Do you know how many English translations of the Bible there are?
It’s hard to say, exactly. Estimates range from 100-900.
When I worked with students I often had the joy of watching them get their first Bible. Kids (and parents) would say to me, “There are so many different kinds, which one should I get?”
Maybe you have the same question.
Ultimately, only you can know which Bible translation is best for you, but to help you out, here are 4 questions you should ask when picking a Bible translation.
1. Does it use the best source material?
“Those who are anxious to know the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”
I’ve written before about the importance of text criticism when it comes to trusting the accuracy of the Bible. Because of this you want to make sure that when picking a Bible translation it uses a good source text.
This immediately rules out every Bible translation before 1881 (King James, I’m looking at you), because the text used prior to this, the Textus Receptus, is seriously flawed (as in included Bible verses written in the 12th century).
The introduction to almost every Bible includes information on the process used by the translators and will let you know what original language sources were used. For the Old Testament look for sources like “the Masoretic Text” or “Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia.” In the New Testament look for “Nestle-Aland” or “United Bible Societies” (or UBS) Greek New Testament. These are the standard critical texts.
If you don’t feel like combing through the introduction looking for that, you can perform this easy test.
- Look up Mark 16:9 in the translation you are considering.
- Do you see a bracket or a footnote letting you know that there are some differences in early texts about where Mark ends?
- Yes? Then this translation uses the very best source material.
- No? Put this translation back. Actually, hide it. Nobody needs to buy that.
2. What am I using it for?
When choosing a translation it is important to ask “What will I do with this?”
I regularly use the Bible for three different things: study/teaching, devotion, and public reading.
Conveniently, there are three types of translations.
- Formal (or verbal) equivalence is a word for word translation of the original language. These are some times clunky and awkward, but are usually the most accurate.
- Functional (or dynamic) equivalence is a thought by thought translation of the original language. These are usually easier to read, but not as accurate.
- A paraphrase is a functional equivalence translation pushed to the extreme. Some might say that a paraphrase is not even a translation but an interpretation. These are the easiest to read and also the least accurate.
I study exclusively from formal equivalence translations because they are least likely to have a theology inserted into them (but not immune to it).
For devotional use you should use a dynamic equivalence. It is vital that we view the Bible as unfolding story of grace and being able to read smoothly helps to absorb that story.
For special public readings I like paraphrases. If you are reading a passage you are going to teach from, then read it in the formal equivalence translation you use to study and give your message. But if it is being used as a call to worship or as a supplement to the other translation or text, a paraphrase is great.
3. Did more than one voice go into the translation?
“No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.”
George Bernard Shaw
Some translations are done by individuals and some are done by committees.
You should avoid translations done by individuals. Paraphrases are the exception to this rule since they are already getting limited use. The reason for avoiding single voice translations is simple: one person can be wrong and not know it. Without a group of people to keep them accountable they might insert their theology or interpretation intentionally or unintentionally
For this same reason, translations produced by denominational committees should also be avoided too. They can do the same thing as an single person since they are acting from a single ideology.
The most famous example of this is the New World Translation, produced by the Jehovah’s Witness organization Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. The NWT has been criticized for translating in a way to make the Bible confirm preconceived theology. For example, most translations of John 1:1 say “and the word was God” the NWT, to conform to Jehovah’s Witness theology, reads “and the word was a god.”
You can minimize distortion by avoding a single voice in your translation.
4. Can I read this?
What good is the very best source material, a clear purpose, and multiple voices if when you sit down to read the Bible you just can’t follow it.
So pick a Bible that is readable.
I can’t give you guidelines for this because only you know what reads smoothly for you. It’s subjective, so spend a little time with a couple different translations to find which is clearest. Read from several different genres, like wisdom and epistles, to make sure the whole thing is clear.
What would you add?
Asking those four questions is essential, but it is only a start. To really get the best translation for you you have to ask questions about what is important to you.
So, what do you want in a Bible translation?