English Bibles

So let’s talk English Bibles.

There are more “word-for-word” Bibles and there are more “thought-for-thought” Bibles. Technically speaking, the two categories are “Formal Equivalence” (FE) and “Dynamic Equivalence” (DE). The FE translations attempt to preserve the “forms” (e.g. word order, poetic types, grammar, etc.), where as the DE Bibles attempt to determine the meaning to the original audience and then reproduce that dynamic relationship between Author and Original Reader and Translator and Modern Reader. The DE translator seeks to find the “kernel of meaning” and reword it so that the modern reader understands that meaning just as was intended by the Bible author.

The advantage of FE is that the translation process is much more objective and there is not as much room for human error, and the disadvantage of FE translations is that they are written more in Greek style and are not good English.

For something to be a translation in English, it is not always helpful to simply translate the words. As well, words from one language into another never have a 1-to-1 correspondence 100% (or even a majority) of the time.

So this brings up the DE or what some call “paraphrase” Bibles. These seek to look at groups of words and say them how an English speaker would say them. This is how translation should be done, however there is much more subjectivity in this process. After all, if you first have to determine the meaning, what if there is disagreement? Judgment calls have to be made, and no one person is going to be right 100% of the time [not even me 😉 ].

Add to this, not only do we have to get the words right from Greek to English, we also have to account for the current use of the English words. A highly educated lawyer in New York would have a very different vocabulary than a 10 year old in Texas. This cultural divide complicates the issue.

So what’s the best English Bible? I don’t think you can say there is just one.

I think the best approach is to look at a couple of versions from each category, as well as those that attempt to be a “blend”.

Here’s a helpful list

Formal Equivalence:

King James Version (KJV)

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

New King James Version (NKJV)

English Standard Version (ESV)

Revised Standard Version (RSV)

A balance between Dynamic and Formal Equivalence:

New International Version (NIV) [I do not recommend the NIV past (c)1984]

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) [they call it “optimal” equivalence]

Dynamic Equivalence:

Good News Bible (GNB) [formerly “Today’s English Version”]

New Living Translation (NLT)

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

The Message [a paraphrase]

I like to use ESV, NKJV / NIV, HCSB / NLT, The Message

For young children, I really like the NIrV (New International Reader’s Version) or the CEV. These have vocabulary around a 4th grade level. They’re very easy to read and do a good job for kids (and those at a low reading level).

For the NT I have liked the RSV (Revised Standard Version) for a very long time. There was an updated RSV known as the NRSV (New Revised…) but there were more than a few editorial choices that I am not comfortable with. In the early 21st century, however, there was a new undertaking to update the RSV once again. This translation is the ESV (English Standard Version) and I like it very much. In fact, the English Bible I use every day is an ESV. I prefer the “Personal Sized Reference” edition (if you care). 🙂

The best NT I’ve ever seen that really takes Greek Verbs into account was translated by Kenneth Wuest. It’s a little hard to read, but very good (especially if you’ve had some Greek).

The HCSB [Hard Core Southern Baptist 😉 ] is a very good translation, it’s not quite as wooden in its reading as some Bibles.

The only major Bible I know of that set out to do a totally new translation of the NT directly from the Greek is the NET (New English Translation), however almost all of the editors come from one school with a very specific theological position which does affect their translation at times. However, it’s a very good Bible.

So bottom line, I like the ESV very much and prefer slightly the NIV in the OT – but both are still basically built upon the KJV that was compiled 1600 years after Christ. The editors have worked hard to correct these translations in light of the original languages, and they will say that they are translations directly from the original languages, but the KJV casts a very long shadow. As we translate (especially those of us who are older) we remember the KJV that we grew up with, and that’s not always a bad thing. The KJV is an AMAZING translation and is not bad to use itself. There are differences, but in the broad-brush picture, there is more similar between the KJV and modern Bibles than different.

There is no substitute for solid training in the original languages. If you’re contemplating going into ministry, take Hebrew, and master Greek. The Bible that the Apostles wrote (NT) was originally in Greek, and the Bible the Apostles most often quote in the NT (the OT) was in Greek as well (LXX – Septuagint). If you do this, you’ll be miles ahead of most of your contemporaries.

At the end of the day, the best Bible is the one you’ll read and read often. 🙂

About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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