One of the questions I am often asked as a pastor is “What is the best Bible translation?” Typically, I reply, “It depends.” You may be thinking, “What a great help you are, pastor!” A number of factors go into selecting the right Bible translation. This post attempts to simplify the process. The next few paragraphs, we will examine the following topics: how the Bible was originally written, why each translation reads differently, how to choose a translation, and finally, my personal choice of translation. We begin, however, with a brief anecdote from my ministry that I pray is an anomaly, but I fear is more commonplace than anyone wants to admit. The name and translation has been changed or withheld to protect the innocent.
Early in my pastoral ministry I participated in a meeting regarding one of the church’s most prominent ministries. Everything went well, and it appeared that all of the “i’s” were dotted and the “t’s” were crossed and that the church was well prepared for the event. As I was gathering my things to depart, I noticed a look of concern on the ministry leader’s face. After a little prodding, Charlotte said, “Preacher, I don’t know why we have to use the translation you want to use in this ministry. After all, if God gave us the Bible in “translation X” shouldn’t that be enough for everybody? If God spoke to Jesus and Paul that way, then we need use it too.” I tried to mask my shock and horror at the innocent ignorance. However, I have been told I do not hide my emotions well. (It’s a genetic curse passed down from both sides of my family, what can I say?) The ensuing conversation included much of what is discussed below. I hope it will serve you well.
The Bible did not originally exist in any of the modern translations that we have today. In fact, the Bible was written over the course of thousands of years in three languages. The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. A few portions are written in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek. Thus, any English version of the Bible is a translation from the original biblical languages. Different translators translate those languages in slightly different ways based upon translation philosophies agreed upon by the scholars overseeing the version.
When an organization starts working on a new Bible translation, the first decision made is which translation philosophy to use. There are three primary translation philosophies. The first is formal equivalence (hereafter designated F.E.) Herein the translators strive to translate the Bible in a “word for word” fashion from the Greek and Hebrew. The second alternative is known as dynamic equivalence (hereafter D.E.). These translators aim for a “thought for thought” rendering of the text. A third category often used in Bible translation is known as a paraphrase. Paraphrases try to sum up the Bible in the translators’ own words. The three philosophies explain the differences in most modern translations.
Before proceeding, it might help to loosely sort the most popular translations according to these philosophies. It is not an exhaustive list. The most common F.E. translations are the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the English Standard Version (ESV), the Holman Christian Standard Version (HCSB), and the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). The most common D.E. versions are the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT). The most popular paraphrase is The Message.
|Formal Equivalent||Dynamic Equivalent||Paraphrase|
|·NASB ·KJV ·NKJV ·ESV ·HCSB ·CSB||·NIV ·NLT||·The Message|
What should I buy for myself or my loved one?
Now it’s time answer the question posed at the beginning of these posts. You will remember, of course, that the most oft given answer is, “It depends!” There are three primary factors to consider when answering that question.
The first factor is comfort. Most individuals who grew up in church, have used a particular Bible translation for most of their lives. They have used it for scripture memory and devotional reading for years. If they have a translation that they are most comfortable with, whether it is a formal equivalent or dynamic equivalent, I recommend that they continue to use it.
A second factor is the ability to read and understand the translation. This is often most discussed when someone is asking about the King James Version. Let me issue a disclaimer: I think the KJV is a beautiful translation. I grew up reading and using it. Many adults who grew up in church did the same. However, many younger adults and children in my pastorates have expressed to me a difficulty in reading and understanding the Old English idioms used by the King James translators. I experience a similar phenomenon when I try to read anything by William Shakespeare. It often takes me a few pages to catch the flow of the poetry and prose. This might cause discouragement for a reader. They may abandon any Bible reading effort. My advice is to select a translation that they are able to read and understand easily. I know that the enemy certainly doesn’t want God’s people reading the Bible. If Satan can establish difficulty as a roadblock to reading then he has succeeded. Therefore one must consider readability and understanding when selecting a new Bible.
The third and final factor is what translation do you desire to read? This sounds simplistic, so let me expand. I have, at one point or another, in my life and ministry been a proponent of several different Bible translations. This has occurred for a variety of different reasons. The most prominent is that I have opted to read alternative translations in my personal devotional life. This helps me see the scriptures with a fresh set of eyes. For example, several years ago, I used a CSB my daily quiet times. It so stirred my heart that I adopted it as my translation of choice.
What translation should a person choose? It depends! Consider these factors and choose. You can’t go wrong with the Word of God!
For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Hebrews 4:12 (CSB)
I felt a gentle reminder here of the definition of ignorance was in order, lest I be stoned for the harshness of my comment. Ignorant is defined as “having little knowledge, education, or experience; lacking knowledge.” I certainly meant no disrespect to the godly woman who sat before me, but she either didn’t know any better or didn’t care.
 The adverb “loosely” is chosen since both F.E. and D.E. translations employ the other philosophies in various places throughout their composition.