What Bible Translation Should I Read?
We have so many versions of the Bible available to us! What a time to live, when we have unlimited access to God's Word in print, online, and whatever device you're reading this on! However, it can be challenging to decide which translation is best to start reading. In this episode of Biblicalish, we'll talk about the incredible journey of the Bible into English, how translations differ, and what versions you should consider reading!
How did we get our Bible?
The Bible, though typically bound into one book, is a collection of many books by many different authors, written over a few thousand years. Technically the "Good Book" is more of an anthology, but each book plays a part in telling the same story. It's a story of the good God who created all things, how mankind turned away from Him, how He redeemed us, and how He is even now bringing about the restoration of all things! The Bible is so much more than just a collection of books; according to 2 Timothy 3:16, it is the inspired Word of God, making it infinitely valuable to us!
There are 66 books in all, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. Just a note: that the Catholic and Orthodox churches include some additional books in the Old Testament, but we'll save discussion on how the books were chosen and assembled for another day. Today, we want to focus on the words themselves and how they were translated into the English language.
When the first books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago, English wasn't even a language. The Old Testament books were first recorded in Hebrew, which makes sense since much of it is the Hebrew people's history. The New Testament, on the other hand, was written during the 1st century— primarily in Greek.
The journey to an English translation began around 400 AD, with a translation known as the Vulgate or common translation. Why is this notable? This Latin translation is the base for the first translation into English, for better and for worse. This translation's strength came from using as a source some of the earliest Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available, manuscripts around today! Almost a thousand years after the Vulgate, when John Wycliffe took up translating the Bible into English in the late 1300s, this Latin translation was his source document. The challenge is that the accuracy of this translation is dependent now on two things:
In the mid-1500s, with the invention of the printing press, men like William Tyndale, John Rogers, and Miles Cloverdale undertook producing new translations into English from the Greek and Hebrew texts.
There have been many translations completed over the last 500 years. Some notable ones are the King James Version, The New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version. Each translation today maintains the standard of going back to the original text languages because they best enable us to reproduce the original meaning.
The Spectrum of Translation
The goal of translation is to reproduce the meaning of a text from one language to another. We don’t want to add any meaning in our translation or take any meaning away. That doesn’t mean that every translation goes about doing that in the same way!
Generally, there's a spectrum of translation approaches from more formal on one end to more functional on the other. You might call the formal approach a "literal" or "word-for-word" approach. It is most interested in translating things the way the writer initially meant it. On the other end, the more functional approach is interested in translating "thought-for-thought" or saying things most easily understood by the modern reader.
Let's put a few translations on the map for comparison:
All the way at the formal end is the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which uses the closest English equivalent for each word. This translation is about as close as you can get to working with the original texts without actually learning to read Greek or Hebrew.
A little closer to the middle is the English Standard Version (ESV), which uses a similar word-for-word translation style. It focuses on using more modern English to improve readability.
Over a little closer to the "functional" end is the well-known New International Version (NIV), which attempts to balance "transparency to the original with clarity of meaning”. Their ambition is to make it sound beautiful in the English language to enjoy reading it.
Let's talk pros and cons for each end of the spectrum here for a moment:
The strength of the more formal translations is their accuracy in studying God's Word in detail! If we believe God inspired the very words of Scripture, then there is value in knowing which words were used! It prompts us to ask good questions like, "What does it mean to take the name of the Lord in vain?" Is it talking about swearing? Or does "taking the name" mean more than speaking God's name out of turn?
The challenge with these translations is that they can feel a little cumbersome to the modern reader and can be a little harder to read aloud. The most beautiful poem written in Hebrew or Greek doesn't quite have the same rhymes and rhythm in English.
What about the translations termed more "functional"? The apparent strength is that they're easy to read, making you more likely to read them! I don't want to discount the value of having a translation that presents God's word in a way that helps me "meditate on it day and night.”
The downside of using a translation like this is that sometimes you end up swapping out the more accurate word for a more attractive word. This exchange can be a problem when the more attractive word in English carries meaning or connotations that the original word did not. The reverse can also be true, where the more common English word loses meaning!
Picking A Translation
Taking all that into account, you can see that there's a careful balancing act going on when it comes to this spectrum of translations. Scripture itself talks about the complexity of this balance.
On the one hand, 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that Scripture is inspired by God and infinitely useful. In other words, it is given to us to be very functional in its application to our lives.
On the other hand, in Isaiah 55:8, God says that His thoughts are above ours—higher than ours. There will always be some kind of wrestle in reading and understanding those kinds of thoughts, but it's a good wrestle. It's a worthwhile journey, especially considering God's word is life to us.
Each of the translations I've talked about today does a pretty good job of making the meaning of Scripture clear to the English reader. I think it helps to be aware of where they fall on that spectrum of translation.
This may come as a disappointment to some, but I'm not going to recommend a translation, though I will share with you my process for reading the Bible.
How I Read the Bible
I typically read the ESV, which is just readable enough to easily read it out loud and not stumble over the words too often. However, when I'm studying a passage in-depth, I'll usually read the even more literal NASB. In the context of studying, I appreciate being stopped by hard words. I ask, "Why did the author say it like that?" and "what does that mean?". There's no shame in using more than one version. It's often helpful to have some comparisons around difficult passages.
If you hear one thing from all of this, it's that we have some options when it comes to reading God's Word, the critical thing being that you read it!
If you're wondering what to do with paraphrases of the Bible like The Message or The Passion Translation, we'll tackle those in the next article coming out in about two weeks! If you haven't already, you should subscribe to our email list, so you get notified when the next episode comes out.
If you have questions about another translation that we didn't talk about today, please reach out to us on social media or via email.
 2 Timothy 3:16
 Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998)
 Psalm 1:2
 Deuteronomy 8:3
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Biblicalish is an online publication focused on biblical literacy, and forming our thoughts around biblical ideas and not "biblicalish" ideas.