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Bible Translations - Which is Best?

Offered to the Body of Jesus Christ, 2005-13
by David W. Eckman at lordslaw.com

As anyone who has tried to select a Bible has quickly learned, there are many different translations of the Bible in English. But how is one to make the selection? Which translation is the best? Unfortunately, that question does not have a simple answer. Those in a hurry for the answer can skip to the section titled "Which is best?", and those interested in the Bible's history as a written record can read the following information.


Background

The word "Bible" originates in the Greek biblos (books), meaning that what most people consider one book actually consists of many separate writings or "books", written at different times and places. Christians and Jews often refer to the books as the Holy Scriptures (the holy writings), but differences exist between what I will refer to as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible.

For the Hebrew Bible, Jewish leaders and scholars (and perhaps Israelite leaders before them) collected the books that they regard as Holy Scriptures into three parts: The Law (also called "Torah" and "Pentateuch"), the Prophets, and the Writings, indicating each part's descending order of authority. Christians familiar only with the Christian Bible would be surprised to find 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ruth and Daniel in the Writings along with Ezra and Nehemiah.

Christian leaders and scholars have likewise collected the books they regarded as Holy Scriptures. They included the Hebrew Bible as the "Old Testament". They collected writings about Jesus, some letters, and a prophetic revelation in the "New Testament". The sequence of the writings in the Old Testament differs from that of the Hebrew Bible: While the Christian Old Testament begins with the same books as the Hebrew Bible, it groups those that Christians regard as historical toward the front, with poetic books in the middle, and prophetic books at the end. Unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Christian arrangement has nothing to do with the books' relative authoritative value.

Regardless of the differences between the collections, translation into the common language of the people has always been an important part of the Bible's history.


Original languages

The oldest existing written versions of the Hebrew Bible are written mostly in Hebrew, with portions (such as portions of Daniel and Ezra) recorded in Aramaic or Chaldean (Babylon's language). Each of those was the common language when and where the portion was recorded. After the conquest of the middle east by Alexander the Great, Greek became the common language across the area dominated by Greece. During the 3rd century before Jesus, Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, apparently so that Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew, as well as others, could read or hear the books in their own language. Called the "Septuagint" (because 70 scholars worked on it), modern translators have used it to help understand the Hebrew version as it existed at that time and to fill gaps in the Hebrew text that has come down to the present.

The Hebrew text regarded as most authoritative is called the "Masoretic" text. That text is itself partly a translation in that it adds vowels in the form of notations to help pronounce and differentiate the words which were originally written entirely with consonants. Modern translators have used it for English translations, supplemented by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint and fragments found in various locations over the centuries.

The oldest manuscripts of the Christian writings or books are mostly in a type of Greek called koine (or "common"), with some in Aramaic and other languages used at the time. While portions of the Christian writings, such as Paul's letters, almost certainly originated in Greek, we do not know the original language of others. Nor do we know what language Jesus spoke. Some believe it was Aramaic, the common language of the region, but since koine Greek was widely spoken after Alexander the Great, Jesus most likely spoke that also. And his familiarity with the Hebrew Bible, along with his being addressed as "Rabbi", indicates that he very likely spoke Hebrew as well. Some who have studied this aspect of the Bible's transmission, such as some in the eastern branch of Christianity, referred to as "Orthodox", believe that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and even other books were actually written in Aramaic before being translated into Greek. Whether that is true, early manuscripts in Aramaic (called "Syriac" in the western Church) can help resolve some difficulties presented by the Greek version. For example, the Aramaic Peshitta uses a word translated "wicked" in Rom. 5:7 where the Greek for "righteous" appears. In addition, the passages in which Jesus speaks about a "camel" passing through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) make better sense if Jesus actually used the Aramaic word for rope (kamel) rather than the Greek word for camel (kamelos). Since that could reflect an error in translation of spoken rather than written language, it does not necessarily mean that the original transcription was in Aramaic, but it helps with understanding a problematic verse. Anyone wanting to study the Aramaic connection further can find information in Wikipedia.

During the first few centuries after Jesus, disputes arose over which of numerous Christian writings qualified as "holy", that is, which had sufficient authority to be relied on by the faithful. Lists compiled by different leaders and scholars identified many of the same writings, but a small number of books listed by one would be omitted by another. Finally, church overseers (Greek episkopos, translated "bishops" by some), led by the Holy Spirit, reached agreement on which books had sufficient authority to be relied on for transmission of the faith. These are the books in the Christian Bible that is commonly accepted around the world today.


Translations

After Jesus' time, Latin gradually replaced Greek as the common language of the Roman Empire, and although there had been prior efforts at translations into Latin, so that people could read or hear the writings in their own language, Jerome compiled the first major translation of the Bible into Latin. Jerome's translation, called "the Vulgate" from the Latin vulgaris ("common people"), was used for early English translations, and many translators still regard it as a valuable aid in their work. The western branch of Christianity, headquartered in Rome, used the Vulgate as their translation for several centuries, while the eastern, Orthodox churches continued to use the Greek and Aramaic versions, among others.

