So we’re talking about all things Bible study in this series and so far we’ve covered 5 ways to engage with the Bible and what features to look for in a Bible. In this post, I want to talk about how to choose a Bible translation.
The conversation around Bible translations can be a bit touchy and tricky for some but it’s super important to know some basic facts about translations when choosing which ones to read and study. This topic is also deep and you can go down a lot of rabbit trails of books, articles, YouTube videos, interviews, debates, and the like. This post will not be exhaustive in the least. I’m only going to hit 4 of the most important points to consider when choosing a Bible translation. At the end, you’ll find a couple of resources you can use to dig even deeper on this topic.
(this post contains affiliate links. see disclosure here)
1. There is no such thing as a perfect translation of the Bible
Depending on what you know or were taught about scripture, this may be an unsettling statement. What do you mean there isn’t a perfect translation? Isn’t the Bible supposed to be infallible?
First of all, let’s define some terms – infallible and inerrancy.
Infallible means completely trustworthy.
Inerrancy means without any error.
While Bible believing Christians will tend to agree on the Bible’s infallibility, they won’t necessarily agree on its inerrancy and how we should deal with it. That’s a subject that is too much to tackle in this post. If you want more information on that, check out this post. What do these words have to do with translations? Stay with me –
For whatever reason, God decided to partner with imperfect human beings to communicate His perfect word. First of all, by default, anything we touch cannot be perfect because we’re not God. That doesn’t mean that God’s Word is tainted or ruined, it just means that we have to be aware of the human nature of the Bible. The Bible is both divine and human because God orchestrated the most intricate, beautiful collaboration of literature that this world will ever know.
Human language isn’t a perfect art or science. The people who do the important work of translation labor over the complexities of language and have to make careful choices about how they render a Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word into English, French, Tagalog, German, or Spanish! This isn’t a perfect process but God’s Word is still preserved through the faithful work of responsible translators.
God could have bypassed all of this and dropped the scriptures out of the sky in heavenly perfection but He didn’t. That’s a beautiful thing to me. Just as Jesus was both divine and human, God’s word is a partnership of both the divine and human. Just as Jesus came to this earth through a beautiful and complex history so that we could better understand Him, His word in the scriptures has a history that is unlike the history of any other work of literature. The story of how the Bible came to be the collection of stories, discourse, poetry, and prophecy that we can hold in our hands, in a language we can understand, is an absolute miracle and testament to the goodness and glory of God. I believe that to insist that it exists and functions in a way that it does not, meaning that it must be perfect in all ways, is to take away from the history of how we got it in the first place.
So, while I believe the Bible to be perfectly infallible, I suppose that I believe in a form of inerrancy that allows for variations and errors in language decisions while maintaining that everything that is said of God, His nature, and His redemptive work is true and without error.
2. Understand the Spectrum
After understanding that there isn’t a perfect translation of the Bible, we have to understand that there is a spectrum of translation philosophies when it comes to English translations. If you’ve ever walked into a bookstore looking for a Bible and felt a little overwhelmed about all the different options that are on the shelves, don’t worry, it happens to most of us. There are a lot of different versions of the English Bible and one of the main reasons is that each committee is translating based on a particular translation philosophy –
- Word-for-Word (Formal Equivalence)
- Thought-for-Thought (Functional or Dynamic Equivalence)
Word-for-Word, also known as Formal Equivalence, is exactly what it sounds like. A word-for-word translation committee is attempting to translate the original languages as closely as possible into English.
Thought-for-Thought is also known as Functional Equivalence or Dynamic Equivalence. These scholars are choosing words that to capture more of the meaning even if they’re not word-for-word equivalent.
These translation philosophies are on either end of a spectrum or continuum and every English translation falls somewhere on this spectrum.
If you want more in-depth information about Bible translations, check out these posts –
- Bible Translation Guide – Mardel
- Bible Translation Spectrum – Logos
- The Bible in Translation – The Gospel Coalition
3. Do your Research
Like I said at the beginning of the post, there is a lot of information out there about Bible translations. When choosing a particular translation as, perhaps, a go-to or main translation of choice, do your research. Often, Bibles will include an introduction where they address the translation philosophy and intentions of the translators. This is important information. Here are a couple key things to consider –
- Your main translation for study should be a committee translation. This means that it shouldn’t be the work of one person
- As much as possible, use more than one translation when studying. Most of us don’t know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The next best thing is to read passages in multiple translations so you can catch the nuance that we often miss when only reading one version.
- Understand the basic intentions of the translators. This will set you up with right expectations when you’re reading that translation
4. Choose based on purpose
Not every translation is the best for every purpose. For instance, if you’re new to the faith and just need to get familiar with the broad scope of scripture, a thought-for-thought translation like the NIV or NLT might be a better choice than an NASB or KJV. If you’re doing deep study about theological themes and issues, a word-for-word translation like the ESV, NKJV or even the NET or CSB (which are closer to the middle of the spectrum) will be more useful than the NLT or The Message (which some don’t consider to be a translation at all since it’s a paraphrase originally done by one person). If you’re teaching your child to memorize verses, you want to consider which version of scripture they’re going to remember into adulthood (most of the scripture I know as an adult was taught to me as a child – it sticks with you!).
Not every translation is right for every purpose. It is absolutely okay, if not advisable, to have a collection of or access to carefully selected translations that you can both compare and use for different activities!
If you want to know more about translations, check out these books and videos that have really helped me to gain a better understanding of the history of the Bible and translations. Enjoy!
- Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward
- The King James Only Controversy by James White
- A Visual History of the English Bible by Donald L. Brake
- The Making of the Bible – Tim Mackie
- All of Mark Ward’s YouTube Channel
- King James Onlyist Discussion – John Ankerberg — This video is pretty dated and it’s long BUT if you’re a nerd like me and you have time, it’s really interesting!
Do you have a favorite Bible translation? Is there one you wanted to dig into? Let me know in the comments 🙂
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