation team knows this. They set out to create a version that uses words most people are familiar with and strings them together into sentences normal people might actually say. All without putting words into the biblical writers’ mouths.

Here’s how they describe it.

The Bible is meant to be read, understood, and shared. So your translation of God’s Word should be true-to-the-original and one you like to read. . . . The CSB is for everyone—for readers young and old, new and seasoned. It’s a Bible pastors can preach from and a Bible you can share with your neighbor hearing God’s Word for the very first time.

This might sound like table stakes for Bible translation. But it's an ambitious goal. Ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic evade easy English equivalents. It’s like trying to recreate the menu of Thomas Keller’s three-Michelin-star restaurant French Laundry with whatever’s available at your local Tom Thumb. 

To give us reliable translations, some versions prioritize readability and choose the best equivalent that gets the idea across in plain English. 

Others prioritize accuracy. If an original language is most accurately represented by a rarely used word or grammatical gymnastics, then so be it. 

The CSB team wasn’t interested in getting it close-enough or using words or sentences that the typical person wouldn’t understand. They asked readability and accuracy to share the top spot.

The translation team accomplishes this through a philosophy they call optimal equivalence. Basically, they let the original text dictate whether a word-for-word rendering or a more dynamic thought-for-thought rendering best serves the modern reader.

The word choice had done some of the teaching for me.

The Translation for Every Type of Bible Reader

As it turned out, in the first month of having the CSB I taught twice from the book of Genesis—they were forty-five-minute teaching times that walked expositionally, verse-by-verse, through a section of Genesis. Think: sermon for a group made up of only women.

That happened to also be the month I turned in two weeks of curriculum for a Bible study over the book of Matthew.

So, I took the CSB at their word. I added the it to my academic prep and public presentation of the Bible.

It’s probably good to know that the translation standard for both of these projects was the ESV. As a habit, I tend to read the text in a few other translations when I study: NIV, NASB, and NET. This time I just tacked on the CSB. 

I’ll show my hand a little here: I am fairly disenchanted with the ESV. I used to love it, but as I got to know it better I started to cringe at the clunky structure and some of the heavy-handed theology. I’ve been defaulting to the NET or the NIV, but I’m primed for a new translation release.

And this one came through for me. 

By my second round of teaching-prep I found myself reaching for the CSB as my first choice. And not because I needed to review it. I picked up the CSB because it was helping me craft better teaching and write better curriculum questions.

Reading an ESV feels like driving a pristine vintage car. It’s beautiful, and the mechanics are right, but it’s not a smooth ride. Reading some of the sentences is like driving a country back road in a car without a suspension. 

The NIV can feel smooth but then all of a sudden I’m forced to take a detour. Something is a touch ambiguous and I wonder how particular they were with the text. So I spend extra time checking commentaries because the words don’t feel just right.

In comparison, reading the CSB felt like a new car on a freshly paved highway. For the most part, the words were familiar, the sentences were constructed the way people speak, and the logic was sound.

When I stood in front of a couple hundred women to explain the story of Jacob and Esau I needed to cross reference a difficult passage about Esau out of Hebrews. I read it from the CSB because it made sense to the listener and it explained the situation. Basically, the word choice in the translation had done some of the teaching for me. 

As a teacher, that’s what I’m looking for. 

For the CSB, inclusion is a translation issue.

They set out to democratize the Bible.

I recently attended a brunch that raised support for a ministry that serves teen moms. The seats were filled with women, the ministry serves women, the leaders and organizers of the organization are women.

So, when they read 1 John 3:16 from the ESV I was struck by the linguistic exclusion of everyone in attendance and everyone the ministry served:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

There were a couple brothers in attendance—pastors from the host church and family of the organizers. But the money, service hours, and prayer would be given by the sisters of the faith for the sisters of the faith.

Asking women to project themselves into a text hundreds of times is an unnecessary barrier; it dulls the full thrust of the scripture for them when you ask them to do mental gymnastics to simply see themselves included in the word of God.

That moment convinced me that 1 John 3:16 would be the first verse I read in the CSB:

This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

This characterizes the gender inclusion of the CSB Bible. 

Similar to the NIV and the NET, they use brothers and sisters or non-gendered equivalents when both men and women are clearly in view. That said, they still hold to a conservative theology on gender distinction. Passages that speak about the roles of men and women don’t see much movement.

For example, the ESV chooses to say “brothers” for every instance James address the audience in his letter. The CSB uses “brothers and sisters,” well, except for one time. In James 3:1 where the text is about teaching they choose to stick with “brothers.” 

Personally, I’d have liked to see more movement on these issues. But this choice should appease the more conservative readers while opening the doors for women to see themselves in scripture.

Similarly, the original HCSB used the name “Yahweh” where many modern English Bible translations stuck with the title “LORD” when this appeared in the text. And they also capitalized pronouns for the Godhead when they were immediately obvious. 

Both of these things were off-putting to some modern readers. Just another reason to hold the Bible at arm’s length. So, you won’t find them in the CSB.

The Good Work of Democratizing the Bible

I lugged around the CSB with me for over a month and the entire time a little vignette that Ann Lamott shares in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith followed me around too. Not a like shadow—accepted, unintrusive, and poetic—more like a toddler who grabs onto your legs while you try to make dinner. No matter how hard I tried to shake it from my shins it only got louder until I embraced it and made fulfilling its cries my sole task.

Ann writes,

There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”

Anne’s story kept reminding me that access to scripture isn’t for the scholarly. 

The CSB open on my table translated ancient truths for a modern world in such a way that just maybe more people would have scripture on their hearts. 

Sure, it’s not perfect. But the ultimate goal was to get more people reading the true words of scripture. They set out to democratize the Bible. That’s a goal I can get behind and one I think they made great strides toward achieving.

Kelsey Hency
Kelsey is the Editor-in-Chief of Fathom. She holds an MA from Dallas Theological Seminary. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram.

Cover image by Kelsey Hency.

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