And the Best Bible Translation Is . . . ?

Warning: Long post, no pictures.  Deal!

The word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  Heb. 4:12

No book has ever outsold it, no avowed readership exceeds it, no text makes such extravagant or has had such a revolutionary claims.  88% of Americans own at least one Bible, and the total Bibles sold in this country would average out to 4.4 per household.  I’ve read the Bible all my life and every time I sit down to read it again I find something new.

And every time I check out the Bible aisle at the local Barnes & Noble or Mardel, I find new translations and editions.  It was easier, I suppose, when the KJV ruled: everybody memorized the same words, everybody followed along with the same pulpit text.  But that was then, this is now, and the best attitude is gratitude.  Even though it’s confusing, we are blessed to live in such a land of Bible-plentitude (even though only 43% of Americans say they actually read it as often as five times per year).  There’s a Bible for every stage in a Christian’s development.  And for every Christian’s taste–which isn’t necessarily good, but we’ll talk about that in the next post.

So imagine yourself at B&N or Mardel, in the market for a new Bible.  Maybe you want to try another translation, or you’re looking for the best one for deeper study.  Or you’ve made the acquaintance of an unchurched teen, and you want a Bible that will engage rather than confuse him.  Or your second-grader has outgrown her storybook and wants a real Bible to read along in family devotions—should you go for a children’s translation, or a standard translation for her to she grow into?  The main consideration isn’t whether the book sports a pink rhinestone or camo cover, but what’s between those covers.

We don’t have room for a thesis on How We Got the Bible, and besides I’m embarrassed to tell you how little I remember of that college class I took on the subject (also how long ago it was).  The preservation and canonization of the scriptures is an amazing story that testifies to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church.  Enough for now to say that, in spite of what you may hear from your unbelieving sister or uncle who read a few articles on the internet, the Bible is not based on questionable documents.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 confirmed the reliability of the Masoretic texts used for Old Testament translation.  As for the New Testament, though scholars and laymen may argue over whether the Textus Receptus or the Codex Vaticanus is the better source, the sheer number of early Greek NT manuscripts overwhelm those of any other ancient writer.  If we can trust Heroditus (75 manuscripts extant) we can trust Paul and Luke and the other authors of the NT (5700 manuscripts extant).

As we all know, the number of English translations exploded in the second half of the 20th century, destroying the long-held monopoly of the KJV.  Most of us use a version that was recommended to us, or even handed out free at that youth meeting where we were saved.  The main reason I’ve been using the ESV is because WORLD magazine sent me a copy about 12 years ago with a note to “Use this for all your quotes.” That was after WORLD’s celebrated dust-up with the NIV gender-neutral version, but more about that later.  Is the ESV considered the most literal translation?  Apparently not, and that leads to the question of what we mean by “literal.”  And for that matter, what we mean by “translation.”

Language is a science, and an art, and a miracle.  Strictly speaking, the word miracle shouldn’t apply to a natural phenomenon, but to me it’s breathtaking how aggregates of words can communicate opinions, emotions, practical knowledge, and mind-blowing ideas.  I sometimes think of it as gathering words into a ball and pitching it to a listener.  If the listener catches what I meant, I’ve communicated.  In some ways, though, language is like a net of words, syntax, and nuance spread to catch meaning.  What the listener or reader catches may be very close to what the speaker or writer meant, or it may be shockingly distant.

Likewise, translation is an art, and a science, and to some degree a miracle, considering that all languages have their own idioms and grammatical oddities.  Can my reading of Anna Karenina in English have the same impact as if I’d read it in Russian?  Absolutely.  There’s something outside both English and Russian, some underlying logos, that connects Tolstoy to Russian and Russian to the translator and the translator to English and English to me (all of which reminds me of my favorite scene from I Love Lucy).  In the Bible, as Alistair Begg likes to say, “The plain things are the main things,” and you’ll get the main ideas even from an inferior translation.  However, I’m assuming that most of us want our kids to be more than hearers of the word, and even more than doers; we want them to be studiers of the word, and for that reason we look for the most accurate translation.  For most of us, again, that means the most literal: what the original words actually mean.

The phrase for literal translation is Formal Equivalence, or word-for-word transposition, with necessary adjustments for the grammatical differences between English and the original languages.  With a translation governed almost entirely by Formal Equivalence, the reader can assume he’s reading the next-best-thing to Greek or Hebrew, but he will have to do some heavy mental lifting to determine the best sense of the passage.  That’s where Functional (or Dynamic) Equivalence comes in, sometimes called “thought for thought.”  A translator working under this principle will look at phrases and concepts more than words, and try to find the best English rendering of the thought.  The result is easier to read than a literal translation, but also more suspect, because a translator’s biases affect how a passage is understood and possibly even slanted.

