The Bible is of greatest importance in the life of every Christian. It is the one and only means of receiving authoritative and specific communication from his/her God. It is the chief weapon in the spiritual conflict that he/she wages from day to day.
English-speaking Christians face a unique challenge, that of choosing which version of the Bible they will use. The multiple options available to them pose a problem of immense proportions, which has never before existed in the history of the Christian church, or at least, has not existed in the same degree of complexity as it does at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The availability of so many translations of the Bible in the English language creates an unparalleled dilemma. The existence of many versions is advantageous in making the gospel known more widely, but it is disadvantageous because a choice of the ‘best’ translation for regular use becomes more complex.
“Which bible translation should I use?” is one of the most frequent questions that we are asked. This is a very important decision, because we need to be able to have confidence in the Bible we read and study and memorize.
Statements of faith about the Word of God:
The Lausanne Covenant (1974)
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We also affirm the power of God’s word to accomplish his purpose of salvation. The message of the Bible is addressed to all mankind. For God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole church ever more of the many-coloured wisdom of God. (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21; John 10:35; Isaiah 55:11; 1 Corinthians 1:21; Romans 1:16; Matthew 5:17-18; Jude 3; Ephesians 1:17-18; 3:10, 18)
Harvest Christian Church: We believe in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments in their original writing as fully inspired of God and accept them as the supreme and final authority for faith, life and the governance of this Church.
2 Tim 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
All of the Bible in the original languages, every word in the Bible is to be considered the Word of God. The expression “breathed out by God” is a metaphor that implies that we should think of the words of Scripture as words actually spoken by God. Peter also emphasizes the divine origin of Scripture when he says that “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:21
The authors of Scripture, as they wrote, were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” indicating an overall superintendence and direction of their activity such that all of Scripture is from God.
But does ALL SCRIPTURE mean the individual words themselves, or only the thoughts or ideas expressed by those words?
Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Prov 30:5
The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. Ps 12:6
Here it states that every spoken or written word of God is true and it is perfectly pure, in the sense that the meaning that each word contributes to its overall context is reliable and trust worthy and perfect, with no impurities in them, and God’s word conforms to reality, and communicates exactly what an omniscient and all-wise God intends it to communicate. Jesus also said “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” Mt4:4
Finally, at the end of Rev 22:18-19 we read “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
Seeing the importance of what God himself says about every word of Scripture – either adding to them or omitting from them – we see the huge responsibility upon the translation of the Scriptures into another language. If all the words are from God, then translators should translate no less than the original. If we are convinced that all the words of Scripture in the original manuscripts are from God, then it is important to focus on accurately translating the meaning of each word in its context.
The Source Documents
The Bible is a compilation of God’s dealings with mankind, written over a period of about 1’500 years (1400 BC – 90 AD). There are 66 books in the Bible which were written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) by forty different authors, each with their own cultural, historical and educational backgrounds. The one thing they all had in common was that they were inspired by God to write and record what we have today.
-The Original Languages of the Bible
The Old Testament was mainly written in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. The New Testament was written in koine Greek – the language of the common, everyday people, not the classic Greek of the poets and philosophers.
During the centuries immediately before Christ the Hebrew Old Testament was translated by scholars in Egypt into Greek, called the Septuagint – LXX – probably so called because there were about 70 translators.
Due to the amount of very early manuscripts, we may be confident we have the original words of Scripture. Although we have no original manuscripts of the Hebrew or Greek Testaments, we have tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the end of the first century after Christ, more than any other ancient book.
-The Old Testament texts: No document before the printing press was more carefully copied than the OT. The most important witness to the OT text is called the Masoretic text. Scribes, called Masoretes, were active a.d. 500–1000. They were not innovators but careful preservers of the consonantal text, the vowels, and accents of the Hebrew text. The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, which date from 250 BC to 70AD, testify to the careful transmission of the OT text and the reliability of the Masoretic Text.
The oldest complete Hebrew text dates from the 10th century – Aleppo codex and the Leningrad Codex. The Leningrad Codex forms the textual base for the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, which is the Hebrew text used for most English translations.
