(This page should barely be posted here under “My Resources,” since I’m mostly recommending the insights of others. But sometimes people ask me which Bible translations I recommend. So here is my advice, building on others.)
- Textual variants: These is a huge topic. I will briefly say that (a) I am content that all common English translations are working from good texts, (b) I think that the Greek text that most modern translations use is probably even more accurate than the text that the KJV uses, and (c) no biblical doctrine hinges on any of the debated variants.
- Translation philosophies: Another huge topic. My thoughts, briefly: (a) there is no such thing as a translation that does not also interpret–even the most “literal” ones cannot avoid doing so, (b) it is generally recognized that translations can either focus on retaining the grammatical structure of the original language and translating individual words consistently or focus on communicating the thought of original text in modern, ordinary speech, (c) all translations do some of both, with translations ranging on a continuous spectrum between the two goals, (d) there are advantages and disadvantages to both goals, (e) translations towards the “thought-for-thought” end of the spectrum tend to be somewhat more interpretive than those on the “word-for-word” end–but can also smooth out possible misunderstandings caused by an overly-“literal” approach, (f) there are other variables such as how translations handle words that could be understood as either masculine or generic, and (g) the most helpful thing for English readers to do is to compare a variety of translations that use a variety of translation philosophies.
- Books about The Book: Many good books have been written about Bible translations, dealing in depth with the issues summarized above (and many more). I won’t provide a list of such books here. Now conservative Anabaptists have their own such book: The Story Behind the Versions: A Guide Through the Maze of English Translations, by Rodney Yoder (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Christian Light Publications, 2012). I have minor points of disagreement with Yoder, but am impressed that a book of this caliber has been published by “us.” (I’d like to review this book sometime on my blog.)1
A Chart of English Bible Translations
- This chart was created by Brent MacDonald, and is the best such chart that I have seen. Visit MacDonald’s website to learn more and ensure you see the latest version of his chart.
- Note: “Word-for-word” is often called “formal equivalence” or, less accurately, “literal.” And “thought-for-thought” is often called “functional equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence.”
Basic Advice about Using Bible Translations
- Use a word-for-word translation for careful Bible study and teaching. These will follow the vocabulary, sentence structure, and idioms of the Bible writers most closely. My favorites are the NASB and ESV. If you use the KJV, consider comparing it with one of these.
- Compare the better thought-for-thought translations with your word-for-word translation; they will help explain what difficult passages might mean. My favorites include the NIV (see note below), HCSB (Southern Baptist publisher), NET (available online, copyright-free, with extensive footnotes), and NLT (very interpretive, but often making good interpretive choices). Be aware that the new NIV (2011, replacing both NIV 1984 and TNIV) is very different from the old NIV. It now uses gender neutral language regarding humans (e.g. where KJV has “brothers,” it may have “brothers and sisters”). This has benefits and drawbacks, but increases its usefulness when comparing translations. In many ways this update is more accurate and even more word-for-word than the familiar 1984 version.
- Do not quote a paraphrase as if it is the Bible! It is more like a commentary on the Bible.
- If I could pick just one Bible for church and family use, it would probably be the ESV. Why? (1) It is a word-for-word translation, (2) it is highly-accurate, (3) it is probably the word-for-word that is most readable for all ages—the NKJV is similar, but does not make use of the best Greek manuscripts, and (4) it has an active conservative publisher behind it (Crossway) that is producing a good selection of ESV-related study helps. Is it as good as some of its promoters claim? No. But I think it’s at least as good a choice as anything else out there.
That’s my informed opinion. But please read something!
Note: My final four points and MacDonald’s chart are both included in this handout: Which Bible Translations Should I Read?
- The main reason I mention this book rather than others here is because I think it is more likely to be “heard,” since it is published by a conservative Anabaptist publisher. That said, this is indeed a good book, with a level of scholarship and balance that is praiseworthy. ↩