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Which Bible translation should I read?

Posted by on Sep 5, 2009 in scripture | 19 comments

Which Bible translation should I read?

Last Sunday, I had a good discussion with a few brothers about English Bible translations. We were comparing a few different translations, and we noticed that some are better in some respects, and other translations are better in other respects.

The discussion started because I’m looking for an English Bible translation for someone. A lady asked me for a Bible that was easier to read. She’s currently trying to read a KJV. She has trouble understanding what she reads (anything, not just the Bible), and reading the KJV makes it even worse for her. I’ve been looking for a large print, easy to read Bible for her.

So, as we were discussing Bible translations, someone asked me which translation I prefer. This is actually a difficult question. Answering the question for me has little to do with the literal equivalence and dynamic equivalence debate. In reality, it is impossible (and often unhelpful) to translate any language literally to another language. Interpretation is always involved.

Translation always involves interpretation. Always.

So, I prefer a Greek New Testament and a Hebrew Bible. Of course, everyone does not understand Greek and/or Hebrew, so that would be even more unhelpful.

First, reading any English translation is better than not reading Scripture at all. So, if you can understand a certain translation, but not others, then by all means, read that translation. But, read it understanding that you are reading someone’s (or some group’s) interpretation of Scripture.

Second, if you are studying, then read as many different English translations as possible. By reading different translations, you will begin to understand some of the difficulties involved in translation. You may not be able to tell which translation is best, but at least you will know where the interpretative questions are.

Also, remember that when the New Testament authors used Old Testament Scriptures, they rarely quoted word-for-word. In fact, they often paraphrased the Old Testament Scripture, changing subjects, verbs, tenses, etc. to match their own situation. While we must be careful with Scripture, our modern idea of quoting word-for-word is just that – a modern idea.

Finally, remember that meaning is not primarily found at the word level, or even at the sentence level. Instead, meaning is primarily found at the paragraph level.  Trying to understanding Scripture paragraph by paragraph can be more helpful than trying to understand word by word.


19 Comments

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  1. 9-5-2009

    Having just been busy with trying to understand what Jesus was actually saying abaout the vine and the branches this subject really interests me. Regarding the vine the intrepretation is highly dependent on the knowledge about growing vines. “He cuts off every branch” could also be translated: “He lifts up every branch” based on the greek. This is what happens in practice. Branches that are attached to the vine but do not bear fruit are generally in the shade and need to be lifted up to be exposed to the sun (=Son?)
    The same goes for “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes”Here prunes could be translated as “cleanses”. Dirt and dust will hinder the growth and has to be removed. Jesus does not cut living tissue that is attached to Him. This is in line with the next sentence where He says: “You are already clean” He does not say “You have already been pruned”. So He is talking about cleaning and not about pruning.
    So I would argue that it is also important to understand the culture and practice of the people involved to come to a good translation. Separating the scriptures from the world it was part of will lead to error.
    There might even be a greater error if we seprate the scriptures from Christ. By this I mean interpreting the scriptures without a living relationship with the one who is “The Word” Himself. Interpreting the scriptures is revealing who Christ is. Without this we become scribes and pharisees who studied the scriptures but didn’t see Him. Finally their studies resulted in seperating people from Christ.
    In my own experience Jesus spoke some words to me regarding some subjects that competely changed my understanding about the subjects involved. We need Him as teacher but I’m afraid we repaced Him with something else. It might be the pastor, the tradition or a bible college. If He is not the first, others will take that position and we will not understand the scriptures.

  2. 9-5-2009

    I appreciate your words here, Alan. I think anyone who is fluent in two languages and can switch back and forth between them in mid-sentence knows how comunication from one language to another truly is thought for thought.

    Speaking of quoting scripture. I’ve also learned that by reading and re-reading multiple translations (in both English and Portuguese) I can get to a point where I put in in my own words… how I would say it if it were me speaking… and am able to recall chapters and even entire books of the Bible from memory.

    Word for word I can’t do more that a few verses, but thought for thought, I can do exceedingly long passages and teach them to others as well. (My primary ministry is working with oral learners)

  3. 9-5-2009

    Alan,

    As Jan Willem says,”the intrepretation is highly dependent on the knowledge about growing vines”. One who has knowledge of why grape vines are pruned knows that pruning (cutting branches off) is necessary if one is not to have a tangled mess of branches .

    More importantly, pruning is ESSENTIAL because grapes only bear fruit on NEW WOOD which grows in that year. That implies much in the light of, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned!”

    Branches which are “cleansed” or “lifted up” cannot be burned.

  4. 9-5-2009

    Alan,

    I meant to add above, regarding Bible translations, that I have been blessed to see salvation come to many people over my long years, using several different versions of Scripture.

    Many seem to forget that God didn’t drop a version down from heaven, but that He uses unworthy vessels through whom He works the miracle of salvation.

    As strange as this might seem to some, I have seen a Jehovah’s Witness converted by using s own translation (which we would believe is false).

  5. 9-5-2009

    Alan-

    I had a dear sweet old lady tell me one time that if the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for her!

    How can you argue with that?

  6. 9-8-2009

    Jan,

    Yes, understanding culture is very important. Culture affected how the original readers interpreted a letter, so we have to understand that culture as well.