-The New Testament texts: Because not one original writing (autograph) of any NT book still exists, we depend on copies for reconstructing the original text. More than 6000 copies of parts or of all of the New Testament are available today for translators. Many of these manuscripts date from a couple of decades after the originals were written.
In 1516 Erasmus compiled a Greek New testament from manuscripts available to him. This is called the Textus Receptus and was based on about a dozen Greek manuscripts dating from 1000AD. However, in subsequent centuries, many new manuscripts and complete NT were discovered, for example the Codex Siniaticus and the codex Vaticanus which dates back to the 4th century AD. These older manuscripts form the text base of the Nestle-Aland Novum testamentum Graece which is the Greek text that most Bible translators use.
English Bible History (in a nutshell)
As the gospel spread and churches multiplied in the early centuries of the Christian era, Christians in various countries wanted to read the bible in their own language. As a result, many translations were made in several different languages – as early as the 2nd century, eg in Coptic for Egyptians, Syriac for Aramic, gothic for Germanic people and in Latin for Romans.
In 405 BC Jerome used the Hebrew bible, and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew bible) to translate the OT into Latin. He used Greek manuscripts (that were available to him, but lost to us) to translate the NT into Latin. This was called the Latin Vulgate. In it he separated the apocrypha from the canonical books. This Latin bible was used extensively by the church for centuries and centuries.
The gospel came to England by missionaries from Rome in the 6th century and with them came the Latin Vulgate. Some early translations into Old English were done by Caedmon, the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great and others.
In the 1380’s John Wycliffe and some associates translated the Latin Vulgate into the English language of the day. They were not familiar with Hebrew and Greek. The Wycliffe Bible is therefore a translation of a translation.
During the renaissance (1500) came the resurgence of the study of the classics and with it the resurgence of the study of Greek, as well as Hebrew. – thus for the 1st time in 1000 years scholars began to read the bible in its original languages. (Latin was the dominant language of scholarship 500-1500).
William Tyndale studied the Scriptures in Oxford in Greek and Hebrew and he committed his life to translating the Bible from the original languages into English so that it could be put into the hands of the laity. The English church of the day, which was still under Rome’s authority strongly opposed him and he left for Germany. Here he met Luther who translated the NT into German. Tyndale translated the NT in English (1525). Both used the Greek Text by Erasmus (1516). Tyndale’s translation was banned in England, he was arrested, tried and condemned to death. He was strangled and burnt at the stake on Oct 6, 1536. His final words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”. One of Tyndale’s associates, Myles Coverdale finished the work begun by Tyndale in 1537. By this time the king, Henry VIII had broken all ties with the pope and royal approval was given to Coverdale’s Translation – based on the work done by Tyndale. Tyndale’s prayer on the stake was answered. It was around this time that chapter and verse divisions were added to the Bible.
[A revision of Tyndale’s Bible, called the Great Bible were printed in the early 1540’s, but then parliament passed a law in 1543 restricting the public use of any English translation. Many English translations were burned at this time, as well as many protestants. Some of them fled to Geneva in Switzerland. Here a new English bible saw the light – called the Geneva bible – translated from Beza’s Latin translation and Greek text. The Great bible was also updated and became known as the Bishop’s Bible. This continued in use until the King James Version came in 1611.]
King James authorized more than 50 scholars, trained in Hebrew and Greek, to start with a new translation into the English language. The scholars were instructed to follow the Bishop’s Bible as the basic version, as long as it adhered to the original text, and to consult the translations of Tyndale etc, when they appeared to contain more accurate renderings of the original languages. The Greek Textus Receptus of Erasmus was used for the New Testament and the Hebrew Masoretic Text for the OT. This was published in 1611. The KJV has become an enduring monument of English prose because of its gracious style, majestic language and poetic rhythms. No other book has had such an influence of English literature and no other translation has touched the lives of so many English –speaking people for centuries and centuries.
The KJV became the most popular English translation, but there were some problems:
- Knowledge of Hebrew was inadequate in the 17th century. The Hebrew Masoretic text they used were adequate, but not their understanding of Hebrew vocabulary.
