Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

1170196_78561358A question popped up the other day. “If the Bible is the Word of God, which one is the right Bible? Which one – which version – can I trust?” I thought it was a brilliant question, and one that people should ask more often! This person had thought-out one of the problems with having so many versions of the Bible available in English. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many other people have the same question.

In the last hundred years, there has been a huge increase in the number of different translations that are available. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the King James Version was still the standard, at least as far as the public was concerned.. But two things happened. Firstly, Biblical scholarship was helped by the discovery of a lot of different ancient manuscripts. These helped to both confirm the accuracy of what we have now, and to shed better light on the original texts. That in turn enabled translators to make more accurate choices.

Secondly, the nature of the English language itself changed; more and more people needed to learn English – often as a second language – and the flow of 1600’s English (in both grammar and vocabulary) became more obscure. For one famous example, Genesis 25:29 – “and Jacob sod pottage”. To any modern reader, that looks like either a misprint or something pretty horrible. It isn’t.  Today there are Bibles to suit almost any level of literacy, from the very easy-to-read to intermediate, all the way through to the Greek and Hebrew languages themselves (and some don’t even have subtitles!). So now we can read that “Jacob was cooking stew.” Much more pleasant to contemplate than sodding pottage.

But that doesn’t answer the issue completely – if they all claim to accurately translate “from the ancient tongues”, why are there so many different translations? Which is right? And if some are more “right” than others, does this mean that there are any Bibles that are wrong?

To un-complicate a tangled issue, there are several schools of thought used by the various Bible translation groups.

At one end of the scale, there are Bible versions which reach for the closest possible word-for-word accuracy. The translator “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and personal style of each Bible writer.[1] The technical name for this is “formal equivalence”, and the overriding goal is the most precise choice possible for each word.

On the other end of this scale are the Bible versions that attempt to give the reader a thought-for-thought accuracy, where the translator tries to give an accurate account of the sense of the sentence or paragraph as a whole. Sometimes this may mean stepping away from precise word-for-word accuracy. “Since this translation is intended for all who use English as a means of communication, the translators have tried to avoid using words and forms not in current or widespread use[2] – which is where it may lose some of the very fine detail – but the goal is that a reader can understand the complete thought, or concept, with as little trouble as possible. This is known as “functional equivalence“.

Some translation groups deliberately aim for the middle, with the intent of using the best from both camps – this is termed “optimal eqivalence“.

Isn’t it better to have word-for-word accuracy? Logically, yes – if one language could be switched to another, easily, without losing something in the original. Realistically, that’s almost impossible. Different languages have different rules of grammar, and individual words don’t always translate neatly enough for a direct word-for-word translation to easily make sense. For one example, let’s look at a  verse. Mark 1:32-33 is a good enough example. The Greek reads as follows:

 Opsias de genomenairs, hoete edu ho hairlios, epheron pros auton pantas tous kakoes echontas kai tous daimonizomenous. Kai hair holei polis episunairgmenair pros tehn thooran.[3] 

The Greek of the New Testament is an ancient type known as Koine. Which means that you can’t exactly take it to the Greek embassyor the fish-shop for a translation – Koine is a “dead” language, no longer spoken today. So (at least for the exercise) you’ll have to take my word on the translation. The literal word-for-word rendering is: Evening and (but?) having come, when set the sun, they were bringing toward him all those sickness-having and those being-demon-possessed. And was whole the city gathered-together at the door[4].

While that’s… umm, interesting (at least for an academic), it would be pretty taxing to read more than a couple of paragraphs in that style. Reading it aloud in church would be a labour, and it would be just as tortuous for the listener. It obviously makes far more sense to interchange some words, and adjust the word order: That evening, after sunset, all those who were sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered at the door. This would be classed as word-for-word accuracy (even though it isn’t quite word-for-word).

Some people will still find that a clunky sentence. People who are not naturally strong readers, or people who have English as a second language, may find the next sentence more natural to understand: The sick and the demon-possesed were brought to him in the evening, and everyone gathered around the doorway. This would be a translation classed as thought-for-thought. It is far simpler, although it could be argued that – in the effort to make things easier to read – I’ve lost a bit of precision along the way.

Somewhere betwen the two extremes, I could choose to phrase it: After sunset, the sick and demon-possessed were brought to him. And the whole town gathered around the doorway. This is an example of “optimal equivalence” – a good middle ground.

