Which Version of the Bible is Best?

Which version of the Bible do you think is best and why?

This is the question I’ve asked myself multiple times since first becoming a Christian. I once thought it was the NIV, but no longer do. Here’s why…

Recently, after the sermon at our Wednesday night church service , a question came up about which translation was best. The questioner was confused as to why her Bible had read so differently than the NASB, the version our church uses. Our pastor then gave a short sermon on Bible translations, from a very loving and gentle position. During this, he recommended everyone read The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken. I had read this book about a year ago and it completely changed the way I look at Bible translations. Read it for yourself and see if you don’t reconsider how you treat God’s Word in your daily Christian walk.

While most books dealing with the “translation argument” are written by theologians, Ryken is an expert in English literature and literary theory, teaching at Wheaton College. He takes a different look than a theologian does, primarily comparing it to how we treat other works of literature.

Bible translation comes down to two sides, both attempt to translate the original Greek and Hebrew into the modern English language. One translation is dynamic equivalence translation (also called “thought for thought” translations), the other is essentially a literal translation (also called formal or verbal equivalence, and “word for word” translations).

If you’ve never heard these terms before you’re probably wondering which translations fit into which categories. The most popular literal translations of the Bible are the NASB, King James, New King James, ESV, and the RSV. They essentially try to translate the exact original language-words, only making slight changes where the rules of English syntax and grammar apply.  The most popular dynamic equivalence versions are the NIV, TNIV, NET, NLT and The Message. These translations run the spectrum from a conservative use of dynamic equivalence, as in the NIV, to a very liberal use of it in The Message. Dynamic equivalent translations are a rather new trend, as Ryken states on page page 16:

For the last three decades, dynamic equivalent translations have had the world of English Bible translation and the English Bible market pretty much to themselves, though I find that laypeople generally do not realize this. Even in the scholarly world, there is some confusion regarding the NIV, which one source incorrectly places in the “verbal equivalence” category.

He goes on to ask the question of how you would feel if you had written a book, and then the transcriber reduced the vocabulary, cut sentences, dropped metaphors, changed words they felt were old-fashioned, eliminated words, and changed words into what they you really meant. Having had some of these things happen to my marketing materials that I’ve written in the past, I can tell you it is very irritating. And that’s just an advertisement I wrote. We’re talking about the Word of God here!

Leland Ryken makes a good point of this (p. 128):

…if I were to distribute excerpts from a work of literature, the Gettysburg Address, or even an article from Newsweek to a class of students, I would never think of changing the wording. I have too high a regard for the authority of even secular texts to do so. The same principle is even more important in Bible translation, where the words of the Bible are the very words of God. Every possible nuance of meaning that resides in the words of the original must be carried over into the words of a translation.

If the very words of the original biblical manuscripts where breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16), why wouldn’t we want to preserve those words as closely as possible when translating them to English?

Is anyone “dumbing down” Shakespeare for our High School students so they can more easily understand it? I remember reading Beowulf and hardly understanding a sentence of this 1200 year old story. Why do we expect our children to read the literal translation of other works, but not the Bible? This hit me one day while homeschooling. I realized we had our oldest child reading challenging and difficult secular books with expand vocabulary as part of their studies, while doing Bible reading with a basic, child-like Bible translation.

But here’s the scariest part about dynamic equivalent translations. They interpret the original texts for you. In many cases, they are more like a commentary than Scripture. Trusted commentaries are great for further study, but when I read the Bible I want the original thoughts, intentions, meanings, words, etc. to be presented before me. I want to decide what the words mean before I check out what the biblical scholars mean. Especially considering there are some really liberal Bible scholars out there, you need to know that theological bias is rampant in some translations. Sometimes the differences can be subtle. Consider Hebrews 2:17:

  • Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God.. (NASB)
  • For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God…(TNIV)

Did you catch the subtle difference in the term “brethren” in the NASB and the TNIV’s “brothers and sisters”. Did Jesus have to become like a woman in every way? The OT high priests were all male. How did Jesus’ becoming like a woman help him to become a high priest in service to God? The underlying Greek term, adelphos, means brother, not “brother and sister”. Did God want the author of Hebrews to include both sexes or not? This translation almost makes Jesus to be androgynous, both man and woman, which borders on the blasphemous.

One more example and then I’ll tell you the top 3 translations I suggest. This example comes from page 194 in The Word of God in English, but I’ll shorten here. Examine the different “interpretations” presented by the dynamic equivalent translations for a phrase of Romans 1:5. Compare the italicized portions:

  • to bring all people of all nations to faith and obedience in his name” *(REB)*
  • to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” *(NIV)*
  • “to call all the Gentiles to faith and obedience for his name’s sake” *(TNIV)*
  • “so that people of all nations would obey and have faith” *(CEV)*
  • “to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bring glory to his name” *(NLT)*
  • “to bring the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” *(ESV)*

Which is it? Should we bring the nations to faith and obedience, to obedience that comes from faith, to obey and have faith, so that they will believe or should we actually bring the obedience of faith? Depending on which translation you follow, your application of this text could look completely different than the others. The underlying Greek shows the ESV to have it right. (To see the sources for the above translations simply highlight the space between the asterisks)

So which translation should you use? I recommend the New American Standard (NASB), English Standard (ESV) and New King James (NKJV) in that order. King James is also pretty good, but requires a good understanding of old English. This is God’s Word we’re talking about. We have a choice in English translations, why would you settle for something less than the best?

5 comments… add one
  • Thanks for this article. I have been using the New American Standard Bible as the Bible translation for my personal reading for several years. My underlying reason has been that I want to read a Bible translation in English that gets to what the original Greek states as closely as possible. (I know a scant amount of Greek and reading a Greek text won’t help me with my current level of knowledge of /ignorance of Greek). The reasoning you give about “dumbing down” other texts of history (i.e. Beowulf, Gettysburg Address) expands on the only example I’ve used before, that of Shakespeare.

    I see a Shakespeare play at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival every few years.When I went this year with my older son to see “The Tempest”, no one going to that play was expecting that they put on a performance with the text of “The Tempest” put into modern English. They expected the original early 17th century words to be used. While other study aids can be used to understand what is happening in the play, no one is willing to touch Shakespeare’s words and alter them in performance. Why indeed should we think that the God-breathed words of Scripture are more powerful and insightful after they are purposely simplified?

    One last point. Some friends of my family are part of an Arabic language Christian Church in a nearby suburb. They are all recent refugees from Iraq. They want to understand English accurately. While they use an Arabic language text of the Bible primarily for their service, the English translation they use is not a “simplified” English translation. They use the New American Standard.

  • kateg

    Thank you; that was very helpful.

  • This is a great article. Thank you! I thought I read once that the NIV was better for OT and the NAS for the NT. Thoughts?

    • Michael Beck

      Grateful, I haven’t heard that before. They are both based on the same underlying Hebrew text, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia Masoretic Hebrew text. So it wouldn’t be a matter of which Hebrew text they used, but more a matter of what the translators philosophy is. Of course you could get the NIV/NASB Parallel Bible and compare the difference.

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