Introduction: What Bible Should I Buy?
I have been a pastor since 1972. At times people have asked what Bible they should buy. They want to be certain the translation they chose is accurate. Usually they mean literal. They also want good and reliable explanatory notes for the reader.
Making such a recommendation is like telling someone what automobile is best to buy. While there are many good automobiles, so much depends on what each person needs and how the Bible will be used. In the end, a number of very personal preferences will have to be satisfied.
Note: This Instructable is limited to information about how Bible translations come to be, and choosing a Bible version (translation) for oneself. I did include some things about some passages I check as "test" passages, and things I have learned over the years about those passages; but, I do not necessarily expect others to agree with my comments on those passages. This Instructable will not seek to convince anyone about what the Christian faith is or whether it is true, whether the Bible is God's word, nor who Jesus Christ is. If you wish to discuss any of those things, please send me a private message rather than use the Comments section.
Unless otherwise noted, all images are from Bing Images.
Step 1: Dynamic Equivalence or Literal Translation?
Most people I meet have never studied a second language. They make the incorrect assumption that translating from one language to another is like removing one plug from an electrical outlet and inserting another. When you are finished running an electric vacuum cleaner, you unplug it from the wall and plug in a lamp in its place. That is, when you have a phrase in one language you wish to translate, you simply find the proper words in a dictionary and replace each word with another from the new language.
But, languages are different from one another in many ways. For example, in English an adjective comes before a noun. So, English speakers say, "A red ball." In many other languages, the adjective comes after the noun it describes. In those languages, "A ball red" is the correct usage. Simply replacing words can result in what sounds like nonsense.
And, each language has its own idiomatic expressions. For example, a very literal translation of Matthew 1:18 would be, "She was found having in the belly." That is the expression Matthew used to say Mary was pregnant. So, would you want that phrase rendered literally in the Bible you use; or should it be conveyed with words that express the intended meaning, even if words not in the text are required to say it? Most of us would rightly choose the accuracy of the thought over the literalness of the words.
Translators can make every effort to be as literal as possible, but often it will be necessary to use whatever words are required to preserve the accuracy of the thought, even if the words used must be changed. Once people understand what must be done to communicate something from one language in another language, they can accept a reasonable amount of dynamic equivalence in translation, even if it means literalness must be compromised a little.
On a personal note, my parents gave me my first Bible when I was ten years old. It was the King James Version (KJV). I noticed that some words and phrases were in italics. One day I learned those italicized words were not actually part of the original text, but had to be added for the sentences to make sense in English. That bothered me for quite a while. How did I know those words really belonged? A few years later I was studying Latin and German in preparation for becoming a pastor. Later I would also study Greek and Hebrew. I soon learned the difficulties of moving information from one language to another and some of the adjustments that had to be made to keep the meaning the same, even if the words had to change. My anxieties about those italicized words evaporated very quickly.
Step 2: Can We Trust Any Bible Today?
This Norman Rockwell print was a cover for the Saturday Evening Post on March 6, 1948. It is titled "The Gossip." It reminds us of the children's game "Telephone." In that game the first person speaks a saying to someone who repeats it to another who repeats it, until what was said reaches the last person. As all who have played this game know, the last person hears something far different from what was initially spoken.
You have probably heard someone say, "The Bible has been copied, translated, and interpreted so many times that we cannot be certain it has any resemblance now to what it originally said." The assumption is that Bible translation and transmission are akin to this children's game with each new translation of the Bible being a revision of, or based on the immediate previous translation. This false notion is easily put to rest.
Step 3: There Is Gold in the Preface
If others are like me, they can go for many years before they ever take the time to read The Preface in books they own. Reading The Preface is especially important in a Bible. Most Bible prefaces contain very similar information. The New International Version (NIV) is a widely used Bible version in our time. I will make reference to its Preface, which I have linked here from an on-line source.
The first sentence is very important and explains why the objection presented in step 2 (The Bible may not resemble what it originally said after all of these years because it was copied, etc. so often.) is without basis. That first sentence says, "The New International Version is a completely new translation of the Holy Bible made by over a hundred scholars working directly from the best available Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts." Notice, the New International Version is not a revision of a previous translation, but an entirely new translation made from the best available original language texts. This is also true of most modern versions. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Small parts of it were written in Aramaic, which is very similar to Hebrew, but came into use in the centuries before Christ. The New Testament was originally an everyday type of Greek known as Koine, or "common" Greek.
