My favourite Bible versions

I’m doing some study on hermeneutics and the doctrine of Scripture at the moment, in preparation for a training course, and hopefully will find the time along the way to do some blogging. Today I want to touch on my three favourite versions of the Bible.

I’ve read right through the Bible in several different versions. As I child I used the Good News Bible (which I now read every night with my children), and the (sadly out of print) Revised Authorised Version which I did most of my Scripture memorisation in. In my teenage and university years I mainly used the New International Version (1984 edition). I spent a year using the New Living Translation, another using Today’s New International Version, and am currently reading the 2011 edition of the NIV. But my main Bible for the last 7 or 8 years has been the English Standard Version.

My feelings are that every Christian serious about studying the Scriptures would benefit from having at least three translations of the Bible, one from each of the three broad translation philosophies – literal, dynamic equivalence, and paraphrase. I won’t make this post ridiculously long by going into the pros and cons of each type, but I’ll briefly describe their benefits and mention my favourite version in the category.

1. Literal Translation

Literal translations attempt to provide one English word for each word in the original language. They try to keep the word order the same as much as is possible without producing nonsense. This can make for slightly awkward phrasing, but has the benefits of connecting you as closely as possible to the words and phrases used by the original authors. Where a term has special meaning (e.g. the way Paul uses “flesh”), it is up to you to learn what is meant by that. But the benefit is that you are not thrown off the scent by the translators attempt to explain it for you.

My choice of literal translation is the ESV. It’s not perfect, and I have written previously on this blog about some of my criticisms of it, as well as my disappointment that its supporters often seem to have an adversarial attitude towards other translations, but overall it is excellent, and I think special commendation should be given to Crossway for the way they have allowed electronic editions of the text to be available completely free of charge.

2. Dynamic Equivalence

Dynamic equivalence is what I would call the “normal” way of translating something into another language. You take it phrase by phrase and try to say the same thing that the original author was saying, but you say it in a way in which that idea would normally be communicated in the target language. This can mean some changes of idioms, or single words becoming phrases, but on the whole it still sticks closely to the sentence structure of the originals. This translation philosophy makes for good readability, while usually managing to avoid too many interpretive decisions being forced into the text.

The NIV stands out as a shining example of this translation technique. It became mired in controversy when the TNIV came out with its “brothers and sisters” leading some to see a hidden egalitarian agenda at play. I think that is a little unfair to the outstanding team of translators. The new 2011 version has retained gender neutral language, while making lots of improvements over the original NIV and TNIV, and I see no reason not to use it in preference to both. The 1984 NIV Study Bible was an outstanding resource, and I’m looking forward to getting hold of an updated version although from what I’ve heard, the notes haven’t been substantially revised.

I normally quote from the NIV when preaching, and it would be the version I would recommend to a new Christian.

3. Paraphrase

My final category is that of paraphrase. This philosophy gives a lot more freedom to the translators to rephrase things. They may even insert small phrases not present in the original if they think it would help the reader understand. It allows them to be creative so a pun in the original language might translated into different but equivalent pun in English.

These are often the work of a single author. For example Eugene Peterson’s The Message, or JB Phillips New Testament. More recently Tom Wright has created the Kingdom New Testament.

The big criticism of paraphrases is that they are most susceptible to importing the theology of the translator. So they have to be read with caution, and checked against other translations. But they can also do a brilliant job of shedding fresh light on familiar texts, and opening up some of the hard to understand parts of the Bible such as the Old Testament prophetic books.

For me, the New Living Translation is the best of the paraphrases. It is a mature translation, having undergone a thorough revision from the original Living Bible. And it is the work of a team of first-rate Bible scholars rather than just the work of one person which safeguards it from some of the eccentricities of other paraphrases (I confess to not being a big fan of the Message).

Anyway, that’s my three: ESV, NIV, NLT. What about you?

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