Which Bible Translation?

The translators of the King James Version of the Bible suffered a host of criticism over their “new translation.” So much so that in the introduction to the 1611 edition, they wrote:

“Whosoever attempteth anything for the public (especially if it pertain to Religion, and to the opening and clearing of the word of God) the same setteth himself upon a stage to be gloated upon by every evil eye, yea, he casteth himself headlong upon pikes, to be gored by every sharp tongue. For he that medleth with men’s Religion in any part, medleth with their custom, nay, with their freehold; and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering.”

From The Translator to the Reader in the 1611 edition of the Authorized King James Version.

Some folks get upset when anyone suggests that their Bible translation isn’t the best one. If you’re one of these, stop reading, or you will just get upset (and that leads to lengthy emails telling me how totally ignorant, arrogant or evil I am, emails which I assure you do not seem at all as clever or biting to me as they did to their writers). If, on the other hand, you’re trying to answer the title question of this page, then you’re welcome to my thoughts on the subject. This page is meant to be a work in progress, and I do welcome informative comments. For beginners comments on the Bible in general, check out my article: Bible Primer.

Does it Matter?

The Christian religion described in the New International Version is not the same religion described in the New American Standard Bible. Different translations say significantly different things sometimes. I struggle over whether it is better to have an accurate translation or a translation that is so reader-friendly that it actually gets read. I guess a Bible with some problems is better than no Bible at all. But the translation does matter.

Types of Translations

Bibles appear at different reading levels. The King James Version is considered the most difficult (12-grade) and at the other end of the spectrum is are the simple English and Children’s Bibles. Most translations fall in the 6-8th grade reading level. The NASB is more difficult than that, and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) simpler.

There are also different translation methodologies including:

Formal Equivalence
There is a large correspondence between words in the original language and the translation including attempts to preserve word order where possible. Examples: King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible
Dynamic Equivalence
Rather than translating words, these translate ideas and whole thoughts. Examples: CEV, New Living Translation.
Paraphrases
They tell you what they think the text says (or ought to say) in their own words. They are not actually translations, but paraphrases. Examples: The Living Bible, The Message.

I think that Formal Equivalence is the proper starting place. Formal Equivalence translations are least  likely to skew the text in one direction or another. They will preserve figures of speech. In some places, however, it’s difficult to render a thought from one language to another and preserve word equivalences. For this reason, I believe that there is also a place for Dynamic Equivalence translations. By consulting more than one Dynamic Equivalence translation, one can get a range of interpretations and insights in to what the text means. As far as I’m concerned, there is no place for paraphrases.

Translations Not To Rely On

Perhaps identifying unreliable translations to avoid is easier than saying which one is best. Translations I’ve picked for this category are those that I believe can lead the reader to misunderstand what the Bible says.

The Living Bible
The Living Bible is, of course, a paraphrase rather than a translation. It leaves out details from the Greek manuscripts and makes up its own details out of thin air. It “reads nice” but it reads wrong. One example of how the reader can be lead to misunderstand is the description of the relationship of Jesus to his mother in the wedding at Cana that appears in John, chapter 2. A number of editions of the Bible are available now that use the Living Bible translation for their text. It is not always apparent from a casual glance at the cover that it is a Living Bible.
The King James Version
The King James Version (or Authorized Version) was a great effort for its time and a beautiful example of the English language as it stood some 400 years ago. However, it has its share of problems. 1) The Greek text underlying the KJV New Testament is not very good. It has, for example, things that exist in no manuscript, not one. In some cases the original languages are mistranslated due to the poor state of Hebrew and Greek language scholarship in the 17th century. Some of the words used in the KJV back in 1611 are either obsolete now, or their meaning has changed. Finally, the KJV is sometimes so muddled that you can’t figure out what it means (for example Romans 3:5-9 where more than a few KJV readers mistakenly believe that St. Paul is saying it’s ok to lie for a good cause, when in fact he’s saying the opposite). I have written elsewhere about the abuses of the “King James Only Movement” and also about problems with the KJV. The KJV can be useful for worship and devotion, but not for study.
The New International Version
The NIV, to my reading, makes doctrinal adjustments in the translation to support certain viewpoints. It inserts commentary, pretending that it’s original. Examples of problem verses include Genesis 2:17,19, Deuteronomy 1:1 and Jeremiah 7:22. Some of the points are subtle, but I believe the cumulative effect is significant. I have a separate article on the NIV translation.
The New World Translation
The NWT is also a doctrinally adjusted Bible produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses group. It has the word “Jehovah” in it a lot.
The Inspired Version
This was a revelation from Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith. The text was published in 1867 and a “corrected edition” in 1944. Unless you believe that Joseph Smith was an inspired prophet, then his lack of knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would exclude him as a translator.
Natural Equivalent Translation
This one is labeled a “natural equivalent translation”. It reads somewhere between a dynamic equivalent and a paraphrase. It has some of the same problem verses I talk about in my article on the NIV, but not all. In one case, 1 Peter 4:6 the change in meaning is even worse than the NIV. I generally find the NET an inaccurate and unfaithful translation. Another example of how it just messes with the text is in John 2:4. Jesus addresses his mother in an impersonal way when he says: (John 2:4 NASB) And Jesus said  to her, “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come.” The KJV and the NRSV read pretty much the same, but look at the NET rendering: Jesus said to her: “Why did you come to me? My time has not yet come.” The Greek word for “woman” doesn’t get translated at all (and the “edge” to what Jesus said is missing too).