If you were to play the children's game of "Telephone" in the same way Bible translation is done, each person in the chain would go back to the first person in the chain to double-check what he or she heard before passing it to the next person in the chain. Played that way, what the last person in the chain hears would be exactly what the first person said.
Step 4: Qumran and Textual Accuracy
Qumran was a Jewish community near the Dead Sea. That community protected many of its scrolls with large stone jars inside caves like the one in the photo. In 1947 a shepherd boy discovered these scrolls while looking for a lost goat. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest text of the Hebrew Old Testament came from about 1000 AD. Some of the biblical scrolls at Qumran were 1200 years older. If texts were distorted as they are copied, as many assume, 1200 years would be enough time to observe considerable changing in the text. But, that did not happen. Many* of the biblical books found at Qumran are virtually no different from the standard Hebrew text dating from much later. There is a reason for so little change. As a matter of quality control, the scribes who copied texts at Qumran counted the letters in each line after copying it. They made a mark under the middle letter. They checked to see if the mid-point mark was under the same letter in the original text from which the copy was made. If not, they knew there was a mistake, and they began again.
*Difference in texts happen for well-intended reasons. For example, some appear to have come from a different textual tradition that included some variations in readings. Sometimes the translators of the Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint thought the Hebrew text presented God in an unfavorable light and chose wordings that softened the portrait of God, lest He seem too harsh. Such changes are hardly large or significant.
Step 5: More From the Preface
The NIV was produced by committees of competent translators from various backgrounds so that the final product would not seem to favor the doctrinal formulations of any particular Christian denomination.
Also, the translation work was checked again and again by different committees. The Preface states, "The translation of each book was assigned to a team of scholars. Next, one of the Intermediate Editorial Committees revised the initial translation, with constant reference to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Their work then went on to one of the General Editorial committees, which checked it in detail and made another thorough version. This revision in turn was carefully reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation, which made further changes and then released the final version for publication. In this way the entire Bible underwent three revisions, during each of which the translation was examined for its faithfulness to the original languages and for its English style." There were multiple reviews of each part of the text for both faithfulness to the original texts and for good English usage.
Although there have sometimes been gifted people who worked virtually alone to produce good Bible translations, in general I would advise shoppers to look for a Bible translation based on the best available original language texts and done by a group of people who cross check one another in order to protect the final product from each other's unconscious biases. Further, the text should be in good contemporary English so its expression flows in a clear and natural way.
I mentioned the NIV as an example in discussing the benefits of reading The Preface. That does not mean I am suggesting the NIV meets everyone's needs or is the best modern English translation. There are things I personally like about the NIV, but there are also things I do not like about it. Winston Churchill humorously said a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with. The NIV frequently ends sentences with prepositions. I was always taught that is poor English usage and I try to avoid it when I speak or write. I expect placing prepositions at the ends of sentences is a concession the editors made to what has been happening throughout contemporary society during recent decades, despite rules of proper grammar. Also on my "do not like list," sometimes the editors of the NIV made the decision to paraphrase technical words to make the meaning clear. That helps the modern reader understand concepts better, but leaves the reader without clues that two passages are related because both use the same word with a rather precise technical meaning.* Still, I have a copy of the NIV and do make use of it.
There is still more in The Preface. For example, it will tell you why you sometimes see LORD and sometimes Lord. The distinction is very important, especially at Psalm 110:1.
*In 1 John 2:1-2 the NIV translates the Greek word hilastarion as "the sin offering for the whole world." The English Standard Version uses the word 'propitiation' to translate the word. The word 'propitiation' is almost never used in contemporary English speech or writing. It refers to the forgiving character of God through an atoning sacrifice. Its contextual usage in the rest of the Bible refers to the sacrifice the high priest offered for the sins of the people on the Old Testament Day of Atonement. Certainly, "the sin offering for the whole world" is easier to grasp for the contemporary reader. The same Greek word appears in Romans 3:25 where the NIV translates it as "sacrifice of atonement." Both of these renderings present an accurate meaning, but the reader would not have sufficient clues that the same Greek word is translated in both passages.
Step 6: Just Stick With the King James Version?
The photo shows the title page from the first edition of the King James Bible.
The King James Version was 400 years old early in May 2011. It is much loved and revered by many. Some insist it is the only Bible anyone should ever use. One interesting fact that most do not realize is this: the standard King James Version Bible you buy today is not the original 1611 version, but is a 1769 revision. The original 1611 version is still available many places, but contemporary readers would find it unnecessarily difficult to read and understand.
