Friday, November 26, 2021

English Bible Translations: Favorites

      But be people who do the word, not merely people who hear it and deceive themselves. Someone who hears the word and doesn’t do it, you see, is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror. He notices himself, but then he goes away and quickly forgets what he looked like. But the person who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and goes on with it, not being a hearer who forgets but a deer who does the deed — such a person is blessed in their doing.

-James 1:22-25 (The Kingdom New Testament, 2011)

This is the tenth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. The series starts here, if you’d like to go back and review the older posts.

     I thought I’d finish up these posts with a list of five translations I find myself using the most. Some of them we’ll have looked at already. A couple will be new. I’ll also include a list of three digital Bible study resources I use regularly. I’m including these, not because I think anyone ought to necessarily use what I use, but because it can be challenging to make heads or tails of the sheer number of translations, revisions, and paraphrases available in English. My list includes the translations I’ve found myself coming back to again and again.

     First, a word about criteria. I choose to use — or not to use — a Bible translation for basically two  reasons:

A solid base text. All of the “witnesses” to the biblical text — full and fragmentary manuscript copies, versions in ancient languages, and quotations from church leaders older than any known manuscripts — need to be compared and collated. None are exactly alike, and so a lot of detective work has to be done to figure out what the original texts of the Bible actually said. The scholars who have done this work have produced Hebrew Old Testaments and Greek New Testaments with significant variant readings noted called critical editions. They’re the bases on which all good English translations rest.

     The introductions of most Bible translations will indicate which critical editions were used. Most modern translations come from some edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (Greek New Testament) and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart Hebrew Bible). These are considered state of the art. A few translations (like the KJV and NKJV) use Greek and Hebrew critical editions considered by most scholars to be less reliable. A few (the ESV is an example) use critical editions that differ from, but are not necessarily less reliable than, Nestle-Aland or BHS.

Readability. I’m looking for contemporary language, nothing archaic. I prefer a translation that sounds more or less like people speak and write today. The Bible was originally written in the contemporary language of regular people, and I think a translation should be as well. There’s no reason at all that an accurate English translation of the Bible shouldn't be understandable to anyone who understands English. Especially for public use, I want a translation written at a 7th grade or below reading level. (Almost all modern translations are.)

So, roughly in order of usage, here are my top five English translations:

  1. The New International Version. For me, the NIV hits the perfect sweet spot of literalness and readability. Those who prefer more literal translations will tell you it’s too paraphrased, and those who like paraphrases will tell you it’s too literal. That suggests to me that it occupies a solid middle ground. It’s versatile, equally good for personal devotional reading, deeper study, and public use. It benefits from having been around a long time, and from having plenty of resources for improvement. Its 2011 revision smoothed over some rough spots. It’s a committee translation, which guards against bias. It’s available in most every digital platform and in countless formats and editions in binding and paper. 
  2. The New English Translation. (Not to be confused with the New English Bible!) Also called the NET Bible. This isn’t one I’ve mentioned so far, but I use it nearly every day. It’s a fairly free translation from 2006 that sometimes settles on some interesting or odd readings, depending on your perspective. For me, its chief feature is a set of extensive notes — almost 61,000! — that contain more word-for-word readings, explanations for the translation adopted, possible alternate translations, and excellent study notes. It’s also a committee translation. The really great thing about it is that the translation and its notes are available for free online. It’s also available in Bible study software like Accordance. You can buy a binding and paper version as well, if you prefer. 
  3. The New Revised Standard Version. This is a more literal but very readable translation, in the best tradition of the King James Version. A revision of the Revised Standard Version, it’s a frequent choice for pew Bibles in mainline Protestant and some Catholic churches. It’s also a committee translation that incorporates Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and (for the Old Testament) Jewish scholars. Again, it’s available in most every digital Bible study platform, and in binding and paper in a huge variety of formats.
  4. The New Living Translation. In fairness, I should mention that my son works for the NLT’s publisher, Tyndale. That being said, I’ve used the NLT since it was published in 1996, long before they employed him. It isn’t as free as the translation it originally aimed to revise, the Living Bible, but it’s still a very free translation, bordering on paraphrase. (Though it includes notes that often provide more literal translations.) That isn’t a negative, though; sometimes comparing the NLT with a more literal translation gives me a new insight into a passage that I hadn’t considered before. It’s a committee translation, like the others on my list so far.
  5. The Kingdom New Testament. This one you likely haven’t heard of. It’s a New Testament-only translation by N.T. Wright, originally from his very accessible series of commentaries on the New Testament. Wright, formerly Anglican Bishop of Durham and now a senior research fellow at Oxford, is one of the pre-eminent New Testament scholars of our time. He is also a good writer and has a strong commitment to the authority of the Bible for the church. Wright’s translation is very British (as you’d expect) and free. It will surprise you in places, and in other places make you scratch your head, but all in all it’s a translation I get a lot out of. I’ve most recently read through the New Testament in this translation.

     I could probably do another post on digital resources, and maybe I will sometime. The best variety of translations are on websites like Bible Gateway and YouVersion — both have 60 or more English translations available. Both also have reading plans, study guides, and other resources that you can use individually or with others, as well as useful mobile apps that give you access to Scripture from your phone or tablet. Monthly subscriptions give you access to other resources. 

     I also use Accordance Bible software, available for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android, which offers different modules that include numerous translations, commentaries, study notes, atlases, lexicons, dictionaries, and other resources, all cross-referenced with the text. Currently, the starter package is on sale for $49.95.

     I hope this series of posts has been a blessing to you. If you’re struggling to read the Bible, maybe a new translation will help. If I can be of assistance, leave a comment or contact me.

     May God bless you as a doer of the word.

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