24 November 2015

Which translation of the bible is best?

Ah, the quest for the perfect bible translation… which doesn’t exist.

HE. “So lemme ask you: Which version of the bible do you use? Which one’s the best?”
ME. “None of ’em. Learn Hebrew and Greek.”

The look of horror and despair on people’s faces is why I usually give that answer to that question. “What, learn ancient languages? That’ll take years!” Yes it will; it took me years. But I’m kidding of course.

Okay yes, for serious bible study I read the original languages. That’s why I bothered to learn ’em. But English is my first language, and when I just need to read a bible, I use an English-language bible.

  • I have two 3×5 “analog bibles”—you know, actual books, which don’t require batteries. Really small print, but thankfully I don’t need glasses just yet. One’s a New American Standard Bible, and the other an English Standard Version.
  • On my phone and tablet: Olive Tree. It’s free, it works when I’m offline, it includes Hebrew and Greek text, plus an ESV and a King James Version.
  • On my laptop and desktop: Accordance. Which is not free, but I consider it totally worth it. I’ve sunk a whole lot of money into a whole lot of translations and references.
  • On my iPod: The Bible Experience in Today’s New International Version (now defunct; its publishers updated it with the 2011 edition of the NIV) and The Daily Message.
  • On my bookshelf, various analog bibles.
  • And when I lack access to my own stuff, there’s always Bible Gateway.

But which translation do I use most? Probably the New Living Translation, ’cause it’s the one my church uses, and the one I tend to use with new Christians and kids. It’s easy to understand, and that’s the most valuable asset of any bible translation. When any bible is hard to understand, it means the translators didn’t do their job, which is to get the language barrier out of the way. Too many translators forget to do that: They’re trying too hard to follow the original text “literally” and word-by-word, or want their bible to be just a simple update of another popular translation like the KJV. Or they’re trying too hard to be clever, and make it sound entirely unfamiliar, different from all the other versions… and there’s nothing wrong with the way the other versions translated it. If your interpretation needs an interpretation, you suck as an interpreter.

Now, which one’s the best translation? Um… whichever one gets you to read your bible.

No I’m not being facetious. I remember when the New Testament of The Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the bible, was first published. Christians were buying and devouring the thing like Jesus just handed down a brand-new revelation: “It’s so different!” It wasn’t at all like the far-more-popular KJV or NIV.

Thing is, they’d come across interesting passages—things they didn’t at all remember from the scriptures—and respond, “Oh, that’s just the author ‘translating’ that bit far too loosely. Lemme see how it reads in the real bible.” Then crack open their dusty “real bible,” whatever they considered that to be, and look that part up… and discover it was in there; Peterson hadn’t rendered it too far different than King James’s translators. Seems they hadn’t actually read their “real bibles” in far too long.

But they did read The Message. And that’s my point. A good translation, whether it’s of the holy scriptures or War and Peace or Les Misérables or Plutarch’s Lives, should make you want to read the books. And lucky for you: If you’re worried your favorite translation doesn’t get it right, there are plenty of other translations which you can use to double-check.

There are no infallible bible translations.

I should add: Double-checking translations is a practice Christians need to do way more often. ’Cause no bible translation is infallible.

That’s the real reason Christians ask me which translation is best. They’re looking for an infallible translation. (Or they think they already know which translation is infallible, and they’re asking me because if I don’t agree with them, I’m some nut or heretic or something. KJV all the way, baby!)

But I’ll say it again: No bible translation is infallible. Not even the KJV. While it’s a very good translation, it suffers from two significant defects.

  1. The KJV is based on flawed 16th-century Hebrew and Greek texts. Both of which added words—even entire verses—to the original. KJV-defenders claim it’s just the opposite: They insist other translations remove words and verses, as part of some devilish conspiracy to make people less Christian. (How that might work, I leave to them to explain to you.) In the 1500s textual study was a brand-new science. The thinking back then was, “If any copy of the bible includes that verse, we should include it too, just to be comprehensive.” Today it’s, “If the oldest copies of the bible don’t include that verse, copiers likely added it. And we should say so in the footnotes.”
  2. The KJV was written in 500-year-old English. (Yes, I know it was only translated 404 years ago. The translators only updated previous English translations, which dated back to William Tyndale’s 1526 translation. They didn’t want to alter familiar memory verses too much.) Since then, many of its words have changed meaning—a fact many an unscrupulous (or uneducated) preacher takes advantage of, and twists the bible to mean whatever they like these old-timey words to mean. These preachers make up the bulk of the King James Only crowd, who insist the KJV isn’t just a good translation: It’s inspired by God, same as the original scriptures. It wasn’t simply published because King James, outraged when the popular Geneva Bible’s notes dared suggest the “divine right of kings” isn’t biblical, demanded a less Calvinist translation with no, I repeat no, notes.

Its problems aside, the KJV is still a very good and trustworthy interpretation. But nowadays you gotta translate the translation. It was published in Shakespeare’s day, and you know how people fumble over Shakespeare. And King James Only adherents aren’t trustworthy interpreters. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Or—and this is the only logical alternative—they do… and are willfully spreading falsehood.

Inserted interpretations.

I know from experience all bibles have issues, ’cause I’ve had to deal with these issues. They always come out. Christians misinterpret various passages, and guess which bibles they use to back up their misinterpretations? Right you are. “But it says, in my bible, right there in black and white…” and straightaway they quote the faulty bible. It’s almost like the devil knows just where the mistakes are, and takes advantage.

Give you an example. You know that passage where Paul visited the third heaven? You actually don’t, ’cause he didn’t.

