Which version of the Bible should I use?
Buying a cup of coffee sounds simple, it just needs to be hot, black or white, and coffee-ish, right? Well, the reality is a bit more complicated. First of all, you need to choose which coffee shop. Is it going to be Starbucks, Costa or a local café? Once you overcome that decision, the options only increase. Is it going to be a cappuccino, mochaccino, americano, long, short, tall, skinny, flat? (Does anyone know what all these actually mean?!) It’s all coffee, but there’s tons of options. For readers of English, choosing a Bible in 2021 can a bit like choosing a coffee. KJV, ESV, NIV, NLT, TNIV, RSV, NKJV, NJB, NEB, GNB, NASV - these are just some of the many options. This vast selection has left us with the very opposite problem of our ancestors. 500 years ago, Christians in Scotland were desperate for just one Bible in English. Today, we have so many options at our fingertips, it can be hard to know where to start. Which version should you choose?
Well there’s no definitive answer to that question and people's choices will be different. But here are seven things to keep in mind when choosing a Bible version.
One. We must never forget that the Bible was written in Ancient Hebrew and Koine (Common) Greek. Every Bible written in another language is a translation of that inspired original. The Hebrew and Greek are in a category of their own.
Two. The Bible must be translated into the common languages that people use. So while we always recognise the authority of the original, the fact that very few people know Hebrew and Greek makes translation work essential. That was one of the great emphases of the Reformation. Men like William Tyndale risked their lives to translate the Bible into a language people could understand. A century after Tyndale, the writers of the Westminster Confession of Faith insisted that the Scriptures must be tranlated into the vulgar language of every nation (WCF 1:8). And the same principle still applies; English Bibles today should use the language that is in common use.
Three. Although there are many options, there are really only two main types of translation: literal and dynamic. Literal translations are trying to be exactly that; they seek to translate words as literally as possible, and to keep the order of words close to the original. That is not always possible, but that is the aim. Examples of this type would be the NIV, the ESV and the New American Standard Version. Dynamic is focussing not so much on words, but on meaning. So a dynamic translation will use different terms and adjusted word order to make the meaning as clear as possible. Examples include the New Living Translation and the Good News Bible. Here’s an example from John 17:17. Taken totally literally, the Greek says: "Sanctify them in the truth; the word the your truth it is."
So the ESV and NIV translate this, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." You can see that the words are translated fairly literally and the order is almost the same. It’s a very good translation.
The New Living Translation translates the same verse as, "Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth." This has swapped the word ‘sanctify’ for the phrase ‘make them holy’ and it has added the words ‘teach them’. That’s not the exact words, but it is exactly what Jesus meant. It is also a very good translation, which brings us to the fourth point.
Four. Every translation has strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes people can speak about different Bible versions as though one is the best and the rest are rubbish. This is not very helpful. There is, of course, one that is best, but it’s written in Hebrew and Greek. English versions all have strengths and weaknesses. Usually, literal translations are closer to the original, but can be harder to read and take in. Dynamic translations are easier to understand, but they may lose some of the finer details. Here, I also want to mention the King James Version. This is a remarkable translation, one which served the English speaking church for centuries. Today, there’s no denying that much of it no longer reflects the common language of current English speakers. But at the same time, the old language of the KJV has a beautiful poetic character that can often be helpful and memorable for a reader today. Like every other English version, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
Five. Don’t be dogmatic until you are a) fluent in Ancient Hebrew, and b) fluent in Koine Greek. Often people can have very strong opinions which they are not qualified to hold. I remember once being told by someone who didn’t like the ESV that it had missed out hundreds of words that appear in the original Greek. I thought that sounded bad. But I later discovered that Koine Greek puts the definite article before a persons name (so it says ‘the Peter said. . .’, ‘the Paul went . . .’ ‘the Philip ran . . .’). English, obviously, doesn’t do that. So it’s perfectly appropriate for lots of words to be left out.
Six. It’s good to try different options. So rather than pick one version and never deviate from it, its better to try and use a variety. A more literal translation is brilliant for close study of specific verses. A dynamic version is excellent for reading longer sections. So if I am studying a verse or paragraph, I will use the ESV, NIV or NASV. But if I am reading through several chapters in one go, I will often use the NLT. And, of course, today we have the huge advantage that we can access all these versions online at the click of button.
Seven. Choosing a translation is a privilege not a problem. We said at the start that we have the opposite problem to our spiritual ancestors who had no Bible in their own language. God forbid that we forget that many people today still have exactly the same problem. The work of Bible translation has a vast amount still to do, and it is a work that we should support in prayer and financially. And as we choose our English version, we must never forget that having to make that decision is a brilliant problem to have.
Thomas Davis, St Columba's Free Church