Getting Lost in Translation: Which Bible is Right for You?

I read with some interest the article in the Rockdale Citizen last week about a new “conservative” translation of the Bible.  I taught a class on biblical translations once or twice in Sunday school, so these articles always catch my attention.

Translating the Bible is a precarious business that requires grammatical approximation and scholarly decision-making.  Since we do not have any primary sources from original biblical authors, scholars use a variety of ancient manuscripts that sometimes differ with one another.

Translators make the best of what God has given them.  Usually the conflicts amongst the texts are miniscule and do not change the overall meaning anyway.

But if Bible translations matter and, yes, tend to be “biased,” then what translation is best for you?  Here are some insights that will help you the next time you’re Bible shopping.  I can only address the most popular ones because space is limited.

The King James Version is the first “authorized” English translation in history because it was made official by the British crown in 1611.  The fifty-plus translators who worked on the project used Shakespearean language, which makes the version a beautifully written and endearing text even today.

Its history is long, and the version has passed through hundreds of revisions up to our present translation today.   For some Christians, it is the only version to trust.

The KJV is hard to comprehend when reading silently, but makes for great oration in public worship. Its younger sibling, the New King James Version, balances scholarship with contemporary language that’s reader-friendly.

The Revised Standard Version is from the King James tradition and was commissioned by the National Council of Churches, USA, in the late-1940s.  It was intended to serve a variety of denominations including the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The version is sometimes branded as “liberal” because of its translation of Isaiah 7:14, which renders “virgin” as “young woman” in a passage that foreshadows Christ’s birth born of a virgin.  It also places several texts believed to be later additions to Scripture—such as the longer ending in Mark—in footnotes.

Its sibling, the New Revised Standard Version, utilizes gender-inclusive language, which makes it a wonderful text for public worship.  The version is the preferred translation among seminarians, scholars, and “mainline” pastors.  It is my personal Bible of choice.  (The newest Bible from this family is the English Standard Version, which reverts back to exclusive language and tones down the ecumenical nuances.)

The New American Standard Bible is a literal, word-for-word translation of the Greek and Hebrew produced by a private foundation in California.  In fact, it is so literal to the original languages that it is not recommended for public worship, but is for in-depth Bible and word studies.

The New International Version is a popular translation for two reasons.  One, it’s easy to read because it mixes paraphrase rendering with word-for-word scholarship.  Second, it was commissioned in the 1970s for evangelicals who preferred neither the cumbersome language of the KJV nor the interfaith flair of the RSV.

Publishers have insured its selling power by marketing it to all kinds of niche audiences, and it is useful for both public and private settings.  The “NIV Study Bible” includes some wonderful insights; I use it when I teach youth groups.

The New Living Translation, “The Message,” and others like these, are considered “paraphrase” versions because the translators script the language based on meaning rather than on a literal translation.  These are great for children, for dramatic readings in worship, and devotional study.  These versions are the easiest to understand because they are generally written on a middle-school reading level.

When all is said and done, choosing a Bible is like eating your veggies: they are all good for you, but it helps to vary the diet.

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2 thoughts on “Getting Lost in Translation: Which Bible is Right for You?

  1. Joe, The book I just finished reading is “The Story of the Bible; How it Came To Us” by Henry Wansbrough, OSB. This is a very succinct readable history of how the Bible came to be and its current evolution. He also gave high marks to the New Revised Standard Version. He himself was the editor for the New Jerusalem Bible. The next time I see you I will give the book to you so you can read it.

  2. My professors used either New Revised or the Jerusalem Bible. In fact, the Jerusalem Bible was popular with the Old Testament professors in particular. I never got into that translation because, one, I use the NRSV; and, two, the Jerusalem Bible is really hard to find in traditional book stores.

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