Translations To Rely On

No translation is perfect, and I personally use several. If someone is only going to have only one translation, then this is a list of safe ones:

  • The New American Standard Bible – a literal translation based on good text.
  • The Revised Standard Version – may be hard to find in print
  • The New Revised Standard Version – easier to read than the NASB. Gender neutral translation.
  • The New Jerusalem Bible
  • The New American Bible
  • The New English Bible
  • English Standard Version

Other Translations

There seems to be no end to the flood of new Bible translations, each trying to outdo themselves in readability. I used to buy new translations when they came out, but now I’ve become somewhat skeptical as to whether anything significantly better is coming out or whether the same ground is just being re-plowed over and over to make a buck. Nevertheless, here’s some translations that I have comments about.

The Unvarnished New Testament (Andy Gaus, tr)
This is a New Testament that attempts to make the English text strike the reader with the same earthy immediacy that a native reader of ancient Greek felt. It preserves abrupt style, grammatical problems and uses “unchurchy” words. This translation lacks verse numbers (as do the Greek manuscripts). If you’re reading for impact, this is certainly one to consider. It may show you things you missed in other translations.

“By contrast, if everyone is prophesying, and an outsider or non-believing person comes in, is engaged in discussion by everybody, has his ideas challenged by everybody, and sees the secrets of his heart being brought to light, then he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring, ‘You really do have God among you!'” 1 Corinthians 14, Gaus.

The Scholar’s Version (New Testament Gospels only)
The SV appears in two works from the Jesus Seminar, including The Complete Gospels. It is also a “plain language” translation. While I don’t have any substantial objections to this version, it just reads strangely to me in places as with the word “embrace” following.

“Don’t give in to your distress. You believe in God, then believe in me too. There are plenty of places to stay in my Father’s house. If it weren’t true, I would have told you; I’m on my way to make a place ready for you. And if I go to make a place ready for you, I’ll return and embrace you. So where I am you can be there too.” John 14: 1-3 SV.

Today’s English Version (Good News Bible)
Originally a New Testament translation, “Good News for Modern Man”, the TEV now encompasses the entire Bible. It is significant because of its widespread use by churches in the 1960’s and following. For many evangelicals, it was their first exposure to a “modern translation”.

“Jesus said also to the people: ‘when you see a cloud coming up in the west, at once you say, ‘It is going to rain,’ and it does. And when you feel the south wind blowing, you say, ‘It is going to get hot,’ and it does. Imposters! You can look at the earth and the sky and tell what it means; why, then, don’t you know the meaning of this present time?” Luke 12:54-57 TEV.

I selected that verse from the New Testament as an example of how the TEV renders the text in an accessible and direct way. On the other hand, I’ve noticed in my Sunday School teaching that the TEV has significant shortcomings in the Old Testament. Let me show some comparisons between the TEV and the NRSV (a relatively literal translation). The first example is where the TEV is wimpy and the second where it lacks a sense of poetry.

(Hosea 1:2 NRSV) When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”

That’s representative of most translations (that either say “whoredom”, “harlotry” or “prostitution”). The TEV on the other hand loses the sense of prostitution when it rewrites Hosea to say:

(Hosea 1:2 TEV) When the Lord first spoke to Israel through Hosea, he said to Hosea, “Go and get married; your wife will be unfaithful, and your children will be just like her. In the same way my people have left me and become unfaithful.”

