Friday, June 10, 2011

FAQ Friday | Which Bible Translation is the Best?

In this FAQ series, we will try to answer questions that will hopefully help us become more biblically informed and better equipped to live out our faith in community. To submit and vote on questions you would like to see answered on the blog by our pastors, click here. To see other FAQ Friday posts, click here.

This week, Chrystie Cole, along with some of the pastoral staff, answers a question from Confused in Greenville.

What is the difference in all the Bible translations today? It looks like there are hundreds at the Christian bookstore and I’ve seen on some church signs that they are a “King James Church”. Is one translation really all that much better than any others?

One could easily be overwhelmed and confused by the many different translations available these days. The Scriptures were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, which makes translation necessary, but why are there so many? And are they really all that different? Is one better than another? These are important and valid questions.

There are several factors that have contributed to the assortment of translations at our fingertips today. The first, and possibly most important factor, has to do with the original Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic manuscript from which translators are working. The English translations we have today have been based off of these original manuscripts, which have been found throughout the years. The better the original manuscript, the better the base from which to translate.

A second key factor at play is the receptor language, or language into which the Bible is being translated. As scholars labor to translate these original manuscripts, they must consider how to convey the original language with all of its cultural words, expressions, and meanings into a different language that often does not have the same words, expressions, or meanings. For example, in the Ancient Near Eastern culture, “intestines” were frequently described as the factory of one’s emotions and affections, much like we use “our heart” today. The challenge for scholars is to do this in a way that does not distort the original text but at the same time translates it in a way that is clear, understandable, and relevant to the reader. In a recent article on translation, scholar N.T. Wright stated, “Translation is bound to distort. But not to translate, and not to upgrade English translations quite frequently, is to collude with a different and perhaps worse kind of distortion. Yesterday’s words may sound fine, but they may not say any longer what they used to say.”

Wright’s quote obviously raises the question of the possibility for errors or distortion in our Bibles. Scholars today have more resources available than they did many years ago, which make better, truer translations possible. Nevertheless, the fact remains that no translation is infallible. Errors in translation are inevitable. That does not, however, negate the fact that Scripture, in its original form, is without error. Though our translations today may have errors, readers can be confident that these errors are cosmetic in nature, not doctrinal.

So how does one choose a good, reliable translation? Most translations fall into one of three categories, which are based upon how they were translated. First, there is a formal, or word-for-word, translation. Scholars who attempt to remain as close to the original form of the Hebrew and Greek in both words and grammar have translated Bibles that fall into this category, such as the KJV, ESV and NASB. Second, there is a functional, or thought-for-thought translation. A functional translation attempts to keep the meaning of the original text while putting it into words and expressions that are more normal to the language into which they are translating. The NLT and NIV are found within this category. Finally, there is the free, or paraphrase, translation which attempts to translate ideas from one language to another but does not focus as much on using the exact words of the original. This category includes The Message and the Living Bible. Reference the chart below (courtesy of to see into which category the various translations fall.

A few churches and denominations claim that the KJV translation is superior and the only translation that can be trusted. The King James Version was originally written in 1611, after King James commissioned a group of scholars to produce a new translation. Upon its production, King James declared the KJV to be the sole Bible to be used in public worship services in the Church of England. Many today, believe that it is the only holy Bible, which is in essence stating that the only true Scripture has been written in English, which is an arrogant claim.

Though at its time, it may have been a better translation than what was available, we now know there are a few problems with the King James translation. First, it was translated from fewer and inferior original manuscripts. Since the KJV was written, discoveries of three new manuscripts (the Codex Sinaiticus in 1844, the NT papyri in 1895, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947) have given scholars the ability to produce more accurate translations. Second, the fact that it is almost too literal in its translation and the language used is unnatural in current day English makes it difficult and awkward for readers. N.T. Wright, in the aforementioned article, reminds us that while much can get lost in translation “things get lost just as effectively when, instead of translating, we stick with a foreign or ancient language which readers or hearers do not understand.” This could easily be said of the King James Version. Though, the NKJV addressed this issue by eliminating the flowery language of the KJV, scholars behind this translation still used the inferior original manuscripts as its base for translation. (See chart below courtesy of

So, with all that being said, how does one choose a good translation?

There is much to be gained by reading and studying various translations. The NLT or the NIV is a good choice for regular reading and when reading large quantities of Scripture. For deeper study, we recommend an ESV or NASB translation. is a great tool that allows a student of Scripture to read from up to five different translations at once.
For further reading on this topic, check out How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

“When people ask me which version of the Bible they should use, I have for many years told them that I don’t much mind as long as they always have at least two open on the desk.” N.T. Wright