So many different Bibles are available today. I am overwhelmed! How do I study the Bible most effectively? How do I know which one is the right translation for me?
A little old lady once said that if the King James Bible was good enough for Paul, then it was good enough for her. Of course, we know that Paul didn’t write the King James Bible. He wrote in Greek. He’d never heard of English!
The name ‘Bible’ comes from the city of Byblos. Papyrus was the paper of choice for the biblical writers. It was made from the pithy stem of a water plant grown in both Byblos (near modern-day Lebanon) and Egypt.
There are more than fifty English Bible translations in circulation in the world today. I’ve used a number of different ones. Each is profitable and insightful in its own way. Let me share some basic principles of Bible translation, and then I’ll provide a quick summary of the most commonly used English Bibles.
I hope this helps you find the translation or translations that are most helpful to you.
Is the Original Bible Still in Existence?
The answer is both no and yes. In the strictest sense, the answer is no: the actual original documents (called the “autographs”) are not in anyone’s possession.
However, in a very real way the answer is yes, we do have the actual words that make up the word of God. Textual scholars are able to access more than 5,000 extant Greek texts dating back to the second century, to compare and compile over 99.9% of what the original authors wrote.
- Before the advent of the printing press in the 1600s, the cost for translating was incredibly high. Each copy had to be handwritten by a qualified scribe. For this reason and many others, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to keep the Bible away from the average person.
- In the 1300s, John Wycliffe was the first to translate the New Testament into English. He was then burned at the stake as a heretic. John Wycliffe left quite an impression on the Roman Catholic Church. Forty years after his death, Catholic Church officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into the river.
- In the 1500s, William Tyndale was the first to translate the entire Bible into English. His translation served as the foundation for subsequent English translations. The Roman Catholic Church murdered him by strangulation.
Over 20 Bibles existed in English before the King James Bible was first printed: Great Bible, Geneva Bible, Matthew’s Bible, and Bishop’s Bible to name a few.
Then there’s the “Wicked Bible,” that left out the word ‘not’ in the seventh commandment so it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” It was quickly recalled.
There’s the Murderer’s Bible where Mark 7:27 reads, “Let the children first be killed,” instead of ‘filled.’ It also was quickly recalled.
Do you think that these printers made these changes purposely?
Some Observations to Keep in Mind When Comparing and Understanding Translations
1. There is no such thing as a completely accurate translation.
This is why it is best is to know the original languages. Since most of us don’t, we must depend on the translations of others (Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek and Aramaic for the New Testament).
2. In English, the structure and sense of a sentence depends largely on word order.
“The rat ate the cheese,” does not have the same meaning as, “The cheese ate the rat.”
The English word order in Galatians 2:20 is, “I am crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
On the other hand, the Greek text of Galatians 2:20 is written like this: “Christ I have been crucified with, I live yet, no longer I, lives but Christ in me.”
Greek writers used word order to emphasize that which is most important. The most correct, significant rendering is to use the first part of a sentence or the last part for emphasis.
3. It can be a challenge to find words in English that closely match the same Greek or Hebrew words.
Just like an English word can have many meanings, so can a Greek word.
For example, the word “fast” in English has several different meanings:
- A door shut fast
- A fast friend
- A fast car
- Colorfast cloth or cloth that will not fade
In Greek, the word ‘luo’ can mean “liberate” or “destroy.” Both are correct. Which one to use depends upon the context. Who cares? The slaves care. It’s one thing to be liberated, it’s quite another to be destroyed.
4. The culture-gap between our times and biblical times must be considered.
1 Corinthians 11:14-15 says, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”
Hair styles are more of a cultural issue than a biblical one.
Incidentally, the translator must deal with the word ‘covering’ which is considered to be a theological issue in other passages.
5. Consider the difficulty in making ancient customs understandable to modern readers.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16)becomes in Phillip’s paraphrase, “Shake hands all around.”
One Wycliffe translator working with indigenous Eskimos in the Arctic described Christ as “The keeper of the huskies.” They’d never seen a lamb.
6. There are three distinct approaches for handling translations.
- The literal approach prioritizes a word-for-word translation that gives priority to the original language.
- The dynamic approach gives priority to what the text means. It is still a rather literal approach which aims to make the text as readable as possible. It endeavors to find equivalent concepts in English to match the concepts in the language being translated.
