Choosing A Bible Translation: What You Need To Know (Part 1)

The question, “Which Bible translation should I use?” is one that isn’t going away. It’s a question that has stirred up quite a lot of controversy and disagreement which has led to some division among Christians (the problem being Christians, not Bible translations!). But it remains a question that requires thoughtful consideration by each believer and discussion within the broader church community. The decision over which translation to use has no easy answer, however, what follows are some things I’ve learned as I’ve considered this important and complex question.

Asking the Wrong Questions:

“Which Bible translation is best?”

The unfortunate truth is that there is no best translation, in spite of what you may have heard elsewhere. If you want to understand all the nuances of Scripture as the original readers did then you’re going to have to learn Greek and Hebrew (and even then you’re going to miss things – just look how many Bible commentaries are out there! – not to mention that we don’t actually have the original manuscripts).

“But surely some translations are better than others?”

bible reading 2Yes (a tiny yes) but mostly no. There are some bad Bible translations, like those produced by cults or heretics (e.g. the New World Translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Jefferson Bible, which is similar in concept to the Bible compiled by Marcion in the second century AD). But for the most part it’s a matter of understanding that all Bible translations have their strengths and weaknesses. So in light of this it’s my opinion (with a small caveat[1]) that the vast majority of modern translations are accurate and can be used profitably by Christians. When it comes to deciding whether or not a Bible translation is accurate (an important criteria!) then we have to say that all the most popular translations fall into that category because all of them accurately convey the truth about who God is and what he has done, and is doing, in and through his Son, Jesus the Messiah.

There are also other kinds of translations that should be avoided when it comes to choosing a Bible for regular reading (but which can be helpful in other contexts). These include translations by individuals and translations not based on the best and earliest available manuscripts.

Translations by Individuals

Bible translations are usually the work of a committee so as to avoid personal or theological bias and to create a translation that can be read and understood by as many people as possible. This doesn’t make committee translations perfect or necessarily mean bias is altogether avoided but it is a good way of reducing said bias and creating a translation that is a more accurate reflection of what the manuscripts record.

When an individual produces a translation there is greater likelihood, perhaps unintentionally, of personal and theological biases creeping in because the translator will be inclined to see how certain words or phrases, in their opinion, support their position when the text may be more ambiguous, and open to interpretation, than they’d like to believe. These translations can be immensely helpful for study but they shouldn’t be our translation of choice for regular reading.

Translations Not Based on the Best and Earliest Manuscripts

It almost seems redundant to make this point but English Bible’s are translations. Bible translations are translations of the Bible from other languages. And the original manuscripts are gone – lost to time and decay! What we possess today are copies, many copies, of those original manuscripts. Some of those manuscripts are very, very old dating back very close to when we believe the originals were penned while other manuscripts have been dated to hundreds of years after the originals. These earliest manuscripts are relatively recent discoveries (when you consider just how old the Bible is) and so it is only modern translations that have benefited from the insight they’ve provided us with concerning what the original manuscripts recorded. Older translations (such as the KJV and its revision the NKJV) were based on later manuscripts which contain scribal errors that have been corrected by new translations based on earlier manuscripts. What is amazing, however, is that the earliest manuscripts and the later manuscripts are incredibly similar (only around 5% difference). Nevertheless, it is of upmost importance that we, in our choice of Bible translation, choose a version that makes use of the best available manuscripts because the Bible isn’t a book where we get to pick and choose which bits we like but the Word of God under whose authority we should humbly submit.

Coming to the Right Conclusion:

“It’s difficult to choose one translation.”

Hopefully, by this point it’s become a little clearer just how difficult it is to choose a Bible translation because we have access to an abundance of good translations. In itself this is a real blessing but it can also be quite frustrating when it comes to choosing a translation for regular use.

Finally, while it’s important to choose a translation for regular reading – because as we read one translation regularly it will imprint itself into our memory, shaping our vocabulary, making it easier for us to recall passages for prayer and talking about God with others – it shouldn’t be the only translation we read. It’s good, especially for study, to compare translations and so benefit from the wisdom and insight of other translators and translation philosophies because no translation, or translation philosophy, is able to provide us with a  perfect translation of the Bible.

Next week we’ll consider how translations come about and the different philosophies of translation but in the mean time why not check out the different versions that are available for free online to get a flavour of what’s out there.


[1] When I say the vast majority of modern translations what I’m referring to are the most commonly read translations available in English as you might find on your Bible app or book shop. The fact is that there are tons of Bible translations available online but the debate surrounding the choosing of a Bible translation is, in my experience, limited to the most popular versions and it’s those translations I’m here endorsing (for example: ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, NET, etc.).


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