Choosing the Right Bible

Choosing the right Bible for the purposes of reading and studying can be one of the most difficult tasks for Christians. Many Christians come from traditions where a particular translation was used without any explanation as to why. Many Christians also come from traditions where the reasons for other translations even existing were never discussed. For example, I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church reading from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. I could barely understand the Old English in which it was written. I became increasingly discouraged when it came to reading the Bible and would not even entertain the thought of studying it. Luckily, I was also a preacher's kid so all I had to do to find a better translation was to seek the advice of my father. If you are longing to read and study the Bible but find yourself discouraged because of your current translation hopefully this post will help.

*the following is an excerpt:

It is essential that the student find a translation that will encourage reading and study. No single translation is superior for every purpose. So, a series of questions should be asked when evaluating Bible translations.

  • Has the best text been used to make this translation?
We do not possess the original manuscripts of any biblical writer. In fact, we only rarely have the original manuscript for any ancient text. The exceptions are inscriptions that have been carved in stone or clay tablets. So what we have for the Bible are many copies of those originals made by hand by scribes and monks over many centuries. Like other human copies they are not always identical. Today we have hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts in many languages available to help us reconstruct the original text through what is known as textual criticism. The scholars who work diligently to bring us the most accurate translations will never see their work as final because of the subjective nature of any reconstruction of the text, which does not exist in its entirety in any single manuscript.

It should be clear that the King James Version (KJV), like other older versions, is not based on a text that benefits from all of the new manuscripts discovered in the 400 years since it was completed in 1611.

To decide whether a translation is based on the best text, check the introductory preface for specific statements. Does it say that this is an eclectic text (meaning each variant in the ancient manuscripts has been evaluated separately to determine its proximity to the original)? Almost all modern translations indicate the questionable nature of certain passages. Determine whether they have been omitted entirely, put in the footnotes or margins, put in the text or set in brackets.

  • How accurate is the translation?
Have the latest philological and linguistics insights been used? Here the average student has no way of checking because he or she seldom knows Greek or Hebrew. Therefore, two general questions will test the accuracy of a translation:

  1. Is it up-to-date? Check the copyright date. In general the newer the translation the more likely it is up to date. However, try to determine if the translation is a revision or a reprinting of an earlier translation.
  2. Has a team of scholars representing a cross-section of religious groups made the translation? No single individual can stay current with all of the vast amount of new scholarship that is necessary to make the best translation.

  • Is the translation readable?
Check the introductory preface to see if stylistic experts have been used in addition to Greek and Hebrew experts. There are three methods of translation: (1) the concordant method or word-for-word translation tends to be the least readable; (2) the free paraphrase method tends to be the most readable; (3) the equivalence method is based on the closest equivalent in two languages and tends to avoid awkward literalness on the one hand and inaccuracies on the other hand.

  • How is the translation intended to be used?
Is the translation for church or synagogue use? If so, then it should be more formal and dignified. Paraphrased translations use more colloquial and slang expressions, which would not be appropriate for formal religious use.

Is the translation intended for study purposes? If so, then the translation should preserve the ambiguity of the original and the distance between the ancient and modern world. A careful student wants to know what the text said and draw out the relevance on his or her own. In general, the paraphrase and idiomatic translations are least satisfactory for careful study.

  • What kind of information is in the annotations and notes?
Check to see if the annotations are slanted to a particular religious approach. Since the average person tends to accept the notes on the same level as the biblical text itself, we recommend a Bible with as few notes as possible for the beginning student. "Study Bibles" are popular, but they must be used cautiously.

  • Is inclusive language used?
Inclusive language attempts to avoid sexist language and to include both women and men where it is clear that both genders are being addressed (e.g., he or she, humankind, people).

No translation is best for every purpose. Since there are about 500 different English versions now available, each individual has to decide for himself or herself. Hopefully, you will take the time to ask the necessary questions when searching for the right Bible. Fortunately, most of the Bibles translated in the last thirty or forty years are far superior to those made earlier. For instance, despite its literary beauty and long-standing use in the church, we cannot recommend the KJV because it contains archaic language and reflects out-of-date scholarship. It is simply necessary to realize that some translations are much better than others. We recommend:

Revised Standard Version (RSV)
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
New International Version (NIV)
New American Bible (NAB)
Revised English Bible (REB)
New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
New Living Translation (NLT)

Matthews, Victor and James C. Moyer. The Old Testament: Text and Context. Second Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005. Print

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