Most translations seek some balance between formal and dynamic equivalence, or between accuracy and readability.  From what I’ve been able to determine, here’s how the leading translations stack up, from the most literal to the least:

  • New American Standard (NASV)
  • New King James Version (NKJV) (Some would put it first, particularly if they prefer Textus Receptus to Codex Vaticanus.)
  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HSCB)
  • New International Version (NIV)
  • New Life Translation (NLT)
  • . . . and the rest, including the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV), New Century Version (NEV), International Children’s Bible (ICB), Contemporary English Version (CEV), Today’s English Version (TEV), and the NET (New English Translation) Bible.

Tracing the pedigree of these translations has been interesting—there are some connections I didn’t expect.  The NASB, obviously, is based on the American Standard Version, which itself was cousin to the English Revised Version of 1895.  (1895 was the year the complete ERV was published, not just the New Testament.  Most translations appeared in the NT first, sometimes following with Psalms and Proverbs before the complete text rolled off the presses.  All dates in this post refer to the publication of OT and NT together.)  As the ERV was based on older, and some said better manuscripts, it was supposed to be an improvement over the KJV in terms of accuracy.  But it was so literal as to be almost unreadable, prompting Charles Spurgeon to say that it was strong in Greek but weak in English.

The American Standard Version was no improvement, and spent most of its time in lecture halls and on college library shelves.  That sad state of affairs was finally remedied in 1971 with the publication of the New American Standard Version, an improvement in readability—more or less.  Whatever its defects in style, the NASV quickly became the Bible of choice for many conservative laymen and pastors, at least until the publication of the New International Version (1978).

The NIV was a brand-new translation, not a revision of an earlier one, sponsored by the International Bible Society.  It rode the crest of the Evangelical movement of the 70s and capitalized on dissatisfaction with the KJV (too old), Today’s English Version (too loose) and the Revised Standard (too liberal).  The translation committee was composed of a full range of scholars from high church to low, but all of them Protestant—which may be why some Catholic scholars have criticized the NIV for its heavy bias toward key Protestant doctrines like justification by faith alone.  Obviously that wasn’t a problem in evangelical churches, whose embrace of the NIV was so enthusiastic it quickly became the new standard for Bible memorization, not to mention sales.  Since the early eighties it was the best-selling Bible in America, edged out of the top slot only last year—by a version I’ll discuss later.

Though it leaned a little too much toward functional equivalence for some, the NIV was considered an excellent formal/functional balance translation until the late 90s, when word of a “gender-neutral” version leaked out through WORLD Magazine.  Conservative indignation caused the International Bible Society to back away from the plan—but not really.  Today’s NIV (TNIV, 2005) doesn’t feminize or androgynize God, but most instances of “man” used generically are neutralized to “one” or “human being,” with plural pronouns (them and their) replacing masculine singular (him and his).  Sometimes this matters to the meaning of the text, sometimes not so much, but the publisher, Zondervan, seems bent on wiping out even the memory of the Old NIV, as Marvin Olasky recently reported.

Exasperation with the gender-tinkering contributed to a stampede of Evangelical and Reformed believers to the New King James Version (1982), built on the awesome edifice of–and generally based on the same Greek texts as–the KJV.   The NKJV could claim a more literal rendering of Greek and Hebrew than the NIV, as well as a more graceful English style than the NASB.  That, especially for readers of the Reformed persuasion, made it ideal for personal study and led to editions like the New Geneva Study Bible, edited by R. C. Sproul.  Others couldn’t see the point—why not just read the King James?  Those people were more than ready, then, for the

English Standard Version (2001).  The ESV is not an original translation, but was based on the Revised Standard (1952), which traced its own descent from the ASV.  Translators of the RSV included scholars from Yale, Harvard, and Union Theological Seminaries, which were liberal even in the forties.  One complaint about the RSV was the translators’ preference for rendering OT messianic passages as anything but messianic—the most notorious example being the translation of “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 as young woman rather than virgin. Revisions of the Revised (such as the NRSV) included more and more inclusive language and gender neutrality.  The ESV was a deliberate pushback against that trend—at its appearance, traditional Evangelicals and Reformed heaved a huge sigh of relief and embraced it like the second coming of the NIV.

