The issue of which Bible to read just confuses the dickens out of most people. So they read a translation of the Bible by sheer happenstance. A friend likes a certain Bible; or they get a Bible as a gift; or they were raised with a certain Bible. But if you are reading this, you are probably interested enough in reading the Bible to make an informed — and better — choice.
We won’t get too technical, but you do need to understand about translations, even if you don’t want a new Bible.
Accuracy vs. Readability: Types of Translations
Nobody can translate any foreign language into English absolutely literally. Some interpretation is unavoidable, because languages do things differently. For example, neither Biblical Greek nor ancient Hebrew even have an indefinite article (“a” or “an”), but nobody is going to read an entire book in English that reads “I put collar on dog man had in truck.” Furthermore, Greek has one word that can means both “and” and “but” (and also “then” and some other words); a translator is forced to interpret the meaning from the context. We don’t want to read “I like spinach and not carrots.” Not to mention, it is outright incorrect.
That said, some Bibles try to present the text in a manner as close to literal as possible. These Bible are harder to read and might sound awkward at times, but they are more accurate. If you want to study the Bible, you will want a more literal translation.
The most literal Bible is the NASB (New American Standard Bible), and it is really good. The King James or Authorised Bible is considered a literal translation and is preferred by many people, despite the archaic language, for its general accuracy and strong sense of poetry; but it is a hard Bible to read. The ESV (English Standard Version) is slightly less literal than the NASB and is my personal first choice, as it flows very nicely but retains a lot of integrity to the “actual Bible”, i.e. the Hebrew/Greek original.
Dynamic Equivalent Bibles.
Bibles that interpret more heavily, attempting to convey the meaning of a passage in more idiomatic (i.e. “normal”) English, are called “dynamic equivalent”. They try to take the meaning of a passage, written in Greek or Hebrew, and express the meaning in English, while keeping it as similar as possible to the original.
To make the difference more clear, a Frenchman would say “J’ai faim”. The literal interpretation of this would be “I have hunger”, which is understandable but clumsy English. It is not “idiomatic” English. A dynamic equivalent translation would be, “I am hungry.”
The example might make someone say, “no contest, dynamic equivalent is way better.” But there is a downside, because the Bible is complex and theological, and when someone translates it by dynamic equivalence, they necessarily impose their own ideas on the text. Such a translation can never be neutral. Every dynamic equivalent translation get hundreds of little things wrong, which is not such a big deal when you’re just reading it quickly, but can become extremely important if you are studying a passage closely.
As an example, in the NASB, John 18:37 reads:
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
But in the NIV, the most popular dynamic equivalent Bible, it reads:
“You are a king, then! ” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Notice the little differences, not just of language, but also of meaning. “For this purpose” in the NASB can be read as saying that part of Jesus’ purpose in being born is to be a king. The NIV removes this ambiguity — incorrectly. It makes up the reader’s mind on the issue for him (and actually, in this specific instance, they probably got it wrong). There are also fundamental theological distinctions between being “of the truth” and “on the side of truth”, and also between having a “purpose” for being born rather than a “reason”.
There are also some Bibles that stray so far from the original language, in order to make the meaning clearer in modern English, that they cannot even be called “translations”. They will completely change the words, if they think it will convey the meaning more vividly. While most of these do not merit consideration, two of them are actually excellent books: The Message , which is wildly modern to the point of using slang, and The J.B. Phillips New Testament, which reads like an erudite 20th-century novel and is, actually, a wonderful way to read the New Testamant. But you would not want to study either of them as authoritative (something their authors, themselves, emphasize.)
To be continued . . .