Tag Archives: Bible translation

Which Bible is Best? (Part 2)


. . . contined from yesterday.

I’m mostly concerned with Bibles for study, where a word or phrase might make a real difference. If you just want to read the Bible, almost any of them are good. They all get the major issues right, overall. I say almost, because there are two exceptions: Bibles driven by the theology of an extreme sect, and translations distorted by political agendas.

Unacceptable Bibles

Most of the Bibles that intentionally and materially mistranslate the original manuscripts have such a small readership that you will never hear of them. There are two, however, that are widespread. The “New World Translation”, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, is fairly popular. And, actually, it is a very good translation except for one thing: the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consider Christ to be God, and they reflect that belief in their New Testament. Without going into a lot of detail, for that reason the NWT is not acceptable for Christians.

Similarly, the newest (2011) NIV translation (and even moreso, the TNIV of 2005, which was so flawed that it has been retracted by the publisher) is driven by liberal political considerations and goes too far in trying to make the Bible gender-neutral and generally not insulting to modern secular sensibilities, to the point that it cannot be considered a translation of the Bible at all.

An Example of Translational Issues

To illustrate the difference between “reading Bibles” (dynamic equivalent translations) and “authoritative Bibles” (literal translations), let’s look at 2 Peter 1:20. First, the King James and ESV, which are more literal interpretations:

“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
“knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”

Do you see the ambiguity? You cannot be certain whether Peter is saying a) that the people who wrote the Bible did not base their writing on their private interpretation, or b) an individual’s interpretation of the Bible is not Scripture, i.e., we should not talk about our own interpretation of a passage as if it is the word of God. This ambiguity is part of the Bible. It occurs in the original Greek and, if a person or group is studying the passage, they can and should consider both options — it is good fuel for research, meditation, and group discussion.

Now let’s look at the same passage from two dynamic equivalent translations, the NIV (New International Version 1984) and the ISV (International Standard Version):

“First of all, you must understand this: No prophecy in Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” (ISV)

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.” (NIV 1984)

Each of these resolves the ambiguity for us — but in opposite ways! The ISV interprets the verse as meaning we should not consider our (or other people’s) interpretations as “prophecy of Scripture”. The NIV, on the other hand, interprets it to mean that the original authors were not writing their “own interpretations”. (And yes, I chose this verse because of the irony. Both the NIV and ISV might be said to be representing their “private interpretation” to be Scripture, which is exactly what 2 Peter 1:20 is telling us not to do.)

Bottom Line

Since I set out to make a recommendation, I’ll go ahead and do it. If you just want a Bible to read, you can pretty well just pick one that you like, although I’d stay away from the New World Translation and any NIV published in 2005 or later. If you want a Bible to study, I’d recommend the King James/Authorised Version (KJV) (although the antiquated language is a minus for many people), the New King James Version (NKJV) (not the 20th Century King James), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), or the English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV is somewhat more readable than the NASB and is my personal main Bible.

You might also consider the wisdom of getting a study edition. Study editions tend to be big and heavy — I have the ESV Study Bible in my lap at this very moment, and at over 2700 pages it is heavy enough to be called a “blunt object” by the police — but they are wonderful resources, especially if you want to dig into a particular passage.

As I have said, I love both the J.B. Phillips New Testament and The Message, but they must be considered paraphrases, not actual Bibles.

If you are Catholic, the New American Bible is also a good choice, and is what you will probably hear read at Mass. There is a Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version, but for my personal taste, it has the drawbacks of the KJV’s difficult language without the authenticity.

Which Bible is Best? (Part 1)

bible_left_250The 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.

Literal Bibles

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 . . .