The ESV, still a youngster at 12 years old, is #5 in sales according to the Christian Booksellers Association, and has birthed an impressive list of editions, including the massive ESV Study Bible—also some children’s editions we’ll talk about later. So what’s #1 in sales?  As of last year, another relative newcomer:

The New Life Bible (NLV, 1996).  Those of us who were college kids in the late sixties and early seventies remember passing around an exciting new version of the Good Book, called the Living Bible—not a translation! Just a paraphrase!  This teen-revival and youth-group favorite bore the name of Kenneth N. Taylor—not a Bible scholar! Just a businessman!—but a godly businessman with Moody Press who in his spare time rewrote the American Standard Version New Testament in language college kids and teens could understand.  The Living New Testament was so popular Taylor established his own publishing house, Tyndale, to publish and promote The Living Bible, Paraphrased (1971).  The “just a paraphrase” line may have grown a little stale, for a new translation team of 90 evangelical scholars got together in the late 1980s to work on an extensive revision.  But that mission (in the way that a 1787 get-together to revise the Articles of Confederation became the Constitutional Convention) soon expanded to produce a brand-new translation.

The New Life Bible leans pretty far to the side of functional equivalence—to some critics, it may as well be “just a paraphrase.”  Its advantages are a fresh voice and an emotional resonance, and readers have resonated enough to make it the top-selling Bible in the USA today.  Critics complain about the “gushiness,” as well as the Arminian slant (carried over from the late Kenneth Taylor) and the less-than-forceful renderings of strong statements.  For example, the Lord’s “What have you done?” to Adam and Eve becomes “How could you do such a thing?”  “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” is rendered, “Go away; the things you did were unauthorized.”   Maybe there’s such a thing as too laid-back, especially when confronted with God’s righteous justice.

The rise of the NLV to #1 in sales bumps the NIV to #2, followed by the KJV at #3, the NKJV at #4.  What’s #6 (after the ESV)?  A version you may not know much about:

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB, 2004).  HCSB doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue because the translation hasn’t quite hit the big time in pews or pulpits.  I had no familiarity with it at all before researching this post, but I like what I see so far.  The HCSB is primarily associated with the Southern Baptist Convention (Broadman & Holman is the trade books division of Lifeway Christian Resources).  The 90-scholar team strove for “optimal equivalence”: that is, giving preference to the formal (literal) translation but substituting functional when the meaning was unclear.  (Of course, they all say that.)  The English style is slightly more simplified than the ESV—shorter sentences and words—and more gender neutral.  The generic “men” is usually translated “people,” for example.  Three features set it apart: 1) the occasional use of Yahweh for the Hebrew YHWH (LORD or Lord in most other translations), 2) the use of half-brackets to set off English additions to the Greek or Hebrew (those words that are italicized in the KJV and the NKJV), 3) and an unusual number of marginal notes referring to the original texts.  The HCSB has its critics like they all do, but in general it’s winning favor among conservative Christians.

Seventh in the list of top sellers is the New International Readers Version (NIrV).  This simplified translation first appeared as the text for Zondervan’s Kid’s Bible in 1996.  Obviously intended for children, it’s written at a third-grade reading level.  The first edition featured gender-inclusive language but didn’t advertise it until Focus on the Family made it an issue.  Later editions have toned down the neutral pronouns and nouns, but not eliminated them.  But the NIrV is not the only children’s version, nor the first.  That honor belongs to

The International Children’s Bible (ICB, 1986).  This translation began as an attempt by the Churches of Christ to put the Bible in an English that the deaf could understand—greatly simplified and almost entirely devoid of idiom.  As time went on the mission expanded to create a version just for children.  (Other translations that evolved from this effort are the New Century Version, the Everyday Version and the Easy-to-Read Version marketed to the deaf.)  The ICB is written at the level that most children are reading independently (third grade), avoids Greek and Hebrew figures of speech, uses shorter sentences and paragraphs, and is generally okay.  The “equivalence” bias is definitely toward the functional, but it sometimes sounds like a word-for-word translation.  For instance, Romans 1:4 reads, but through the spirit of holiness [Christ] was appointed to be God’s son with great power by rising from death.

Sounds a bit like the worst of both worlds, maybe.

Comparing the ICB with the NIrV, I find the latter to read a bit more smoothly, with more of a dramatic sense.  Opening at random, here’s Jeremiah 22:10 from the ICB:

Don’t cry for the king who has died.  Don’t cry loudly for him.  But cry painfully for the king who is being taken away from here.  Cry for him because he will never come back again.  He will never see him homeland again.

And from the NIrV:

Don’t sob over dead King Josiah.  Don’t be sad because he’s gone.  Instead, sob bitterly over King Johoahaz.  He was forced to leave his country.  He will never return.  He’ll never see his own land again.

Or John 2:14-15, in the ICB:

Jesus made a whip out of cords.  Then he forced all those men, with the sheep and cattle, to leave the Temple.  He turned over the tables and scattered the money of the men who were exchanging it.  Then he said to those who were selling pigeons, “Take these things out of here!  Don’t make my Father’s house a place for buying and selling!”