- A paraphrase focuses on simplicity and clarity over precision. It seeks to bring maximum clarity by using additional words as needed to get the meaning right.
For example, Matthew 8:20:
Literal: “The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Dynamic: “The God who put on a body and became man declared, ‘I don’t have a place to sleep.’”
Paraphrase: “Christ, the holy dude rapped, ‘Yo, the God-man has no crib to chill and catch some z’s.”’
Which translation is best for me?
1. Literal Approach
- American Bible Society Greek Text
- King James Version (KJV) – This Bible is basically literal. It stays close to the original sentence structure but changes it where meaning is compromised. It is based on the best Hebrew and Greek texts available in the 16th century. Some words used in the KJV now have different meanings. For example, the word ‘suffer’ in the King James is dramatically different today: “Suffer the little children to come in to me.” Today, the word ‘suffer’ means “approach.” The New King James Version (NKJV) is often used (Let the little children come to me…) instead of the King James Version today.
- English Standard Version (ESV) – The ESV seeks, as far as possible, to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB) – This Bible is considered by many to be the most literal English translation of all the Bibles. It is conservative, evangelical, and protestant. Conservative theology affects translational decisions. It is often very difficult to understand in English. However, it is a great tool for those who don’t know Greek and Hebrew.
2. Dynamic Approach
- The Amplified Bible (AMP) takes a single word and adds many descriptive words to amplify its meaning. For example, “Jesus, the Savior, the Redeemer, the hypostatic union of flesh and spirit has no dwelling, no refuge, no home, no place of safety to recline his cranium, to rest his muscles, to relax and refresh his body after ministry” (Matthew 8:20)
- The Douay Bible is the foundation on which nearly all English Catholic versions are based. It owes its existence to the religious controversies of the 16th century. It’s very readable and easy to understand and is mostly close to the text. (Roger: “This is the version I used the first time I read through the entire Bible.”)
- Today’s English Version (TEV) Bible is almost a paraphrase. The translation is often very colloquial and renders the original language loosely.
- The Jerusalem Bible (JB) is a Roman Catholic translation that does not try to follow the original sentence structure. Instead it focuses on what the text means. This Catholic Bible contains the extra seven books of the Catholic canon (The Apocrypha).
- The New International Version (NIV) tries to balance a literal translation with an emphasis on meaning. It is clear and easy to read. It seeks to balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought. (Roger: “This is my favorite translation. It is my everyday Bible.)
- Living Bible (LB) attempts to say as exactly as possible what the writers of the Scriptures meant and to say it simply. It expands as necessary for a clear understanding by the modern reader.
- J. B. Phillips New Testament (Phillips) is an English translation of the New Testament by Anglican clergyman J. B. Phillips. While the translation is not well known, it has many ardent fans including Os Guinness, Chuck Swindoll, and Ray Stedman. (Roger: “This is my favorite paraphrase.”)
- The Message (MSG) is easy to read and understand. Created by Pastor Eugene Peterson, it tends to translate thought for thought. While it still may be identified as close to the text, it renders the original language loosely.
- Interlinear Greek New Testament: this translation has the English text next to the Greek text. It is especially helpful for those who know a little Greek.
Other Bibles You Might Consider
- The Children’s Bible is a comic book paraphrase with great pictures and simple words (Roger: “I raised my children on this Bible.”)
- The Names of God Bible
- New Testament for Everyone
- The Prophecy Bible
- Young’s Literal Translation
- The Kingston Bible is a large three-volume graphic novel Bible which sticks closely to the original text. Once you start reading it, it’s hard to put it down!
- The Layman’s Parallel New Testament places two or more translations side-by-side on the same page.
I also recommend that you invest in a study Bible. This tool provides a running commentary on each passage placed next to the English text for easy access.
Many people find that they need more than one Bible translation and use different ones for different occasions.
A Bible handbook and Bible dictionary will be of great help.
Of course, the YouVersion app, Bible Gateway, Daily Audio Bible, and Bible.is are just a few Scripture resources available on your phones and devices. It’s great to be able to read multiple translations, to hear the Scriptures, and to study a plethora of resources online.
The test of a true Bible student is not how much we learn—but how much we live.
Luke 24:32 teaches, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
The proof that we are learning from the Bible is not a big head but a burning heart.
Well, Kate, I hope that I’ve given you the information you need to make a good choice.
Let me know how it works out.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese.His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.