- Also, the Greek text underlying the NT of the KJV was an inferior text, the Textus Receptus of Erasmus, which was based on very late Byzantine manuscripts dating from the 10th-13th centuries. These manuscripts were far inferior to earlier manuscripts.
As new manuscripts were discovered – esp the codex Vaticanus (325), Siniaticus (350) and Alexandrinus (5th century AD) – the need for a new translation became apparent in the 20th century. In 1901 the very accurate, literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures appeared, called the American Standard Version.
From the 1970’s we saw a constant stream of new translations hitting our shelves and as a result we need to understand the philosophy behind all these new translations. All translations from the source language into another language will have some interpretation, accuracy might be compromised with too much interpretation. In a sense it is Accuracy vs Readability.
The two main streams of translation philosophy are:
- Essentially literal Translation
An essentially literal translation translates the meaning of every word in the original language, understood correctly in its context, into its nearest English equivalent, and attempts to express the result with ordinary English word order and style, as far as that is possible without distorting the meaning of the original.
This is also called a Word for word translation in that it attempts to represent the meaning of every word in the original in some way or other in the resulting translation. This translation philosophy is also called Formal equivalence, because it seeks to retain the form of the Hebrew or Greek while producing basically understandable English. The focus of these translations is foremost on the original languages as that which was verbally inspired by God. Due to the emphasis being on the accurate translation of the words and grammar/ form of the source languages translated, these translations are often a bit more difficult to read in the Target Language. They make for the best bibles to use for study, though, due to their closeness to the original languages. Examples of these are the KJV (NKJV), NASB, ESV. Die Afrikaanse Ou Vertaling 1957. ‘n Nuwe Direkte Vertaling word later vanjaar verwag wat ook in hierdie klas sal val.
- Dynamic Equivalence
A dynamic equivalence translation translates the thoughts or ideas of the original text into similar thoughts or ideas in English and attempts to have the same impact on modern readers as the original and on its own audience. These are also known as thought for thought translations. The emphasis and focus of these translations is primarily on the Target Language, on the reader of English. Functional equivalence, also known as idiomatic or meaning-based translation, seeks to reproduce its meaning in good idiomatic (natural) English.
Advocates of functional equivalence stress that the translation should sound as clear and natural to the contemporary reader as the original text sounded to the original readers. Due to the focus, accuracy to the original texts are often sacrificed for the sake of readability, esp when you move on to paraphrases – which are free translations trying to create the same experience for contemporary readers as the original readers would have had. Examples of DE are the New Living Translation, the Good News Bible and Contemporary English Version. Paraphrases and very free translations are the Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor and the Message by Eugene Peterson en in Afrikaans – Die Boodskap en die Lewende Vertaling. These Bibles are great reading bibles and can bring fresh eyes to devotional reading, but they lack the accuracy of portraying what the original author wrote.
|ESSENTIALLY LITERAL||MEDIATING translations||FUNCTIONAL
|Formal Equivalent||Dynamic Equivalent||Free Translation|
|Word for word||Thought for Thought
|Prioritize Source Language||Prioritize Receptor Language|
|Semantic Translation||Communicative Translation|
|Faithful Translation||Idiomatic Translation|
NKJV- New King James
NASB-New American Std
OAV- Ou Afrikaans 1957
Direkte Afr Vertaling 2016
HCSB-Holman Ch Std
NAV-Nuwe Afrikaans 1983
|NLT- New Living
CEV- Contem English
GNB- Good News
GW- God’s Word
All Bible translations lie on a spectrum between Essentially Literal translations and Dynamic Equivalence translations. Between the very accurate, but difficult to read Literal translations and the very free paraphrases is some mediating translations like the NIV and NET en die Afrikaanse Nuwe Vertaling 1983. The NIV excels in idiomatic accuracy. It remembers that not only the words of the original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek—are inspired by God, but so also are the phrases, the sentences, the idioms, the kinds of writing that make up the Bible, and all must be taken into account and worked through to generate a smooth and faithful translation.
