How to Pick the Best Bible Translation

How to Pick the Best Bible Translation

How to Pick the Best Bible Translation

BibleGateway.com has over 50 different English versions of the Bible, which you can read for free. This tells you something that you probably already knew: There are a lot of Bible translations: there’s the NLT, the NIV, the RSV, the NASB, the MSG, the ESV, and, of course, the famous KJV. When you open them, there’s quite a bit of difference between how they sound. This begs the question, which version is right for me?

To answer this question, I’ll have to explain why the translations are so different. The Bible was not written in English—in fact, the Bible is much older than the English language. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written entirely in Greek. God inspired the original copies; English Bibles are translations of God’s inspired word to humanity. The goal of a translation is to take the original ideas, which God inspired, and dress them in the English language so that we can understand them. This, however, is difficult to do, and not just because it requires you to master Koine Greek.

There are two different views on how to translate texts from one language to another: formal and functional. Formal translations attempt to match the original document word for word; functional translations aim to match the original document idea for idea. To see how this works out, read the same chapter from the KJV, which is very formal, and the NLT, a functional translation.

The allure of formal translations is that these translations are much closer to what God actually inspired. When the entire point is to make what God inspired accessible to people who don’t know a dalet from a zayin (two letters in the Hebrew alphabet), staying closer to the original is a good thing. The problem with this approach, however, is that these translations can be harder to read. We don’t speak Hebrew, nor do we speak Greek. Ancient Hebrew didn’t have sentences; instead, they just said “and” a lot. Ancient Hebrew didn’t even have verb tenses! The situation with Greek isn’t much better: Whereas English has a well-defined word-order, the words in a Greek sentence can be in almost any order without changing the sentence’s meaning. A purely formal translation of most Bible verses wouldn’t make sense in English!

Functional translations are attractive because they’re easier to read and make more sense to an English speaker. For example, few people understand what a cubit is in the Old Testament, so functional translations will usually convert that measurement into inches, feet, or yards. Though the words are different, the idea is the same—after all, 1 yard, 3 feet, 36 inches, and 2 cubits are all the same thing dressed in different words. The problem, however, is where to draw the line on what should be adjusted. For example, Psalm 119.105 says that God’s word is “a lamp for my feet.”[1] Should a functional translation change the word lamp to flashlight?[2] It certainly seems to be the same idea, but it’s safe to assume that the Psalmist didn’t have Energizer batteries or LED bulbs in mind when he penned this verse! When a translator does a functional translation, they are getting closer to doing the interpreting for you. The purpose of a translation, however, is to enable you to do the interpreting through hard work and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The choice, however, is not really between formal and functional translations. The choice is one of balance; in some way, every translation attempts to strike a balance between formality and functionality. Here’s a chart of where the different Bible translations fall on the spectrum:

More Formal More Functional
KJV, ASV RSV, NASB NIV, ESV, CSB CEV, NLT The Message

So, is it better for a translation to lean functional, or for a translation to lean formal? Well, that depends on who’s doing the reading and the purpose for which they’re reading. For serious Bible study, I recommend using multiple translations. One of my favorite practices in sermon prep is to read the NASB in concert with the NLT. The NASB is much more formal and thus truer to the original; the NLT, however, illuminates and modernizes ideas much better than the NASB.

If you simply want to read, I’d recommend something in the middle or to the right of the spectrum. I read the NIV for personal devotions; the ESV is also very popular for personal Bible reading. These translations sound modern and are easier to understand on the first reading.

If you have a child who wants a Bible to read, please don’t give them the KJV. Give them the NLT or even the Message, though the Message has language which you might not want a small child to hear. The English is much more modern and much simpler in these functional translations.

If you’re teaching a Bible study, go for something in the middle. I preach from the NIV because it stays close to the original when it can but uses modern language when it must. Plus, when you’re teaching, if someone has the KJV, and someone probably will, and you’re reading from the NLT, they will be hopelessly lost through no fault of their own. Using a translation from the middle will make it easier for everyone to follow, regardless of what translation they’re using.

Which translation is best for you? Well, that all depends on your circumstances. Each has its strengths, but each has its weaknesses.

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Notes & Sources

[1] Psalm 119.105, NIV

[2] Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 44-45.