One of the questions I am often asked in ministry is this one, “Which Bible should I use?” Sometimes the question is framed more directly such as, “Why do we use the NIV at church and not the King James Version?? Isn’t the King James the authorised version and the most accurate Bible translation?” These are all good questions and hopefully this brief article will provide some clarity. At the end of the day, though, the main thing I am very thankful about is that people are wanting to read their Bibles!
What I find almost every time I speak with someone on this topic is that most people assume that Bibles are created with exactly the same purpose in mind – to be the most accurate or best translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts. While all Bible translations do indeed intend to be accurate representations of the original text, it is very helpful to know that they generally have a different philosophy and approach. There are essentially 3 approaches to translating the Biblical text: word-for-word, thought-for-thought and paraphrase.
Word-for-word (or formal equivalence) translations focus on adhering to the words and structure of the original language. These are the most literal translations, keeping as close to the original words and phrases as possible, aiming to translate what the passage says. These are faithful to the original text but sometimes hard to understand. Examples include the NASB, ESV and KJV.
Thought-for-thought (or dynamic equivalence) translations focus on delivering the most accurate meaning of the original text using modern language styles and grammar. Examples include the NRSV and NIV. These are often used in church gatherings and devotions for their accuracy to the original text and their readability.
Paraphrase translations take the ideas from the original text without being constrained by the original words or grammar. The goal of a paraphrase is to explain what the passage means. These are the most readable versions but possibly not the most precise. Examples include the NLT and Message.
Now here is when the light bulb usually goes off for people. We can actually visualise in a chart where each major translations sits along this spectrum from word-for-word through to paraphrase. When displayed this way, it becomes clear that Bibles are generally translated with a specific focus and approach in mind and do not necessarily compete with each other.
So the question remains – which Bible should I use? Well to answer this, we should consider the context in which we are reading the Bible. Personally, I find word-for-word translations, such as the ESV (English Standard Version) more effective for in-depth study where it is helpful for the English to be as close to the original as possible (or better yet, learn original Hebrew or Greek if you can!) Then, in public settings such as church services, small groups and devotionals, I find thought-for-thought translations such as the NIV the easiest to read and understand for most people. Finally, if I am looking for a brief explanation of a passage, or if I am reading the Bible with a new Christian or a younger person, then I may prefer a paraphrase translation such as the Message Bible. In this way, the choice of Bible becomes a fit-for-purpose decision rather than an emotive or historical preference. Ideally, I recommend people to use one Bible translation from each of the 3 categories – perhaps the ESV, NIV and Message. But that decision is entirely up to you!
But what about the King James Version? Isn’t that superior? Isn’t that authorised? Doesn’t the KJV perfectly preserve Scripture for all time? Or as some people strangely assume – isn’t that the version Jesus read? Well it certainly sounds more regal because of it’s archaic thees and thous, but no, it’s not superior and Jesus certainly did not read it! Besides, who really understands “Charity vaunteth not itself” (1 Cor. 13:4), or what about “He runneth upon him, even on his neck, upon the thick bosses of his bucklers: Because he covereth his face with his fatness, and maketh collops of fat on his flanks” (Job 15:26-27). And if you’re fine with all of that, please tell me, what’s with all the unicorns?? (eg: Numbers 23:22, Psalm 92:10) A very brief look at the history will help – The KJV was edited by a humanist Roman Catholic priest named Erasmus and first published in 1611 and was the Bible of the English speaking world for the next 350 years. While it is arguably one of the greatest works ever published, it is no longer the best translation of the original text. The primary reason for this is that many more ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts have been discovered in the last 400 years and our understanding of the original languages has significantly developed. Erasmus only had access to a handful of late Greek manuscripts (referred to as the Textus Receptus, closely related to the Majority Text), while almost every other modern translation of the New Testament is based on the Critical Text that takes into account a far larger collection of texts than was available to Erasmus.
At the end of the day, you are not going to run into major doctrinal differences no matter which Bible you read as most of the variations between texts are incredibly minor (just make sure you avoid the New World Translation (NWT) of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as they have intentionally altered Scripture to match their beliefs). The best advice I can give is to choose a Bible which is fit-for-purpose and one that is written in a modern version of the language you speak. Then when you have it, don’t just let it gather dust on the bookshelf, study it, read it, love it and learn more about the God who cares so much about you that he made sure to preserve a copy just for you!
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)