    Stephen,

    I agree. I think that even American society has only changed from being “oral learners” recently. In fact, I’m not sure if most of society has changed, given the impact of story even today. Perhaps only the leaders of our society (including church society) has moved away from being “oral learners”.

    Aussie John,

    If God only used perfect interpretations, then we would all be in trouble. :)

    Hutch,

    I wouldn’t even try to argue with that.

    -Alan

  7. 9-14-2009

    A pastor at a past church argued vehemently for the Byzantine texts only, saying that has been the true lineage of manuscripts for the church, and that the Alexandrian texts should largely be ignored as rejects and sideshows for the true lineage of the bible. What do you think about this? I really don’t see any “authoritative” books that explain the matter fully, and I find it difficult to take either side of this argument – 1) do we really have a bible with shifting words and manuscripts that were hidden for the majority of the history of the church, OR 2) Should we completely discount earlier manuscripts from what has been a continuing unveiling of manuscripts throughout the history of the church?

    Either side has its weaknesses, and the manuscriptural differences have made me doubt the position of those that say that every jot and tittle of the bible is 100.00% inspired, when we as scholars have had to determine which word fits best from differing manuscripts. I’ve actually heard some scholars say that the end of Mark should just be left out of the bible, for example. I’ve also heard varying positions on 1John 5:7, regarding the “Comma Johanneum” and Erasmus’ notes. Anyway, I guess I take the position that the original autographs were inspired, and we can be around 98-99% sure of the authenticity and thereby the inspiration of every word we read in our current collection (in the Greek and Hebrew, I suppose). Am I foolish in thinking this way?

  8. 9-14-2009

    Jeremiah,

    I think your position concerning inspiration is a good one.

    -Alan

  9. 10-5-2011

    Just an aside … Eugene Peterson says the KJV was even difficult for the people of that time to understand since it used language used by the upper crust. The basis for the KJV was Tyndale’s Bible, which was written more for the common man. The KJV people gussied it up. Thought that was interesting.

    And I agree with you on your points that the multiplicity of translations is a good thing and that use the translation you’re most comfortable with on a daily basis. Currently, the NLT is my daily tome. Some people find that shocking, but it’s easy to read and some of the choices it makes I find thought-provoking.

  10. 10-5-2011

    All the above comments are really good. I preach from the NKJV, but use the ESV, NASB, NET, & NIV in my study time. Since I am not a good Greek & Hebrew reader, I use these translations to give me a good grasp of the original text. In my NKJV study Bible, I usually write many of the key words in other translations in the margin so to help me see different flavors of (hopefully) the original languages. For someone who is new to reading the Bible, I encourage them either to use the ESV or the NIV. Dan’s idea of the NLT is not a bad idea too. Easy to read and maintains pretty good author’s main idea. My philosophy is similar to those above. No English translation has the monopoly on accuracy. Hutch’s comment about the sweet lady and the KJV made my day, cause I am not the only one who has had that comment. :-)

  11. 10-5-2011

    I enjoy being in a small group where people have different translations and we can compare word choices.

  12. 11-29-2011

    How do American Christians, who think, act, pray, and read in English, read the original languages without translating them in their minds? Is there really a way to get away from translatIons?

  13. 7-13-2012

    In New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell makes a point about scriptural translation versus no words of scripture being lost. He cites the idea, in Latin, of ipsissima verba (exact word) and ipsissima vox (exact voice). Many words may change with translation and there are actually some numerical discrepancies in the Old Testament. However, what does not change is God’s Voice throughout scripture.

    As long as it is not a translation which totally changes scripture to the point of attempting to redefine what even the original languages are saying. Otherwise, I have not seen any significant reason to not read any translation that works well with how a person reads. God’s voice will stand out no matter what the English translation may be.

  14. 8-10-2012

    I’ll keep it simple: New American Standard version for me. I find it closer to reality in the English translation from other tongues.

    I have a Greek New Testament for studying, though.

    My 2 cents.

  15. 11-9-2012

    Parallel Bible translations are helpful. Here’s a quick and easy one I use online regularly:
    http://bible.cc/genesis/1-1.htm

  16. 3-20-2013

    It is not so important which translation is accurate but what the Spirit of God tells us via the message of the bible. I’ve read many translations but never mind about the words that were used or the structure of the sentences. For example:
    Matthew 11:25
    New International Version (©2011)
    At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
    King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
    At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.
    Both translations are valid to me and the Spirit of God is still telling what He means. English is not my first language so I don’t weigh the words. What does it mean to us the words “GOOD NEWS”? Very simple words, but what does the Spirit of God tell us?

  17. 3-21-2013

    Duc,

    I agree. Although we have to be careful. We can’t just accept any message because “the Spirit told us.” There are other spirits besides the Spirit of God who would like to direct us off the path that God has prepared. So, it’s always good to compare what the Spirit is telling us with what is written in Scripture and to seek counsel from other believers.

    -Alan

  18. 6-24-2013

    Very sound advice. For reasons I cannot put a finger on , I tend to gravitate towards the KJV all the time ; perhaps its just because it was the only version found in the home as I grew up .

  19. 6-24-2013

    Franklin,

    I grew up using the NKJV, and I’m more comfortable with that translation. A few years ago, I started reading a different translation and struggled with it at first. Soon, I realized why I struggled: I was being forced to deal with what Scripture actually says instead of what I was comfortable with. You’ve probably found the same thing.

    -Alan