So Which Bible Translation?
The best translation is one that remains faithful to the original meaning of the text, but uses language that sounds as clear and natural to the modern reader as the Hebrew or Greek did to the original readers. Another way to say this is that the best translation retains historical distance when it comes to history and culture (enabling the reader to enter the ancient world of the text), but eliminates that distance when it comes to language (using words and phrases that are clear and natural English).
Choose the Translation You Will Read
At the end of the day, almost any translation of the Bible can be a good one. They each have their strengths; they each have their weaknesses. When it comes to the common question, “Which translation is the best one?” the answer, in some ways, is simply, “Whichever one you will read.” If a Bible never leaves your shelf, its merits and pitfalls don’t really make much difference. I would recommend something near the center of the chart for a regular reading Bible. But really, whatever Bible you will use regularly is the one that is best for you.
Study from Multiple Translations
Recognize that all translation is interpretation. While almost all translations are good and accurate, when reading the Bible in English, you are already removed somewhat from the Bible as it was originally written. What you are reading inherently contains the interpretive choices of the translators. This is not a bad thing, but it needs to be recognized.
There is great benefit in using more than one version. This is because no version can capture all of the meaning, and different versions capture different facets of meaning. It is especially helpful to use versions from across the translation spectrum: essentially literal, functional, and mediating. A good mediating version like the NIV is probably the best overall version for one’s primary Bible, since it maintains a nice balance between accuracy and readability. The essentially literal versions (NRSV, NASU, ESV, RSV) are helpful tools for detailed study, since they seek to retain the structure, idioms, verbal allusions, and ambiguities of the original text. Great benefit can also be gained from the functional equivalent versions (NLT, NCV, GNT, CEV, GW), since these use natural English and so provide fresh eyes on the text. They are particularly helpful for new Bible readers, who are unfamiliar with traditional Bible language.
While I recommend having one “primary reading Bible,” I would suggest that one of the best habits you can form is to never study from only one translation. When you are really digging into Corinthians for that Bible study, read the passage from a few different translations. Take note of where they differ. The differences you see between them will give you a good indication of where there may be a textual difficulty in the originals or where there may be several possible ways to render the original language into English. You’ll get the best understanding of the passage if you compare translations from opposite ends of the spectrum. Compare a more functionally equivalent translation with something on the more formal end of the spectrum. Most of these translations are now available free in online formats (e.g. the YouVersion Bible app).
Use a Good Study Bible
Finally, I would recommend that you make use of a good study Bible. The additional information you will glean from the study notes will enrich your study in ways that you can’t imagine. The Zondervan NIV Study Bible is excellent. The ESV Study Bible is one of the most helpful such tools I’ve ever seen. The NET Bible notes are unsurpassed in text-critical questions. Whatever you choose to use, a good study Bible can give you a wealth of background information that you won’t get by reading only the Bible.
Just remember: the Notes, articles and commentaries in these Bibles are not inspired
Use one that was compiled by a team of Scholars, not just by one person. This wil contain only their interpretation of the Scripture.
So, what did I end up choosing? After looking through quite a few, I have opted to use the ESV Study Bible as my primary reading Bible. For my Precept Studies I use the NASB and the ESV, I also regularly compare the KJV, the NET, and the NIV & NLT, and I occasionally consult the Message.
But my choices shouldn’t necessarily be yours. You should make your own decision, and whatever you choose to use, read it.
I am reminded of when I read through the story of Augustine’s conversion in The Confessions. As he wrestled with his own depravity, having for so long been afflicted by his own wretchedness, he found himself sitting alone in a garden with his bitter tears pouring out under a fig tree. As he wept, he heard the voice of a child nearby, repeating the phrase, “take up and read; take up and read.” Interpreting the words as a “command from heaven to open the book,” he picked up a copy of the book of Romans, began to read, and found in the Scriptures the light of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. And none of us has ever been the same since. As he heard so long ago, I encourage you with advice that will change the life of all who will heed it;
Tolle Lege, (Take up and read)