In fourteen years of ministry, I’ve noticed that the question, “Which English Translation is the best?” is one of those questions that seems to get asked more than most others. It is a great question. We are blessed to live in a time when we have more Bible versions than any other time in church history. But, BUYER BEWARE! Not all translations are created equal! Every translation has a different approach to getting God’s word from the Greek and Hebrew into English. Some translations have better scholarship than others. Some translations have an agenda behind them. Others simply set out to give an exact as possible English language rendering of the original languages. Every translation is a bit different than the other because of philosophical differences in the human translators. You will get different answers to the question, “Which is Best?” according to whom you ask. Without singling out a single superior translation, here are four guidelines to consider before you go and pick your next copy of the all-time best seller – the Bible.
Guideline of Scholarship:
Start your journey with this thought: wouldn’t it be logical that the translation of the Bible that starts with the best and most accurate original language documents would have the best chance of being the most accurate? Ask about any Bible in English, have the best Greek and Hebrew texts been used to translate this work? Here’s one example of what I mean, the KJV is a beautiful word for word translation. It has been used by God for more than 400 years. However, the KJV (and NKJV) used a specific type of younger manuscripts (Byzantine) rather than the oldest manuscripts (Alexandrian) which are also used by modern translations. It may surprise you to learn that we don’t have any copies of the Bible written by the Apostles themselves, but we do not. We have copies of copies of copies, and it is important that we start with the oldest ones we have so we can minimize any translation errors. If you want the best translation, you want to make sure that the texts used by the translators and editors are the best available.
Guideline of Readability:
Next consider how easy the translation is to understand. Can you easily understand the words that you are reading? Many men and women gave their lives to put God’s Word into plain language, whether that be German or English. While there may not be many people dying for translating God’s Word into their native tongue today, the understanding that we need God’s Word in our own language is still prevalent. We live in the 21st century and English words change over time. This is part of the reason we need to have newer translations. As words change, there is a need for a new translation so as to make it accessible to the people. I am not meaning to pick on the big brother of the English translation too much, the KJV, but the reality is that many words and phrases have changed over the past several hundred years. The word gay no longer means happy (James 2:3), the word ass (II Peter 2:16) in American culture does not mean donkey. These words mean something very different today than they once did. These redefined words can easily be a distraction to those who are reading a text. So you need to think through the idea of the translation’s readability before we deem the translation as best.
Guideline of Teachability:
Keep it simple! That is one of the things that I have always been told when trying to teach scripture. This does not mean watered down, but rather easy to understand. When choosing a Bible translation it is important to consider this. Are you going to have to explain a text twice because of antiquated language like the Geneva Bible or because a translation has been too culturalized like the Cotton Patch Version? When you have to explain the English rendering of the text before you can even get to its meaning, I believe it to be a hindrance. Teachability also falls on the shoulder of reliability. Translations such as the gender-neutral NIV 2011 have deeper problems that could obstruct a faithful teaching from scripture due to the philosophy behind its translation. Part of the purpose of a good translation is so it can be taught and understood by the people. If it is not easily taught from, it probably isn’t the best.
Guideline of Preference:
We all have preferences; however, these preferences should always be guided by a love for the Apostles’ Doctrine. Do you want to get to the very heart of God and His exact words that He inspired the Apostles and Prophets to write? Then I would say the NASB, ESV, HSCB, or even NKJV are these best. Do you simply want a more devotional (thought for thought) translation? Then you might steer toward the NLT or NIV 1984 (but stay away from the NIV 2011). Preferences do matter when it comes to choosing a Bible, but remember that just because it is your preference does not make it the best. Ultimately, we want to hear from God, and if a paraphrase or translation veers from this, then it cannot be considered the best.
When I die I could not think of anything more beautiful than to have the 23rd Psalm read in the poetic King James Version. There is just something comfortable and nostalgic about it. However, it is not the best English translation, I believe. The best in my opinion that fit all these criteria are the ESV and NASB (the best word for word translation we have in English as most scholars will tell you). Both of these translations capture the very Word of God and not just His voice, which I believe is of utmost importance. This does not mean that I do not read from other versions from time to time. Since I have very young children we will often read from the NIV 1984 during family worship. Other translations can help to shed light on a difficult passage at times, but as for me I tend always read, study, teach and preach from these two translations.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Adam B. Burrell