2 Corinthians 12.2 NRSV
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.

In Pharisee mythology, specifically the book of 1 Enoch, the third heaven is where paradise is located. Christians, who don’t know Pharisee mythology, have a lot of weird guesses as to what the “third heaven” is, but I won’t go there today.

There’s a very popular interpretation of this passage which claims Paul (not Timothy; they don’t count the co-writer) was actually speaking of himself. This “person in Christ” was in fact Paul, who 14 years ago either had a profound heavenly vision, or a near-death experience, and went to heaven. So why does Paul say “I know a person in Christ” instead of admitting it was him? Because, these interpreters claim, Paul was being humble. He didn’t want to brag he’d seen heaven.

One whopping problem with this interpretation: It’d mean Paul lied. In the bible. In our bible, which is supposed to be infallible when the apostles are describing God. It’s certainly not gonna be infallible if Paul is lying, for “humble” reasons or not. (Incidentally, lying about what you did or didn’t do? That’s false humility.)

“But wait,” certain Christians will say, “my bible says Paul went to heaven.” Because, as it turns out, that’s precisely what their bible says.

2 Corinthians 12.2 NLT
I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows.

What the what? Yep; the translators of the New Living Translation decided to go with the popular interpretation instead of the original text.

No, this isn’t one of those passages which could be translated either way. In Greek it’s Oída ánthropon en Hristó/“I know a person in Christ.” Not egó/“I.” No, there’s no ancient Greek textual variant which has egó instead. The NLT translators straight-up altered the bible.

Can they do that? Regardless, they did. Yeah, they noted in the footnotes the original has “I know a man in Christ who…” but who reads footnotes?

The NLT’s error is that they’re just a little too overzealous about interpreting the bible the way popular Christian culture does. The problem is that Christian culture is wrong.

The Amplified Bible commits this sin practice quite regularly. Both its original translators, and the folks who oversaw its 2015 update, felt free to drop their interpretations into the text, regardless of the fact not every Christian agrees with those interpretations. Take Enoch’s disappearance:

Genesis 5.24 Amplified
And [in reverent fear and obedience] Enoch walked with God; and he was not [found among men], because God took him [away to be home with Him].

Yes we think what it meant by “Enoch walked with God” was Enoch followed him; that seems reasonable. Yes we think “he was not, because God took him” means he got raptured to heaven. But we don’t know either of these things with certainty. Christians should feel free to pitch alternate theories. Problem is—and I know from experience—when we do, there’s always gonna be some yutz who says, “But my bible says…” and tries to turn the notes in their study bible, or the guesses of their bible’s translators, into absolutes. ’Cause we humans are creatures of extremes like that.

The NIV will go you one better. The NIV’s translators believe the bible has no errors. But rather than let the bible speak for itself, whenever they found a discrepancy in the bible, they altered the verses so you won’t even notice it’s there. (It’s there in the footnotes, but again, who reads footnotes?) Anyway, here’s a list of their “fixes,” if you need convincing.

Don’t limit yourself to one translation.

So if there’s no such thing as an infallible bible translation, where’s that leave us? How on earth can we study the scriptures when there are these misinterpretations, misdirections, and outright errors floating around out there?

Well like I said: You double-check every translation against all the other bible translations. Stop studying only one translation of the bible. Study multiple translations. Don’t be one of those King James Only nimrods. Back when I was a teenager I wanted to swap all my reference materials for books which used the NIV—and that’s the very same mistake; don’t be a New International Only nimrod either. (Besides, the NIV gets revised every decade or so, meaning all your reference books need to be updated by now.)

Most bibles are just fine for ordinary bible usage: Daily reading, memorization, basic bible study, and instruction. The bibles I’ve mentioned above, the KJV, ESV, NASB, NLT, and Message: They’re all right. Lots of other translations are likewise good: Amplified, Contemporary English Version, Good News Bible (a.k.a. Today’s English Version), God’s Word Translation, Holman Christian Standard Bible, International Standard Version, Modern English Version, New American Bible, New Century Version, New English Bible, New English Translation, New Jerusalem Bible, New King James Version, and Revised English Bible. Pretty much every translation you find on Bible Gateway will do the job.

In any serious bible study, you can’t depend on one English translation. Ideally you wanna look at the original languages. But if you don’t know them, simply compare translations. Many translations. Look at every way a passage has been translated. Look for the general consensus. Because your favorite translation might be outside the consensus—and might be wrong. Translators are human, and humans make mistakes.

Now if you find this happens a lot with your favorite translation—it’s outside the consensus all the time!—maybe it’s not as good a translation as you thought. Like I discovered with the NLT. Even though I use it a lot, there are some passages where it does an iffy job of translation, and other passages (like the one with Paul in the third heaven) where it’s just plain wrong. In those cases, quote a different translation.

True, when people do this, they’re often accused of trying to pick the translation which best matches them. They’re trying to preach what they wanna say, and not what’s actually found in the scriptures. And y’know, sometimes that’s precisely what people are up to. But more often they are trying to quote a translation which best reflects the biblical idea, and recognize that while the bible is infallible, bible translations sure aren’t. They’re just trying to dodge an error.

So there’s my advice: Get a lot of translations. Read them. You’ll discover one of them is your favorite; go right ahead and use it for most things. You’ll discover your pastor has a favorite; go ahead and take that particular translation to church with you, so you can keep up. Memorize your verses in whatever translation you can understand best. But when you do serious bible study: Multiple translations. Always.

And when people ask you what the best translation is, tell ’em, “Whichever translation gets you to read your bible.”