Which is most accurate? That’s a question I’ll leave you to answer. Even the most literal translations can’t use word-for-word, as you can see. Compromises do have to be made so that (once again) people can plainly understand the Word of God, the Bible. But those compromises are small – very small – and in no way result in a Bible that can’t be trusted. Which Bible version is the RIGHT version? The one that you can understand most clearly, the one that you will have no trouble reading through every day.

If you have a high reading level, aiming for a translation that values formal equivalence is a good idea. If your reading level is more street-level, look for a version that tries for the best thought-for-thought translation.  The preface of almost every Bible will have the translator’s aims laid out pretty clearly. Have a read through a few passages.

Simply put, it’s really important to realise this: it’s vital to have a Bible that you can understand. God has chosen to speak to man though the Bible – the Bible is the place  where God tells us what he wants us to know about himself, and it contains all the things we need to learn to be saved from destruction.  You can put trust in any common Bible translation. But it’s imperative that you can comfortably read and understand your Bible. It’s that simple.

[1] Preface, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001. “Translation Philosophy”, p. vii

[2] Preface, Good News Bible, Today’s English Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1976. p.viii

[3] I couldn’t find how to write in Greek on WordPress, so I’ve transliterated from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum GraeceI ed.XXVII. For the sake of simlicity, I’ve spelled phonetically rather than use the normal conventions (again, WordPress limitations).

[4] This translation – and the two following are my own. If you’re a Greek scholar, feel free to offer any suggestions or corrections!

Bible and Cross by Billy Alexander


Elderly Bible by Billy AlexanderThe following is a list of Bible versions that are easily available, either in normal bookshops or in Christian book-stores.

There is no intention to promote one Bible ahead of another, or to discredit any of them. They all have up-sides and down-sides, and they depend on your own reading level, your comprehension ability and your understanding. The best Bible for you is the one that you understand the most clearly. And there’s nothing wrong with having more than one version!

There are brief comments about each version, the publisher’s website (you can often read bigger chunks of that particular translation there) and the date the translation was released. Since most versions of the Bible come in many different formats, shapes, sizes and presentations, I’ve tried to limit my comments purely to the translation itself. There are two exceptions – the Study Bible editions of the New International Version and the English Standard Version.



zz-NIV4    NIV – New International Version: (1984, various publishers)

The New International Version is currently the best-selling Bible translation in the English-speaking world. It has pretty well become the default Bible of most Protestant churches and preachers, and is very widely used as a pew Bible. It is a Bible aimed halfway between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, designed to be accurate and readable at the same time. Largely, the translators succeeded; it is freely used by Scripture teachers and academics alike. It has been produced in a huge range of sizes, with many different study aids available; the Zondervan publishing group has gone to great lengths to “produce a Bible for everybody”. An update is also available – the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) is almost identical, except for a decision to replace some gender-specific words with gender-neutral words (for example, “man” and “men” have been replaced with words such as “people” and “everyone” – but only in places where the original languages allow for this). (the International Bible Society – the original publishers)


The NIV Study Bible was released in 1985. Twenty-five years later, it is still a benchmark for Study Bibles.  Throughout the text of the Bible itself there are 20,000 small study notes which provide extra information. These provide readers with helpful guides to context, background, how passages act as markers to other passages, and can provide an explanation to odd terms (such as Biblical jargon). There are also several essays, a 35,000-entry concordance, timelines and a very extensive cross-reference system. It is very thorough without being overly technical, and is an excellent device for people who wish to start digging more deeply but don’t know where to start. (the largest publisher of the NIV)


 zz-NLTlogo             NLT – New Living Translation: (2004, published by Tyndale)

This is a Bible that is quickly gaining popularity, mainly because it is a very easy-to-read translation. Originally intended as a simple update to another version called the Living Bible, it became a fresh translation in its own right. It is very much a thought-for-thought translation, with the aim to make the language of the Bible as easy to understand as possible. Often its sentences take a rather different form from “traditional” Bibles. Care has still been taken to ensure that the NLT is still a translation with integrity, although it doesn’t have the pin-sharp accuracy that a scholar would require. The NLT is highly recommended for people who struggle with the text of other Bibles they have tried to use. The publisher, Tyndale, has recently introduced a fresh range, including a good study (Life Application) edition.


