Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Reading the Bible -- Part III: Choosing the Right Translation

For parts I & II of this series click on the links, below:
Part I
(click here)
Part II
(click here)

If you have ever participated in a Bible Study, the following experience will probably seem familiar to you:

The leader asks you to turn to a particular passage, which you find after some searching. The leader then asks a member of the group to read the passage. As you follow along, it becomes clear to you that you have must have turned to the wrong passage as the reader seems to be reading from a different text altogether. However, you occasionally pick up on some similarities in the text you have in front of you. You begin to realize that you haven’t turned to the wrong page – it just seems like you are reading from different Bibles.

Well, you are; at least from different translations. Choosing the right translation, in accordance with your intentions and goals in reading Scripture can make all the difference.

A Plethora of Translations

When purchasing a new Bible it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of translations on the market. They are known almost exclusively by acronyms: KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NiRV, TNIV, ESV, ASB, NASB, etc. Why are there so many different translations? As a former bookseller, I feel I must let you in on a little secret: Selling Bibles is a business. Bible publishers will promote their own particular translations because they want to capture your business. Do we need this many Bible translations? Probably not, and yet, every couple of years a new translation comes along and it will receive plenty of publicity. It will likely be a decent translation, but for it to be of any use it is important to understand for whom it is translated and intended and what are its goals as new translation. Historically, individual denominations have often favoured their own, or particular, translations. For example, until the Revised Version was introduced in the 1880’s, the translation used by most Anglicans was the King James Version of 1611. It was known as the “Authorised” version because it had been authorized by James I for use in the English Church. In recent years, various translations have emerged as the result of ecumenical collaborations with the hope that broad numbers of Christians will read from the same translation. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) and its descendent, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are the work of a mainstream ecumenical translation team. The New International Version (NIV) is also the work of an ecumenical committee, but one of a more evangelical/conservative nature. Translations such as these are generally meant to serve several purposes simultaneously. First, they will have a certain literary cadence that lends to edifying public reading (i.e., The Scripture as read in a liturgy or worship service). Secondly, they will strive for understandability so that the average churchgoing person can understand the text, reading and studying it either individually or in groups. Thirdly, the translation will be a fairly reliable, literal translation enabling scholars, students and preachers to use the text for in-depth study and accurate exegesis.

The “Original Text”

As we consider the plethora of translations available today, it is important to consider “what,” exactly, the text is being translated from. This will come as a surprise to many, but there exists no “original” text of the Bible. What we have are thousands of fragments (some large, containing large portions of Scripture; some small, containing only a few lines of Scripture) from a variety of different eras. Textual scholars collate (compare) the material (largely Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts for the Old Testament, and mainly Greek manuscripts for the New Testament) and using a variety of scholarly criteria “decide” on what seems to be closest to what the original text might have been. For example, for the New Testament, most translators use an edited Greek text known as UBS4/NA27. This is not to say that the translators are bound to the editorial decision of the textual editors; indeed, they often choose textual variants that seem “better” to them. Some translation committees go back and start from the beginning and establish their own Hebrew and Greek text. In any case, you will begin to see where some translation differences emerge. A good translation will alert you to some of the controversies over what was actually in the original text by providing a footnote for what we call “textual variants.” Such a footnote might read, “some early manuscripts read … (insert variant).” For a good example, turn to the end of the Gospel of St. Mark, which has several alternate endings, and examine the footnotes!

Formal Correspondence and Dynamic Equivalence

Formal Correspondence and Dynamic Equivalence are terms used to identify the “translation philosophy” of the version. Formal Correspondence might be better understood as “literal” or “word-for-word,” (inasmuch as such a thing is possible when translating from one language to another), while Dynamic Equivalence might be better understood as “thought-for-thought” or “meaning-for-meaning.” These two terms represent two ends of a broad spectrum. Thus, any given translation will exist somewhere along the spectrum (and may contain elements of both). For example, the King James Version (KJV) is a literal translation (although using language common to A.D. 1611), while the Good News Bible (or Today’s English Version – TEV) is very much a thought-for-thought translation. The difference is that in the former, the translators will attempt to translate words and phrases into English in quite strict terms, within the realm of what makes sense as a recognizable sentence in the English language; while in the latter, the translators are less concerned with getting every world translated directly, but in capturing (with accuracy) the essence of the sentence or phrase.

