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How to Choose the Best Bible Translation

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

Stacked Bibles, Different Translations
Preliminary Questions

Many have a favorite Bible translation, often the preferred Bible of your denomination or local church. Whatever translation you’re using, switch to another. You will gain a new point of view on your favorite scriptures. A switch will remind you that translations are not the BIBLE, but versions. The Bible is in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. That’s my best advice.

What’s the best Bible translation? There isn’t one. All translations have problems because all translations are interpretations. There’s no way around interpretation.

What is a literal translation, and is it desirable? ‘Literal’ has several senses when applied to the Bible. Literal refers to letters. In theological discussions, literal refers to a common sense or original meaning rather than an allegorical or spiritual sense. Literal versus other senses was a key debate during the reformation. The reformers favored a literal sense against the allegorical sense preferred by Roman Catholics.

A second sense of ‘literal’ denotes a word-for-word translation from the original language to the target language. Even though the King James is a literal translation, the Puritans rejected it as not literal enough. Being very good Hebrew and Greek scholars, the translators of the King James realized an exact word-for-word translation would be wooden and unfaithful to the original languages. The Puritans’ view of inspiration understood the very words of the Bible as inspired, an innovation, since traditionally the meaning not the words was considered inspired.

Sponsored Bible Translations

King James Version (KJ, 1611)

The King James Version was authorized by King James as head of the Church of England to replace the older Bishops Bible. In its day it was an excellent translation. For the New Testament it used Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, the first critical edition of the New Testament. It has a sure grasp of Paul’s rhetoric and the psalms’ poetic structure, as well as other poetic texts. The KJ’s English is always better and sometimes more exalted than the Hebrew and Greek.

Krister Stendhal, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and an important New Testament scholar, once quipped that the prologue of the Fourth Gospel was not poetry until the King James translation. Many value the KJ’s elegance and solemnity, but that elegance and solemnity belongs to the KJ, not the Bible.

Too many people treat the KJ as the BIBLE, which it is not. Being promulgated by a king did not make it sacred.

King James Family

Revised Version, American Standard edition (ASV, 1901)

The Revised Version is often referred to as the American Standard Version, confusingly exists in both an English and American Standard Versions. The scholar Philip Schaff headed up the committee that revised KJ. The major Protestant denominations were represented in the effort. In comparison to the KJ, ASV is wooden, and as a result, many consider this translation more literal. It’s not; it’s wooden.

Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952)

The Revised Standard Version was sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), the largest ecumenical group in the country, at the time exclusively Protestant. While entitled a revision of the ASV, it really offered a new translation in the tradition of the KJ and ASV. The translation of the Hebrew took into consideration the findings from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, something quite revolutionary at the time and therefore controversial. It represents the best of American critical scholarship for its day.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In 1989 a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) appeared, also under the sponsorship of the NCC. This new revision continued the tradition of using the best critical editions. It struggled to find a way to use inclusive language, a difficult problem. Again in 2021 yet another major revision appeared, the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVue).

This time the NCC enlisted assistance from the Society of Biblical Literature, the major American scholarly organization for the study of the Bible. The effort to use inclusive language where appropriate has expanded. Representing the consensus of American critical scholarship, it is often recommended by scholars and used in classrooms. The scholarship is excellent, but the translation reads at times too much like a committee effort. This has become a revision of a revision of a revision, etc. Why not start all over? With all that, I do highly recommend it.

New International Version (NIV, 1978, major revision 2011)

The New International Version is a translation in the KJ tradition by a group of evangelical scholars. It clearly represents the evangelical point of view. It takes into consideration important text critical concerns. The NIV attempts to balance a literal word-for-word translation with a phrase-by-phrase translation. It is the largest selling Bible in the English language.

A Different Family

New English Bible (NEB, 1970)

The New English Bible was a major new translation of the Bible based on a theory of translation different than that of the KJ family. Ironically, a translation sponsored by the Church of Scotland and the Church of England and published by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses broke away from the KJ, while the colonies remained firmly in its grasp. As with most modern translations, it employs the best critical editions of the original texts.

C.H. Dodd, a major British New Testament scholar and vice-chair of the translation committee, remarked that “[we] conceived our task to be that of understanding the original as precisely as we could… and then saying again in our own native idiom what we believed the author to be saying in his.” This method of translation—dynamic equivalence—marks a major departure from the word-for-word tradition of the KJ. As such, at times it is more periphrastic or expansive.

In 1989 it received a major revision and a new title: the Revised English Bible (RNEB). Inclusive language became a major feature. RNEB remains one of the best translations of the Bible into modern English. Dynamic equivalence is the major model for modern secular translations. Only antiquated theological models keep the word-for-word method in play in biblical translations.

New American Bible (NAB, 1970)

The New American Bible is the official translation of the Catholic Church and the only translation that can be read at Catholic services. Because the Council of Trent (1546) decreed the Latin Vulgate the official Bible of the Catholic Church, all translations had to be from the Latin.

A group of English Catholics in exile produced the first English translation of the Latin Vulgate, commonly referred to as Douay-Rheims (1582-1610), their places of exile in France. They smuggled it into England in defiance of royal decrees forbidding it. After WWII, American Catholic biblical scholars began a new translation from the Latin Vulgate, when Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943) both permitted and encouraged translations into the vernacular from the original languages.

Thus ended one of the great debates of the reformation. Since the NAB belongs to the Douay-Rheims tradition, it tends to adopt a word-for-word method. In 1986 a new edition of the New Testament was published and a revision of the Old Testament has been ongoing. The NAB is a fluid and contemporary translation that reads well. The Old Testament translation is especially good. It is a somewhat traditional translation outside KJ tradition, making it always worth consulting.

Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (1985, JPSTanakh)

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh should remind a Christian reader that the Tanakh, what Christians insensitively call the ‘Old Testament,’ is first and foremost a collection of Jewish holy writings. This translation follows in the rabbinic tradition. Tanakh is an abbreviation from T from Torah (the first five books of Moses), N from Nevi’im (the books of the prophets), and Kh Ketuvim (the Writings). 

It translates the traditional Hebrew Masoretic text established by medieval rabbis, not a modern critical Hebrew text, as do all modern American translations reviewed above. The books are ordered according to Hebrew Masoretic tradition, which differs from that commonly found in English Bibles. It is a consistently idiomatic translation. Anyone serious about understanding the Hebrew Bible should consult the JPSTanakh.

What translations to use?

What translation do I use? I have not consistently read an English Bible since college. I read the Jewish and Christian holy writings in the original languages. But that does not mean that I escape interpretation. Reading is itself an interpretive act. Literalism is an illusion.

When I am studying a passage, I consult several translations to get a sense of the history of translations. In that regard, BibleGateway is a very helpful tool. It has many (too many?) different translations, in multiple languages, including the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) Greek—a good critical edition, and the Westminster Leningrad Codex (Hebrew). Unfortunately, RNEB and JPSTanakh are missing. BibleGateway allows you to set up parallel columns so that you can have the Greek in one column and various English (or other languages) in the other column. It’s a very powerful and useful tool. But remember, BibleGateway is not neutral. It leans evangelical.

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