Published by IVP on August 31, 2021
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"The Great Spirit loves this world of human beings so deeply he gave us his Son--the only Son who fully represents him. All who trust in him and his way will not come to a bad end but will have the life of the world to come that never fades--full of beauty and harmony. Creator did not send his Son to decide against the people of this world, but to set them free from the worthless ways of the world." John 3:16-17
"Love is patient and kind. Love is never jealous. It does not brag or boast. It is not puffed up or big-headed. Love does not act in shameful ways, nor does it care only about itself. It is not hot-headed, nor does it keep track of wrongs done to it. Love is not happy with lies and injustice, but truth makes its heart glad. Love keeps walking even when carrying a heavy load. Love keeps trusting, never loses hope, and stands firm in hard times. The road of love has no end." 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
The First Nations Version (FNV) is a retelling of the Creator's Story--the Scriptures--following the tradition of the storytellers of these oral cultures. Many First Nations tribes communicate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues. This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonates in the hearts of First Nations people. The FNV is a dynamic equivalence translation that captures the simplicity, clarity, and beauty of Native storytellers in English, while remaining faithful to the original language of the New Testament. Whether you are Native or not, you will experience the Scriptures in a fresh and new way.
The First Nations Version is a New Testament paraphrase that retells the story of Jesus and the early church using First Nations cultural and linguistic thought patterns in order to make Scripture come alive to Native people. The project was the brainchild of Terry M. Wildman, who wrote the first draft of the paraphrase under the guidance of twelve individuals who formed the First Nations Translation Council.
Some of the most significant distinctions is its decision to translate names and places into the literal meaning of those names. For example, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians becomes the First Letter from Small Plan to the Sacred Family in the Village of Pleasure. Every person and place name in the text is followed up by the typical transliteration from Greek in a smaller font-sized parenthetical. This is a simple thing, but does align well with Native naming structures and opens up readers to think about why people and places were named what they are. The names of God are also treated this way, so that God is often translated “Great Spirit” while Jesus is named “Creator Sets Free.”
The text also occasionally adds contextual interpolations in bold and italic font meant to add depth and understanding. For example, in Acts 4, Stands on Rock (Peter) and He Shows Goodwill (John) speak before the Sanhedrin and defy the Sanhedrin’s order to not preach in the name of Creator Sets Free (Jesus). After verse 20, the text adds The council could not believe their ears! How could these backward people from the Circle of Nations (Galilee) stand up to them? Then, the text moves into verse 21, which is the Sanhedrin’s warning to Peter and John. It is clear within the text that these interpolations are not a part of the original text and make contextual educated assumptions about the feelings or thoughts of those in the background. It’s not unlike a pastor reading the text aloud, then explaining some of the assumed cultural elements.
Wildman and his team have obviously put in the work and taken care to faithfully and accurately paraphrase the text into their cultural context. For me, a white pastor, it takes a familiar text and makes me slow down and look at it through a different lens while retaining faithfulness to the original context. For First Nations people, the response has been tremendous with many reporting how this version felt authentic to their heritage. In that sense, I feel that First Nations Version was a needed work that contributed greatly to biblical scholarship by decolonizing English language translations and countering the narrative of Christianity as a “white man’s” religion. If First Nations people are finding themselves drawn closer to the Great Spirit through this work, then it has accomplished its purpose.
One Major Criticism
However, I do have one major criticism. The most important thing that I would take note of is that the First Nations Version does not appear to be a translation from the established Greek critical text. Without getting too academic, most modern New Testament English translations are made from the Novum Testamentum Graece (The New Testament in Greek). This is what is known as a “critical text” as it takes into account all known manuscripts and variations and collates them one, academically-recognized standard. Most new translations come from that understanding of the original language.
Wildman is not an expert in Greek and the website for the project is unclear as to the original sources from which Wildman and the Translation Council based their translation, simply saying that “a draft was prepared, verse-by-verse.” In an interview with Christians for Social Action, Wildman says that David Ohlson, CEO of Wycliffe Bible Translators “checked each verse against other English translations and, when necessary, looked into the original Greek.” This seems to indicate that Wildman’s translation was based primarily on English-language translations. Thus, the First Nations Version is what I would consider a cultural paraphrase, not a translation.
In fact, in a since-deleted “About” post concerning the project, Wildman wrote “The word ‘translation’ doesn’t really describe this project; it is more of retelling of the Scriptures in the tradition of the storytellers of oral cultures—some might call it a paraphrase… The FNV is not intended to replace standard translations but to present the scriptures with word textures and choices that relate in a general way to Native Americans and other First Nations English speaking people.”
This does not negate the cultural value or accuracy of the text, it simply means that the purpose of the text is cultural and not linguistic. Other examples of paraphrased Bible versions are Eugene Peterson’s The Message and Brian Simmons’ The Passion Translation. My personal rule for reading paraphrases is to always read them alongside more academically rigorous translations to make sure that the cultural connotations of the paraphrase fit the realities of the original text. This is especially important for white readers like myself who are not part of either ancient Near Eastern or modern First Nations culture.
I wish that Wildman, InterVarsity Press, and the First Nations Version project as a whole had not deleted that original “About” section. Even in May 2021, the site retained text that said referred to the project as a “a contextual translation in English, in the tradition of the storytellers of oral culture.” The site appears to have been overhauled sometime between May and September 2021, in preparation for the project’s publication, and this language was removed from the site and does not appear in the project’s preface.
Instead, the official language of the First Nations Version introduction refers to the project as a “dynamic equivalence” (thought-for-thought) translation. This would place the project in the same category as versions such as the New Living Translation (NLT) and even the New International Version (NIV). Both of these versions were translated from the best critical texts by full teams of credentialed scholars. It is categorically incorrect to call the First Nations Version a dynamically equivalent translation of Scripture and it is unfortunate that they have chosen to present their work as such.
In the end, the First Nations Version is a valuable cultural paraphrase that holds meaning for First Nations peoples and exists as a labor of love of First Nations pastors to present a retelling of Scripture through the lens of First Nations culture. As someone who is not of First Nations ancestry, I am not qualified to critique the validity or authenticity of that cultural lens personally. However, in reading about this paraphrase from First Nations readers and understanding the paraphrasing process, I’m inclined to say they’ve done a great job.
The text is useful because it presents Scripture through a lens that is neither culturally Ancient Near Eastern nor Western European. By presenting Scripture to readers through a different lens—whether familiar (as someone from a First Nations background would encounter it) or unfamiliar (as I and other white Americans may encounter it)—First Nations Version gives us a unique and refreshing perspective, reinvigorating the text by forcing us to read it anew.
Despite my concerns regarding the presentation of the text as a translation rather than a paraphrase, there were no texts that immediately jumped out to me as obfuscating or changing valid interpretations of Scripture. Even reading some negative reviews, I found no complaints concerning specific passages that were not also well-attested translational choices in other academically rigorous translations.
The full effect of First Nations Version remains to be seen. However, I have to commend Wildman and the translation council for their long work toward making Scripture culturally accessible to indigenous people. While the story of Scripture is from the ancient Near East, it is a story for all people at all times in all places. Translating the cultural context into something understandable and relevant helps Scripture come alive. It is no longer an Eastern text or the White Man’s religion, but universal good news for all people that lives within all cultures, pervades all contexts, and finds life in all expressions of humanity. The Great Spirit, I believe, is pleased.