Obviously, any document in the original language is superior to a translation. However, many of us can’t read Greek or Hebrew. Hence, we are forced to rely upon translations. This leads to the question “which translation is the best”? I do not intend to answer that question, because that is subjective. Instead, I intend to offer advice that is useful to help you determine which translation is right for you. This depends on a variety of factors, and we will consider the following.
Are you wanting to study the Bible, or just read it?
This is the first question you should ask yourself and answer before proceeding. There are basically three types of translations. First, we have paraphrase translation. These would be Bibles like The Message or the New Living Translation. They are written in modern English, and translate idioms into modern, more easy to understand sayings. However, these paraphrases will be the opinion of the translator. Thus, some of the original meaning will be decided for you. If you simply want to read the Bible and get a general idea of what is says, this may be an acceptable tradeoff for you. I don’t intend to criticize these Bibles, but they’re not very useful for the purpose of study and cross reference.
Next, we have “thought for thought” translations. In my opinion, these are a better choice. They are truer to the original, yet are written in an easier to read format. While I’m not personally a fan of thought for thought translations, I think that the New International Version is a perfectly good Bible. It’s not great for study, but it is a very readable translation and is a step up from a paraphrase version. It will get the job done.
I want to study. Which Bible translation should I use?
This leads us into the “word for word” translation area. To be clear, there is a scale upon which Bible translations in this category must be judged. However, we still want to be able to read the finished product. An interlinear translation will give you literal word for word with no grammatical corrections. This is very useful for study, but for casual reading? Not so much. For example, let me give you the text of John 3:16 from my Green’s Interlinear Bible.
So for loved God the world so as the son of him, the only begotten, he gave, that everyone believing into Him not may perish but have life everlasting.John 3:16
This is great for word study, but less than perfect for casual reading. So let’s move to the right of the scale and consider some word for word translations that can also be read casually on your lunch break. One of the staples of this category is the King James Version. While some folks swear by this translation, I highly recommend against it for the following reasons.
- The King James Version is based on fewer original manuscripts, and thus is an inferior product. Since it was translated, many more copies have been discovered. Furthermore, many of them are older and better copies. Thus, the newer translations are able to better determine what the New Testament books originally said.
- It contains sections of the New Testament that are not in the oldest manuscripts, and thus were most likely added in by scribes later. These would include the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7-8), the last 12 verses of the Book of Mark, and story in John of the woman taken in adultery. Furthermore, it doesn’t block any of these off to alert the reader that they are later additions.
- The KJV contains doctrinal edits by the translators to push their theological agenda. Consider Daniel 9:25.
Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and rebuild Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.Daniel 9:25 KJV
Notice “the Messiah” and “Prince” are both capitalized. This leads one to believe that it is speaking of the coming of Jesus, and that the passage is viewing Jesus as God. However, this is an inaccurate translation of the text. Furthermore, the capitalization is not in the original. Let’s read the same verse in the New Revised Standard Version.
Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an annointed prince there shall be seven weeks: And for sixty two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time.Daniel 9:25 NRSV
The Hebrew word “mashiach” is the source for the English word Messiah. It simply means “anointed”. To say “the anointed one”, or “the messiah”, the Hebrew word would be “HaMashiach”. That is not the word here. Hence, the King James Version alters the text to present a specific Christian theological view of the prophecy. The Johannine Comma is another good example of this type of edit in the KJV. For these reasons, I avoid it.
So I should use the NRSV then?
Actually, not so fast. I wouldn’t recommend the NRSV to the new Bible reader just getting started. It is a good word for word translation, but it has it’s own issues. The NRSV uses gender neutral language wherever the original text permits. Sometimes this is a good thing. For example, where the KJV says “if any man be in Christ”, the NRSV says “if anyone is in Christ”. This is an improvement because it properly relays the information. The intended meaning was not gender specific. However, the NRSV does this to a fault. Consider Genesis 1:27.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.Genesis 1:27 NRSV
The problem here is the lack of a non gender specific second person pronoun in the singular. Why do I say that? Because the Hebrew word translated “humankind” in the NRSV, or “man” in most other versions is “HaAdam”. The literal translation of this word is “the human”. Translated literally, Genesis 1:27 should say something along the lines of the following. You may notice part a remains gender neutral in my rendering.
So God created the human in his image, in the image of God he created the human; Male and female, he created them.
The problem here is this rendering implies one human with two genders. However, this is literally what the text says. Is that what it means? Maybe, maybe not. But at least the King James keeps it singular here to match the original. So while the NRSV is a very useful translation, and incredibly easy to read, I don’t recommend it because of issues similar to this one. However, that having been said they do an amazing job of translating the poetry from Hebrew to English while keeping a poetic feel to it.
So then. Which Bible translation should I use?
That depends on how literal word for word you want to be. If you are serious, hardcore “stick to the original and fix the grammar” than you want the New American Standard Bible. It is in readable English even for most modern readers. Moreover, it is probably the most accurate English translation to the original. However, it is a bit of a clunky read. It doesn’t have the nice flow to it that that the Revised Standard, or New Revised Standard Version have. Therefore, for a good Bible to study and read, I recommend the English Standard Version.
The ESV does an excellent job of making word for word readable, with a good flow, and modern English that even younger readers can understand. For this reason, it is a great all around Biblical translation. If you’re simply wanting to read now, it will work for you. If you grow to a point where you want to study the Bible at some point in the future, you won’t have to adapt to a new translation. It is a great Bible that can grow with you.