Disciplines for Fruitful Christian Living: How to choose a Bible Translation
This is the fourth blog post in a series on Disciplines for Fruitful Christian Living. For context on this series and it’s purpose, go here. If you have any questions based on this, please get in contact with us via our Contact page.
This post is an addition to the Bible Reading Post, which gives guidance on how to select a good bible translation for reading. If you have any other questions about this, please contact us through our contact page or via social media.
We are so fortunate to have a myriad of Bible versions to choose from. There are over 100 translations of the full Bible in English; while more than half of the more than 7000 languages in the world don’t even have a part of the Bible! You can go to www.wycliffe.net/resources/statistics/ for more info about the availability of the Bible, and to find out how you might be part of bringing God’s Word to people in their heart language.
This abundance of versions can also make it a bit daunting to work out which one to pick. How do you know which one is going to be most suitable for you, and most helpful in your Christian growth and ministry?
Firstly, it can be helpful to know the different approaches to to the way people translate the Bible:
Formal Equivalence (Word-for-Word). This approach tries to translate each word into its most literally accurate form in English. Some versions that use this are the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the Revised Standard Version, and the English Standard Version (ESV).
Functional Equivalence (Meaning-for-Meaning). This approach looks to translate the meaning behind the words/phrases most accurately, and so isn’t always word-for word. Some versions that use this are the New International Version (NIV), and the New Revised Standard Version.
Optimal Equivalence. This approach seeks to find a middle point between formal and functional equivalence. A good example of this is the Christian Standard Bible (Previously known as the HCSB)
There’s another category which should be considered separate to the others: the paraphrase. Paraphrases don’t function in the same way that a translation does, and as such aren’t recommend as a first-line choice for Bible reading. If you use one, it should be read alongside a more accurate translation as a way to spark thought or engagement with the text, but not as a way to study the Bible. Examples of paraphrases are The Message and The Living Bible.
(During our ES meetings we generally use the NIV, not only because it’s a good accurate, and readable version, but it’s also the most commonly used version, that many people are familiar with.)
Some things that are important when choosing a version:
Good scholarship. Most of the respected translations have been produced by a committee made up of leading Biblical, linguistic, historical and other scholars from a cross section of the Christian community. For example, the ESV translation team includes over 100 scholars from around the world. This means the the risk of a translator’s personal bias influencing the translation is minimised. On the other hand, the Passion Translation (which is not really a translation, but a paraphrase), is produced by one man who isn’t a language or Bible scholar, and who claims to have received some special revelation from Jesus that no previous translator has had. For that reason, I’d avoid the Passion Translation altogether.
Most modern Bibles contain a foreword, which will tell you not only what type of translation approach was used, but also who was involved in the translation
Readability. It’s important that when you read the Bible you’re not stumbling over the meaning because the words or phrases it uses make it hard to understand. This might happen if you’re reading a translation that was produced in a particular country, and contains colloquialisms that are only really understood by people from that country. Or it may be that, because all languages are fluid, the version uses outdated words. For example, I avoid using the King James Version, not only because it uses less accurate Greek manuscripts, but also because the meanings of English words have shifted and changed in the 400 years since it was made. For example, ’Suffer little children to come unto me,’ no longer sounds like the warm invitation from Jesus that it was in 1611!
Simplicity. There are all kinds of Study Bibles and themed Bibles available (eg. the Teen Life Application Study Bible, The Beautiful Word Colouring Bible, The Maxwell Leadership Bible…). These contain notes, commentaries, and extra articles. There can be some benefit in these, but there’s also a risk that you’ll be tempted to not make the effort to understand the Bible yourself, but always skip to the notes and articles to tell you how to interpret it. So the best kind of version to use, especially in regular/daily reading and in Bible study, is an ‘unembellished’ Bible - with just the regular Bible text, and maybe some cross references in the columns to help you find other verses that express the same ideas. If you’re keen to dig deeper with Bible Study, it’s worth investing in some good commentaries and other Bible study tools. Any ES staffworker will be able to recommend where to start with these.
How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon D Fee, and Douglas Stuart
How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour by Gordon D Fee and Douglas Stuart
How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth by Gordon D Fee and Mark L Strauss
Written to supplement the workshop series called ‘Disciplines for Fruitful Christian Living’. By James K.