zz-ESV_logo_LG               ESV – English Standard Version: (2002, Crossway)

One of the most recent all-new Bibles on the market, the ESV aims more toward the “word-for-word” accuracy. It is partly based off a 1952 translation called the RSV (see below). So, although it is a thoroughly modern Bible, it certainly has the “feel” of a much older one – the style of English can often feel like it was produced fifty-eight years ago instead of eight. That can be a minus or a plus. If you are not a very confident reader, it’s easy to get a little lost in it. If you are comfortable with a “high” level of written English, it’s one of the very best translations available. The ESV is rapidly becoming the Bible of choice in many churches – particularly among the conservative evangelical churches, who value as accurate a Bible as possible.


 The publisher, Crossway, has recently released an ESV Study Bible, which is worth a mention in its own right. It’s heavy (2,750 pages!) and it’s not particularly cheap, but it’s one of the most thorough Study Bibles yet released. It utilizes a system of helpful notes throughout the text, and supplies introductory notes at the beginning of each book, extensive concordance / cross-reference system (80,000 entries), over 200 maps throughout, and explanations of Greek and Hebrew words that have importance. Additionally, there is a series of articles which give a very good overview of biblical and systematic theology, Christian ethics, the major doctrines of the Bible, summaries of the major doctrines of the various Christian denominations, and an overview of other religions of the world. These articles provide a condensed introductory theological course in its own right. It is far more in-depth than the NIV Study Bible, but is more of a “working Bible” for preachers, study leaders and readers who require in-depth study. There is also a companion online edition with further resources for the serious student.


CEV - Poverty Justice coverCEV – Contemporary English Version: (1995, American Bible Society)

The CEV is quite similar style to the NLT; it’s an easy-to-read, thought-for-thought translation. One of the advantages with this Bible is that the American Bible Society has produced the core Bible text, and then allowed other Bible Societies to add their own notes and packaging to it. This makes it a very versatile book, with a wide range of readers in mind. Several are geared specifically toward teenagers – and often to specific groups within teen culture (surfers, skaters etc). One other advantage is that the CEV is quite often one of the least expensive, most accessible Bibles on the market. It usually comes with a range of helpful notes and articles.


KJV2KJV – King James Version: (1611, various publishers)

This is the traditional “thee, thou, thine” version of the Bible that, despite the archaic 400-year-old language, is still enormously well-regarded. It’s a sentimental favourite of older people who grew up memorizing its verses. It has a rich history, is one of the most influential books to ever be published, and, right from its release, has had a massive impact on the English language and culture. Passages have carved their way into the consciousness of Western society and its traces are still very much evident in this day. Strangely, it still carries the status of the  authorized version of the Church of England, and British printers do so only with a licence from the Crown. Outside Britain the text is considered a public domain document.

Having noted that, it is important to realize that – aside from the famously popular passages (like the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm) – the KJV is not an easy version to follow at all. Unless you are very comfortable reading Shakespeare or other literature of a similar age, the text is far less accessible than other translations. English words have often changed their meaning over the course of years, and unless one is familiar with older English some phrases may not make themselves clear. Additionally, improvements in scholarship and more recent document discoveries mean that the King James Bible does not benefit from the most accurate textual base. Keeping all this in mind, it is still a beautiful work, is an absolute classic, and has earned its place in the hearts of millions for many years to come.


nkjv1            NKJV – New King James Version: (1982, Thomas Nelson)

The NKJV is very popular in the United States, is often used by Pentecostal preachers and writers, and shares much with the KJV. The New King James Version is primarily based on the same manuscripts as the original 1611 version. Because of this, it also shares the same disadvantages – a lack of access to the most modern scholarship. The aim was to update the grammar and vocabulary whilst still capturing the characteristic “voice” of the older KJV. To this end, it has succeeded. Indeed, it still has that majestic quality of language, which is this version’s biggest strength. The “thee, thou and thine” expressions have been deleted or replaced with their modern equivalents, but the phrasing still holds to the “old classical” feel. The NKJV is, again, not the easiest version to follow unless you are comfortable with an older, more formal style of language.


