Which Translation Should I Choose?

Which Translation Should I Choose?

The bookstore offers a confusing array of Bible translations— NIV, NASB, ESV, to name a few. On top of that, publishers offer different editions, like the Women’s Study Bible, Teen Adventure Bible, First Responders Bible with Spiritual Fitness Manual, etc.

Every now and then someone will complain, “How can you know what God says ... there are so many Bibles!” Well, no ... there’s ONE Bible, and many translations of it. Which one should you purchase and read?

To focus on the New Testament, Paul and the others wrote in Greek. These original manuscripts were authenticated then copied (Colossians 4:16, Galatians 6:11). While there are some differences between ancient copies, these differences are rare and mostly unimportant. These Greek manuscripts must be translated into our own language so that we can comprehend the message (just like Ezra did for non-Hebrew speakers in Nehemiah 8:8).

Some Bible translators put an emphasis on making a literal “word-for-word” or “formal equivalence” translation. When words must be added for clarity, they are printed in italics, so the reader knows they are not actually present in the Greek text. Other Bible translators put more of an emphasis on making a smooth “thought-for-thought” or “dynamic equivalence” translation, getting across the basic meaning of the text. To see the difference, follow 1 Timothy 5:17 down a spectrum of formal to dynamic approaches:

Greek Interlinear: “The well rule elders of double honor be considered worthy.” NASB: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor.” ESV: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” KJV: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour.”

NIV: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor.” NLT: “Elders who do their work well should be paid well.”
GW: “Give double honor to spiritual leaders who handle their duties well.”
CEV: “Church leaders who do their job well deserve to be paid twice as much.”

The Message: “Give a bonus to leaders who do a good job.”

Note how the words “elders” and “rule” and “double honor” smear into less precise ideas as we go into dynamic equivalence translations (and worse when we get to paraphrases like GW and The Message). “Elder” has a specific definition and can be linked to other passages like Acts 20:17-32 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7; “spiritual leaders” is just too vague. Elders are charged to “rule”; while the NIV can barely get away with “direct the affairs of the church” (one wonders the agenda driving such verbosity) the CEV’s “do their job” fundamentally changes the meaning of the word “rule.” Ironically, while “double honor” is less precise than “paid twice as much,” the meaning of the phrase is disputed, and students should be free to study its meaning without being forced into the “paid” meaning; thus, in this case, the broader term is better.

I contend that Bible students should sacrifice a bit of readability for the accuracy of a “word-for-word” translation. There are places in the Bible where theological arguments are made based on very fine points of the text, including the tense of a single verb (Matthew 22:32) and the number of a single noun (Galatians 3:16). “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, cf. Revelation 

22:18). If the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17), I want to stay as close to those words as I can, while not struggling to read. My order of preference would be: NASB or ESV, NKJV, NIV, finally KJV. The New American Standard Bible or English Standard Version do a great job of staying with the original words of the text. The ESV can be found in a variety of typefaces and wide-margin styles. The New King James Version updates the antiquated language of the KJV while remaining a solid word-for-word translation (though it misses out on recent textual discoveries). The New International Version is the least radical of the “thought-for- thought” translations. It attempts to acknowledge each Greek word in some way. But the NIV is often too free and has been accused of Calvinist bias. The NET Bible is interesting for the translation notes that are included for those who want to do a deep dive and is available free on the net. But let me remind you that a little Greek can be a dangerous thing to dabble in.

The King James Version was completed in 1611 and was a good translation in its day. But the English language has changed. When I am studying with a person who uses KJV, I have to spend a lot of my time just defining archaic words, like “suffer” in Mark 10:14 (which used to mean “allow”) and “conversation” in Ephesians 4:22 (which used to mean “behavior”), or awkward phrases, like “quit ye like men” in 1 Corinthians 16:13 or “Holy Ghost.” Plus, “thee” and “thou” and “-eth” and “-est” haven’t been used in centuries and are confusing to younger readers. If you love the cadence of the language, and you are used to KJV, keep using it! But don’t make the mistake of thinking it is an inspired translation (no translation is inspired). It was “authorized” by King James, not by God.

I would avoid any translation looser than NIV. Today’s English Version, the New Century Version, the New Living Translation, and many more, do not respect the verbal inspiration of God’s word. The Living Bible (LB), God’s Word (GW), and The Message aren’t even translations, they are merely paraphrases.

Avoid all translations with a sectarian bias. These include Bibles released specifically by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (NWT) and the Catholic Church (JB, NAB). Avoid editions of the Bible that pack their own often-misleading notes in with the text, like The Scofield Reference Bible and The Open Bible. It’s fine to discuss interpretations of the Bible, but it is dangerous to print these opinions between the same covers as the inspired text.

–John Guzzetta