Let’s face it, sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. It was written by 21 different authors, it contains at least a half-dozen different genres, many of the books were written to different people-groups at different times in history, and there is, of course, the time/language barrier (for example, many of the ancient idioms, word plays, and metaphors from the Bible are lost on the modern reader). That’s why I’ve decided to start writing a post here and there with a basic lesson about how to read the Bible. My goal is for these to be altogether practical and help empower anyone in their reading of the Bible. (For more information, I recommend checking out the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth or this article entitled How to Study Your Bible.)
The first step is finding a good translation. But to prepare for that step, it’s beneficial to understand that there are two general theories that are used when the Bible is being translated. First, there is the formal equivalence theory: each word is translated as exactly as possible. This is a word-for-word translation; kind of like translating casa blanca as “house white.” The second main theory is called functional equivalence and it’s where the meaning of the original text is sought as closely as possible; in this case casa blanca could be “White House” or even “the president’s house.” One great example of how these theories play out is found in Amos 8:1-2 below:
|Formal Equivalence (ESV)||Functional Equivalence (NLT)|
|This is what the Lord GOD showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them.||Then the Sovereign LORD showed me another vision. In it I saw a basket filled with ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. I replied, “A basket full of ripe fruit.” Then the LORD said, “Like this fruit, Israel is ripe for punishment! I will not delay their punishment again.|
As you can see, there are definite advantages to a functional equivalence when it comes to ideas that might not make sense in our culture. However, the advantage of a formal equivalence is that you get the most faithful translation possible of the original text. All translations use a combination of these two approaches, but they do not use them in the same percentages.
A lot of people have asked me which translation is “best.” Truthfully, the best answer I’ve heard to that question is “the one you read.” The best translation of the Bible is the one you read! That being said, I do have a translation that I like best. Let me give you the entire story about what lead me to my favorite translation and why I use it.
I think I could safely say that any serious student of the Bible should, when doing exegetical studies, read at least three different translations. I have finally arrived at the three that are the most beneficial for me: the New International Version (NIV), the New Living Translation (NLT), and the English Standard Version (ESV). If you’re interested in looking at many of the other modern translations, check out this “Bible Translation Chart.”
For most of my life as a Christian, I have read the NIV. They subscribe to a “thought-for-thought” translational theory, which is very helpful at eliminating awkward wording, unfamiliar idioms, uncommon measurements, etc. I think the NIV is a great translation and almost all of my memory verses come from it. I would recommend this translation to someone who wants something that can be easily understood but that still remains relatively faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek.
During early 2009, I decided I wanted to get another translation. I was in a funk and thought that it would help if I had a “fresh take” on Scripture. After looking around a bit, I (prematurely) chose the NLT. As far as I can tell, the NLT has a desire to make the “message” of Scripture readily apparent and very easy to understand. In other words, the NLT tries to simplify the message as much as possible. It’s written in a way that sounds very good and, to be honest, very encouraging. When the original language has more impact than the literal translation into English, the NLT will add phrases and adjectives to ensure the more nuanced meaning is clearly understood. This results in some words and phrases being translated literally, yet in other places I’ve felt as though the NLT hijacked the original meaning of Scripture. I’ve actually scribbled through certain words and verses because they aren’t there in the original Hebrew or Greek! They’ve also tried to make their translation gender neutral; which, to me, makes a lot of verses feel very clumsy and wordy (they replace “brothers” with “brothers and sisters). Personally, it bothers me but I realize that’s a very subjective point when choosing a translation. When I purchased the NLT I planned on making it my “go-to” Bible. After cracking it open and reading a bit, I couldn’t seriously read the NLT as my primary Bible. So it has been relegated to my Bible I go to when I need a “fresh take” but not what I go to primarily.
Which brings us to my latest addition: the ESV. The ESV seeks to be an “essentially literal” translation especially suited for Bible study. As often as they can, they render a literal translation of the original languages (although it must be noted that a 100% literal translation would be essentially incoherent). There are 11,047 reasons why I chose the ESV as my primary Bible, but I’ll just go with the top five:
- Translational accuracy. The ESV is as close as you can get to a literal translation of the original, inspired Word of God. Since I am growing more serious every day about studying God’s Word, and because I approach this task with great sobriety, I have decided that I don’t want someone else to decide the meaning for me. I just want all the words and I will do more study when the meaning is unclear to me. Bottom line: I don’t want some committee picking and choosing what needs to be added and subtracted from my Bible translation.
- What originally turned me on to this translation were its endorsements. Wayne Grudem worked on the Study version; almost all mainstream reformed pastors preach from it (Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, John Piper, etc.); and it’s the Bible that Western Seminary students are required to use. These factors lead me to look into the Bible, and may have influenced my decision to “hop on the band wagon.” I do want to specify that those people caused me to look into this translation, but not to choose it. I chose it because…
- After reading the NIV and the NLT, I realized that largest gap in my arsenal was a more formal translation. I think everyone should have three translations: a thought-for-though translation; a looser translation that makes the meaning very apparent, understandable, and teachable; and a formal translation that remains as faithful as possible to the original languages. When I realized that I had such a large gap in my reading, I looked into formal translations and chose the ESV.
- The ESV Study Bible has wonderful study notes, great maps, very helpful articles, and can all be accessed online. I love study Bibles with lots of great notes in the bottom of the page and since I already owned Zondervan’s version of a “Study Bible” (the NIV), Tyndale’s version of a “Life Application Bible” (the NLT), I decided I wanted my next one to be another “Study Bible.” And this one is—in my opinion—the new gold standard of study Bibles.
- One day as a pastor, I plan on adopting an alternating teaching style: Expository, topical, expository, topical, expository, topical… We will preach through a book of the Bible (chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse), then we’ll cover a topic that the Body needs instruction in (like marriage, worship, suffering, generosity, etc.) and then we’ll repeat that process until Jesus takes me home. Since, Lord willing, we’ll be going through entire books of the Bible and sometimes diving deeply into God’s Word, I felt as though it would be best to choose a formal, accurate translation. That way, even if there are foreign idioms or anything weird, I can either supplement with a less formal translation or I can simply explain it in my sermons. The last thing I want is to ever have to explain to my congregation why I disagree with the translation we’re preaching from (like I would with the NLT) because that means I have not chosen a good translation for my flock to be reading, ya know?
Those are the biggest reasons that I chose the ESV. Remember that ultimately the question that you have to answer is this: “Which translation is best for me and my walk?”