I first wrote this article a few years ago for New Horizons, a feature for young people looking at Christian undergraduate education. It has disappeared from the digital world, so I thought I’d post it again, slightly updated.
Finding a Bible of your own can be a daunting task. Walk into a Christian bookstore and you are confronted by hundreds of choices. So many different sizes, features and translations—enough to dizzy the mind and discourage any soul searcher.
So how do you find the right Bible for you when you are ready to ditch your grade three children’s Bible or move on from the dusty King James Bible your grandparents use to use?
Two Paths Diverged in the Library
One of the reasons there are so many choices is because there are different ways of approaching the translation of the ancient texts. Mostly, there are two kinds of translations that sit on either end of a spectrum: literal and dynamic equivalent.
The literal translation seeks to translate word for word from the manuscripts. A more literal approach is helpful for studying Scripture when you don’t know the original languages—which is most of us!
A dynamic equivalence approach isn’t translating word for word, but phrase for phrase or thought for thought. The importance of this approach is to capture the essence of what is being said and describe it authentically in English.
Every language is different. You know what I mean when I say, “What’s up?” But translate that into French or Japanese, and it doesn’t make any sense. Instead, in those languages you might say “Comment allez vous?” or “Genki desu ka?” And if you translated that Japanese phrase literally into English, it would mean, “Are you feeling energetic and vigorous?” An odd thing to ask a person when you are getting on a bus.
Since there are different approaches and different versions, let’s explore some of them to help you make your choice.
A Wooden Desk and a Notebook
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) has been a popular choice of literal translations for a generation. It sticks close to the text and tries to maintain word order, even if there are a few awkward phrases here or there. It is a great go-to Bible for studying Scripture seriously. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is literal like the NASB, but it is not as strict on word order, so is a little more readable.
The recently released English Standard Version (ESV) combines the poetry of the King James Bible and the literal phrasing of the NASB, but is still very much understandable and readable today. The ESV has the distinction of creating a formal, yet very approachable translation for people in high school or college. Interestingly, unlike a number of recent translations (NRSV, TNIV & NLT below), the ESV does not use gender-inclusive language when referring to people.
A Comfy Chair and a Cup of Joe
In the last century there were a number interesting paraphrases of Scripture. From the Cotton Patch Bible, which put Jesus’ stories in the context of the segregated South, to the Living Bible in everyone’s mid-century library, these Bibles were a great way of creating discussions and bringing Bible meaning into a new light.
No recent paraphrase, though, has been as popular and convincing as the Message. Written in view of the original texts by Christian spiritual director, Eugene Peterson, it is impressively conversational. Most editions drop the verse numbers, and present the text like a novel. The Message makes for a fantastic bedside reading Bible.
For those who want a readable, thought-for-thought version that is a more serious translation, the New Living Translation (NLT) commends itself on all accounts. It is easy to read, but captures the essence of the text accurately. It also comes in an array of student versions and study versions, and is my handheld Bible of choice.
The Best of Both Worlds?
Is there a way, though, to get a literal translation that uses the English we speak today? This desire for a translation that does everything may be why the New International Version (NIV) has become so popular.
The NIV was made by a committee of evangelicals in the seventies. It tries to capture the essence of today’s language but is still a pretty conservative translation. This is why you’ll more often than not see an NIV in a Christian home or church pew.
With time, English changes and moves on. As much as I love my large-print, leather NIV, there are some places where the translation could be improved and the language updated. The recently released revamp of the NIV in 2011 is a good improvement on the NIV. If your church or Bible study uses the NIV, you can still read along easily in the TNIV, but you have the advantage of a version that takes seriously the original text and this generation’s culture.
The Choice For You?
With on average a new major English translation every year for the last century, the choice can be difficult. But these descriptions should help you find the Bible you’ll absolutely love to read. And who knows, maybe someday one of your kids will dig up your dusty NIV, ESV or NLT from the attic, and you’ll be able to tell them about the years of encouragement you received from God’s word.