Brief Thoughts on the Holman Christian Standard Bible

The HCSB is next in my mini-series of Bible Translation Thoughts:

The Holman Christian Standard Bible deserves wider circulation. It ought to be among today’s best selling Bibles but it’s disappointing to find so few British Christians are aware of it. The American Christian Booksellers Association reports strong sales in the US but I doubt it has achieved anything close to that in the UK.

Published in 2004, the HCSB is a brand new translation and not a revision of an earlier work. Perhaps because of this, it has a refreshing feel to it: it is unencumbered by existing renderings and the translators seem prepared to sacrifice traditional phraseology in favour of accuracy. Accordingly some verses appear odd but they reflect better the underlying Hebrew or Greek. For example:

John 3:16 “For God loved the world in this way…” as opposed to “For God so loved the world”.
Matt 6:9 “Your name be honoured as holy” rather than “Hallowed be your name”.
Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my Shepherd; There is nothing I lack” instead of “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want”

I imagine some Christians might dislike these changes since they don’t ‘sound right’ but perhaps they may be more forgiving in instances where the translators’ innovation is reflected in single words rather than whole verses. For instance, in translating the Greek doulos they avoid “servant” as in most translations, choosing instead “slave” – correctly, in my opinion. Thus in Romans 1:1, Paul introduces himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus”.

A certain boldness is evident in renderings that go against the majority opinion. For instance, in Galatians 6:16, nearly all translations opt for something akin to the ESV: “And as for all those who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” The HCSB is one of the few translations (NRSV is another) that separates the words “peace” and “mercy”. Accordingly, HCSB translates, “May peace be on all those who follow this standard, and mercy also be on the Israel of God!” The HCSB therefore suggests that Paul is addressing two separate groups desiring peace upon one and mercy on the other. Needless to say, this has interesting consequences for the exegesis of Gal 16:6.

Another interesting concept is the translation of the Greek Christos. Unlike other translations that consistently translate this “Christ,” the HCSB interchanges between Messiah and Christ. The translators explain their reasoning thus: “Where the NT emphasises Christos as the name of our Lord or has a Gentile context, ‘Christ’ is used … Where the NT has a Jewish context, the title ‘Messiah’ is used.”

I am unsure what value this has – Messiah and Christ have the same meaning (anointed one) and I don’t think this method adds any clarity. To a young Christian or someone unfamiliar with the two titles, it could even cause confusion. Furthermore it is surely sometimes difficult to determine whether a passage has a “Gentile context” or a “Jewish context”.

Sometimes, the interchanging of Messiah and Christ is very strange. In Romans 15:7-8, the HCSB reads “Therefore except one another, just as the Messiah also accepted you, to the glory of God. Now I say that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God to confirm that promises to the fathers”. The HCSB seems to unnecessarily swap between Christ (v. 7) and Messiah (v.8). This seems particularly odd when v. 8 could be considered to have a “Jewish context”.

Finally, a word on translation philosophy: the HCSB translators coined a new phrase to describe their method – “optimal equivalence”. In theory, this means they translate some verses literally and others freely depending on need. In practice, they do not go far in either direction and so the translation never feels particularly literal (cf. NASB) or particularly free (cf. NLT). Overall, it sits somewhere between the NIV and the ESV on the scale of free to literal. It is not too dissimilar to NRSV although the HCSB does not use gender neutral language.

Overall, I love the HCSB. The scholarship is rigorous and bold resulting in a translation that is accurate and up-to-date. I consider it the best general-purpose translation on the market and ideal for church or devotional use. A few years ago, I was asked to choose the pew Bible for the church I attended. I selected the HCSB and I still believe that was the right decision.

Added 27/2/08 – Interview with Dr Ed Blum, General Editor of the HCSB.
Andy Cheung is a PhD student researching Bible Translation and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School, England, UK

  1. Why do you think it is that better translations are popular in America and not in Britain?
    How do you judge which translations to use at which times? Before you know the biblical languages, that is.
    How would you suggest finding the HCSB, would abebooks or other internet bookshops (I live in South Africa, not Britain) be the best route?

  2. Hi Celeste

    I wouldn’t say that better translations are popular in America and not Britain. For example, the King James Version is much more popular in America than the UK and whilst I think it’s good, I don’t think it’s the best translation available now. The same could be said of the American Standard Version and the New King James Version.

    Regarding the HCSB, I think part of it is that there isn’t an Anglicised edition, unlike the NIV, TNIV ESV and others. But the main reason is probably to do with marketing and the tendency of Christians to keep to one Bible. My guess is that the NIV is used by 90% of evangelicals and few of them know much about Bible translations: this is part of the reason why I’m blogging on this subject.

    Regarding my decision on which translations to use, it mainly comes down to experience. I’m confident that the HCSB is excellent for general churches because I preached through Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Obadiah, Jude, among others. For readability over many chapters, I’m most comfortable with the NLT. For in depth exegesis, it’s a mixture of NASB, ESV, NET and my Greek Testament.

