Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

…is a question that has been asked in the OSFGroups. Here’s how I answer:

The Bible’s a really old book, originally written in two different languages, neither of which exist in those ancient forms anymore…which means that it has to be translated for everybody. In fact, it has been translated into a huge number of world languages, and also many different times and ways in English. This could lead to a whole bunch of questions, which we could talk about sometime (although so far no one has initiated that conversation here for some reason), but for starters, the basic ones might be:

How do I find the reading? What if I don’t have a Bible? Why aren’t you sharing a link?

These are all questions I’ve been asked before in previous OSFGroups, and they are great questions. I don’t (usually) share links to each individual passage because I honestly don’t want to tell you which Bible translation/version/paraphrase you must read. I will, however, give you a nudge in some good directions.

1.     If you have a Bible of your own, feel free to use it. If you haven’t used it often, most if not all print-Bibles have a table of contents that tells you where the “books” are within it. The Bible is full of subdivisions, the two main ones being the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Bible, which contains all the same sections but in a different order) and the New Testament. The Old Testament was written primarily in ancient Hebrew, while the New Testament was in first-century BCE Greek. 

Those two large sections are divided up into smaller “books” which were written by different people in different time periods and contexts. Many Christians (including this one) believe they all hang together as a cohesive whole, but you don’t have to believe that to interact with us here. Each book is divided up into chapters (large numbers) and verses (tiny numbers). References are written, for example, like this: Genesis 1:5 (or 1.5). This means the reading is from the book of Genesis, chapter one, verse five. 

2.    If you don’t have a Bible of your own, you can’t understand the wording of the Bible you have, or you’re just curious to see how a different translation words things, go to www.youversion.com or www.biblegateway.com and look up the passage there. You can pick from a very large assortment of translations at either site, which is good when looking for the most understandable, the most literally translated, or if you want to compare and contrast a couple of different versions. Youversion’s app for your tablet or phone is better than Biblegateway’s, but I think Biblegateway has more translation and language options.

Below are a few notes on some of the most common versions and/or the ones I use (but you can use whatever you want):

King James Version (KJV): Way old school. Some churches believe this is the only valid version of the Bible there is. It’s beautiful language, and it is accurately translated–into the language of 1611–which pretty much needs to be translated again for 2017. I was an English major in college and even I have trouble understanding this version, unless I’m listening to a recording of it in a British accent.

New King James Version (NKJV): The above, updated within the last 10-20 years or so. No more thees and thous. It’s a very literal translation, but sometimes still a little tricky to understand.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): The pew Bibles in many “mainline” churches are in this translation. I used this all through college and 5 years of being a missionary in London and loved it. It is probably the most dog-eared and well-perused hard copy of the Bible that I own, besides–well actually, after moving to my parents’ former house and finding ALL my old Bibles, they’re probably all equally dogeared, somehow, at this point.

New International Version (NIV): Pretty standard. Nothing fancy. I grew up with this one. The pew Bibles in many “evangelical” churches are in this translation. It has its limitations, but it’s understandable and more or less accurate as a translation. Also, the translators (many, who collaborate but don’t all come from identical viewpoints about every single issue) continually update it as scholarship and understanding advances, so it’s got some intellectual integrity going for it.

English Standard Version (ESV): Purportedly even a better translation than the NIV. (I think it depends on the theology of the person you ask.) Note: for studies specifically about women, it might not give the clearest picture of what the text is really telling us–although it might not be bad to add it to the mix if you’re comparing versions. Also no frills, but a little bit of an obvious interpretational slant.  

Complete Jewish Bible (CJB): This Bible is half paraphrase and half translation, done primarily by one Jewish guy who came to believe that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah. The order of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible books matches that of the Hebrew Bible, and there is no divider between the two testaments–Chronicles (the last book in the Hebrew Bible) just goes straight to Matthew. It’s interesting to read because all the Hebrew names (some of which are already unusual in their anglicized versions) have been “transliterated,” so, for example “Matthew” is “Mattityahu.” It takes a little getting used to, but provides a vital Jewish context that is often missing from the Gentile understanding of the Bible.

New Living Translation(NLT): This one has a very “current” style of English (or at least it did. I think it came out in the 90’s). It’s easy to understand. Sometimes it takes a few liberties with what the verse is actually saying, but it’s super helpful if you want to get the basic idea. 

The Message: This is not a translation but a paraphrase. This is great to read in conjunction with another translation to compare and help illuminate an aspect of what is said, but I wouldn’t recommend using it on its own, because you’ll miss pieces of meaning. However, you will also most likely notice things (which are really part of the original meaning) that you might not notice as well in a more traditional version.

This list isn’t all that’s out there, but hopefully it will give you an idea. What Bible translations do you like to use?

Published by Jennwith2ns

Jesus person. Wife and step-mom. Daughter, sister, auntie, friend. Collector of stories: mine, yours, tangible, not... Pastor of Central Baptist Church, founder and spiritual director at The Pilgrimage, and author of Trees In The Pavement and Favored One.

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