The Single Best Bible Translation

Growing up, my parents had me bring my Bible to church every Sunday.

And my Bible was all decked out.

I had one of those leather zipper cases with the slits to store your pen and highlighter. Months worth of half-sheet sermon note pages were stuffed in the back. The thing probably weighed about 7 pounds.

Now I just use my phone.

But the particular translation inside that leather case was entirely determined by my dad’s traumatic childhood experiences. He grew up in a time when just about the only accepted translation of the Bible was the Old King James Version. He struggled through thee’s and thou’s, always feeling frustrated that he could never understand God’s word.

In the 1990s, when he discovered the New International Version, he was grieved that it had first released in 1978. He just never knew about it. For years, he had no idea a more readable version existed or could exist. So when he finally got his hands on the NIV, he read the entire Bible in mere months. He couldn’t believe that “they finally put the Bible in English!”

So I grew up reading the NIV. We were an NIV household.

But which Bible translation is the best one? Which translation is most faithful to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic? Which translation is most accurate to the message God wrote for us?

The answer, as it turns out, is not that simple.

There are many great translations of the Bible. But that doesn’t mean that all translations are created equal.

Different Translations Have Different Purposes.

Not every translation is rendered with the same goal in mind.

Scholars make decisions about how they will translate with two things in mind: (1) accuracy to the original sentence structure and grammar, and (2) readability. Achieving both of these goals perfectly is impossible.

So different kinds of translations lean more toward one goal or the other based on their translation philosophy. There are a couple different schools of translation.

Formal Equivalence.

A formal equivalence, sometimes called a word-for-word, tries to keep the sentence structure as close to intact as possible. Which is great, because you can see something closer to the original word order and grammar structure in your English translation.

The only problem is that a language like Greek structures its sentences differently than English. One professor once told me, “When you look at a Greek sentence, it’s as though someone took an English sentence and threw a grenade at it.” Meaning, all the words are out of order. As a result, the English reading can feel a bit clunky in a formal equivalence.

Great for studying, sometimes difficult to read casually.

Examples of formal equivalence translations include the King James (KJV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

Dynamic Equivalence.

A dynamic equivalence, sometimes called a thought-for-thought, smooths out some of the roughness that comes along with the word-for-word. It rearranges the word order and interprets some of the grammar, so that it ends up reading in more natural-feeling English. It’s strength is readability.

It’s drawback is that, in order to make it readable, the translators need to make interpretive decisions that not every single scholar will necessarily agree with.

But don’t get too much anxiety about that.

Any good dynamic translations of the Bible will never lead you into some unorthodox theology. Every translation is prayerfully undertaken by a team of scholars who scrutinize every decision. But you are choosing to trust their interpretations on some of the really nuanced grammatical analysis.

Examples of dynamic equivalence translations include the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT).

Translations like the English Standard Version (ESV) and the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) seek to strike a balance between formal and dynamic equivalence, whereas the NIV and NLT are more dynamic.

Paraphrase.  

I throw this one in here with a caveat. A paraphrase is not a translation of the Bible per say. It seeks to take the central message of a passage and really draw it out into modern language and thought structure. It can be very dynamic in bringing the text to life in a modern world. But it is not very accurate to every detail of the original text.

So while a paraphrase is helpful as an introduction to biblical truth, I wouldn’t recommend it for any heavy studying.

An example of a paraphrase is Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible.

Bottom Line: The Best Translation is the One You’ll Read.

If you decide to prayerfully open a Bible, read it, and apply its truths to your life, you’ve made a good decision. You’ve also made a decision that few Christians (even longtime, committed Christians) choose to make. 

The good news is that we have options. So use whichever translation works best for you in this current season of your life.

Read Your Favorite.

For my dad, Old King James is not his favorite. He can’t bear to get through it. His current favorite is the NLT, because it’s the easiest for him to understand. While most of my childhood memory verses are in NIV, I currently use the ESV most often.

But you don’t have to use what I’m using. Read whichever version God is currently using to speak to your heart. No need to feel self-conscious about that.

Read More Than One.

Bear in mind that interpretation begins with the translation itself. No two languages are able to translate perfectly word-for-word, and scholars need to make determinations about how to render an idea.

Even formal equivalence translators need to make interpretive decisions for us in order to render the Bible into English.

But that isn’t to say that you’ll never understand what the Bible says if you don’t spend years of your life learning Greek and Hebrew like I have.

When we come to a difficult passage, we can look at a few different translations to give us a better grasp of the idea. Sometimes that’s all you need to get the meaning. Other times, we can also go to Bible commentaries to help clear up any confusion.

Additionally, if you’ve been reading from one translation for a number of years, you might decide to change it up. Start a new plan with a different translation. It’s amazing what you’ll see that you did notice before. God will use it to grow your faith.

We Have No Excuse Not To Read The Bible.

Seriously. Like zero excuse.

That’s the upshot of all this. In generations past, personal quiet time was not even in the realm of possibility. Most people in the church couldn’t even read. And if they could, they certainly didn’t own their own copy of the Bible. They had to rely on a priest or pastor to read it to them.

Today, we have unprecedented access to God’s Word, in whichever translation helps us understand it best. On a phone app, in our pocket. And we have incredible study tools at the tips of our fingers. Online, for free. Just google it.

We have no excuse not to have our lives saturated by the Scriptures. Too often, our worldview is informed more by Netflix and YouTube than the Bible.

Spend more time in God’s Word, whichever translation you choose. God will meet you there!

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