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 a question I’m asked over and over again because it’s so basic. Which version of the Bible is the best? Which one should I read?
Choosing a version of the Bible is dependent on understanding the three basic approaches to translating the Bible. Some translations of the Bible use a method called formal equivalence. It’s a translation that’s “word for word” or a “literal” translation. A good example of this approach is the New American Standard Bible, a great, literal translation. However, 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 or translate ancient syntax into modern sentences. Galatians 2:4 is an example of this: “Yet it was a concern because of the false brothers secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy on our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us.” We almost need a roadmap to follow the thought of the apostle Paul here in the NASV.
A second approach to translation is called dynamic equivalence. This method translates “thought for thought” rather than word for word. Some examples of this would be the New Living Translation and, to a lesser extent, 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 leaves out other options for possible interpretation. An example of this is in Romans 1:5, a verse that uses the phrase, “the obedience of faith.” But the NIV translates it “the obedience that comes from faith,” a valid interpretation but not the only possibility. Alternatively, the phrase can mean “the obedience that is faith” meaning obeying God’s command to trust in Him. Some readers of the Word would prefer the literal so they can determine the meaning for themselves.
Yet a third method of Bible translation tries to strike a middle road between formal and dynamic equivalence, which some have called optimal equivalence. Some examples of this method include the original Holman Christian Standard Bible, the Messianic Bible version called the Tree of Life Bible, and the English Standard Version. These translations tend to be more readable than a formal equivalence version, using English style and adapting idioms. Nevertheless, this method still allows some room for readers to interpret the meaning of the text since they’re reading a more literal translation of a passage than is found in a dynamic equivalent version. Here’s how Galatians 2:4, the verse that was so wooden in the NASV, reads in the Holman CSB: “This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus in order to enslave us.” It’s a much smoother read and therefore, easier to understand.
So, which version should we read? I think all of them are valuable and we should definitely read them all. For deep study, I suggest using a formal equivalence translation like the New American Standard Bible. Many read this all the time but I find it most helpful when I am doing an in-depth study, 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 Translation or the New International Version. But for my regular reading of Scripture, I feel a bit like baby bear and find the combined approach of optimal equivalence to be most helpful most of the time. That’s why I read the original Holman Christian Standard Bible for my regular reading of Scripture. When that version was revised into the Christian Standard Bible, although it only changed 10% of the text, it changed some of my minor preferences, like using the word “languages” for tongues or “Messiah” for Christ. The new version of the CSB is stil good but I prefer the original HCSB.
The most important issue in choosing a translation is for us to find one that we can understand and that we’ll actually read. That’s why, when my wife is asked which is the best translation of the Bible, she always says, “The one that we’ll actually read, study, and apply.”