The King James Version is still very usable, but it has two problems for contemporary users. First, we simply have more and better original language texts available today thanks to biblical archaeology coming of age in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries and thanks to the comparative study of biblical text variants. Although the differences pertain to very small details, modern translations are actually now more accurate than the King James Version.* And second, when the biblical texts came to us, they always came in the everyday language people spoke at the time, whether Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek. The King James Version contains a number of archaic words we either no longer use in English, or their meaning has changed a bit, sometimes quite a bit. For example, consider Psalm 88:13--"But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee." In contemporary English we use the word "prevent" to mean we hinder something so that it cannot happen. That meaning is nonsense in this verse from Psalm 88. The original meaning of "prevent" intended in Psalm 88 fits the Latin roots of that word and what the word meant in earlier English usage, which was to come before something or someone. Compare Psalm 88:13 in the new English Standard Version: "But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayercomes before you." You can see how "prevent" came to have the meaning we give it. If we are to stop someone from doing something, we must appear before that person to present a barrier.
If you listen to a sermon or take part in a Bible study based on the King James Version, most of the time will be spent explaining what words in the King James Version text mean today. I have always preferred to use an accurate modern version of the Bible that bypasses the process of explaining changes in meaning over four centuries so that the time can be spent of applying the biblical message to contemporary life.
If you prefer the King James Version because you believe it is more accurate than modern translations, I admire your enthusiasm for accuracy and truth, but texts available today give us more accuracy than what we had available in 1611.
*It is not my intent to spark a debate with people from King James Only groups. People who insist on only the King James Version do not trust what is today generally considered the best New Testament texts (Westcott-Hort tradition), but instead prefer a slightly different text family known as the Textus Receptus ("recieved text"). Regardless of which of these two New Testament text families is chosen, basic Christian teachings are not affected by any differences.
As an example of how archaeology affects translation, a Hebrew word in the Old Testament was known by the context to be an alcoholic beverage. The translators in 1611 assumed it was wine. In 1929 at Ugarit a plow turned up a piece of broken pottery with writing on it from a language very close to Hebrew. In the written message a potentate was complaining that he had purchased some of this beverage, but it contained grain husks. Now we know that word refers to beer or ale. Grain is not used in making wine, but is used in making beers and ales. This is a small change in the translated text, but does yield more accuracy after all these centuries.
Step 7: New Revisions of Old Versions?
There have been attempts to make the New King James Version or the Modern King James Version in order to preserve the cadence and literary qualities of the King James Version that some people love. No one should deceive himself. While these may mimic certain literary qualities found in the King James Version, they are not a King James Version.
The same happens with German versions. Martin Luther has not been personally involved in a Luther version of the Bible since 1545, yet there is a 1984 Luther Bible. It is quite different from the versions on which Luther worked, yet it seeks to preserve some aspects of his work in terms of literary style and translation philosophy.
All of this is like the story of Abraham Lincoln's ax. A man was chopping wood when another man came by and commented, "That is a mighty fine ax!" The woodchopper said, "Thank you, sir. This ax belonged to Abraham Lincoln." The man who first commented said, "That is amazing!" The woodchopper said, "Yes, of course, the handle has been changed three times and the head twice." Calling a fundamentally new translation, no matter how good it is, The New King James Version or The Luther Bible does not make it those versions. At some point enough parts have been replaced that an ax is no longer Abraham Lincoln's ax.
Step 8: Things Not to Be Feared
Once I was in a Christian bookstore when two ladies were examining a newly available Bible translation. They were looking at John 3:16 and concluded the new translation minimized the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is divine. Their frame of reference was the King James Version, which gives John 3:16 this way:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Many modern translations give the verse something like this: "For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life." (Good News Bible--Today's English Version) Notice the difference is between "only begotten" and "only."
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word translated "only begotten" is spelled almost exactly the same as a very similar word translated "only" or "truly unique." The difference between the two words is the duplication of one letter in one of the words. I read an article* once which said the problem developed in the Fourth Century when Jerome was producing his Latin Vulgate Bible. Jerome rendered the text as if it used the word meaning "only begotten" when it was actually the word "only," probably because he was influenced by a theological presentation from Gregory of Nazianzus (no connection to the National Socialists [Nazis] in Germany during the Third Reich).
