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Which Bible to read

There are so many versions of the Bible available it is hard to know which one to choose. I hope what follows is helpful. Before anything else though, any reader who is not aware of the following resource will doubtless be thrilled to discover e-Sword, a free downloadable program with many Bible versions, dictionaries, commentaries, etc.; it is a marvellous tool.

Broadly speaking there are two types of translation, the literal and the paraphrase. The literal translation attempts to put the Hebrew/Greek originals directly into English without any form of glossing or explanation. The best known is the King James or Authorized Version, which is not the best choice for today unless you are happy with Elizabethan English. There are modernized versions of the KJV, such as the Revised Standard and the New KJ. Then there are more recent literal translations such as the New International (NIV). One personal recommendation would be the Good News Bible; this is designedly for those whose first language is not English, which is to say the language is straightforward and it sticks very close to the original text. The New American Standard (NASB) is, I think, perhaps the best blend of good language and reliabilty of translation. More below.

The opposite extreme is the very loose paraphrase in which the translator imposes his own ideas and language onto the text. The main and probably most popular one at present is The Message, which has some very interesting ideas and modes of expression; that is, they can be stimulating but their connection to the original can be loose and sometimes highly questionable. A less racy paraphrase was The Living Bible which was popular 20 years ago and has a number of advantages over The Message. Again, more below.

Somewhere in the contrast between literal and paraphrase is the idea of the ‘Dynamic Equivalent’; how do you take a word from 2000 years and translate it into modern language. Do you translate the Latin word for a penny, denarius? If you do, do you call it ‘penny’ or ‘a day’s wages’? This is a slippery slope; the looser you get with your ideas of equivalence the closer you get to paraphrase and imposing your own ideas. What is left is room for individual style and there are many good translations which stylistically, not through paraphrase, bring out different nuances; again there is a short review of some of these below.

The King James or Authorized Version- wonderfully poetic, memorable language; some of us who were brought up with it are still liable to break out into thee’s and thou’s. These forms were a little archaic even 400 years when written, and were probably used to maintain a sense of reverence. The rhythms of language are still wonderful, but usages are often obscure today, interpretations can be doubtful and at times downright wrong. Not very accessible to the modern reader. The Dake’s Bible is a KJV with a lot of good notes with their own particular eschatological slant.

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

RSV and NKJ – to my mind these are both worthy attempts to modernize the wonderful old KJ, but they don’t really gain very much while losing the linguistic beauty.

Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.(RSV)

Good News Bible and God’s Word – like the foregoing and the NIV, these are committee based translations so do not become idiosyncratic; they produce nice, simple modern English, so if you wish to simply get what the text says, they may be the best bet.

Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (GNB)

The New International Version has had a large acceptance and occupies shelves of space in bookstores. It attempts to produce dignified and serious modern English, and in fairness you would have to say it succeeds in this. It is also has a theological bias and, without going into this, I have always been uncomfortable with it; I was very interested when I attempted to get through NT Wright’s detailed commentary on Romans to find his marked distaste for this version. There are a range of study Bibles that use the NIV.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The Message – ‘God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son..’ The author/translator, Peterson, is the real deal – an experienced pastor, scholar of good pedigree (what a strange phrase!) and communicator; his translation is very readable; his psalms, for example, have, at times, considerable merit; and at times he falls a long way short.

God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.

The Living Bible – to my mind this is perhaps the most readable of any translation; in particular the rendition of Paul is very accessible; it is a paraphrase but not to the degree of Peterson.

God took the sinless Christ and poured into him our sins. Then, in exchange, he poured God’s goodness into us!

The Amplified Bible and The Expanded, particularly the former, are both useful tools; AMP was much in vogue some years ago. Both provide alternative translations to particular words which can help to bring meanings home.

The 20th Century NT – this is another committee style version of the NT produced early in the last century and is excellent, as is the NASB, the New American Standard Bible. This last has considerable merit.

Him who never knew sin God made to be Sin, on our behalf; so that we, through union with him, might become the Righteousness of God (20th cent.)
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (NASB)

When it comes to individual translations, there are so many good ones. Moffatt, Knox, The Jewish Bible, and, for the NT or Pauline epistles only, Phillips, Goodspeed, Williams (Charles B.), Wand, Way, Wade, Wuest, Berkeley, Johnson, Cottonpatch, Lovett…. In some, the weaknesses are quite apparent but all say some good things. I have particularly benefited from Wand and Phillips and at the time of writing am reading Knox. This last is very fine; he is passionate about the Bible and godly living; he provides good notes on alternative readings and is very sensitive linguistically. I was struck with this version of Col 3.12 – ‘You are God’s chosen people, holy and beloved; the livery you wear must be tender compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…’; the choice of the word ‘livery’ is marvellous. Phillips is in many ways the best translation of Romans in terms of helping me get to grips with it.

Two points in closing.

Firstly, an interesting resource is Scripture Study Guide by Mark Hankins Ministries, which puts translations from many different versions of particularly important verses alongside each other; they are often out of context and it is always needful to read in context, but it is worthwhile.

Secondly, given the fantastic luxury we enjoy of multiple translations and bookstores packed with Bibles, we should remember peoples with limited resources and those with no Bible in their own language yet, and the great work done by translation services such as Wycliffe.