This next example has three issues. First, the comparable translations draw different conclusions about what it literally says (sincere vs. insincere), the poetry is not recognized and because of a sloppy translation, the messianic prophecy is lost. First the NRSV (representative of literal translations):

(Hosea 5:15 NRSV) I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favor:
{6:1}”Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
{2}
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
{3}
Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”

The NRSV sets the text as poetry. Note the particular phrase: “on the third day he will raise us up.” Luke says: (24:46 NRSV) and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” Where is that written? In Hosea, but you’d never pick that up from the prosaic TEV:

(Hoesa 5:15-6:3)  “I will abandon my people until they have suffered enough for their sins and come looking for me. Perhaps in their suffering they will try to find me.” {6:1} The people say, “Let’s return to the Lord! He has hurt us, but he will be sure to heal us; he has wounded us, but he will bandage our wounds, won’t he? {2} In two or three days he will revive us, and we will live in his presence. {3} Let us try to know the Lord. He will come to us as surely as the day dawns, as surely as the spring rains fall upon the earth.”

The New Testament is plain talk and the TEV captures that. The Old Testament is often poetic and the TEV isn’t.

The Holy Bible: A New Translation by James Moffatt
The translation by James Moffatt in the 1920’s is the first translation that I know of that takes the discipline of higher criticism into the presentation of the text. Moffatt attempts to sort out the sources underlying the Bible texts and reconstruct “original versions” older than the manuscripts we have. This consists of re-ordering sections of the text and marking sources with italics and brackets. The translation itself is interesting (although decidedly British in vocabulary). This is one of those good “second” translations to refer back to.

Lo, I send my Envoy to clear the way for me; and the Lord for whom you long will come suddenly to his temple [[that Envoy of the Compact whom you desire; he is coming–the Lord of hosts declares]]. Malachi 3:1 Moffatt

Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text
This is a translation by George Lamsa of a Syriac dialect Bible called the Peshitta, rather than the Greek and Hebrew. This is the authoritative version for some Eastern churches. The translation seems fairly conventional, although the underlying text differs sometimes. Note the appearance of the word “rope” in place of the usual “camel”.

“Then again I say to you, It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24, Lamsa.

The New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips
This “Modern English” translation preceded the TEV by a decade. The translation seems more of a paraphrase in places/

“You must not let yourselves be distressed–you must hold on to your faith in God and to your faith in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s House. If there were not, should I have told you that I am going away to prepare a place for you? It is true that I am going away to prepare a place for you, but it is just as true that I am coming again to welcome you into my own home, so that you may be where I am.”

Contemporary English Version
Like the TEV, this is another translation from the American Bible Society. I haven’t had much occasion to use this version, but I am not aware of any big problems.

“During Passover the governor always freed a prisoner chosen by the people. At that time a well-known terrorist named Jesus Barabbas was in jail So when the crowd came together, Pilate asked them, ‘Which prisoner do you want me to set free? Do you want Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah’? Pilate knew that the leaders had brought Jesus to him because they were jealous.” Matthew 27: 15-18 CEV.

The Schocken Bible Volume I: The Five Books of Moses (tr. Everett Fox)
This might have been titled: “The Unvarnished Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible)”. It gives a sense of what the original Hebrew sounded like to native speakers and includes copious notes by the translator. This one is a must-read if you care about the Pentateuch.

“Now when Avram was ninety years and nine years old Yhwh was seen by Avram and said to him: I am God Shaddai. Walk in my presence! And be wholehearted! I set my covenant between me and you, I will make you exceedingly, exceedingly many. Avram fell upon his face. God spoke to him, saying: As for me, here, my covenant is with you, so that you will become the father of a throng of nations. No longer shall your name be called Avram, rather shall your name be Avraham for I will make you Av Hamon Goyyim / Father of a Throng of Nations!” Gen 17:1-5.

Interlinear translation of the Greek New Testament (tr. Robert K. Brown and Philip W. Comfort)
This is a word-for word literal translation of the Greek New Testament published next to the Greek. It’s poor for reading, but great if you want to know what’s going on in the Greek text. (And no, Yoda was not one of the translators.)

“And came out the Pharisees and they began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, trying him. And having sighed deeply in the spirit of him he says, why generation this does seek a sign? Truly I say to you, in no way will be given to this generation a sign.” Mark 8:11-12 Brown and Comfort.

Electronic Bibles

Since this article was first written, great advances have been made in making the Bible available on electronic devices such as smart phones and tablets. The English Standard Version (a revision of the Revised Standard Version in which an estimated 6% has been updated) is available for free in the Kindle format (which makes it available on any device that runs the Kindle application) from Amazon.com. Other free portable applications include the Olive Tree Bible Reader.

