Welcome to our Wednesday “Ask Beau” post. The purpose of this weekly feature is to provide you, our readers, with biblical responses to questions you have about practical issues that you face.
As always, you may submit questions for future “Ask Beau” posts by contacting us at email@example.com, or by leaving a comment on this post.
(NOTE: This post was originally published on thefrontieratgrace.com on August 3, 2011)
Today’s question, “What Bible translation should I use?” unfortunately has no direct answer, since the question implies that one translation is better than the others in all instances—and that is not accurate. Most modern Bible translations do a very adequate job of conveying the ancient text to the modern reader. Nonetheless, there are some important principles that may help us to decide which translations to utilize, or perhaps to purchase.
Bible translation is difficult. The Scriptures were largely written in Hebrew and Greek (some Aramaic appears in Daniel and Ezra), so translators have the task of rendering texts into English, in our case, from languages that are quite different from ours. They strive to present the meaning of the original text in a way that is accurate and understandable to us.
It is not an option to present a completely literal rendering, because that would not truly be a translation. One example should prove this point. John 3:16, a relatively straightforward verse in Greek, would be translated word-for-word into English as follows:
Thus for loved the God the world, so that the son the one-and-only he gave, in order that every the one-believing in him not may perish, but might have life eternal.
That’s not much better than this:
Orfay odgay osay ovedlay hetay orldway . . .
All Bible translations fall somewhere on what we might call a translation continuum. On one side of the continuum are the word-for-word translations, such as the KJV/NKJV, the NASB, the ESV, and others. These translations do an excellent job of reflecting the wording of the original text (though they are not totally literal–see above), but as a result they may be more difficult to read in English and they may not flow particularly well. On the other side of the continuum are the more thought-for-thought (not a perfect characterization) translations, such as the NLT, and even further that direction, the Message, which is really a paraphrase. These translations tend to flow well in English, and they are easy to read, but they introduce a greater level of translational interpretation and bias. Somewhere between these groups of translations are the NIV and the HCSB.
Because translations have different characteristics, it is appropriate to read different translations in different situations. If one is looking to read large chunks of text, or is just beginning to become acquainted with the Bible, the thought-for-thought or “middle-sitting” translations make this easier. If one is looking to do an in-depth Bible study, the word-for-word translations tend to be more useful. In my opinion, the more periphrastic (thought-for-thought) a translation is, the more dangerous it can be if the reader does not recognize it as a thought-for-thought rendering.
I place a very high value on the specific words of Scripture, and I feel this is biblical (Matthew 5:18), so I would suggest that it is best for the average reader to lean more heavily in study on the word-for-word translations. I like the ESV because it is very faithful to the original wording of the texts, but it also is readable. Beside this, it deals accurately with gender language in the Scripture, which I don’t necessarily find to be the case with the 2011 update of the NIV.
One of the wonderful things about modern technology is that it has made multiple Bible versions readily accessible. Thus, you don’t have to pick one version and never consult the others. In fact, consulting multiple versions is often helpful for those who wish to drill down on a text.
What translations do you use? How have you found them to be helpful or unhelpful?