Which Bible Translation Should I Read?

Biblical Studies Jun 16, 2020

I've never been asked this question by someone who doesn't already own an English Bible.

It seems to me, if we're asking, we're looking to make a switch. And I think that's because (1) our Bible reading is a chore and we're looking for some spice and/or (2) every third sermon, some preacher clams, "What the Greek/Hebrew actually says is...

Serious question: if the Greek/Hebrew actually says something different from the translation, then why didn't the translators render it that way?

I'm going to get off on a rant here if I'm not careful.

The point is, I think it's important to ask, why are we asking?

Over the past 10 years, I've taken 37 semester credits of Biblical language classes (to put that into context, a seminary graduate is required to take 12). And I'm not counting the 9 credits I flunked out of or the 3 credits I audited.

I haven't taken that many credits because I'm good at it; I've taken them because I'm demonstrably bad at it --and I have the letters of suspension to prove it.

But I keep going back because of the question I think we're all asking: What does the text actually say?

I'm right there with everyone, but the fact that we instinctively distrust our translations is tragic. I've spent more than ten years trying to get rid of that doubt, and it wasn't until the last few years that I've been able to.

And that's led me (finally? fingers crossed) to three answers about which translation to use.

My First Answer

My initial answer is from real life: Whichever one you're actually going to read.

This post is a companion to my three billioneth attempt at reading the Bible in a year (half way there in just a year-and-a-half!). In that context, my criteria is basically this: what translation best serves the reader who is blitzing through the text 3-5 chapters at a time in 15-20 minute sitting?

It seems to me the question answers itself: whichever translation best helps you to do that.

Did you grow up with the King James and that's most comfortable? Stick with that. Did you grow up with the King James and that's what has kept you from even attempting to read it? Try the NLT instead. Does the NLT lack that BIBLE VOICE that so many people love? Then try the NASB or the ESV. Still getting hung up on the sentence structure? Try the NIV or the CSB.

The reason I'm so lazaer fair about it is that I think there's a difference between reading and studying. If you're just trying to take in big chunks of text, a different translation is called for than if you're going to take a lice comb to it (diagramming the sentences, or doing an inductive bible study or doing a Bible arc etc etc). That kind of micro-examination is at a totally different speed from a read through. I think different translations are best for different uses.

But, but, but...

Before everyone starts stammering at me, I think we need to pause for a moment  and acknowledge that most of us aren't qualified to evaluate any translation of any text, let alone a biblical one.

For example, My brother-in-law was doing deep, academic work on Machiavilli's The Prince, it wasn't a text I'd interacted with at all, so I wanted to skim through and see what was up. Since the book is originally in Italian, I had to buy a translation. And guess what? I had no ability to distinguish between a good translation and a bad one. All I was able to evaluate was how the English read.

The same thing happened early last year when I started reading The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The text is originally in German, so I bought a super cheap Kindle edition. The English was almost unbearable. Now because my German is tightly situated in less-than-first-semester, I know I'm not qualified to say if it's a good translation, but I am qualified to say the English was consistently unpleasant. It may be an accurate rendering of the original German. I don't know. What I do know is that it got in the way of my enjoyment of the text, which is why I started reading it in the first place.

This isn't just an English problem, either. One of the very kind team members at Cheers-fil-a was a native Spanish speaker who was trying her darndest to tackle English (Bless her; most days I have no idea what English speakers are saying). I was doing Hebrew homework, so the subject of Bible translation came up and she explained to me that she didn't enjoy reading her Spanish Bible because, to her, it was bad Spanish and incredibly difficult to read. We did some quick searching around and, turns out, she was using an older translation rather than the more current Spanish version.

That really clarified translation picking for me: if you're going to read a 3,000-year-old text, don't read a translation that's going to pile a bigger obstacle atop the obstacles that are already there.

And most people, as educated, literate English readers but with no Biblical language training, are really only qualified to evaluate the English. So my recommendation is, just do that. Do what you can do. And after you've enjoyed reading the Bible and want to go deeper, then we can get more detailed about it.

My Second Answer

But that's just for reading. And when somebody has done a lot of reading, they usually want to know, what about for serious study, where word choice really matters?

To that, I'd say: whatever your pastor or teacher uses.

I need to say something a little bit tough, but true: if you have to ask which Bible translation to use, you don't know enough to pick one on your own.

This means you have to trust somebody, so why not trust the person you're trusting to lead you? I mean, really, if you can't trust your pastor's or teacher's choice in translation, then what else are you not trusting about their leadership?

Again, we've been conditioned to distrust the English translations and we have to break free of that ignorant prejudice.

More practically, though, you should have the same translation in front of you that your teacher has. They're going to be bringing some important material from the text and translation differences will just introduce rabbit trails that will distract from the bigger, probably more important, issues.

So just use what they're using. The important part is that you just keep studying and in the process, you'll come to enough opinions about translations that you probably won't need to ask the question any more.

My Third Answer

"Sure, David, but what do you use when you're going to go deep into a text?"

That answer is really exciting for me, personally, but also...just not helpful: Not really any of them, so basically all of them.

For casual reading, I'm usually opening up either YouVersion or Kindle apps and I don't notice which translation I last opened (usually the NIV or NASB). My printed edition is the NASB (1995) and my hard-back note-taking Bible I got from school is  the NIV (2011). I've been doing my reading plan in HCSB, just because I feel like it needs the love and I like how the narrative texts and dialog read.

For studying, I usually reference a bunch. One of the second steps to a high-level, serious study (after reading it lots and lots) is to produce your own translation because the fastest way to find the nuances of the text is to bring the text into your own language.

So if I'm up to my ears in a text, I don't usually have an English Bible in front of me (unless it's a particularly difficult passage). Instead, I'll have the Hebrew and/or Greek text next to my own translation. After that, I'll sometimes compare my translation to the published ones and see where our choices agree and disagree.

And I should say, hopefully by way of encouragement, that being able to flip from studying English and referencing the languages to studying the languages and referencing English is a glorious flip and a check off my bucket list.

But I get how that can be discouraging.

I think sometimes people just don't realize what they're asking. The question is, how does a person evaluate a translation without knowing the languages? The rough but obvious answer is, they can't. Nobody can. Nobody can evaluate a thing without knowing what the thing is.

That's why I'm saying, find something you love and find something from people you trust, and when you move beyond that, then just take the time to learn the languages so that you don't have to bother with a published translation.

Trying to do really deep work (like really deep work) in a translated text is like trying to learn photography with a filter on. You'll definitely find ways to work around it, but it's just easier to take a a year or three and learn what all the buttons and switches do so you can begin a lifetime of exploring how to take real photos for yourself. It's totally doable. And in just two semesters of Biblical language training, you'll be translating entire chapters and you'll know enough to translate an entire book. And I should know; I took first semester four times.

Just Dive In

I've had a recent life epiphany: not doing a thing because you're worried about doing it wrong is a less advantageous than doing a thing wrongly and learning from the mistakes.

There are a lot of brash, bossy voices who have a lot of opinions on Bible translations and my counsel about that is, maybe don't read the internet; read your Bible.

Think about it: if you're wanting to acquire a skill, and some bullying voice makes you freeze in fear about doing it wrong, that's not a trustworthy guide. Good teachers fill your sails; bad teachers suck the air out. Don't listen to bad teachers.

The Bible is a welcoming, mysterious, dark, brilliant, thick, accessible, insightful confusing collection of texts and you should just dive in. If you have the humble, attentive, inquiring heart of an immigrant, you'll figure out what you need and whom to trust to get it. And if you press in, you'll get the language, too. But until then, just dive in.

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