In the NIrV:

So Jesus made a whip out of ropes.  He chased all the sheep and cattle from the temple area.  He scattered the coins of the people exchanging money.  And he turned over their tables.  He told those who were selling doves, “Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a place for buying and selling!”

The ICB is typically sold without a lot of bells and whistles—just the basic Bible.  The type is usually bigger than the NIrV—10-11 point as compared to 8 or 9, which is no small factor with beginning readers.  Whether to buy a children’s translation is strictly a judgment call; in general, they aren’t needed for competent young readers who can transition quickly enough into one of the leading English translations for grownups.  That said, I’ve owned a copy of the original ICB for thirty years and have used it in Sunday school and home Bible classes.  A children’s translation can be helpful as a supplement, for reading aloud, and for comparison; also for encouraging a slow or reluctant reader.

NOTE: One thing I’ve noticed about the two early reader versions (NIrV and ICB): they are actually more explicit about sex than the adult versions.  I mean that, instead of figurative expressions like “knew” or “lay with,” ICB commonly uses the clunky and clinical, “had sexual relations with.”  The NIrV varies: for lawful relations between husband and wife it says “made love to.”  For the other kind, it’s usually “had sex with.”  I don’t know what they could or should have used otherwise, but let the parent be aware let you get awkward questions from your five-year-old.

One last up-and-comer: the New English Translation, or NET Bible (2005), which was specifically designed as a Bible for the digital age (hence the link).  Since it’s all online it can be continually updated—kind of a Bibliowiki.  The chairmen of the translation team claim no allegiance to a church or denomination, but all are attached to Dallas Theological Seminary.  The NET has the same problems with gender exclusion that other modern translations do, though not to the extreme of the New NIV.  A bigger problem, perhaps, is the translators’ strict division between OT and NT understanding of the messianic prophesies.  Virgin becomes young woman in Is. 7:14, and gender-neutral language in Psalm 8 does an end run around the NT notion that the Man made lower than the angels is ultimately embodied in Christ.  Plus many other examples.  Still, it’s generally considered a conservative translation and includes plentiful text notes (about the original manuscripts) and study notes (about interpretation).  Though it’s always helpful to seek a second or third opinion with study notes, the NET could be helpful to a beginning scholar without funds or space for a roomful of commentaries and lexicons.

So what’s the best translation overall? I don’t have a clue.  I do know that nothing is gained by trumpeting “our” version and heaping scorn on all the rest.  Certainly some versions or editions will serve a given purpose better than others, but a kid can come to Christ through reading the gospel in the ICB as much as the NKJV, or a bum on the street could pick up a discarded copy of the Living New Testament and be transformed by the Holy Spirit.  The word is inspired, not the translation.  Many teachers say it’s good to have a home-base translation for study and memorization, but to compare it with other versions frequently.  I’ll second that advice.

No time or room to mention other translations (The TEV, or Good News Bible; the Contemporary English Version; the New Oxford Bible), paraphrases (The Message, The Voice), or off-the-wall versions like The Cotton Patch Bible (1973), The Readers Digest Bible (1982), The Word Made Fresh (1975), or Good as New: a Radical Retelling (2004).  I’m exhausted!  Next week we’ll look at some of the many many children’s editions of these major translations, and I already know which ones I like best.

For thoughts on the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, go here.   Bible gateway is a good place to compare translations, before buying.  And when it comes to buying, I’d like to depart from our usual practice of providing Amazon buttons and suggest that readers consider purchasing their Bibles at Mardel, currently under pressure by the US government for refusing to provide all forms of birth control as part of their insurance coverage.  We try to avoid politics here, but politics doesn’t always avoid us.

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5 Responses to And the Best Bible Translation Is . . . ?

  1. sachin December 22, 2013 at 7:23 am #

    I Find The New Living Translation The Best Translation Ever For It’s Simplicity And Plain English.

  2. Jessalyn April 9, 2013 at 10:33 pm #

    Very impressive amount of work in this post! This could have been a series all in its own. Thanks Janie!

  3. Melissa Deming April 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    thank you so much for all the legwork. Very impressed with the degree of detail and history. I’m a NKJV gal – mainly because I love the idea of going with the majority text (Textus Receptus). But am ready to incorporate a few other translations into my studies. It helps at any rate, to know where our Bibles come from and their translation histories – particularly as I seek to find a great first bible for my boys when they are reading. many thanks.

  4. Megan March 29, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    Wow! Thank you, Janie, very well done. I can’t wait for the next installment!

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