Which bible translation’s the best?

by K.W. Leslie, 21 January
HE. “So lemme ask: Which version of the bible do you use? Which one’s the best?”
ME. “None of ’em. Learn Hebrew and Greek.”

As soon as someone finds out I know the bible’s original languages, that’s nearly always the question they ask me. Sometimes because they earnestly wanna know, and figure I’m more an expert than they are. Sometimes because they already have a favorite, and want some affirmation. Sometimes because they already think their favorite is best, so they’re testing me.

Well, this question has a long answer. It’s the rest of this article! But I found when you being with the long answer, their eyes roll back in their heads; they don’t wanna deal with the complexities of bible translations. They only wanted a quick ’n dirty answer. Tell ’em the best bible version, so they can go get that version and use it forevermore. Or judge you. Whatever.

So I start with my joke answer: “None. Learn original languages.”

Sometimes, but rarely, they realize I’m kidding. The rest of the time, a look of horror and despair comes upon their faces: “What, learn ancient languages? That’ll take years!

Yes it will. It took me years. But that’s the scary alternative. Now for my much nicer—though admittedly long—response.

As for which version of the bible I use, it depends on why I need it.

  • BIBLE STUDY. I go with the original languages. Always. I have Accordance on all my devices, ’cause it’s inconvenient to carry around a print copy of the original-language bibles. I got the Biblia Hebraica for the Old Testament, the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (and the United Bible Societies’ GNT, the Tyndale House GNT, the Textus Receptus, and the Codex Sinaiticus for comparison).
  • TEACHING. When I work with new believers and kids, New Living Translation; it’s easy to understand. When adults—as y’might notice from reading this blog—my own translation, frequently with the King James Version for comparison, although if they have a favorite translation, I don’t mind switching over for their convenience. Having a bible app makes this easy.
  • AUDIO BIBLES. I have several. Including original-language audio bibles. (Yes they exist.) On my iPhone is my fave, The Bible Experience in the now-defunct Today’s NIV.
  • CASUAL READING. English is my first language after all, and Accordance comes with English translations, like the ESV and KJV. Either I read one of them, or another translation from Bible Gateway, or I have an ESV pocket-sized bible which I bought about 20 years ago at a now-defunct Christian bookstore. (The cover’s thrashed, so I re-covered it in black duct tape. Hey, it works.)

And of course my bookshelf has lots of other “analog bibles” (y’know, books which don’t require charging). Some are what I call big-ass bibles; others were the result of the years before I went digital, when I collected bible translations. Yeah, they get dusty: I read my phone, Kindle, tablet, and computer.

But lemme go back to the NLT: I encourage people to read that one because it’s easy to understand. That’s the most valuable asset of any bible translation. When any bible is hard to understand, it means the translators did a poor job, and their number one job is to remove the language barrier. Too many translators forget to do that.

  • They’re trying too hard to follow the original text “literally” and word-by-word.
  • Or it’s not even about translation; they were commissioned to update another popular translation, like when the NIV comes out with another edition. They’re expected to fix it, but not change it too much.
  • Or (as with many a bible paraphrase) they’re trying too hard to be clever, and make it sound different from all the other versions… and there’s nothing wrong with the way the other versions translated it.

Basically 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 Eugene Peterson’s super-loose translation of the New Testament, The Message, 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’s paraphrase. Lemme see how it reads in the real bible.” So they’d crack open their dusty “real bible” (whatever translation they considered it to be), and look it up… and discover it was in there; Peterson hadn’t really paraphrased a thing. 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, like I said, they figure they already know which one’s infallible, and wanna make sure I’m no heretic. 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 has two significant defects.

  1. The KJV is based on the Textus Receptus and 16th-century Hebrew texts. The Textus straight-up added entire verses to the original scriptures. KJV-worshipers claim it’s just the opposite: Other translations removed stuff from the bible, as part of some satanic conspiracy to make people less Christian. (How this’d work, they never satisfactorily explain.) In the 1500s textual study was a brand-new science, and the thinking was, “If any copy of the bible includes a verse, we should include it too, just to be comprehensive.” Today it’s, “If the oldest copies of the bible include a verse, it’s bible; otherwise it’s been added by overzealous Christians, and belongs in the footnotes at most.”
  2. The KJV was written in 500-year-old English. Yes, I know it was only translated 408 years ago: It’s an update of previous English translations, starting with the Wycliffe Bible. They didn’t want to alter familiar memory verses too much. Since then, many of its words changed meaning—a fact many an uneducated (or unscrupulous) preacher takes advantage of, and twists the bible to mean whatever they want old-timey words to mean. Such 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 was outraged when the popular Geneva Bible’s notes dared suggest the “divine right of kings” isn’t biblical, and 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. King James Only adherents have proven they’re not trustworthy interpreters: They don’t know history, textual studies, original languages, or often what they’re even talking about. Or—and this is the only logical alternative—they do, but 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. But most Christians don’t know Pharisee mythology, and have a lot of weird guesses as to what the “third heaven” is. I won’t get into them 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 fudged the truth. More accurately, lied. In the bible. Which is supposed to be infallible whenever the apostles describe God. It’s certainly not gonna be infallible if Paul lied, whether 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, it does.

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 Οἶδα ἄνθρωπον ἐν χριστῷ/Oída ánthropon en Hristó, “I know a person in Christ.” It’s another person, not himself; Paul didn’t say ἐγώ/eghó, “I.” And no, there’s no ancient Greek textual variant which has eghó instead. The NLT translators straight-up altered the bible.

Can they do that? Doesn’t matter; 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 they’re too overzealous about interpreting the bible the way popular Christian culture does. Problem is, popular 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 these interpretations—for good reason. 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 “Enoch walked with God” means Enoch followed him; it sounds reasonable. Yes we think “he was not, because God took him” means he got raptured to heaven. But we honestly don’t know either of these things with certainty. Christians can 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. You compare every translation to 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 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s NIV reference books are out of date. Surprise! Dangit.)

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. Most 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 another translation.

True, when people do this they get 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 they’re up to. But more often they are trying to quote a translation which best reflects the biblical idea, and recognize while the bible is infallible, bible translations sure aren’t. They’re just trying to dodge a miscommunication—or 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.”