Hear is a select list of several translations under each category with date of first publication (with their acronyms in brackets):

Formal Correspondence:
King James Version, or The Authorized Version (KJV), 1611
New King James Version (NKJV), 1982
Revised Standard Version (RSV), 1952
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), 1985
New International Version (NIV), 1983
New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), 1985

Dynamic Equivalence:
The Jerusalem Bible (JB), 1966
New English Bible (NEB), 1970
Good News Bible, or Today’s English Version (GNB/TEV), 1976
Revised English Bible (REB), 1989
Contemporary English Version (CEV), 1995


Another class, moving even further beyond Dynamic Equivalence (thought-for-thought), is the paraphrase. Eugene Peterson’s The Message falls in this group. It goes beyond thought-for-thought in that he actually translates ancient idioms into modern idioms. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son in St. Luke’s Gospel, “killing the fatted calf” becomes, “you have ordered a feast – barbequed beef!” Obviously, such versions can help us understand some of the difficult ancient idioms of the original text, but begin to veer, in significant ways, away from the original text. They might be read profitably alongside a reputable literal translation, but I would discourage their regular use as your only Bible version. Another favourite in this category (but now somewhat dated) is J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English. The selling point of paraphrases is also their major handicap. In trying to capture ancient ideas in modern idiom, the question emerges, “whose modern idiom?” Idiom is such a geographic and cultural phenomenon. And even more significantly, “modern idiom” is prone to rapid change.

Reading Level

In terms of reading level, not all translations are equal. Generally, Formal Correspondence (word-for-word) translations such as the NRSV, RSV, KJV are read profitably by people who have completed a high school education, but may prove difficult for younger readers, those who have trouble reading, and newcomers to the English language. Generally, Dynamic Equivalent (thought-for-thought) translations, such as The Good News Bible and the CEV may be read profitably by those for whom the task of reading presents more of a challenge. These are not hard and fast rules, but should be taken into consideration.

The Public Reading of Scripture

The liturgical context may well dictate the kind of translation used in the public reading of Scripture (i.e., in the liturgy or worship services), but in many cases, and certainly in Anglicanism, the public reading of Scripture is “robed in ceremony.” Thus, Formal Correspondence (word-for-word) translations have generally been the order of the day in choosing a Bible to be read in Church. The NRSV has achieved widespread acceptance (as a descendent of the KJV and RSV) and seems to be the translation of choice for mainstream Protestants. Roman Catholics tend to favour two of their own translations, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB). Evangelical Protestants have widely accepted the New International Version (NIV) with some using the New King James Version (NKJV), the latter being a version of questionable translation philosophy. For most Anglicans, owning an NRSV will allow an individual who is charged with reading Scripture as part of the liturgy an opportunity to practice ahead of time as well as the ability to engage in edifying personal and group study.

In conclusion, having a few different translations on your shelf will help significantly in broadening your understanding of the biblical text. Having one or two Bibles of each class will allow you to compare difficult passages in your personal or group study. Good Parallel Bibles, which contain a number of translations in parallel columns, can also be helpful (but difficult to read due to the small nature of the print).

I hope that this short series has been helpful in your quest for the right Bible. Please feel free to contact me with further questions or comments. email:

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.


Nacho Average Race Team said...

Thanks for "choosing the right Translation" I always know there was something bothersome about "the message", but was never able to articulate this in a meaningful why to mature Christians the church I attend. As a rule I use the KJV with an NIV as the old standby when my "old English" fails me.

peter said...

Would you please explain a bit more about the "questionable translation philosophy" underlying the NKJV? It's not my preferred version, but with the publication of the Orthodox Study Bible it's the one I use when leading Bible study with our youth.

The Rev. Daniel Francis Graves said...


I'll have to go back and check the specifics in my notes and a few sources. This was something that I looked into several years ago back when I was in the book business. I don't want to give a detailed answer without refreshing my memory but I *THINK* it might have something to do with a propensity toward the Textus Receptus. My turn of phrase "questionable" might be a bit out of turn if someone believes the TR to be an (or THE) inspired textual family. I certainly do not think this is the case, but I am aware that some denominations claim this. So that's where I think I was going with that train of thought... but I will confirm in more detail in the near future.

peter said...

Thanks for the reply, Fr. Dan. If it was just the TR issue, then don't trouble yourself unduly. One interesting development is the new translation of the Old Testament prepared by a collection of Orthodox scholars. It's taken the NKJV text as the base, and corrected it against the Septuagint as necessary. Naturally, texts such as Tobit and Judith have been translated anew.