After the demise of the Roman Empire in the west during the 5th century, Latin gradually gave way to the languages of the peoples who were accepting Christianity, and people no longer understood Latin readings from the Bible. So during the second half of the first millenium after Jesus' birth, various individuals translated portions of the Christian writings into the common languages of the people, for which some paid with their lives.

English translations of portions of the Bible began to appear in the latter half of the first millenium, but the first major translation into the common language of the English people was prepared by John Wycliffe during the 14th century. He used the Latin Vulgate rather than versions in the original languages. During the next two centuries, other translations followed, among them those of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale and the "Geneva Bible", which John Calvin influenced. Then in 1611, the King James Version ("KJV"), also called the "Authorized Version", appeared and dominated among English-speaking Christians until the early 20th century.

During the 20th century, many more English translations began to appear, partly to correct what some perceived as errors in the KJV and partly to take into account ancient copies of various writings (sometimes called "manuscripts") that had been found or become available for study during the intervening years. But primarily, they sought to transmit the Bible in modern English, the common language. People no longer speak King James English and have trouble understanding its archaic words. Because the various manuscripts use different words in places and omit passages included in others, translators must choose which manuscript to use in compiling the version of the "original" to be translated. The proliferation of different compilations during the past century accounts for some of the differences between translations. Another important factor in translating involves the multiple meanings and uses that words in the original language conveyed. This requires the translator to discern which meaning the recorder intended. In addition, articles (e.g., "a" and "the"), pronouns and other words may be omitted from the text, but inserting them helps to convey what the translator believes the recorder intended. Even the most literal translations, therefore, are not literally literal. An interlinear translation comes closest on that score.

Today we have an incredible variety of English translations. In fact, we have a version for literally every level of education and familiarity with the Bible. Some of these attempt almost literal, word-for-word, translation from the available manuscripts, considered "original" texts because of their age and authority. Beginners and those who might find these translations difficult to read and study, can read more colloquial translations, some of which go so far as to give what the translator considers the sense of the text in words quite different from the literal translation. These latter versions are properly called transliterations, because they do not attempt to translate so much as interpret or explain: in other words, they contain what the "translator" believes the original recorder or author was trying to say, which then leaves little room for other interpretations. They can prove helpful if you are reading a difficult passage and want help getting at least one person's idea of what the passsage means.

Finally, we come to the question raised in the title.


Which is best?

Which is the best Bible translation, at least in English? The answer is: It depends. There really is no "best". What you may choose depends on your comfort with the version and what you want from it. I am familiar with many translations and some transliterations, but certainly not knowledgeable enough to address all. Whatever authority I have in this area comes from several decades of studying the Bible with the help of several reference works. But from that background, I will offer some suggestions.

If you have never read the Bible or have difficulty reading (and what I've written here will tell you if you're in that category), I recommend either The Good News for Modern Man (published by The American Bible Society) or The Living Bible (published by Tyndale House Publishers). Both are more transliteration than translation, but I prefer them to the more recently published The Message (by Eugene H. Peterson), which is more a transliteration or interpretation than the others and no easier to read in my mind.

If you have some familiarity with the Bible and no difficulty reading it but are not yet ready for detailed study, I recommend the New International Version ("NIV") (published by International Bible Society). Several other translations present themselves in this category that are worth considering, including the Revised Standard Version, The New English Bible, The Holman Bible, and the New Jerusalem Bible. For personal reasons, I cannot recommend such translations as the New Revised Standard Version and Today's New International Version.

If you have read the Bible at least once and want to study it carefully, I recommend the New American Standard Bible ("NASB") (published by The Lockman Foundation). Take a look also at The NET Bible, published by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C (Bible.org), which provides excellent translation and other notes and can be downloaded for free. You can also try the New King James Version ("NKJV"), an update that takes into account recent discoveries and replaces archaic words used in the original KJV, making it easier to understand and study than the KJV. If you'd like an app for your mobile device, I highly recommend the one published by YouVersion.com, which works on many devices and includes many different translations. The NASB has many qualities that make it particularly valuable to me besides its highly literal approach. For example, it italizes words that the translators have supplied to help understand what they believe the originals mean, brackets verses or portions of verses not in the manuscripts relied on by the translators, capitalizes "LORD" to indicate where the divine name "YHWH" appears in the original, and capitalizes Old Testament passages in the New Testament. And I was able to find one with lots of "white" space for making notes (published by Foundations Publications, Inc., Anaheim CA 92816).

