As you might imagine, through the years, I’ve answered thousands of Bible questions on the radio. Recently, someone asked me what was the first radio question I was ever asked. It turns out, it wasn’t only the first question, but the most basic question a person could ask. And in fact, it’s a question that I’m asked over and over. Here it is: With so many versions of the Bible, how do I know which is the right or the best one? Which one should I read?
To answer, it may be helpful to understand the three basic approaches to translating the Bible. Some versions of the Bible translate with a method called formal equivalence. It’s a translation that’s “word for word” or a “literal” translation. A couple of examples of this approach are the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version, both great translations. But the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek, so this approach sometimes produces a clunky translation that occasionally doesn’t fully capture the meaning of ancient idioms.
Another approach to translation is called dynamic equivalence. This method translates “thought for thought” and some examples of this would be the New Living Translation and the New International Version, both very helpful translations. This method tries to bring the idioms and figures of speech into modern language, making the text of scripture clear and readable. But sometimes these kinds of translations seem to take liberties with thoughts. They become so interpretive that it becomes difficult to be certain that the translation reflects the biblical author’s true intention.
Another method of translation tries to strike a middle road between formal and dynamic equivalence, which some have called optimal equivalence. Two examples of this method are the Christian Standard Bible and the new Messianic version called the Tree of Life Bible. These translations tend to be more readable than a formal equivalence version but still allow some room for readers to interpret what they’re seeing since they’re reading a more literal translation of a passage than is found in a dynamic equivalent version.
So, which version should we read. I think all of them are valuable and we should definitely use all of them. For deep study, I suggest using a formal equivalence translation like the NASB. My wife reads it all the time but I find it most helpful when I want the most literal rendering of the text. For times when I want to read fast, covering a huge portion of Scripture in the quickest way, I use a dynamic equivalence version like the New Living. But for my regular reading of Scripture, I feel a bit like baby bear and use the combined approach of optimal equivalence to be most helpful most of the time. That’s why I read the Holman CSB version for my regular reading of Scripture.
Still, I have three cautions for you in choosing a translation. The first is to be careful about making the King James Version the only legitimate Bible translation. The KJV was a great English translation into the common English spoken in 17th century England. It also used the best manuscripts available at the time. We should all be grateful for this beautiful and accurate translation. But, in the last 400 years, English has changed dramatically and it makes it hard to understand the archaic usages of the KJV. It uses a word like “conversation” when it actually means “lifestyle” or the word “suffer” when it means “permit.” A more serious problem with the KJV is that we know so much more today about the original manuscripts of Scripture than was known in 1611. Many of the manuscripts available today were not even known when King James sat on the throne of England. That’s why modern translations are based on the earliest and best manuscripts of the Bible. The KJV is a beautiful and a good translation and feel free to read it with these cautions. But be careful not to become convinced that it’s the best and only true translation.
A second warning is that we should be careful not to use a translation with a theological agenda. An example would be the New World Translation, that tries to justify the theological errors of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It may translate some parts of Scripture accurately, but in many passages, the translation is flat out wrong. It seeks to justify Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and so the translation corrupts truths found in Scripture. Examples of this would be Isaiah 9:6 and John 1:1, verses that clearly affirm the full deity of the Lord Jesus. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in this biblical teaching, they mistranslate these verses.
Finally, we should be wary of idiosyncratic translations; versions that reflect the views of just one person rather than a translation team. Examples of these would be Gene Peterson’s The Message, or J.B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English or David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible. These may be helpful but really only reflect one perspective and they don’t have the safeguard of multiple translators checking each other’s work. In a sense, they’re just one person’s interpretation of the text of Scripture and not really a thorough translation. So they may be helpful for study, just as a commentary is helpful, we shouldn’t read them as our regular text of Scripture.
The most important issue in choosing a translation is for you to find one that you can understand and that you’ll actually read. That’s why, when I’m asked which is the best translation of the Bible, I always say that it’s the one that you’ll actually read, study, and apply.