How do you know which Bible to buy?
Has your church joined the Bible blitz? Are you involved in a Bible reading program? While this craze is to be applauded, such programs immediately encounter an embarrassment of riches: Never before have there been so many different translations from which to choose. But which one is best?
I confess that I do not know. What I do know is that any Bible you are reading is better than any Bible that just sits on your nightstand or coffee table, and that responsible Bible translation seeks to reproduce the biblical text as faithfully as possible. But, what is a faithful translation, and how does one achieve it? These days, there are at least two rather different answers to this perplexing question:
- Word-for-word. One way is to translate each Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word by one English equivalent. Consistent with this principle, the King James Version (KJV) places all words not actually in the original text, but necessary to complete the sentence in English, in italics. While these translations retain much of the character of the original text, they often “sound like the Bible,” and modern readers struggle with understanding them.
- Meaning-for-meaning. Another way is to determine as precisely as possible how the original text was understood in its time and then, to try to find words or expressions that recreate the same effect upon readers today. These translations are very clear and readers understand what the translation is saying, but that is because they have been more narrowly interpreted. How does a reader know that this clear interpretation is accurate?
Perhaps a non-biblical example will illustrate these two approaches. A common Russian phrase might be translated in a word-for-word fashion as “a bear sat on his ear.” Such a translation would be faithful in that each Russian word is translated by its English equivalent. This is not, however, what the phrase means. A meaning-for-meaning translation, striving to elicit “Russian” responses from English listeners, would describe someone lacking in musical ability. An expression such as “can’t carry a tune in a bucket” would better convey the meaning
of the phrase, even though none of the English equivalents of the Russian words were used.
- The KJV, the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) are familiar translations that employ a word-for-word (or formal equivalency) approach; the New King James Version (NKJV) and the recent English Standard Version (ESV) somewhat less so. The tongue-in-cheek Klingon Language Version of the World English Bible unwittingly provides an illustration of this approach by retaining English words for “grace” and “forgiveness,” concepts “alien” to Klingons, as any Trekkie/er knows.
- Other translations such as the Revised English Bible (REB), Today’s English Version (TEV) and its American Bible Society’s replacement, the Contemporary English Version (CEV) favor the meaning-for-meaning (or functional equivalency) approach. It is this shift in the understanding of the nature of translation that accounts for the tremendous increase in available versions of the Bible.
- Good choices of translations that steer a middle course between the word-for-word and meaning-for-meaning options (sometimes called optimal equivalency) are the mainline New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and, from an evangelical perspective, the New International Version (NIV) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Interestingly, the New English Translation (NET) weds a functional translation in the text with a more formal rendering in its extensive notes. True to its name, the most recent translation, the Common English Bible (CEB) strives to present first rate scholarship in easily accessible, almost conversational language.
I began by saying I am in favor of any Bible that you are reading because although God can speak to you through any translation . . . God can speak to you only if you are reading it. Let me close by discussing which Bible you should buy . . . or rather how might we take advantage of this bumper crop of Bibles, these vehicles of divine communication?
The most important consideration, more important than large print, thumb-indexed, leather bound, or Jesus’ words in red, is knowing whether your translation is word-for-word or meaning-for-meaning. If you are able to use only one, it should be a word-for-word translation such as the RSV, and for a very good reason. The word-for-word translations are more ambiguous! They tend to preserve the various possible meanings that may be in the original text without deciding between them. Using more recent Bibles such as the mainline NRSV in conjunction with the evangelical NIV or HCSB would also be an excellent choice.
On the other hand, it is far better to use several translations. The basis of your study, whether individual or in a group, should be a word-for-word translation, as discussed above. But the others should be representative of the meaning-for-meaning approach such as the REB, the New Living Translation (NLT), or the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB). These translations, and paraphrases such as The Message, decide between the various options in a text. This means they can be marvelously suggestive as your group thinks about how the translators have read the text, why they decided to translate it as they did, and why they rejected other possibilities.
Above all, don’t be intimidated by the variety of translations available. Think of our bumper crop of Bibles as a blessing in disguise . . . and read, read, read!
Mark Throntveit is professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.