However, I'd like to see an even more literal approach. For example, instead of following the KJV use of "the LORD", I'd like to see YHWH or YHVH, the name of the one true, living God worshipped by Jews and Christians alike. I'd also like to see the Hebrew words elohim, eloah, and el rather than the way they are translated ("God", "gods", "mighty ones", etc.). I'd like to see the Hebrew word torah rather than "law": its meaning (instruction, guidance and direction, as well as law) is too rich for effective translation and too important to use only one word to translate it. A margin note with an appendix explanation could explain its meaning and significance. I'd also like to see a distinction made between the Greek words zoe ("life" as a spiritual concept) and bios (biological life). I'd like to see an accurate translation of the Greek words agape (unselfish, unconditional love) and phileo (friendship, affection, conditional love), which makes a tremendous difference, for example, in understanding the exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17. You can look at it in The Living Bible to see what I mean. I'd also like to see transition words like "then" and "now" only when they appear in the original. And I'd like nongender personal pronouns for individuals clearly indicated. Such pronouns appear in the Bible manuscripts but do not exist in English. If they were clearly indicated, I could assess their significance in a particular context. I'm not satisfied with using "he", "his" or "him" for such pronouns, and I'm also not satisfied with "he or she", "his or her", and "him or her", even though that would be accurate. In my own writings, I've begun to use "they", "them" and "their" in that context, although not strictly correct grammar. In "The Name of the One True, Living God", I offer further reasons for a more literal translation. As you might suspect from this critique of my favorite translation, no translation satisfies all my requirements, so I've settled for the one that meets them best.


What else?

Regardless of the translation or transliteration you choose, I recommend getting one that provides margin notes or footnotes and cross-references, maps, a lexicon and concordance. I can't help in this area, because my library and the Internet provide me enough study aids that my Bible just needs lots of "white space" for my own margin notes. My first study Bible was a "Ryrie", and I found it very helpful, but I could not recommend it today. The publication that I currently use does include those features, and I'm still very happy with it after several years.

If you are going to do more thorough study and want to build a library, consider a complete concordance for the translation you have chosen. It should have a lexicon in it. Strong's Concordance for the KJV is excellent, but you'll need a KJV Bible to see what words are used in it when you want to look something up in the version you may be using. Or you can purchase an app for your mobile device that contains Strong's Concordance: For the iPhone and iPad, I highly recommend the version by Orion System, which includes the KJV. A Bible dictionary is also valuable. One of the best I've ever used is the Dictionary of the Bible by John L. McKenzie, S.J. (1965, The Bruce Publishing Company). Unfortunately, it appears to be out of print, but you might find one at a used book store, or on eBay.com, or through Amazon.com. A Bible atlas will help if, like me, you take an interest in the geographical references and how they fit into the records. When you can afford it, I also recommend an interlinear translation, at least of the New Testament. You'll see what I mean about that exchange between Jesus and Peter if you didn't look at it in The Living Bible. I also recommend a word study dictionary to help understand the languages of the original, which often leads to fascinating and exciting discoveries in the Bible. Finally, I recommend subscribing to Biblical Archaelogy Review magazine despite some of the minimalist nonsense that appears in its issues. You can also find helpful information at the Christian History web site and others like it. And, of course, you will find numerous materials published at LordsLaw.com that can enrich and encourage you in your walk as a Christian. I urge you to spend some time looking at them. We are truly blessed with an ncredible amount of information on the Internet.

For those who like digital material, you will find some fine Bibles and reference works to add to your desktop or laptop, such as the Net Bible, mentioned above, and a fine and affordable collection by WordSearch. For those using smart phones and tablets, you can find several helpful "apps". I'm familiar only with apps for iPhone and iPad. Among the Bible apps that I like are YouVersion, which includes the NASB, the Net Bible of course, WordSearch, and the Blue Letter Bible. I also found a version of Strong's Concordance (by orionsys.org) that includes a lexicon and which I rated 5-star for its layout, thoroughness and ease of use.

Personally, I've never found Bible commentaries much help, so I can't recommend them. Perhaps having so many other aids has effectively given me a commentary. What helps me more than any commentary is a method for reading from the Old Testament and the New Testament every day such that every pass through the Bible results in reading different portions of each with the other. And most important of all, I ask the Holy Spirit to help me understand what's written and what he wants me to know about it. Jesus promised that he would teach us and guide us (John 14:26, 16:13). And he does if we ask him and receive his help.

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*YHWH or YHVH is the English representation of the four Hebrew letters that spell the name of the God of the Bible, the one true, living God worshipped by Jews and Christians. YHWH was the name by which he identified himself to Moses in Ex. 3:14. According to references that I've read, the exact pronunciation of YHWH's name was lost in antiquity. After much study, I prefer to pronounce the name "Yahu-wah" (the "h" being aspirated as in "hay", emphasis on the last syllable), but the generally accepted pronounciation in common English is "Yah-weh" or "Yah-way". Some translations of the Bible, such as the KJV and NASB, substitute "the LORD" for his name, following a practice begun before Jesus' birth.

YHWH revealed himself in various ways to the children of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. He also revealed himself in and through his son Jesus Christ and acts, among other ways, in and through Christians by the Holy Spirit. Because the word "God" is being used today to designate all kinds of human inventions, although accepted for centuries in English as a name for YHWH, I prefer to use the name that YHWH chose for himself rather than "God" or "the LORD" as I did in early versions of my writings. Please read The Name of the One True, Living God for a fuller discussion.

Remember who He is and whose you are

23.Dec.2005, last rev. 24.Jun.2013