Up until 1895 the Bible was like the original Ford motor car when Henry Ford famously said (supposedly) that “you can have any colour as long as it is black.” The Bible at that time was only available in one ‘colour’, the King James version.
But things changed in 1895 when a German pastor by the name of Adolf Deissmann began reading everyday ancient Greek manuscripts (private letters, business transactions, other documents etc) which were written in the same vocabulary as the NT texts. In other words, the New Testament was originally written in everyday Greek language, not some sort of distant religious language. The consequence of this discovery was that if the original writings were written in easy to understand terms, so subsequent translations should be easy to understand too.
These days there is an overwhelming choice when considering which bible translation to read, so I am hoping to guide you through the ‘version’ maze in order to help you make an informed decision.
Most people think that the best version would be a word-for-word translation but this isn’t necessarily so. If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language (as I have) you will find that most languages have many pseudonyms and phrases that if translated word for word would make no sense whatsoever. For instance, the term ‘kick the bucket’ wouldn’t make any sense at all if you translated it word for word. You would need to find the corresponding phrase in that language which best fits the meaning behind it. The downside of not using word-for-word translation but rather interpreting the general meaning of the passage, is that you need to be sure you understand what the original meaning actually is! This is not always obvious and in the case of the Bible, having been written thousands of years ago, there will always be arguments as to what the writer did actually mean (unfortunately the writers are no longer around to ask!). We also have to bear in mind that even with the most honest of intentions, the people who interpret the bible will have their own understanding as to what they ‘believe’ the Bible says, especially those versions that have been translated by only one person (Moffatt, JB Phillips etc).
The different versions then can be put on a sort of scale ranging from ‘word-for-word’ (sometimes called ‘formal equivalence’) to a ‘thought-for-thought’ (called ‘dynamic equivalence’). The scale would look like the one below:
Overview of some of the more popular translations
King James Version (KJV)
This is the Bible with the ‘thee’s’ and the ‘thou’s’ in, also called the “Authorised” version. It has had a huge impact in shaping the English language. It is a literary masterpiece with the words and phrases beautifully crafted. From my own observations it seems some people hold this particular version in too high esteem and use it with an air of superiority, as if the words are more holy if spoken in “olde” English. The vocabulary and grammar have now been updated into the New King James Version (NKJV) which is much more a ‘word-for-word’ translation.
Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The RSV was completed in 1952 and was intended to be, in part, a revision of the King James. The RSV attempts to be a word-for-word translation where possible. It has not been without controversy; some opponents claim it denies the virgin birth. The NRSV follows the same principle of translation, though it has now become more “gender-inclusive” (somewhat irritating if, like me, you find the excesses of political correctness tiresome). A blanket gender-inclusive translation can be very misleading.
New American Standard (NASB)
The New American Standard Bible (First published in 1971) is widely regarded as the best ‘word-for-word’ translation available today. It was translated by very ‘conservative’ minded theologians so even though it is very accurate, the language does not flow particularly well, especially as each verse is laid out separately rather than in paragraphs, making it even more ‘wooden’ and ‘stilted’ to read
New English Bible (NEB)
The NEB was completed in 1971, after a quarter of a century of labour. It marks a new milestone in translation: it is not a revision, but a brand new translation. It is a phrase-for-phrase translation. Unfortunately, sometimes the biases of the translators creep into the text. The REB (Revised English Bible) follows the same pattern: excellent English, though not always faithful to the Greek and Hebrew.
New International Version (NIV)
The NIV was published in 1978. It may be considered a counterpart to the NEB. (The NEB is strictly a British version, while the NIV is international). It is more of a phrase-for-phrase translation than a word-for-word translation. The translators were generally more conservative than those who worked on the NEB. In making it easy to read it is perhaps too simple in its language (although this is always going to be a difficult balancing act).
English Standard Version (ESV)
The ESV, published in 2001, is the newest and most up-to-date formal equivalent translation. The ESV has eliminated the stilted English of translations such as the NASB, while maintaining the literary excellence of translations like the KJV. The ESV has also consistently translated specific terms in the original language to make theological developments easier to follow, and English concordance searches more accurate. Like the KJV, it has many unforgettable expressions, suitable for memorizing.
New English Translation (NET)
The NET Bible was published in 2005. The NET has all the earmarks of a great translation. At times, it is more accurate than the NASB, more readable than the NIV, and more elegant than both. It is clear and eloquent while maintaining the meaning of the original text. In addition, the notes are a genuine gold mine of information, unlike those found in any other translation. Until I researched this blog I must admit that I had always assumed the NET to stand for internet and although it is only available on the Internet, I hadn’t realised how good it was considered to be.
New World Translation (NWT)
If you ever see this version, don’t buy it! It is the one translated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a classic example of translating text with pre-conceived ideas (God cannot be three persons, for example) and so attempting to translate it using huge amounts of interpretation. Yet there are other parts which have been translated so literally they are barely readable.
My recommendation would be that when studying, use a couple of translations together to compare. I personally prefer the ESV study bible because the notes are really good. I also use the NIV as this is the version I grew up with and have memorised the most verses from. For just simple reading I quite enjoy the Good News bible. Some people like ‘The Message’ but I personally dislike it. I find it incongruous and grating and nothing like the English I speak. (It’s like your dad embarrassing you with his dance moves at a family wedding or Stephen Hawking reading the sonnets of Shakespeare. There, I’ve got that one of my chest!! )
The most important thing is to keep reading. I believe the Holy Spirit will guide you into truth, so read with a prayerful submissive spirit and be open to what God speaks to you, because He will.