Deciding which Bible to pick from the array on display in a Christian bookshop – or from the dropdown menu on an online Bible website – can be daunting.
There are many helpful and detailed guides out there, but as a first step we’ve put together our own short introduction to choosing your Bible version.
Why are there different versions?
The books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, making those of us without expertise in these languages dependent on translators to help us access the Word of God for ourselves.
And all translators face a big challenge – words in one modern language do not ‘map’ directly onto word in another modern language (as anyone who’s typed into Google Translate will have discovered!). One of our church members is a Romanian interpreter, and he will tell you that the Romanian word for ‘grandson’ also means ‘nephew’ – without a context, it’s impossible to know which English word to use to translate it.
When the translation involves metaphorical language, the task gets harder. And when the translation is from an ancient language in a Middle Eastern culture, such as biblical Hebrew, to a modern language in the West, the difficulties are compounded.
The translation spectrum
Bible translations vary along a spectrum from very literal to extremely free. Broadly-speaking, they fall into one of two categories – word-for-word (or literal) and meaning-for-meaning (or dynamic).
Word-for-word translations try to find the nearest literal equivalent for the original words used, and try to convey as much as possible the grammatical structure of the original text.
Meaning-for-meaning (also sometimes called thought-for-thought) put more effort instead into translating the meaning of the original, using more natural modern English to do so. Extreme examples of this will take a great deal of liberty in rephrasing – sometimes paraphrasing, rather than rephrasing – the ideas behind the text, using metaphors and idioms that are most vivid in contemporary English.
So which is best?
Well, that really depends on when, where and why you are reading!
A very contemporary translation like The Message can work well in some contexts for one-off dramatic readings in church, or for private reading, to give fresh eyes on a familiar story. But even the author of this translation, Eugene Peterson, says it makes him “uneasy” when his translation is used for public reading within the setting of worship.
On the other hand, a very formal and more literal translation like the sixteenth-century King James Version will prove difficult reading for many, and may be an obstacle to understanding the Word.
Three sample versions
For a taster, we thought we’d compare three translations – one more literal, one a paraphrase translation, and one somewhere in the middle.
The New King James Version (NKJV)
This is an update of the 16th-century original KJV, put into modern English. Like its predecessor, it’s designed to give a more literal equivalent of words and grammatical structure of the original ancient text.
Here’s Galatians 5:13 in the NKJV:
For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
The Message (TM)
This is at the other end of the version spectrum, and currently the most vivid paraphrase translation currently around. It’s certainly not a good choice for a study Bible or even for your regular reading Bible, but as a second Bible, it can open up the Scriptures anew, with its vivid, very down-to-earth language.
Galatians 5:13 again:
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
This updates the highly-respected RSV on a number of levels – putting it into modern English but also moving the translation more into the ‘meaning-for-meaning’ category, where the RSV was firmly in the word-for-word literal camp. On the Bible translation spectrum, it’s a good midway between the literal and the outright paraphrase, and it’s probably the most widely used version in churches across the denominations. In the NRSV, Galatians 5:13 reads:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
Ready to start reading?
If this has helped you decide on a version, and you’re ready to start reading but don’t know where in the Bible to start, why not try Caldecote’s Daily Bible Reading Plan? It gives you a plan to follow, with two short readings each day, linked directly to an online Bible, where you can choose from a list of translations.