The question, “What Bible translation should I use?” unfortunately has no direct answer, since the question implies that one translation is better than the others in all instances — and that is not accurate. Most modern Bible translations do an adequate job of conveying the ancient text to the modern reader. Nonetheless, there are some important principles that may help us to decide which translations to utilize or, perhaps, to purchase.
Bible translation is difficult. The Scriptures were largely written in Hebrew and Greek (some Aramaic appears in Daniel and Ezra), so translators have the task of rendering texts into English, in our case, from languages that are quite different from ours. They strive to present the meaning of the original text in a way that is accurate and understandable to us.
It is not an option to present a completely literal rendering because that would not truly be a translation. One example should prove this point. John 3:16, a relatively straightforward verse in Greek, would be translated word-for-word into English as follows:
Thus for loved the God the world, so that the Son the one-and-only He gave, in order that every the one-believing in Him not may perish, but might have life eternal.
That’s not much better than this: Orfay odgay osay ovedlay hetay orldway…
All Bible translations fall somewhere on what we might call a translation continuum. On one side of the continuum are the word-for-word translations, such as the King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), and others. These translations do an excellent job of reflecting the wording of the original text, but as a result they may be more difficult to read in English and they may not flow particularly well. On the other side of the continuum are the thought-for-thought (not a perfect characterization) translations, such as the New Living Translation (NLT) and, even further that direction, the Message (MSG). These translations tend to flow well in English and are easy to read, but they introduce a greater level of translational interpretation and bias. Somewhere between these groups of translations are the New International Version (NIV) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
Because translations have different characteristics, it is appropriate to read different translations in different situations. If one is looking to read large chunks of text, or is just beginning to become acquainted with the Bible, the thought-for-thought translations make this easier. If one is looking to do an in-depth Bible study, the word-for-word translations are much more useful. In my opinion, the more periphrastic (thought-for-thought) a translation is, the more dangerous it can be if the reader does not recognize it as a thought-for-thought rendering.
I place a very high value on the specific words of Scripture, and I feel this is biblical (Matthew 5:18), so I suggest that it is best for the average reader to favor the more word-for-word translations. I typically use the ESV because it is very faithful to the original wording of the texts, but it also is readable and somewhat elegant.
One of the wonderful things about modern technology is that it has made multiple Bible versions readily accessible. Thus, you don’t have to pick one version and never consult the others. In fact, consulting multiple versions is often helpful for those who wish to drill down in a text.
What translations do you use? How have you found them to be helpful or not helpful?
Beau Stanley and his wife, Stacey, both grew up in the Columbus area and have been part of Grace Polaris Church for most of their lives. Beau joined the Grace staff in 2007 after theology studies in the Chicago area and in Phoenix (Phoenix Seminary). Prior to that, he studied commerce (University of Virginia) and worked in the financial industry, including a role as an investment banking analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York City. Beau is a fitness enthusiast and also enjoys music and learning about diverse topics. Beau and Stacey have two young boys.