On Sunday morning at Capitol City, I spent a few minutes explaining the important reasons why we are no longer publishing or displaying on-screen the biblical text for each Sunday’s sermon. Here’s the short version: We encountered research that suggests that if we don’t encourage people to bring and open their own Bibles on Sunday morning, we are unintentionally but significantly discouraging them from opening their own Bibles Monday through Saturday. Therefore, if we want you to be engaging in God’s Word on your own – and we do! – then we need to compel you to bring and open your own Bible on Sunday morning.
In light of that announcement, a few people asked me, “Which Bible translation should I bring?” I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain why we have different Bible translations and which one(s) I recommend.
The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, while the majority of the New Testament was written in Greek. Consequently, every English Bible is a translation. Usually, these translations are the faithful work of teams of scholars who have sought to make God’s Word readable in English while accurately reflecting ancient words written to ancient cultures. That’s a hard job, and I’m thankful that we have so many good English translations to choose from.
But why do we have so many? If you’ve ever tried to share the gospel with someone from a Muslim background, you might know that the fact that there are many English translations of the Bible is an issue for some Muslims. They think that we have multiple Words of God, not one Word of God. That isn’t the case, however. The reason there are multiple English translations is because each translation represents a different translation philosophy.
Some translations use a word-for-word philosophy, where one word in Hebrew or Greek is translated with one word in English. These translations are usually highly accurate but sometimes hard to read. Examples of good word for word translations include theNew American Standard Bible (NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV).
Other translations are phrase-for-phrase translations; a phrase in Hebrew is translated with an equivalent English phrase. These translations are usually more readable in English, though sometimes at the expense of some “literal” accuracy. The most popular phrase for phrase translation is the New International Version (NIV).
Finally, there are paraphrase translations. These don’t attempt to preserve correspondence between the words of the Hebrew or Greek text and the English. Instead, they seek to preserve correspondence between the thoughts of the Hebrew or Greek text and the English. Typically, paraphrase translations are quite readable. The most famous of these is The Message, by Eugene Peterson.
Why shouldn’t one opt for the most readable translation available? Well, maybe you should. In my view, the best Bible translation is the one you’ll actually read. If that’s a paraphrase translation, so be it. But if you’re already committed to Bible reading, it might be better to opt for a phrase-for-phrase or word-for-word translation. Why? We have to keep in mind that all translation involves interpretation. The thoughts and beliefs and biases of the translators are always a factor in the words they choose or don’t choose. Generally speaking, though, the interpretive influence of phrase-for-phrase translators is less than that of paraphrase translators, and that of word-for-word translators is less than that of phrase-for-phrase translators.
Basically, the more readable a translation, the farther you are from direct correspondence to the original languages, and that distance always reflects the bias of the interpreters. If you’re new to Bible study, that distance really shouldn’t bother you much. Even paraphrase translations are still good. However, I often find that the truth of Scripture is unlocked for me only when I do the hard work of wading through a really literal translation.
To sum up: find a Bible translation that you’ll actually read. Having read this, I hope you’ll do that with a better understanding of what went into your English Bible.
Personally, when I read the Bible devotionally, I always use the ESV. In my study I value close correspondence to the original languages, and I think that the ESV manages to preserve that with English that is still smooth and readable. When I preach at Capitol City – and elsewhere, unless something else is requested – I preach from the 2011 edition of the NIV. (The NIV released a major update to their translation in 2011, though you still find quite a few folks carrying the 1984 edition around.) I choose the NIV in preaching because its a little more accessible for people new to Scripture.
Leave me a comment below: What is your favorite English translation of the Bible, and why?