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Chris Gore: Christianity: Questions: Bible Translations

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of Bible translations into the English language available to you these days. This is a good thing, but it can be a confusing thing as well. Which translation should you read? There are several very good transaltions out there, and to some extent the answer depends upon you and your personal preferences. Lots of people really like the Authorized "King James" Version (KJV), myself included: it is some of the most beautiful writing in the whole of the English language, religious or not. However, it is not the only good translation, as some people would like to claim. In fact, it is actually a poor translation for most people these days, since the English language has changed so much in the 400 years since it was published. To put things in persepective, think how few people can read Shakespeare anymore without a lot of supporting material, and he died after the KJV was published. If you have a strong literary background and don't have trouble with Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century English, then by all means you will enjoy the KJV, but that isn't most people out there. And even if you do, it will be easier to read a modern translation anyway; just keep a copy around for the Psalms.

My favorite modern English translation of the Bible is the English Standard Version, ESV. You can read it online at ESV Online.org. It is very readable, very materially accurate, and it actually manages to maintain a reasonable level of beauty in the language of the text itself. It isn't anywhere near as beautiful of a translation as the KJV, but for most people the KJV isn't really a readable text anymore. If you are looking for a translation of the Bible then I would most certainly recommend the ESV to you. Michael D. Marlowe has put together a very thorough explanation of the history of the ESV and its motivation. I would definitely recommend you read his article to gain more insight into it.

There are several other good modern translations though. The following are all generally pretty good translations overall:

There are several other good translations out there, but those are the ones I am familiar with myself and could recommend.

There is another sort of translation that is good if you aren't familiar with the Bible at all, and these are called paraphrases. The ESV, and all really good Bible translations, are quite technical in nature. This is necessary because of the problems in translating from one language to another: lots of things get "lost in translation" as the old saying goes. When somebody translates most things, say one of Dostoyevsky's novels out of Russian for example, you actually will be reading a slightly different novel in English than what was actually written by Dostoyevsky in the original Russian. This isn't all that big of a deal for a novel, and the translator is expected to take some literary liberties in order to move the story into the new language, but for theological works such as the Bible it can be quite problematic. But, even a loose paraphrase of the Bible can be quite helpful, especially when you are just starting to try to read it. I like The Living Bible quite a lot, a paraphrase from the early 1970's. The Living Bible was recently revised into the New Living Translation (NLT), but I haven't looked at that one myself yet so I can't make a recommendation. A more recent one that is supposed to be quite good is The Message, but I haven't looked at it myself yet either. With a good parapharase such as the Living Bible you can read through the entire Bible very quickly from cover to cover, in just a few weeks if you make a priority of it. You won't get as much out of it as you would if you were to read cover to cover with a more technical translation, but that is something that is quite hard to do at first.

There are several good translations available to us today, which is a good thing; however, there are also several translations that aren't so good. I wouldn't recomment the NET Bible, and Michael D. Marlowe has a good summary of why not. I also really don't care for the NRSV: I don't like the re-gendering of the scripture and it also employs what can best be described as a dumbed-down modern English, not just modern English. I'm okay with the NIV, but I don't care for the TNIV which came out a few years ago.

So in summary my recommendation would be to first read a parapharase such as the Living Bible from beginning to end to get familiar with the whole Bible from a summary viewpoint, and then get a copy of the ESV to read. If you would like a study Bible, the ESV Study Bible as is available from ESV Study Bible.org and I find it rather helpful. There is a good short discussion about the merits of the ESV at Weedon's blog that gets rather in-depth for just a few comments, and also a good discussion about the ESV from a purely Lutheran (LCMS) position at Paul T. McCain's blog as well. The ESV is modern English in as easy-to-read of a format as is possible without altering the text, and it flows well.

Links

The Online Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism
This site by Rich Elliott is one of the most in-depth sites for general information about how one actually goes about translating the New Testament from the original Greek, and how we can decide what the original Greek even is. If you are seriously interested in how these things are done, this is a good place to start.