John 1 uses one Greek word for "son" when referring to Jesus, and a different Greek word for "child, children" when discussing people made over to be children of God, even though Paul uses the same word "son" for both Jesus and people. John wants to show that Jesus is Son of God in a way people are not. Jerome made a conscious change for theological reasons and the modern versions are actually more accurate on John 3:16. Rather than see "only" in John 3:16 as an effort to take something important away from Jesus, see it as John's stress that Jesus is completely unique and different from people.
"Only Begotten" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon), 1962, Vol. K-Q.
Step 9: The Benefits of Multiple Versions
People often want to buy one most accurate version of the Bible. But, consider that producing a Bible translation in English means it will be used by people from all sorts local regions where speech can be quite different. Where I grew up, carbonated beverages, like Coca-Cola, were called 'pop.' In other parts of the USA they were known as 'soda.' In still others they are called 'soda pop' or a 'soft drink.' In parts of the US South, all carbonated beverages are referred to as Coca-Cola.* Or, in the area where I was raised one pushes or presses a button. But, years later I lived in East Tennessee where the common expression is to mash down on a button.
Multiple versions or translations do not indicate a defect or push a hidden agenda, but mean translators and editors are generally making a sincere effort to present the Bible in wordings that are broadly understandable to all regions of the English speaking world, and yet faithful to the meaning of the original language texts. Have and use multiple versions to get a better idea of what the original text said. The ideal would be to learn Greek and Hebrew well so you can read the Bible in its original languages, but that is not practical for most readers of the Bible. The next best thing is to access as many modern translations as possible and compare them. Slight differences in wording will provide cues to a more precise understanding of the meaning of the original text. There are on-line sites where you can read various Bible versions, like Bible Gateway. That saves the expense of buying printed volumes.
* This conversation is very much in the realm of possibility.
"Do you want a Coca-Cola?"
Step 10: Evaluating Annotations
I like study Bibles. Not only do I get a translation I may not own, but the included notes and helps are like owning an additional commentary. The points are concise and do not require a lot of reading to find. But, study Bible notes vary in approach and quality. Rather than insist on a volume that I believe to contain absolutely correct notations, I accept that I will need to evaluate and filter what I find in the notes. Some notes provide useful historical details I have not found elsewhere. Some adopt positions I do not find to be supported well by the Bible text. I take what is good and filter out what seems to be less good.
Perhaps you do not feel you have adequate knowledge and background to make such evaluations. Please consider this story about a man I knew. He had no experience with fine woodworking. One Christmas his wife gave him a router attachment for making spiral cuts on items like candlesticks and table legs. He began to read about cabinetmaking and to buy tools. He practiced and experimented. He and a fellow woodworker visited museums where antique furniture was on display. They were asked to leave one museum because they were taking measurements. They bought blank shaper knives and used a Dremel tool to grind molding profiles popular in the md-1800s, but long since unavailable. They copied a design for an antique mirror frame. They gave special attention to the finish so it would appear to be more than 100 years old. When they were done, they took it to a museum curator who authenticated their copy as an original. (They did not try to sell it as an antique, but reveled in their skills.)
The man I knew did not begin as an expert woodworker, but it became his hobby and he developed his skills gradually over time. I have often told that story to encourage people not to give up because they do not know the Bible well now, but to make coming to know their Bibles a gradual and continual project. Your knowledge and expertise will grow faster than you think. Just simply reading the Bible regularly is a very good way to grow in your knowledge of it.
Step 11: Things for Which I Look
I examine the notes on several passages before buying an annotated Bible. My choice of passages and notes to check is very subjective, but is based on things I have noticed over the years. Translations and notes based on solid scholarship usually prove themselves to me on the basis of these few passages. The first is to compare notes on Genesis 11 (the confusion of languages at Babel) and Acts 2 (the bridging of languages at Pentecost). Many make no connection between these two, yet they are two sides of the same coin. Both stories have a more meaningful context when their relation to one another is considered.
Step 12: Another Passage I Check
Sometimes issues in translation can be resolved by means of material from elsewhere in the Bible. Compare the following two renditions of Romans 9:5. One equates Christ with God and has long been a frequent proof text for Christ's divinity. The other makes the reference to God a doxology and does not speak to who Christ is.
"...of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen." Revised Standard Version (RSV)
"...from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen." English Standard Version (ESV)
The differences between these two renditions are based on differing opinions about where to place commas and periods, not on the basis of words in the original text. Punctuation was not always part of the original text, though. Most modern versions, even ancient versions, follow the ESV. Only a few modern versions follow the RSV. But, translation variations are not decided by majority opinion, either.
