Choosing a Bible- A Primer

editcabThere was a time in living memory when most Christians chose their Bible from just two versions. How times have changed. Walk into any Christian bookshop now and you will discover an alarming and confusing array of Bible versions to choose from. And those on show will be just a tiny part of the proliferation of recent years.
   To work out what Bible to use, we need to assess these Bibles on two different levels- the translation and the associated packaging, as translations now come in a variety of formats, with ‘extras’ to make them appeal to particular groups.

    Bible translations roughly fall into three different categories. These are:

  • Word for word (literal) translations, where the aim is to give us, in English, a version where the words and sentences are as close to the original languages as possible. Examples of this type of translation include the King James Version (AV or KJV); the Revised Standard Version (RSV); and the English Standard Version (ESV).
    where the aim is to search for the word or phrase in English which, in the opinion of the translators, most closely matches the intended meaning of the author. Examples of this might include the NIV, the New Living Translation (NLT), and the Contemporary English Version (CEV). where the aim is to give us, in English, a version where whole chunks of the Bible are rewritten to a greater or lesser extent to convey the meaning of the original (in the translator’s opinion). Examples of this approach would be The Living Bible, The Message and The Street Bible.
  • Dynamic equivalence translations,
  • Paraphrased translations,

It needs to be said that no translation can be ‘value free’; there is some element of interpretation involved in every translation. But if, as we believe at The Good Book Company, God inspired the very words of the Bible as originally written, we will want our translations to accurately render the meaning of those words to us today, so that we can understand what God was saying then, and is therefore saying now.

    We need also to recognise that different Bible translations will have uses in different settings, and for different people. The article on p.61 helpfully sets out the principles behind choosing a children’s Bible. Many adults benefit from having translations with a simpler vocabulary. And of course, we can use different translations for different purposes. So, I use a word-for-word translation for serious Bible-study and preparing talks; a dynamic equivalence translation for my daily quiet times, and will sometimes pick up a paraphrase to read longer stories, or to get ideas for how to explain the passage to others.

    We have been heavily involved in promoting the use of the English Standard Version, which came out in an Anglicised version in 2002. It is a translation that stands firmly in the tradition of the KJV and RSV, but applies the best of modern evangelical scholarship to the text and the translation. A growing number of people and churches have been attracted to the ESV, to be their standard all-purpose Bible because it manages to give the English reader substantially more access to the ancient text than the NIV, while still being eminently readable in English. The English of the ESV is not impenetrable or difficult—it is largely flowing and readily understandable—and yet it leaves an impressive number of features in the original intact. The connecting words so vital for understanding the flow of logic in the original language are retained, where they are often discarded in other versions for the sake of more literary, flowing English. There is also a greater consistency of word use, preserving the ambiguity that is present in some texts, and the concrete imagery. This, of course, is not to say that the ESV is perfect or not in need of further improvement (we have also published critical reviews of the ESV in The Briefing!); nor that other translations are not useful in different contexts. But for the Bible that will be our public reference point, the Bible we will study and preach from and memorize, the ESV has a great deal to commend it. It grants us more access to the ancient than the NIV, and yet does not stretch the linguistic skills of the average reader beyond their ability (which is the problem with even more literal translations such as the NASB).
    Other versions worth a look for serious study would be the New King James (NKJ) or the New American Standard Bible.

    The leader of the pack here has to be the New International Version(NIV) which has established itself over 25 years to be the most widely used English Bible today. The continuing proliferation of versions does not necessarily reflect the NIV’s failings, though the pervasiveness of gender-inclusive principles in more recent translations points to just one weakness felt by many people. Because of its widespread usefulness, we offer a range of NIVs for sale.
    The Contemporary English Version has been widely promoted by Bible societies and other organisations as the worthy replacement for the Good News Bible (still widely used in schools). Its level of language and flowing style are supposed to make it an excellent choice for use with children, adults and for public reading. Sadly, we cannot share this enthusiasm as we have found time and again that the CEV mistranslates, or waters down the original meaning.
    The team responsible for the New Living Translation Bible claims the Living Bible (a paraphrase) as its forebear, but it reads more like the NIV. It is a ‘functional equivalence’ translation that aims for accuracy, clarity, readability (private and public), consistency in use of words and gender inclusiveness. In each area this version can claim considerable success.
    This version won’t appeal to those who miss the flowing cadences of the King James Version. Even those who grew up on the NIV will feel that it lacks something in terms of familiar phrases. However, the text is readable, accurate and accessible. It may well prove very appealing to those conscious of the difficulties faced by readers of low literacy and not much Bible background, or for those with English as a second language.
    Another alternative might be the New International Readers version, which is worth looking at in its children’s edition for use with young people, but also has adult covers and is styled as The New Light Bible.

    The writings of Eugene Peterson have proven popular, especially among pastors, largely due to the warmth and passion of his style. The Message is his attempt, driven by pastoral concerns, ‘not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak. ‘In this sense, the paraphrase is most reminiscent of the Living Bible.
    The Message makes no pretence to being a Bible for congregational reading or study. There are no verse numbers or footnotes. Peterson is an intelligent, thoughtful and evangelical reader of the Scriptures. He aspires to a lack of polish and grandeur. This version may be of some value for first time readers of a certain literacy level, though the Americanisms will prove a distraction. It might also prove refreshing for experienced readers who feel jaded and overfamiliar with their normal versions, or provide a different angle for preachers.
    In a similar vein, The Street Bible by Rob Lacey, which is currently a top seller in the UK, sadly leaves us feeling a little cold. Although it is intended to make things clearer for young people, the author often replaces a hard Bible concept, with an even more difficult buzz phrase that needs just as much explanation. So ‘Passover’ becomes ‘the flyby festival’, and ‘Christians’ becomes members of the JLM (Jesus Liberation Movement). These may be fun, but they hardly make things clearer. The patchy nature of the coverage and sometimes quirky interpretations means that this has, in our opinion, very limited use.

Many of the versions recommended here have a wide variety of packages available, with maps, study notes, comment boxes or specific study themes for particular groups of people. Sadly, I have sat through too many Bible-studies where these study ‘aids’ have proven a great distraction from the actual text! Although they may have some value in private study, our first and foremost desire is to get people looking at, and meditating on God’s words. Our advice: stick to the plain text. (Taken from the Good Book Company)

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