Eeek! Which is the right translation to use?

A couple of years ago, I taught a “How to Read Your Bible” class at my church. The first week, I intended to cover the various Bible translations briefly. But when I brought up the differences between KJV and NIV and the Message, the class spent nearly an hour asking questions and sharing their frustration at not being able to connect to the impenetrable language of some of the more popular Bible translations.

When I gave the class permission not to use the King James Version, a spontaneous revival nearly broke out.

That night was a big reminder for me that most of us find the Bible to be as intimidating as it is important. We want to read it, to engage, to be formed by it. But the Bible is a collection of stories, poems, law code, history, letters and more written 2,000+ years ago by foreign cultures in other languages.

Unfortunately, the English translations we use can be an additional barrier, particularly for Evangelicals. The generation above me was probably raised on the King James Version (or, in an especially liberal denomination, the New King James). Translated into the King’s English in 1611, anyone who’s ever read the KJV knows the language is as beautiful as it is confusing and archaic (nonetheless, I still have the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 and a few other passages memorized in King James English).

Many in my generation were raised reading the New International Version (NIV) – so far as I know, this is still the most popular version in Evangelical churches today. But the English Standard Version (ESV) is growing in popularity, particularly among New Calvinist congregations, the Southern Baptist Convention created their own translation (the Holman Christian Standard Bible), the NIV is now the new NIV and then there’re the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Message, the mere mention of which is enough to get some preachers spewing venom.

With all the options, which is the best bible translation to use?

Click to see the Bible text (top) and study notes (bottom)
Click to see the Bible text (top) and study notes (bottom)

I have a specific recommendation, but first I want to clarify the difference between the translation and the study notes. For instance: You can purchase a Life Application Study Bible. The study notes for this bible focus on practical, everyday application of biblical passages. Every Life Application bible has the same study notes. But you can buy a Life Application bible in several translations (including NIV and NLT). So if you compared a Life Application (NLT) and a Life Application (NIV), the translation of the actual biblical text be different, but the notes below the text will be the exact same.

(If you’re considering purchasing a study bible, take time to compare a few to decide which notes will best fit your needs. That’s a whole different post from translations, though.)

So what is the best translation to use?

The best bible translation is the one you understand the best. Period.

This is the best one (in my opinion, of course).
This is the best one (in my opinion, of course).

The reality is that no bible translation is actually a bad translation (okay, except for this one). What matters most is that you choose a translation you can really understand. If the language in your translation is a barrier to you actually reading the Bible, you need to try something else.

This is why people argue over translations so much. Of course every translation has a particular bias that can get in the way (I prefer the New Revised Standard Version in part because it’s so committed to more gender-inclusive language). But no translation is perfect and the reality is that any modern translation is sufficient to guide you as you read to be formed by God.

If you’re that worried about the theology of your particular translation, you should probably learn Greek and Hebrew.

As I’ve already mentioned, I personally prefer the NRSV. I rarely recommend it, however. My best friend Tom – a pastor and scholar I highly respect – doesn’t particularly care for it and the general consensus seems to be that it’s not very readable.

I regularly recommend people who are looking for a highly readable, fresh-feeling Bible try out the new Voice translation or The Message. While they’re both great translations (fine, The Message is a paraphrase not a translation. Whatever. Shut up.) for personal reading, you will find they don’t lend themselves to group study well. They’re different enough you’ll struggle to follow along in a group where not everyone is using the same translation.

In our worship gatherings, we teach and preach out of the New Living Translation.

Life Application Study Bible Page
If you don’t know where to start, start here!

There’s nothing magical about this: the NLT is the most readable translation that lends itself readily to group study. And we’re particularly concerned to be welcoming to non-churched persons in our gatherings, so we use the NLT. I run across translation issues fairly regularly, and it’s not a big deal to address them during the message.

What’s most important for us is that the Scriptures feel accessible and understandable to those who are far from God. So we use a translation that sounds familiar. Whenever I buy a Bible for a new Christian or someone who’s exploring what it means to follow Jesus, I buy them a Life Application NLT study bible. We give the same to every adult we baptize.

It’s a great place to start. Eventually, they may want to move on to an NIV or a KJV. I might even be able to get them to check out my personal favorite bible, The New Oxford Annotated NRSV. But if not, no big deal.

As long as you’re reading a Bible you can understand, that’s good enough for me!

YOUR TURN: What’s your favorite translation? Why?

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