Welcome back to Bible Basics. In today’s edition we’re going to be asking the question, “Which translation of the Bible should I be studying?”
In the 1380’s, John Wycliff produced the first English edition of the Bible. Since then, there have been more than 900 full or partial English translations of the Bible. So which one is the best?
Now, I’m going to give you a definitive answer to that question, but some of you aren’t going to like it. Here it is: the best translation of the Bible is the one that you will read.
It doesn’t really matter how technically accurate a translation is if you can’t understand it or be engaged by it. If you’re not spending any time reading the Bible because you can’t follow its language, then it doesn’t really matter which translation you’re not reading, does it? So, the best translation is the one that you can – and will – read and understand.
Now let me swing around the other direction and say this: for certain purposes, some translations are definitely better than others. Very idiomatic translations like The Message might read smoothly, but they’re not very technically precise translations. So, for casual reading purposes, The Message Bible might be good, but I wouldn’t recommend using it as a study Bible. On the other hand, more “literal” or “word for word” translations like the New American Standard or the English Standard Bible are good for careful study, but they have a tendency to feel stiff and unnatural to modern English speakers, so a lot of people find it difficult to read those devotionally.
Ok, but aren’t word-for-word translations better for studying? Not necessarily. Supposedly word-for-word translations are sometimes held up as the ideal standard, but there are times when word-for-word translations actually obscure the original meaning of a biblical passage.
For example, 1 Kings 2:10 says “then David slept with his fathers”…that’s the literal, word-for-word translation. But what that means is that David died.
Or how about this: 1 Peter 3:4 tells women that their beauty should come from “the hidden of the heart man”…that’s the literal, word-for-word translation, but what it means is that their inmost self should be pleasing before God.
So literal, word-for-word translations might sound like a great idea, but in fact they don’t exist. It’s often the case that translating something clearly from Greek into English just requires a few more words. You might be interested to know that the original Greek New Testament contains about 139,000 words but the NIV contains 175,000…about 26,000 more than in the original Greek. But some people will say, “Well, yeah, but the NIV isn’t word-for-word like the King James or the New American Standard”. Right. Listen, the King James Version has 180,000 words and the New American Standard has 182,000…that’s 5,000 and 7,000 more words than the NIV, so the idea that those translations are more word-for-word just isn’t true.
We need to stop getting hung up which English translation is the “best” and understand that different translations serve different purposes…and sometimes, that different translations connect to different people. The important thing is to actually start reading and understanding the Bible.