The Bible: what version do you use?

It always strikes me as a little odd when different people profess to “prefer” different translations of the Bible. I’m sure it has been going on for many years, though it is something I have only recently become more sensitive to. I completed most of this blog post prior to a posting from RevdLesley on a very similar theme. Some of that post has been assimilated into this (with permission) and you can read the original post here.

A phrase (or something like it) that epitomises the idea which makes me uneasy is when someone says “I really like the way this version phrases [this particular passage]…” When I hear that, I can’t help but think what they really mean is “I prefer this version because it best backs up my pre-existing view.”

I am not a biblical scholar, and have no adequate training to be able to determine what is a “good” translation. For the sake of honesty, I have included at the bottom of this post a list of the versions I use in my bible studies. My purpose is not to endorse any particular version, nor to condemn any. I will merely question some and, in particular, the cherry-picked use of them to justify a point.

There seems to be something inherently dodgy when someone picks a version to use, on the stated basis that it words a particular passage particularly well, when a different wording in a different version would make the basis for that assertion less certain. What it implies, to me, is that the conclusion has been reached in advance of reading the text and that the speaker is going in support of their opinion. I don’t like this approach, as it can lead to a skewed view of scripture. Instead, is it not better to examine one version first (I would say it doesn’t matter which) and stick with that as your first port of call? If you need to check the translation, you can use a Hebrew/Greek bible with a dictionary; you don’t even need to be an expert in ancient languages.

There are myriad issues that have to be dealt with in biblical translation, due to the greatly differing nature of the languages the books were written in, and those which we use today (in my case, English).While we have plenty of translations available, this allows us to get on with examining what the message meant to the original readers and what relevance it still has for us today. As my old headteacher always said: a text, taken out of context, is a pretext.

Although I think it is a bit of a shorthand, I often hear people use the phrase “Jesus said” and then quote an English translation. Maybe I’m being too pernickety, but it does annoy me a little, since Jesus didn’t speak English. So he never said “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In all likelihood, he spoke Aramaic, rather than Greek, so even what we have recorded in the bible is a translation; a point, I think, missed by many Christians. So he didn’t even say: “Houtos gar agapao ho theos tou kosmos ho stetou huios autou tou monogenes didomi hina pas ho pisteuo eisau tou me apollymi alla echo zoe aionios.”

I have long been a believer in the idea that the Bible should be accessible to all, written in a way easily understandable, but which retains as close a faithfulness as possible to what we understand to be the original texts. Of course, this entails a great balancing act, and is, I think, impossible to get right all of the time. Of those versions (I would reservations about calling them translations) that try to go down the more “vulgar” route, in the true sense of the word, the most notable examples are the Good News Bible and, more recently, The Message. I always used the Good News when I was growing up in the Baptist church my parents went to; and it was seen as a children’s Bible, replete with line drawings that will be familiar to most of those who have grown up in churches over the past 30 years or so. I’m not sure when the Message first came out, though it garnered a lot of popularity when I was my late teens, and it seemed to directed at that age group. Though I would regard them as excellent introductions, from which to get the ‘gist’ of a passage, I would be extremely cautious about using them for anything else, given that much of the fine detail has been lost, and is much more subject to the individual interpretation of the writers who, I am led to understand, were not scholars of the original languages.

This contrasts with the latest version to hit the book stores: Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone. Readers of this blog will be aware that I admire the work of Wright and have the highest regard for him as a scholar of the New Testament. For several years now, he has been writing a series of books entitled “[x] for everyone” where [x] is usually the title of a New Testament book. These are meant as accessible guides to each book of the Bible. In each of these, Tom has provided his own translation of the texts, and this new translation is a compilation of all of these excerpts. On the post from RevLesley linked to above, there is a quote from Tom on why he felt dissatisfied with the NIV, and seems, in part, to explain his motivation for doing his own translation of the New Testament. I’ve not decided whether to buy Tom’s new translation, though through talking to his publisher on twitter, I may be going to see him at a talk and book signing later this month, which could make for an interesting lunch break.

The versions I use:

I tend to start with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This is largely because I have been informed by a pastor at a previous church, who was a reader in New Testament theology, that its New Testament translation is very good. Sometimes, the overtly gender neutrality of it annoys me, as it seems to be a rather politically correct. One of the reasons that I like to use this is that it’s the only bible I have which has a column of cross-references. So when I peruse a passage, I will follow up all the cross references, in order to try and get as complete a picture as possible.

If I’m out and about, needing to travel light, I have a small New International Version (NIV). It fits into my back pocket, so is great for portability, and tends to be a favourite amongst many churches.

My first choice for an “alternative version” will be the Amplified Bible. I like the idea of including connotations to the text, given that the original Greek and Hebrew would have carried many more overtones than a simple word-for-word translation. Although it takes a while to read through any passage, and the layout of the text is not as “reader-friendly” as some others, I find it a useful follow-up resource.

When I want to really get to grips with a text, I have an Interlinear Bible. This contains the text in Hebrew and Greek (depending on Old/New Testament) with a near-literal word-for-word translation below the line. In the margins is the equivalent English translation with good grammar. That’s because the Hebrew and Greek word ordering doesn’t always make sense in English. This version also contains the Strong’s Numbers which I look up in a concordance, and gives a fuller translation of each word, as well as the correct pronunciation.

My current church is very keen on the New Living Translation. I have never been able to find a bookshop that has this in print, so the only access I have to this is via an application on my phone. I don’t know much about the background of it, so if any of you know more about this than I, then I am willing to be informed.

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One response to “The Bible: what version do you use?

  1. KJV for the beauty of the language, NSRV as a working book. I appreciate what you say about the gender neutrality (the liturgical move to "God our Father and Mother" also felt clunky) but I think that is a valuable counterpoint to the 'habitude' we have of seeing things bigger than us in gendered terms. Thus, as it is countering an existing bias, it may itself appear to be biased! very interesting post, thanks.(having probs signing in, so – it's PhilippaB / Philby1976)