FAQ: How should I go about choosing a translation of the Bible?
Here are some criteria to consider when looking at different versions of the Bible and deciding which ones to use. Note that these criteria do not express absolute requirements for an “acceptable” translation but only factors to take into consideration in evaluating and using different versions.
Committee vs. individual. All other things being equal, a committee of translators is likely to produce a better translation than a single individual, since individual biases will tend to be eliminated. But individual scholars have produced some excellent translations, especially of the New Testament (e.g., J. B. Phillips’s New Testament in Modern English).
Interdenominational vs. denominational. Generally, a translation committee representing several denominations rather than a single church or denomination will tend to have less theological biases. One should keep this in mind, for example, when considering specifically Roman Catholic versions of the Bible. The translators and editors of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), produced by a Southern Baptist publishing house, are mostly but not exclusively Southern Baptist scholars.
High view vs. low view of Scripture. Translators adhering to a high view of Scripture as God’s word will generally be less likely to take liberties with the text than translators who regard the Bible as errant literature. This isn’t an iron-clad rule, however; conservative translators, anxious to have the Bible agree with their views, may adopt renderings that are not the most accurate. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) reflected a rather low view of Scripture, but its revision, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), does not.
Known vs. anonymous translators. Generally, it is better to use a translation by scholars whose names and credentials are known. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) was at first anonymous, which was a strike against it at the time, but the publishers later decided wisely to publish the names of the translators. The translators of the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation (NWT) are officially unknown, but insiders from the organization leaked their names long ago—and not one was a biblical scholar.
Stated and unstated purposes. If the stated purposes of a translation are sound, the result is more likely to be sound. Read the prefatory material: Is the translation seeking to promote a particular agenda? Is this an appropriate agenda? If you can, find out more about the translators or the publishers and their agendas.
Word v. thought translation continuum. Translations are produced using different philosophies of translation. Some seek to render each Hebrew or Greek word with an English word, word for word, as closely as possible; others seek to render phrases or whole sentences into idiomatic English, thought for thought. The more word-for-word, the fewer liberties are taken with the text (generally); the more thought-for-thought, the more readable the result but the more potential there is for forcing questionable interpretations on the text. It’s a good idea to have two versions, one a strict translation and the other a “paraphrase.”
Readability. Even if you want a word-for-word type translation, some are more readable than others. Translators who exhibit a feel for style in their own language are more likely to know what they are doing when translating from another language. The ESV and the NASB are both close to word-for-word in their translation methodology, but the ESV is much more readable. The NIV charts a middle course between word-for-word and thought-for-thought and is one of the most readable translations.
Original text used. Some translations are based on a slightly more reliable text of the Bible than other translations. This is, however, a more minor issue than is commonly realized. Most scholars would rank the KJV and the NKJV lower on this criterion than such versions as the NIV, NRSV, NASB, HCSB, and ESV.
Based on these considerations, the ESV and the NASB rank high among word-for-word versions, while the NLT is an outstanding version following more of a thought-for-thought translation methodology. The NIV and NET Bible are excellent examples of versions that sit in the middle between these two approaches. The NWT ranks lower than any of the other versions mentioned in this article for a number of reasons, and scholars generally do not regard it as an acceptable version of the Bible.
For Further Study
Wallace, Daniel B. “Choosing a Bible Translation.” Bible Study Magazine 1, 1 (Nov./Dec. 2008): 23-26. This article, available free online as a PDF document, is an excellent introduction to the issue by a respected evangelical New Testament scholar.
For more resources, see also our article, Why are there so many different translations of the Bible?