NASBNASB – New American Standard Version: (1995, Lockman Foundation)

The NASB is arguably the most accurate reproduction of the original languages into English. This, then, is a very literal version – in many places, it works to the limits of English grammar in its pursuit of translational purity. It will attempt to closely follow the sentence structure of the original, and notes where changes in tense have been made to the original (Koine Greek often moves from past-tense to present-tense in ways that make no sense in English), which certainly adds to its accuracy. It is frequently the translation that commentators use as the benchmark for translations, and is often cited in academic-level theological publications. But this level of razor-sharp accuracy comes with one cost; it can make the NASB one of the hardest versions to simply open and read.

Outside of America or academia, this version is not nearly as widely-known, and as a result the range of available Bible types is very limited. In short, it’s not the most accessible Bible, either linguistically or in availability – it would be rare to find the NASB for sale in a bookshop that isn’t Christian-specific. But it is a brilliant reference Bible, an excellent scholar’s tool, and one of the most respected translations.


HCSB logoHCSB – Holman Christian Standard Bible: (2004, Holman Publishers) Again, the Holman is more familiar to Americans while remaining almost completely unknown outside the US. The translators have taken a broadly similar in approach to the NIV and have sought an optimal equivalence approach. The result is said to be slightly more accurate, but the translators also went to great pains to keep the Holman relatively easy to read. As a result, it has become highly regarded by many theological scholars, lecturers and students, and more frequently appears on their “recommended” list.  Like the NASB, there is only a small range available (due to its relative obscurity), but most have excellent foot-notes and cross-references as standard. It would be surprising to see this Bible outside a large Christian bookshop.

Cross and Bible by Billy Alexander

Old BibleRecently I walked into a bookstore in the middle of the city. I love books, and a good bookstore is a treat. This one is monstrous – browsing in here is like being let loose in an ice-cream factory with a tiny teaspoon. In both physical floorspace and range of subjects covered, this bookstore would match (and possibly better) more than a few public libraries.

In one corner was the RELIGIONS section. Considering that this wasn’t a specialist Christian bookseller, I was quite surprised at the variety of Bibles on offer. Leather, vinyl, hardback, clothback, paperback. Pocket-sized slim New Testaments to monsters that weigh more than housebricks. More initials than a Pentagon weapons program – KJV, NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NLT, CEV… also on CD and DVD. Prices ranged from $5 to $250. Study Bibles, “guide” Bibles for men, women, business-people and professionals, high-schoolers, skaters, surfers, athletes. The presentations, translations and applications made for a bewildering range. 

It would be quite easy to view this range with a small measure of cynicism. After all, someone out there is making a handsome profit from selling a book that Christians believe is the very Word of the Living God. It’s a core product, central to the business and marketing strategies of companies like Crossway, Zondervan, Thomas Nelson and a range of others. It’s even available in the Penguin Classics range of literature – sitting in the unusual company of Voltaire, the Koran and Machiavelli. Clearly, there’s some money to be made.

There’s just one thing. Whether you call it “demand” or (even more horrifyingly) a “market”, it is quite clear that people still want Bibles.

People want Bibles!

In Western countries, at least, it’s quite easy to get it for free. Actually, it’s hard to think of a book more publicly, freely, accessible. There are any number of websites that allow one to read and print almost all of the main translations since the Reformation. One freely-downloadable Bible program, e-Sword, includes the 1568 Bishop’s Bible, the 1587 Geneva Bible, the 1889 Darby, the 1899 Douay-Rheims, the Vulgate, a Hebrew Old Testament, a Greek New Testament – not to mention some quite sophisticated research tools. And it’s all free!

And yet, even with the advent of such devices, there’s still a remarkable appetite for a Bible. In print. And if the range of Bibles available in this one city bookstore is a reasonable indication, the Bible-buying public is well-informed, literate and sophisticated in their requirements.

About six months before I began to consider writing this book, the newest version  for release was Crossway’s English Standard Version Study Bible. It’s a hefty book, and it’s not exactly cheap. But it caused an on-line sensation when it was released. Reviews exploded through the blog-sphere, people reviewed it on YouTube (I can honestly say that I’d never considered going to YouTube for Bible-buying advice, but it’s there – and it’s being watched), and once again the debate was re-opened into the title of “the best Bible in the world.”

In a world that appears to be more and more godless, in a world where Christianity seems as though it has been relegated to an out-of-the-way corner-shelf, the simple fact that there is still enormous public demand for the Bible is immensely heartening and encouraging.

May it always be so.

Cross and Bible ba1969 1118020