Which English Bible translation should I use? Dr. Greg Lanier shares guiding questions to consider when choosing an English translation of the Bible.
People often ask, “Which English Bible translation should I use?” The way I would answer that is first recognizing—and maybe this is news for some folks—that no English translation is perfect. We are fallible people, and anyone who knows multiple languages realizes that there’s often a variety of ways that you could translate from one language—in this case, the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew and part Aramaic Old Testament—into a new language. Certainly anyone that I’ve met, assorted colleagues who do serious study in the original languages, recognizes that the vast majority of English translations on the market, with a few exceptions, are quite good. The question is sort of, they’re good in a certain direction, so that’s what I want to probe.
Three Factors for Choosing an English Bible Translation
It’s simply a question of really three factors whenever it comes down to choosing an English translation. One is translation philosophy. One is often not discussed, but it’s something called register. And then the last is: are there peripheral things in a given Bible that you like, such as a study Bible and those kinds of things?
1. Translation Philosophy
Let me address those first in terms of translation philosophy. Most English translations will describe how they do it in their introductory materials. There’s a handful of different ways of approaching translation. You can strive to be closer to the syntax and the wording of the original. This is often referred to as “formal equivalence.” Or you can strive to be less woodenly tied to the original and trying to be at least more idiomatically easy to read and so forth in English. Sometimes you can achieve both. And so which one of those is right isn’t really the right question to ask. They serve different different objectives and different means, but that will lead to differences that you’ll notice in the final result.
The second one, which is related, is that of register. Not all English writings are the same grade level, so to speak. Certain famous classical authors are very difficult to read. It’s a very high register. You look at legal writings, scientific writings; they’re very difficult to read. Other things like novels or juvenile fiction, that kind of thing, are much easier to read. They’re at a lower grade level. English translations are making a decision: how sort of up-register do we want to go? Do we want to have this be accessible to a fifth grader or an eighth grader or something beyond or even younger than that? That’s also going to impact the translation results.
3. Additional Factors
Finally, you may end up choosing a study Bible that you like the notes and so forth, and that may push you in a certain direction. My favorite study Bible of all time, which unfortunately is out of print, is the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, and it only came out in the NIV. So if I wanted to use that Bible, I was stuck with that. And that’s OK. You may benefit from those tools.
Look to Your Own Needs to Decide on a Translation
All those factors go into the final product of an English translation. So the real question is, what are you going to use it for? You might have the luxury to buy multiple English translations and use them in different contexts. For instance, if you are preparing a sermon or a Bible study lesson, I would encourage you to pick a translation that is going to be closer to the original. It may be harder to read, but it’s going to get you closer to the syntax and able to do more stuff with it. That’s going to be stuff like the NASB, the English Standard Version, the new Christian Standard Bible, and a handful of others. They’re going to be closer to the original language.
The vast majority of English translations on the market, with a few exceptions, are quite good.If you are looking for a Bible that’s going to be useful for small groups, for your own personal devotions, for family worship, that kind of thing, you might pick something that is not necessarily as formally related to the Greek or Hebrew. It’s a bit easier to read in English, and that might push you in the direction of something like the NIV and so on. If you’re looking for something for your fourth grader as they start to read and you want to give them a Bible that is a bit easier, shorter sentences, that kind of thing, there may be some other options on the table that you would pursue for those needs or for someone who has a reading disadvantage and so forth. There’s a lot of things that go into it.
I would encourage anyone essentially to kind of weigh that out: what exactly am I going to be using it for? Talk to a pastor, get their advice as well to see what might be the best fit for you. At the end of the day, we’re blessed with 50, maybe even more than that, very good English translations. Are they all identical? No. And that’s because they have different purposes, different aims. They’re trying to get at a different readership. And that’s a good thing. In fact, we’re in an era where it’s a tremendous blessing to be able to go online or go to a store and pick from a wealth of very good English translations. And therefore, it’s not really something to kind of break up with your girlfriend about in terms of which one you ultimately land on. Generally speaking, you’ll be in a good place regardless of which way you go. The most important thing is to get one that you can read and understand.