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.
The Most Important* Factor For Choosing A Bible Translation
The most important* factor for choosing a Bible translation for regular reading, etc. is, in my opinion, readability. We’ll explore this under two headings. Firstly, when I say readability I’m talking about a translation that is enjoyable to read; a translation we find it enjoyable to pick up and read as individuals. Of course, all translation are readable in the sense we can read and understand all of our modern translations (some may take a bit more work than others but they are, nonetheless, readable). Secondly, we should also consider how our choice of Bible translation will be understood by others. This is somewhat subordinate to the first heading. We all live in and are part of communities which are made up of many different kinds of people but we tend to share common cultural experiences and vocabulary so our choice of Bible translation (particularly in church) can help or hinder our effectiveness as we engage evangelistically and missionally in our communities. But before we get into this in more detail let’s consider why readability may be the most important factor* for choosing a Bible translation.
I say it’s the most important* factor with an asterisk because we know that, really, it isn’t the most important factor. As we saw previously, a literal translation would be almost entirely unreadable in modern English yet at the same time we certainly wouldn’t want a Bible that compromised accuracy for an enjoyable read. I have plenty of novels that read much better than some (perhaps all) of my Bibles translations, but I don’t look to them to find the God of the universe revealed to me in their pages (though this does occasionally happen. However, this only happens because I know from Scripture who God is and what he’s like).
It is again important for us to remember that all of our modern translations are accurate translations of the Greek and Hebrew. This position is not without contention, as a quick Google search will reveal, however, a gracious and informed reader will conclude, as I’ve discussed earlier, that all translations have their strengths and weaknesses and none are able to perfectly capture every nuance of the source languages yet they are all accurate and good translations that will benefit the church because they all accurately convey the grand narrative of God’s redemptive purposes accomplished through Jesus the Messiah. Certainly, there are points here and there, minor points, where scholars will disagree over how certain words should be translated but these points, while important and necessary, do not detract from the overall accuracy of a translation. So then, accuracy becomes almost a non-issue in choosing a Bible translation because all modern translations are accurate reflections of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.
A Translation You Enjoy Reading
Likewise, all of our modern translation are readable. Just as it is foolish for us to argue over translations on the grounds of accuracy it would be equally foolish for us to start dividing over readability. All translations can be improved in both of these areas as scholarship and our skill at translation develops but there will never come a day when we’ll have a translation we are completely happy with because any translation, of any kind, whether of the Bible or War and Peace, will always be an imperfect reflection of the source languages.
In light of this, that all our modern Bible translation are both accurate and readable, we should choose a translation we enjoy reading because a translation we enjoy reading is one we are more likely to actually read! Moreover, it is one we will actually want to read.
One of the greatest challenges facing the church today, from within its own walls (so to speak), is Biblical illiteracy because many Christians aren’t reading the Bible for themselves. This is not to say the problem consists solely, or even primary, in people being unable to find an enjoyable translation (the issue is very complex being made up of a plethora of factors that we can’t get into now). Nevertheless, one way to combat this growing problem in our churches is to encourage our fellow believers to find a translation they enjoy reading and, to heed the words heard by St. Augustine, “Take up and read; Take up and read.” (Confessions 8:29).
Unfortunately, what has happened is that churches and individuals (even pastors/elder/leaders) have tried to present one translation as the best or somehow better than other translations. As we’ve seen there is no best or better translation, to try and make that case is to misrepresent the translation process and to show that you really haven’t understood the issue in its complexity. Pastorally, this is dangerous territory to venue into because it will, whether intentional or otherwise, lead to tribalism wherein we pit ourselves against anyone or group who disagrees. This is sadly evident in our recent past (and to a lesser degree remains present today) when some churches and individuals have tried to make the case that the KJV is the only acceptable and accurate Bible translation. However, this kind of tribalism over Bible translation has not dissipated. Instead it has simply changed it guise. Like the tribalism of our past, this new tribalism is fuelled by misinformation and misunderstanding. We can see this particularly from the North American debates over Bible translation which has become disproportionately heated. We ourselves are not immune to this kind of tribalism, it seems to immigrate with ease to our green shores.
To guard ourselves against this tribalism over Bible translation we need to be generous and gracious in our dialogue over different translations. We need to see the good in all of our modern Bible translations and understand that their good far outweighs any of their deficiencies (and they all have deficiencies). We can only become generous and gracious as we come to know our generous and gracious God who has supplied us with so many wonderful translations of his word; we come to know him as we read his word, as we repent of our tribalism, as we thank him for his generosity and grace in the multitude of ways he bestows them upon us, chiefly through his Son.
So then, let’s put aside our tribalism and encourage one another to read God’s word and to enjoy reading it. Let’s thank God for the many great translations he has allowed us to have in our own language so we don’t have to learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic in order to have access to his word, and through his word to himself. Let’s find a translation we enjoy reading and read it! And let’s encourage others to do so as well.
A Translation For Our Communities
The New International Version began with one man in the 1950s. His name was Howard Long. He didn’t know Greek or Hebrew, he wasn’t a scholar or a pastor, he probably wasn’t even very well known but he was a Christian who wanted others to come to know Jesus, particularly as they read the Bible. The Bible he knew and loved was the KJV, he could quote it at length and when speaking to others he did so they might come to know and love Jesus. But he was faced with a serious problem: when he shared with others from his beloved Bible he found that often the words were met with incomprehension, people simply were unable to understand the language of the Bible because it was not the language they themselves spoke. Frustrated, he turned to his pastor which in turn led to the formation of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) and the rest, as they say, is history.
One of the factors that should influence our choice of Bible translation (particularly in a church setting) should be that it is understandable to the people in our communities who are not yet Christians, as well as the Christians (old and new) who make up our congregations. As the above story illustrates, the KJV is no longer appropriate because it is incomprehensible to modern readers and after many years of faithful service to the church it deserve to enjoy its retirement. Similarly, different translations may be more appropriate for different contexts. There are no easy answers here, it’s up to each church to discern which translation is most appropriate for their context and the people they are reaching. However, generally speaking, for most situations all of our modern translations will function well in this role. Nevertheless, there will be certain contexts when a particular kind of translation will function more effectively than others. For example, in a community made up mostly of retirees a formal translation may prove more effective particularly if they are familiar with the KJV but will allow younger generations to come along and be able to participate and understand what is happening during the service. In another case, such as an unchurched area, where the majority of people have no church background or have never read the Bible a functional translation may prove more effective because it will go a long way towards helping them get a better grasp on the Bible’s big picture without obscuring it with technical language that more formal translations tend to retain.
As I conclude this brief series on choosing a Bible translation I am purposefully not going to give a recommendation. Not because I don’t have a preference but because I recognise that I do and I also recognise that my preference is just that, a preference. My only recommendation is that you choose a modern translation that you enjoy reading, one you want to pick up and read regularly, and that you read it often. Hopefully, what I’ve written will help you to make that choice or, at least, will have made you more informed about your current choice and be a helpful resource as you discuss Bible translation with others. If you’re interested in going beyond my summaries (which is really all they are) I would highly recommend Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (2013) as a good starting place because the contributors are people involved in the translation of the version they are writing about. I found this helpful because it meant I heard the best arguments in favour of each translation and I came away with a greater appreciation for the different philosophies behind our various modern translations; at the end of each chapter I was left thinking, “That is a really great translation!”