best translation for studying the Bible

Which Translation is Best for Bible Study?

I can think of nothing more important in Bible study than the Bible itself.  But the first question you will encounter is, “Which translation should I use for Bible study?”  To make that decision you need to know a little bit about how each version has come about and the philosophies of Bible translation.

In the late 14th century, John Wycliffe produced the first complete English language Bible — often called Wycliffe’s Bible. His New Testament was completed in 1380 and the Old Testament a few years later.  The result has been a host of English translations up to modern times.  Bible translation gave rise to a science known as textual criticism.  Textual criticism concerns itself with the historicity and accuracy of ancient Bible texts and any internal mistakes made by the copyists who copied the ancient texts. 

The rise of translations not only birthed textual criticism, but also philosophies of how the ancient texts should be translated; either word for word or idea for idea.  Major Bible translations typically reflect one of three general philosophies: formal equivalence, functional equivalence, and optimal equivalence. Formal equivalence is called a word-for-word translation and attempts to translate the Bible as literally as possible, keeping the sentence structure and idioms intact if possible.  Functional equivalence is typically referred to as a thought-for-thought translation. This is an attempt to translate the text so it has the same effect on the current reader as it had on the ancient reader.  Translations are seldom purely formal or dynamic, but do favor one theory or the other. Optimal equivalence recognizes that the form should not be changed unless comprehension demands it. The primary goal of optimal equivalence translations is to convey a sense of the original text with as much clarity as possible.

Each translation approach has its strengths and weaknesses.  Each translation philosophy plays an important part in personal Bible study.  As I have stated in an earlier post, Bible study involves words, parts of speech, literary devices and sentence structure.  Therefore, personal Bible study should begin with a word-for-word translation.  You want a translation that is going to come as close as possibly to translating the passage literally.  If you are studying a text with the word “transgression” in it, you want to be assured that’s an English equivalent of the Hebrew or Greek word.  Also, you will want to look up individual words in a concordance or Bible dictionary.  In addition, literal translations will keep the historical distance correct at all points. 

Word-for-word translations can come across as wooded or stilted.  The Greek and Hebrew is translated into English, but not like spoken English.  No one who speaks English is likely to say “coals of fire” (Romans 12:20, King James Version), instead he would say “burning coals” (New International Version) or “live coals” (New English Bible).  Secondly, word-for-word translations often make the English ambiguous, where the Greek or Hebrew was quite clear to the original recipients.  Generally speaking, English has only three tenses:  past, present and future; but Greek and Hebrew are much more expressive in each one’s tenses.  This does not always come through in a literal approach to translation.

Functional equivalence, or thought-for-thought translations can bring much to Bible study as well.  These translations keep historical distance on historical and most factual matters, but update matters of language, grammar, and style.  These translations attempt to be precise for the reader in issues such as words, idioms and grammatical constructions.  These translations are good to get the flow of thought in a passage.  Additional words or phrases are often supplied (and noted) to assist the reader in understanding the text.  The down side is that this translation tries to help the original author too much.  Also, the translation can be more of a commentary than an accurate rendering of the ancient text. 

Optimal equivalence begins with an analysis of the ancient biblical text at every level (word, phrase, clause, sentence, discourse) to determine its original meaning and intention. Then biblical experts, using the best language tools available, translate the semantic and linguistic equivalents into a readable text as best as possible. This process assures the maximum transfer of both the words and thoughts of the original.  Optimal equivalence does not settle for a translation that merely “makes sense.” The goal is naturalness of expression. This often requires a footnote giving the literal rendering of a word or phrase that has had to be translated idiomatically.  The optimal equivalence is somewhere between the word-for-word translations and the thought-for-thought translations. 

Here is a comparison between word-for-word, thought-for-thought and optimal equivalence:

I prefer a literal translation for Bible study and personal reading.  I study, preach and teach out of the New King James Version, however I prefer devotional reading in the English Standard Version.  Paraphrases are good to read as a devotional resource or as a simple to read commentary on the text. Paraphrases are good to quote to your audience as you teach.  Despite which text you study and teach out of it is imperative that you explain words, phrases and sentences to your listeners. In the end, your listeners will gravitate toward whichever version of the Bible from which you consistently teach.  Select one version and stick to it.  Your audience will thank you for it.

Word-for-word translations include:  New American Standard, English Standard Version, King James, New King James (my favorite for studying and preaching), Revised Standard Version.  Though-for-thought translations include:  New Revised Standard, New International Version, New Living Translation, Today’s New International Version, New Jerusalem Bible and the New Century Version.  Paraphrase translations include:  New International Reader’s Version, Good News Translation, Contemporary English Version, The Living Bible, and The Message.  Optimal equivalence translations include:  Holman Christian Standard.

There is no need to go out and buy multiple versions of the Bible.  There are numerous websites that will allow you to read, study and compare the Bible in multiple versions.  My two favorite sites are Blue Letter Bible and Bible Gateway.

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