Did you know there are more than 60 English translations of the Bible? The whole topic of Bible translations is BIG. When you realize the Old Testament was first translated into Greek from Hebrew in the 3rd century BC, you start realizing how expansive this topic really is. Anyone else feeling a bit overwhelmed already?
The good news is that the Bible is a gift just for us. God gave us His words as a guide for our lives, and He wants us to understand it. You want a translation you can read well and understand, first and foremost. It’s good to realize most of the small differences in translations aren’t all that important for the average reader. Even during my time at Bible college, translation choice didn’t really matter unless I was doing very specific coursework.
With all that being said, let’s look at some things that will help you decide what to choose.
First, let’s start at the beginning. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek and a little Aramaic. The really cool thing about this is Hebrew & Koine Greek are both dead languages. That means because they aren’t used anymore they don’t change! No one is monkeying with them, giving new meanings to old words. This is perfect for us because the Bible will always mean what it means, no matter what is happening in English at the moment. (God is incredibly smart like that!) Also, if English isn’t your first language or if you’re wanting to dive deeper in another language, get a Bible in that language! There’s nothing sacred about English. If you’re more comfortable with something else, then by all means, use it! Another good option for more in-depth study is a parallel Bible. Basically it takes two (or more) translations and puts them side by side. This is a great way to compare texts as you study or for the multi-lingual to compare languages.
Next, realize that not all the options at the local bookstore are translations. Some, like The Living Bible (LB) or The Message, are actually paraphrases. The LB is a paraphrase of a translation and The Message is a current English paraphrase from the original languages. There are definitely moments when a paraphrase is a great option. If I’m just reading and not doing an in-depth study, I love how easy The Message is. I especially enjoy it when I’m reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) as well as Acts. It’s easy to feel connected to the story when it’s in a language that we hear on a daily basis. Paraphrases don’t always get to the heart of what the text really said in the beginning though. For that you’re better off with a true translation.
When it comes to translations, there are basically two schools. One is is a “word for word” translation from the original language. The King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Version (NASV) and English Standard Version (ESV) are all examples of this style of translation. The benefit of the ESV & NASV is that they are word for word using today’s English, not 400 years ago like the KJV.
The other type of translation is “meaning for meaning”. This style is great at dealing with some ancient ideas that trip up modern readers, especially idioms. In researching for this post I ran across an author who explained this idea using the idiom “kick the bucket”. I love that example! Obviously we all know what that means, but 1000 years from now it may not mean “die” anymore, right? Someone would have to do a meaning for meaning translation so that future readers will understand that we were talking about death, not about actually kicking buckets. The New Living Translation (NLT) is a good example of this style.
And, since that’s not quite enough, there’s a third translation style that’s really a hybrid of the “word for word” style and the “meaning for meaning”. The New International Version (NIV) is a hybrid translation. I personally think this is part of the reason it is so popular.
******I feel like this is the point where we all need to take a deep breath because this feels like a lot to take in.******
Can I be honest a minute and admit that sometimes reading the Bible is just hard? Some days it feels difficult and sometimes I get bogged down. The fact that most Bibles are written in columns instead of paragraphs still feels weird and I get distracted. Sometimes I just want to read a good book rather than do an in-depth study. For those times picking up a good children’s Bible is just what I need. The Jesus Storybook Bible is my all-time favorite. It’s well-written and engaging. It shows how the thread of Jesus is woven throughout the whole Bible. I love it for both adults and kids. And, most of the time, it piques my interest enough I end up going back to the actual text to read “the rest of the story”.
So often we get completely caught up in choosing the “right” translation that we miss the point of doing it in the first place. Remember, God gave us the Bible so we know what he wants to say to us. Psalm 119:129, 130 says, “Your testimonies are wonderful; Therefore my soul observes them. The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.” For the Word to unfold and give light we have to actually use it. We can’t understand something we never read. Don’t pick something because you think it’s “right”. Pick one because you can dive in and use it regularly.
If you still feel a bit overwhelmed, look at this great resource from Cokesbury.com that gives you just a bit of information about the most common translations you will see (I have also added a PDF at the bottom of this post for you to download). And book mark this post too, just in case you need a quick refresher.