Version Abbreviations

Bibles translations are often denoted by an abbreviation. Here are a few (with links to the Wikipedia):

AMP The Amplified Bible NASB New American Standard Bible
NIV New International Version CEV Contemporary English Version
NLT New Living Translation KJV King James (Authorized) Version
RSV Revised Standard Version NRSV New Revised Standard Version
Moffatt The Bible A New Translation by James Moffatt Phillips The New Testament in Modern English
TEV Today’s English Version (Good News Bible) ESV English Standard Version
NKJV The New King James Version KJ21 21st Century King James Version
ASV American Standard Version WE Worldwide English (New Testament)
LB The Living Bible YLT Young’s Literal Translation
Darby Darby Translation WYC Wycliffe New Testament
NAB New American Bible ICB International Children’s Bible
MSG The Message NET New English Translation (NET Bible)
NCV New Century Version

Bibles On-Line

There are Bibles on the Internet. Here are some links to them:

Recommendations

If you’re an Evangelical who appreciates the problems with the King James and wants something trustworthy and readable, I recommend the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It’s a literal translation based on solid texts. If you’re a mainstream Protestant, the New Revised Standard Version is probably the way to go–your friends may be using it, and it works well for worship. If you’re Catholic, try the New American Bible. If you’re not a Christian, but might want to become one, get Gaus’ Unvarnished New Testament and then an NASB to pick up the Old Testament. If English is not your first language or you have difficulty reading, then the Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) might be best for you. If you go to Oak Grove Baptist Church, bring your King James (they don’t take American Express or the NIV).

Other Resources

The Wikipedia now has articles on Bible translations, including a list of all the translations in English (and there are lists for other languages as well). Nearly all of the translations listed have a separate article.


Bible Sampler

(2 Tim 3:16 KJV) All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

(2 Tim 3:16 KJV 1611 ed.) All Scripture is giuen by inspiration of God, & is profitable for doctrine, for reproofe, for correction, for instrution in righteousnesse, [yes, my copy says “instrution”]

(2 Tim 3:16 NASB) All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;

(2 Tim 3:16 NRSV) All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 CEV) Everything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live.

(2 Tim 3:16 NET) Every Scripture passage is inspired by God. All of them are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval.

(2 Tim 3:16 Gaus) All the scripture is divinely inspired and useful for teaching, pointing out faults, giving correction and offering guidance along the paths of justice

(2 Tim 3:16 NIV) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 REB) All inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living,

(2 Tim 3:16 NAB) All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 NJB) All scripture is inspired by God and useful for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be upright.

(2 Tim 3:16 Phillips) All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for resetting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living.

(2 Tim 3:16 TEV) For all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.

(2 Tim 3:16 NWT) All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness

(2 Tim 3:16 Lamsa) All scripture written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness;

(2 Tim 3:16 NEB) Every inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living,

(2 Tim 3:16 Moffatt) All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for amendment, and for moral discipline,

(2 Tim 3:16 AMP) Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration) and profitable for instruction, for reproof and conviction of sin, for correction of error and discipline in obedience, [and] for training in righteousness (in holy living, in conformity to God’s will in thought, purpose, and action),

(2 Tim 3:16 MSG) Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another–showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way.

(2 Tim 3:16 NLT) All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right.

(2 Tim 3:16 ESV) All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 NKJV) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 KJ21) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 ASV) Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness.

(2 Tim 3:16 WE) All that is written in the holy writings comes from the Spirit of God. The holy writings are good for these things: to teach people, to show them when they are wrong, to make them see what is right, to teach them to do what is right.

(2 Tim 3:16 YLT) every Writing [is] God-breathed, and profitable for teaching, for conviction, for setting aright, for instruction that [is] in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 Darby) Every scripture [is] divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for conviction, for correction, for instruction in righteousness;

(2 Tim 3:16 WYC) For all scripture inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to chastise, [for] to learn in rightwiseness,

(2 Tim 3:16 3rd Millenium) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,

(2 Tim 3:16 Douay-Rheims) All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice:

(2 Tim 3:16 NCV) All Scripture is given by God and is useful for teaching, for showing people what is wrong in their lives, for correcting faults, and for teaching how to live right.

(2 Tim 3:16 God’s Word) Every Scripture passage is inspired by God. All of them are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval.

(2 Tim 3:16 Webster’s) All scripture [is] given by inspiration of God, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

(2 Tim 3:16 Wesley) Every Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for convincing, for correction of error, and for instruction in right doing;

(2 Tim 3:16 Inspired Version) And all scripture given by inspiration of God, is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness;

(2 Tim 3:16 Brown and Comfort Interlinear) ALL SCRIPTURE [IS] GOD-BREATHED AND USEFUL FOR TEACHING, FOR REPROOF, FOR CORRECTION FOR TRAINING IN RIGHTEOUSNESS,


Some Other Articles on Bible Translations

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