What translation of the Bible is the best one to use? (Part 2)

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

In my first post in response to this question, I described one choice that Bible translators must make: whether to take a word-for-word or a meaning-for-meaning approach.  This choice determines much of the difference between the variety of major English translations available today that are all generally good, reputable, and worth using.

There are at least two other key choices that translators must make.

For one thing, they must decide what manuscripts to rely on to determine the original reading.  For the New Testament, for example, the KJV and NKJV use what is known as the “Majority Text” or “Received Text,” which represents how the Greek New Testament became standardized over the centuries in the course of its transmission.  The NIV, ESV, NRSV, and similar versions are instead translations of an “eclectic” text, that is, of readings that the translators consider most likely to represent the original that are drawn from a variety of different early manuscripts.

The other key choice is to what extent a translation will reflect the latest changes in the receptor language (in our case, English) or, alternatively, preserve forms that are no longer current but which have a venerable pedigree in prior translations and which may also correspond more closely to distinctions in the biblical languages.

By the time the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published in 1952, for example, pronouns such as “thou,” “thee,” and “thine” to indicate the second person singular had effectively dropped out of the English language. “You,” “your,” and “yours” were in use instead for both singular and plural.  But the RSV decided to retain the older forms in prayers, so that in Psalm 23, for example, it read, “Thou are with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”  Not only did this preserve accustomed language for use in the public reading of Scripture, it also preserved the singular-plural distinction that is present in second-person Hebrew pronouns.

More recent translations, however, have now all moved to “you” exclusively.  The two currently published revisions of the RSV, the ESV and NRSV, both read, “You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The NKJV reads the same way.

A contemporary example of this same choice between preserving older forms and adopting newer ones has to do with the indefinite singular pronoun.  If you are referring to an unknown person who could be either male or female, do you say “he,” as was formerly the convention in English (and which is also the convention in New Testament Greek)?  Or do you say “he or she” or “they,” which represents more current English?

Different translations are currently making different choices on this issue.  For example, the ESV translates Paul’s warning against pride at the end of Galatians this way: “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”  This reflects the way that the original Greek uses masculine pronouns, by convention, to describe an indefinite person who could be either male or female.  But the NIV, making the choice to render the phrase more in keeping with the contemporary English idiom, says, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”  This uses a plural pronoun to render a singular pronoun in Greek and follows a convention that is still somewhat disputed in our day.  But in the end, it may prove to be no more controversial than saying “you” instead of “thee.”  Only time will tell!

In conclusion, I would encourage you to be aware of these different choices that translators need to make, and to compare different translations if you want to get a good idea of what the original says and means.  In fact, the four translations you mention–the NIV, KJV, NKJV and The Message–represent different choices in all three of the areas I’ve discussed.  So if you read and compare them all (or a group of translations that represents a similar variety), without feeling that you have to choose between them, you will be doing very well.

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.

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