It is not uncommon to get the question, “why are there so many different Bible translation and which one should I buy?” This is a great question and below is my response.

Why So Many Translations?

The answer to the first part of this question can be complex, but the most significant reason for all the different translation is that language changes. The original text of the Bible was written in three languages; Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. As scholars translate these languages into English, we run into the challenge of trying to express them in a way that is accurate to the original text and intelligible for the modern reader. Thus as our understanding of these ancient languages grows and as our own English language changes we seek newer translations to meet these basic needs. Most translations try to balance the factors of accuracy to the original text of God’s revealed Word with Intelligibility; that is how easily the modern reader can comprehend the text. In accomplishing these goals, there are two general approaches scholars use.

Literal Translations come across a little more wooden because the translators try to stay very close to the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. Sometimes this can make for long or awkward sentences that are hard to understand in English. On the other end of the Spectrum are the

Expanded Translations, the authors of these texts take more liberty with the language and in addition they will add in their own ideas and thoughts to help “clarify” the meaning in English.

In between Literal and Expanded, there is a spectrum of translation alternatives including, Formal, Expanded, and Paraphrase.  The following chart illustrates the options.

Translations that are more concerned with HIGH accuracy, tend to read at a HIGHER grade level which makes them more difficult to read for many people. Translations that focus on reader comprehension, appeal to a LOWER reading level and LOWER accuracy to the original text. If you want to find a good version that is easy for you to read, yet is faithful to the original Word of God, then compare some of these versions below.

Bible_Comp_Rom6

NOTE

The Message is put in here as a reference only. It should not be considered a true translation, Rather it is far more of a commentary because the author has added words and phrases that appear nowhere in the original text. The author inserts his own theological interpretations which are not necessarily faithful to the revealed doctrines of God. CLICK HERE to learn more on why the Message is not a Bible translation.

There are a lot of bad translations out there as some companies are more concerned with increased sales and some so called “scholars” are more concerned with social reform than obedience to God. That being said, there are also a lot of good ones out there to choose from as well.

Which Translation Should I Buy?

1. Your primary study Bible should come from the Literal and Formal end of the spectrum.

  • English Standard Version (ESV)  – 10th grade reading level
  • Lexham English Bible (LEB) – 11th grade reading level
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB95) – 11th grade reading level
  • New King James Version (NKJV) – 7th grade reading level

2. As a secondary Bible for devotionals, prayer and meditation, I encourage you to use a Bible from the Dynamic part of the spectrum.

  • Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) – ??? grade reading level
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) – 7th grade reading level
  • New English Translation (NET) – 6th grade reading level

3. An Expanded or Paraphrased translation may help you by providing some good commentary on each passage.

  • New Testament: An Expanded Translation by Kenneth S. Wuest (WUEST) – ??? grade reading level
  • New Living Translation (NLT) – 6th grade reading level

4. For a variety of reasons, I do not recommend the following translations

  • New International Version 2011 (NIV11) (more info here)  – 7th grade reading level
  • The Message (download PDF analysis here)  – 4th grade reading level

This list of suggestions is in no way intended to be dogmatic. For those who have used the NIV and have invested in a study Bible, the suggestion would be to buy a cheap NASB95 to supplement their reading of the NIV. Again, the goal is not to convert people to a particular translation, rather it is to help each Christian discover how to read and understand the translation they have and how to use complementary translations to feed their understanding.

Here is a little hint. You may be surprised how helpful it can be to use two or more translations; sometimes it can even be more helpful than reading a commentary!

Should I Buy A Study Bible?

Now some may ask, “what about all those study Bibles?” Most English Bibles printed today have special study aids to help you understand what God is trying to say through the Bible.

1. Commentary is Just Commentary

The first thing you need to know is that these study notes are NOT equal in authority with the actual Bible text. These study notes are simply other people’s opinions about the Bible and do not have the same value or reliability or authority. The people who write commentaries are just people like you and me. They may have more education, but that does not mean they write things that are inspired or on par with Scripture. It is dangerous when the commentary of Man becomes equal (whether by accident or not) with the Doctrines of God.

2. The Text is Best

The second thing is that you do not need a special study Bible to understand what God is saying. Study notes can be of some help in giving you background information and cultural insights, but study notes can never replace God’s ability to teach you by the power of His Spirit through the Christian disciplines of prayer and meditation. Often times these study Bibles can hinder the readers ability to understand the Scripture. The reader can become laxidasical and focus so much on the notes that they forget to pray and seek God’s illumination on the passage before they seek advice or input from another writer.

In some respect, the commentary printed within the Bible is a corruption of the text. It often times removes the authority from God’s Word and places it onto a human commentator. More concerning is that often times people read and get the Scripture confused with commentary and at a later date think they have read something that is in the “Bible” which is really only in the commentary. The more separate the text is the more authority is reserved to the Bible in the mind of the reader.

3. Recommendations

  • Buy a Bible with no commentary at all, really it is ok!
  • Find a Bible that has less commentary and large margins for your own notes Generally these are called inductive study Bibles.
  • Avoid “study” Bibles that are too targeted; “teen” study Bible,”women’s” study bible, “prophecy” study bibles, “hunter”s study bible”, etc…. The more narrow the commentary the more narrowly you will read the text of Scripture which will hinder the broader application of passages to your life.
  • Instead of relying on a commentary stuck into your Bible, buy a separate commentary that you can turn to when you need it. Yes, it is inconvenient to have it separate, but that “inconvenience” can help you learn to struggle through the text without turning too quickly to the commentary.
  • If you “must” get a Bible with the study notes included, the only one I recommend is the ESV Study Bible. It has excellent notes, images, and graphics.

I am New To The Bible. Where Do I Start?

A lot of people try to read their Bible from cover to cover. Few make it all the way through. This approach is difficult because the books of the Bible are not arranged so that one book always leads directly to the next. If you want to get a good overview, start by reading the gospel of John (New Testament) and then Genesis (Old Testament). By reading these two books, you get an overview of the life of Jesus and the big picture of God’s creation and man’s need for God.

Despite the NIV lineage, I am a big fan of “The Story” which is put out by Zondervan. They have arranged the text of the Bible in its Historical order—that is the order in which the Bible events occurred. “The Story” allows the stories, poems, and teachings of the Bible to read like a novel.  This approach is a great way to get yourself immersed in the “big picture” of the Scripture while, at the same time, you use the translations I listed above to begin your deeper study.

If you already have a familiarity with the Bible, you may want to start off reading the book of Romans or find a good study program. And no matter which translation you chose or where you starting reading, please remember that the Bible was written by different authors over many centuries, but there is complete unity in every conceivable aspect of Scripture. God is the sovereign author of each word in Scripture and thus no author or book can be considered independent. Each book is a testimony, one to the other, of the Truth of God’s plan of salvation for his chosen people. We worship the One true God who inspired only one unified and effective written Word.

FOOTNOTES

* Weust’s work is unique from most other paraphrases. The reading level is a bit higher than most (my guess of 11th grade is just that… a guess), but it is very readable and easy to understand.

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for emerging leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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