From time to time I get asked what the best Bible translation is. This sounds like an innocent enough question, but before answering, it’s important to understand the motivation behind the question. This inquiry generally comes from one of three types of people:
- Someone who is relatively new to the Bible and wants some basic advice on where to start.
- Someone who has been around the Bible for a while and has always used whatever Bible their church or family used is now looking to expand their engagement with the text.
- Someone who is trying to gauge your theological position and peg you as a hopeless liberal or an out-of-touch conservative.
Each of those circumstances merits their own response:
Q: What’s the best Bible translation? There are so many choices available — I don’t even know where to start. I’m not really familiar with the Bible, so I want something that’s easy to understand but is still reliable and accurate. Help!
A: If you’re relatively new to the Bible, then I highly recommend a study bible, such as the NIV Study Bible. I think the NIV is the best all-round translation currently available, but be sure to get the 2011 version, not the earlier 1984 version (check the copyright date). Or, for a more ecumenical perspective (i.e. less evangelical), the HarperCollins Study Bible (NRSV) is also a great choice. If you don’t want or need the extra notes and commentary that come with a study Bible, then I’d look for the same translations in a regular edition that best suits your needs: something compact if you’re going to be carrying it around a lot or something larger for general reading. The NRSV Standard Bible or the NIV Single-Column Reference Bible are great places to start. If you can, it’s always a good idea to take a look at a Bible before purchasing it, in order to get a hands-on feel for the type size and margins and the overall size and weight of it. For a text that’s challenging enough on its own, there’s no point in struggling with microscopic type and transparent tissue paper pages! In short, find an edition that’s comfortable on your eyes and in your hands (and on your wallet!) in a good general purpose translation (such as those mentioned above) and don’t worry about the translation wars that consume so much time and energy within the church.
Q: What’s the best Bible translation? I’ve always just used the KJV because that’s what my church used, but now I want to study the Bible more.
A: If you’ve ever only used one translation, it’s time to expand your horizons and see what else is out there, especially if you’ve only been using the KJV or NKJV. Don’t get me wrong, those versions are beautiful and important works, but when it comes to accuracy and readability there are much better options available. For reading large chunks of text, the NLT is great. For detailed translation notes, you can’t beat the NET. Or try the New Jerusalem Bible or The Kingdom New Testament for a perspective you may not be familiar with. Learn about different translation philosophies and their strengths and weaknesses. In short, don’t be afraid to try something new and don’t limit yourself to a single translation.
Q: What’s the best Bible translation, so that I can judge your theology and possibly your salvation?