By Craig Branch and Jason Dollar –
How do you know which translation to use in your reading and study of God’s Word? Go to a Christian bookstore and note how many different versions are displayed. Quite a few, right? One may reasonably ask how our Bibles can be inspired and inerrant when we have so many versions that differ in their translations.
Even a cursory investigation will reveal almost 60 popular English versions of the Bible. Aren’t they all translated by imperfect men from the Hebrew and Greek? Do I need to become an expert in Hebrew and Greek to be able to correctly interpret the meaning of the text (perhaps 16 years of intense study)? Or what good would that even do since the expert translators of the various Bibles have obviously still come to different renderings of many texts? With 24,000 different ancient texts and fragments of texts available, which collection of texts are the most reliable for translation, the Textus Receptus of the King James Version or those using the Westcott and Hort text used by the Nestle collection?
Even though these facts stir up the kettle and can produce some anxiety, let me say that these issues are not as problematic as they seem. Most people are happy just trusting in a popular translation, depending on the consensus of a broad spectrum of Christian leadership on the acceptability of these many versions. Even though this attitude is naïve it is still, by and large, safe. But because our deepest relationship to God and our understanding of our calling and life of obedience depends on God’s truth, it is valuable to better understand and appropriately utilize the Bible version landscape.
Bible versions fall into several categories beginning with literal translations. These are the best to use for deeper study of the Bible. The most popular of these has been the historical King James Version which was translated in 1611 from fewer than 25 Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (Textus Receptus) from which the best readings were chosen among variants by majority rule. The KJV certainly has a long and respected history, but there have been over 5,000 texts discovered since then, many much older and closer to the originals, which have demonstrated some textual and translation errors in the KJV. Also the language of the KJV, though beautiful, is a bit archaic.
Within the literal category there is still a wide range of choices. On one side of the spectrum is what linguists call a “formal equivalence” translation. On the other side is the “dynamic equivalence” translation. Formal equivalence versions tend to follow as closely as possible a more literal word-for-word translation while attempting to capture the meaning of the words. For example, a futuristic translator interpreting the newspaper quote “Cowboy football is on the air” might write, “The Dallas Cowboys football team is playing, and it is being broadcast on television.”
The New American Standard Version (NASB) is a formal equivalence translation that demonstrates a high degree of accuracy. More recently (2005) the English Standard Version (ESV) was released presenting solid literal accuracy, but where the structure was awkward the translators sought to make clarity of expression and literacy excellence high priorities.
Another excellent study Bible of the formal equivalence genre is The Amplified Bible that supplies synonyms and explanations to bring out shades of meaning that word-for-word translations often cannot do.
In the “dynamic equivalence” category, the most popular Bible is the New International Version (NIV). The translators tried to preserve the original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek, but utilized more contemporary vocabulary. Dynamic equivalence translators often think that on occasion a literal rendering would miss the true meaning of the text. For example, in German, Ich habe dich gern is literally, “I have you willingly.” But it actually means, “I like you.” Many conservatives have recently criticized the NIV for releasing arguably gender-neutral editions (Such as the TNIV).
Another category of “translation” is called paraphrase. In a paraphrase, a translator attempts to cast the text so that it can be understood in contemporary language, but does not feel constrained to render a word-for-word or even a dynamic translation. Instead, he seeks to convey the gist of what the original said in his own words. Examples would be The Good News Bible, the Living Bible, and The Message. These should only be used in a supplemental way – not serious study.
Finally, there are Study Bibles (available in a variety of versions) that contain brief notes and commentaries by scholars. These can be very helpful depending on the soundness and scholarship of the contributors. We highly recommend the Geneva Study Bible (Reformation Study Bible).
If the subject of Bible translation interests you, we recommend reading The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation by Jack P. Lewis (Baker) and Words About the Word, by John R. Kohlenberger III, (Zondervan).
Bible Study Tools
Here is a list of other recommended Bible Study aids available at your local Christian bookstore or online at places like Christian Book Distributors (cbd.com).
Bible Dictionaries. These resources attempt to define words and concepts found in the Bible in order to help the reader understand key biblical terms and Bible backgrounds. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words is popular and helpful as well as the more recent Holman Bible Dictionary.
Bible Encyclopedias. Offering more detailed articles than a dictionary, Bible encyclopedias give details about people, places, and events in the Bible. Try The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5 Volumes. By the way, look for Bible encyclopedias in software form or online and save a lot of money.
Concordances. A concordance lists the occurrences of biblical words for easier topical study. Computer versions of concordances can be found free online (biblegateway.com). If you want a book version, Stong’s Exhaustive Concordance is the most popular.
Bible Handbooks. Bible handbooks provide a brief overview of every book in the Bible. They provide a helpful companion to reading the Bible as they serve to restate and briefly interpret the biblical text. Halley’s Bible Handbook and the New Unger’s Bible Handbook are recommended.
Commentaries. Bible commentaries are detailed written examinations usually of an entire biblical book. There are many great commentaries available, some free online (studylight.org). Because commentaries can be expensive, it pays to be wise with your investments. Pastor and theologian John MacArthur has written many New Testament commentaries that provide solid biblical exposition and that are usually highly recommended. Also consider the Tyndale Old and New Testament Commentary series.
Atlases. A Bible atlas provides detailed maps showing the geography and political divisions of the lands mentioned in the Bible. Sometimes the study of an atlas can shed much light on particular biblical texts. The Holman Bible Atlas not only provides maps but also rich discussions of how geography affects interpretation.
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