The relative clause "who is" is key. It is (h)ο wν ("the one being") in the Greek text of Romans. That same phrase is exactly the way Exodus 3:14 gives the name of God in the Greek version of the Old Testament (The Septuagint) widely in use during the First Century. Consider the reaction of the Jews in John 8:58 when Jesus used "I AM" (also a form of the divine name from Exodus). They wanted to stone him for blasphemy. Remember that Paul was trained as a Pharisee. He would not have been wont to use the divine name in close relation to Christ if he did not intend to identify Christ with God.*
*This comes from Gerhard Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament on eimi ("am"). I have the full ten volume set, not the one volume abridgment. I once read all nine text volumes cover-to-cover. It was my experience that important discussions in the full set were not always included in the one volume version.
Step 13: The Apostles' Creed, Anyone?
In our Lutheran churches we regularly use The Apostles' Creed in our services. It includes a phrase* by which we confess that we believe Jesus entered hell after his crucifixion and before his resurrection (not to suffer, but to show himself victorious over sin, death, and the power of the devil). In part, this is based on 1 Peter 3:18-19 (Compare Revelation 20:7 on "spirits in prison.") It is most interesting that the Greek text of that phrase in The Apostles' Creed is almost identical word-for-word to the Greek text of Ephesians 4:9 (One uses the comparative "lower" while the other uses the superlative "lowest." Otherwise they are identical.). The emphasis in that verse is that Jesus showed himself victorious over every power in all of creation before again taking his seat at the right hand of God. Some translations and notes in some study Bible imply that Ephesians 4:9 refers to Jesus coming to earth to become flesh, but Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament** indicates that common Greek usage understood the phrase "lower parts of the earth" to mean the place of the dead, not someplace here on earth. So, I always check Ephesians 4:9 to see if the allowance is given that it could refer to the descent into hell of which The Apostles' Creed speaks.
This is something with which not all Christians will agree, just as reputable Bible scholars are divided on this; but, it is something I like to check to see if translators and commentators are at least aware Ephesians 4:9 could refer to a descent into hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection.
* Some churches removed the phrase about the descent into hell from the Apostles' Creed, but it is part of the original texts of the Creed, both in the earlier Greek text and in the official Latin text. When I was about ten years old, my brothers and I visited a church of another denomination one Sunday. When they came to the Apostles' Creed we recited it from memory, including the phrase about the descent into hell. But, that church had removed that phrase from the Creed. Three girls just a little older than us were sitting directly ahead of us. I still remember the dirty look they gave us when we said, "Descended into hell," but they and the rest of the congregation had gone on to "Rose from the dead on the third day."
** Vol. III, p. 641
(The artwork is a classical painting of the Descent into Hell from Google Images.)
Step 14: Conclusions
When considering the merits of a new Bible translation, check The Preface. Most modern translations are sincere attempts to present the meaning of the original texts in clear and proper contemporary English. (I once told a woman in a bookstore that I had been reading the Greek New Testament cover-to-cover. She said, "Now you know what it REALLY says." I responded to her that the English versions really are quite good and accurate. There is no conspiracy to hide anything, as some commonly want to believe.)
I know every translation will include some wordings that delight me and others that dismay me. No one translation suits my preferences in all matters. But, I am prepared to filter and make allowances for those things I believe could be better. The same is true of notes in the commentary sections.
Above all, find a Bible version you enjoy in its phrasings. Recently the English Standard Version appeared. It is generally quite accurate, but it seems to make twists and turns in its phrasings that make me stumble when I try to read it aloud in church services. It also sometimes uses words like 'propitiation' that do not speak to contemporary people. I have it in a free computer program and I do use it, but it will never be a favorite with me.
I do use the English Standard Version a great deal when preparing sermons or Bible studies. I prefer to do my public reading of the Bible from the New International Version. Because many others in our church have the NIV, I most often use it in Bible classes where I am leading the class. If I want to quote the Bible for something I am putting in print and want it to pack a certain punch with contemporary readers, I will consult several more colloquial versions. Often I take such quotes from the Good News for Modern Man--Today's English Version or even The Living Bible. This is particularly true when I want to quote the section on the works of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-26. The phrase "Party spirit" may not always be clear to everyone, but "the feeling that only those in my little group are right" leaves no doubt about what it means.
This Instructable is based on things I have found personally helpful over the years. They are the recommendations I make to others who ask about Bible translations and editions. You are free to disagree, but I did put some thought and experience into what I have presented.
(The graphic is from Google Images.)