Choosing a Bible translation can feel like a daunting task. A simple peruse through the Bible section at your local bookstore is enough to overwhelm even the most seasoned Bible reader. You will undoubtedly be confronted by translations such as the New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), New King James Version (NKJV), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), New Living Translation (NLT), and on and on the list goes. So, where should one begin and what are we to make of all these translations? How do you pick the right one?
Before we get into the heart of the discussion, it’s important to note a couple things: First, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic thrown in; therefore, unless a person knows or is willing to learn these languages, translation is necessary. If you are an English speaking person, an English Bible will be needed, and thankfully, there are plenty of great English translations!
Second, the original Hebrew and Greek texts no longer exist. That’s right, we do not have the original Bible. The only thing scholars have access to are copies of copies. Don’t let that point freak you out. Scribes were super careful in the ancient world; plus, many scholars insist that 97% (at the very least) of the copies we have portray the original New Testament texts accurately and without doubt. That percentage is a tad bit lower for the Old Testament but still over 90%. We have plenty of reasons to be confident in our Bible.
Did you know there is an entire academic discipline devoted to studying the various copies of Biblical texts? The discipline is called textual criticism. Without getting super technical, I’ll just say that, according to J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, the collection of copies used for translating the Old Testament is called the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). Say that seven times fast. Also, the New Testament collection is found in the latest edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (GNT). For more information, I’ll point you to the book by Duvall and Hays called Grasping God’s Word. It’s a great resource for those new to reading and interpreting the Bible.
Now, let’s move to the heart of our discussion.
The Process and Thinking Behind Translations
Language changes. If you were to pick up a copy of an English book written 100 years ago, it would likely possess some word structures that would take a little deciphering. A book written 200 years ago would take even more work to understand. We just don’t use the same vernacular today. Therefore, Bible translators are given the task of taking the Greek and Hebrew text and putting it into readable and modern English. It can be tricky. Even my little bit of Spanish in college made me realize how difficult languages can be. No two languages are exactly alike, therefore, translating texts is difficult.
Basically, when translating the Bible, scholars fall into two camps: camp formal or camp functional. The formal camp believes that Bible translation should reflect the structure and wording of the original language as much as possible. Their approach is often called word-for-word. Sometimes this form of translation feels awkward when read. It does have major benefits to those teaching or preaching the Bible, though.
The functional camp believes that the translation should reflect the meaning of the original text and be as readable as possible. Their approach is often called thought-for-thought. Sometimes this approach can soften historic theological terms. It works well for devotional reading, however.
Picking the Right One
Duvall and Hays provide four things to consider before choosing a translation. First, choose a translation that uses modern English. The King James Version, as much as it has been used by God, will not help the person new to the Bible. It’s language is outdated and will only cause confusion. Second, choose a translation that uses the standard Hebrew and Greek texts as mentioned above. I believe most translations provide this information in the preface. Third, pick a Bible that was translated by a committee rather than an individual. Many English Bibles were translated by multiple people spanning multiple denominations. Such an approach helps guard against personal biases. Lastly, choose a translation appropriate for your needs at the moment. If you’re new to the Bible, perhaps consider a thought-for-thought translation as it’ll be easier to read. I love using the New Living Translation for devotional reading, especially with the Psalms.
Here’s my personal advice. I have three suggestions: First, use the translation that you’ll read again and again. I think reading the Bible should be exciting. It should feel like it’s reading you more than you’re reading it. If the translation your using is difficult to read, find a different one. One pastor said that the best Bible translation is the one you’ll read. I agree with that statement.
Second, I believe you should use multiple translations. Unless you’re fluent in Greek and Hebrew, using multiple translations can only help. I prefer the NIV, ESV, and NLT. I bought a CSB this past year and have also enjoyed reading it. Many Bible apps offer multiple translations. YouVersion is a great app with lots of content to keep you exploring.
Lastly, I think it’s wise to have one primary translation. Use many but memorize and read primarily from one. Don’t get in a hurry to find that one translation. I just settled on the NIV last year. There is no perfect translation, but some, for reasons I won’t get into here, are better than others.
At the end of the day, I know of no major English translation that will lead you into theological error. Just grab the one you like and begin to engage with the living word of God.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12 NIV).
More could be said, of course, but hopefully the information here will set you up to make a great choice when considering a translation.