What translation of the Bible is the best one to use? (Part 1)

English translations of the Bible abound–which is the best one to use?

Q.  What is the version of the Bible that we, Christians, should use?  Which is better: NIV, KJV, NKJV or The Message? 

I will answer your question as objectively as I can, but first, by way of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I was one of the translators for a recently published contemporary version, The Voice Bible.  (I translated the books of Deuteronomy and Hosea, and also wrote the Deuteronomy commentary.) I also have a close working relationship with Biblica, which holds the copyright to the New International Version (NIV). I was a member of the team that helped Biblica produce The Books of the Bible, an edition of the NIV without chapters and verses, and I continue to work closely with them on a variety of other projects.  I also do some consulting with the NIV translation committee, most recently working with them on the visual formatting of that translation.  I can personally recommend the NIV very highly for its accuracy and readability.

This much said, let me respond to your question.  When it comes to translations such as the ones you mention, which tend to be produced by committees of reputable biblical scholars and issued by major Christian publishers, I don’t believe there are any “bad” translations.  Rather, translation teams simply make different choices, and that is what distinguishes one version of the Bible from another.  But these choices do make a given translation better suited for some purposes than for others.  The Voice Bible, for example, is designed to be read aloud in worship gatherings, with various speakers taking different parts. The Books of the Bible allows people to “read big” through the grand story of Scripture, as tens of thousands of people have already been doing through Biblica’s Community Bible Experience program.

Probably the most significant choice is whether to try to render the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible into English (or any other “receptor” language) word-for-word, to the fullest extent possible, with the goal of giving the reader the best idea of what the original text looks like.  Alternatively, a translation may try to capture the meaning as it can best be understood and render it into the most readable English possible, even if this means not matching each original word with an English equivalent.  The farther a version goes in presenting the meaning “in other words,” the closer it gets to being a paraphrase (like The Message or The Voice Bible) rather than an actual translation.

Let me give you an example.  When Paul is writing to Timothy about the qualifications of an overseer (or elder), he says, among other things, that such a person is to be literally “a man of one woman.”  Bibles that take more of a word-for-word approach tend to translate this “the husband of one wife,” since the Greek word for “man” can also mean “husband,” and the Greek word for “woman” can also mean “wife.”  This is the reading of the KJV, NKJV, and translations that take a similar approach such as the ESV and the NASB.

The idea is apparently that an elder must be married, but have only one wife–that is, not be polygamous; he must have only one wife at a time.  However,  other translations take these words to mean that an elder can only ever have one wife over his lifetime, meaning that men who have been widowed or divorced and who then remarry are not eligible.  Accordingly the NRSV and NAB translate the phrase “married only once.”  But this is no longer a word-for-word translation; it is capturing, in different words, what is understood to be the meaning.  This illustrates the difference in approaches.

Other translations take this same meaning-for-meaning approach, but they understand the meaning differently. In Greek as in English, the expression “a one-woman man” can refer to a man who is exclusively loyal to his wife.  In other words, if we take all of the words together, rather than one at a time, the meaning of the phrase “a man of one woman” may refer to the character and conduct of the elder, rather than to his civil status.  Following this approach, and understanding the meaning this way, the NIV and NLT translate the phrase as “faithful to his wife.”  The Message says that he must be “committed to his wife,” and several other translations have similar readings.

This example illustrates how the rendering of the original into English can differ based on what approach the translators choose to take.  And so my advice to anyone who doesn’t know the original biblical languages would be to compare the reading of a given passage in a word-for-word English translation (such as the KJV or NKJV, which you mentioned) with that in a meaning-for-meaning translation (such as the NIV or The Message), to get a good idea of the range of possibilities.

You can compare how a given passage is translated by several dozen leading versions by using the “see [verse reference] in all English translations” feature on BibleGateway.  But I hope that in addition to doing this kind of close comparison, you will also read extensively through the Bible to get the sweep of its overall story and see where all of the parts fit within it.  I think that’s the best way to understand what the Bible is saying to you.

There are two other key choices that translators must make as well. I’ll discuss those in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “What translation of the Bible is the best one to use? (Part 1)”

  1. My take is that all translation involves interpretation. So the most important thing to know is the worldview of the translator(s). This is inherent in the process and cannot be avoided, as translation involves making choices among alternatives.

    A Catholic translation can be expected to support Catholic interpretations of Scripture and a Protestant translation can be expected to support Protestant interpretations of Scripture. If the translators believe that men are to be leaders in the church and home and women are to be followers, then they will tend to choose to translate the gender verses in certain ways so they do not contradict such beliefs, such is the case with the ESV and the HCSB. If the translators believe in the inerrancy of Scripture then they will tend to choose to translate in ways that avoid apparent contradictions. If the translators are Jehovah’s Witnesses, then they will translate to support their understanding of Jesus.

    In effect, reading a translation is a way for the translators to try to get you to agree with their understandings of Scripture.

    1. I agree with you to some extent, and so there is all the more reason to compare what various translations say at any given point, to get a more balanced view. But I also think that the original language exerts a certain amount of control over what people can make the Bible say. The Jehovah’s Witness translation has to put some of its most idiosyncratic readings in brackets, acknowledging that it is supplying material not present in the original. I give it credit for integrity along those lines!

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