    Regarding purchasing the HCSB, if the postage costs are not too high for you then Internet bookshop such as Amazon are ideal. Personally, I do like to support local independent Christian bookshops whenever I can.

  3. I have a copy of the HCSB New Testament only, which I believe was published before the full bible, so I apologise if my comments are somewhat out of date now. I notice that the HCSB team seem to have done a bit of gender neutralising/changing, – at least compared to the KJV and NIV – and I found the following quote from their website:

    “The NIV was done before there was a lot of “gender sensitivity”. One estimate says that there are 800 places in the NT of the NIV where male language is used where the Greek text would allow a more generic or neutral translation. A classic example is Romans 12:6-8. The NIV has inserted nine (9) male pronouns or the word “man” where the Greek text does not require it. The HCSB is gender accurate and has no male language inserted in this passage. The TNIV has gone overboard and is more “gender neutral”. It may be said that: NIV is gender “biased”, HCSB is “gender accurate”, TNIV attempts to be more “gender neutral”.”

    I wonder how far you agree with the HCSB’s claims? I don’t want to try and rubbish a whole translation based upon one verse, but a look at Jn 14:17 suggests they have removed the neuter pronouns inserting masculine ones.

    I think the HCSB makes a really excellent contribution, and I am sorry that it isn’t read more widely. The following taken from the preface of the book shows that they are committed to the text being inerrant:

    “The Bible is God’s revelation to man. It is the only book that gives us accurate information about God, man’s need, and God’s provision for that need. It provides us with guidance for life and tells us how to receive eternal life. The Bible can do these things because it is God’s inspired Word, inerrant in the original manuscripts.”

    Incidentally, I have used in in prison ministry not only because it reads quite well but it also comes in large print at a relatively cheap price. This makes it good for prisoners who may have lower literacy levels.

    I hadn’t noticed that they translate doulos as slave, but thank God that some major translators have.

  4. Hi Ollie, are there any translations that use neuter pronouns in John 14:17 though? The following are the same as HCSB: NRSV, NIV, ESV, NEB, NASB, NJB, NRSV, RSV. I stopped looking after that!

    I think it’s legitimate to use a masculine pronoun in that verse on the basis of other uses on the NT and also because paraclete is masculine.

    Generally, I would say that the HCSB uses masculine pronouns freely yet at the same time does not introduce them unnecessarily.

  5. New to this blog and am finding some good stuff to read here. I’m curious since I’m leaning towards the HCSB as my new go to, I wondered if Andy has done a mini-review of the new ISV and if/how this translation compares to NET & HCSB? I’ve been hearing some good things about it; namely accuracy, literal and excellent modern language. Thoughts?

  6. Greetings! Thanks for the comment. I do like the ISV from what I’ve seen so far and I’ll certainly be taking a closer look and writing a review soon.

  7. Hi

    I bought the HCSB and I think it’s the best Bible out there in the market
    I have nearly all the popular translations but this one is awesome.

    I have compared it with the NASB and is spot on for literal translation but goes one step further by making it easy to understand hard verses.

    This Bible is not marketed well because I think it’s way better than NASB and NIV.

    I am so addicted to this Bible now. I mean I just keep on reading and reading. It’s so easy to understand.

    I would recommend this Bible for anyone who is looking for accuracy, easy to understand in todays language Bible.

    I think if they change the Lords prayer to something like Our Father In Heaven, Hallowed be your name it might appeal to more people.



  8. Dear Andy,

    I’m not sure if you’ll read this because its sometime after your post. It is so refreshing to see believer really trying to find a great translation of the Bible and diligently doing it.

    I am can read biblical hebrew and greek. It takes me time to actually to make out what different passages says. My mentor in Jerusalem was a Jewish Rabbi (He’s a believer now) and he was able to read the Greek and the Hebrew and give an immediate translation.

    He was big on the NKJV, which he felt was a good translation into English. Which I am not a huge fan of the KJV or the NKJV. Back in the day when I first became a believer I liked the NASB even though it is got the rep of being the ‘most literal’ translations in some verses it doesn’t accurately give the feeling/paint the picture if you know what I mean. Then I was big on the ESV and that’s what I used up until about 3 years ago. I switched to the HCSB. I got the complete pocket bible (which was my ESV as well) what I love about it it’ll tell you what other translations (other manuscripts that is) says or alternative ways the verse can be written as well as what it literally means in hebrew/greek.

    I guess my only complaint is that it does have that baptist flavor and in different areas you can see the baptist theology (I am trying not to say the camp here hence why I am being ambiguous which isn’t good because not all baptist hold to this theology).

    Well Brother, Be Blessed!

    In Yeshua

  9. I have only had my Holman Christian Study Bible for about two weeks. Bought at Koorong Books in Australia.
    Had never heard of it before. It is so refreshing to read. Pages have the editorial feel of Time Magazine. I read with delight and can assure you that this is the best Bible experience I have ever had in my life.
    I, Murray, feel that I have been blessed by finding this Bible.

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