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Bible versions: 3 types that will help you grow

Bible versions

Bible versions: 3 types that will help you grow

There are just so many options!

How can we choose an English translation of the Bible when there are so many bible versions to choose from?

When you go online there is a large choice of Bibles.

As well as different covers, and different sizes of font, there are different translations available. These different translations are often known as ‘versions’ — for example the New International Version [NIV].

A disclaimer

I have dear friends who are Roman Catholic believers who I love and respect as fellow Christians. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, I am sticking to an assessment of Protestant Bibles.

Many readers might be familiar with The Message by Eugene Peterson

I turn to this myself, sometimes. But let’s be clear: it’s what we call a paraphrase. It’s not a translation. A paraphrase is one type of bible version that many Christians like to turn to. However, if you want to follow Jesus and grow in the knowledge of God, his nature, his ways, and his call to humankind, you should not rely on The Message, nor any other paraphrase. Paraphrases are not a sufficiently faithful transmission of what the original authors intended when they wrote the original texts. I still recommend them for occasional use, however.

“The New Testament in Modern English.”

A couple of generations ago in 1958, J B Phillips also published a modern language version of the New Testament, called simply “The New Testament in Modern English.”

Phillips lived in Redhill, Surrey, my old hunting ground. Phillips described the work of translating the New Testament from the Greek text as ‘like rewiring a house with the electricity turned on.’

I love what Phillips wrote about the Gospels in a book called “The Ring of Truth” (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1967). The Four Gospels are the four memoirs of the earthly life of Christ which are found in the New Testament of our Bibles. On pages 57-58 Phillips wrote about how Jesus is revealed through the Gospels, saying:

“I felt, and feel, without any shadow of doubt that close contact with the text of the Gospels builds up in the heart and mind a character [that’s Jesus] of awe-inspiring stature and quality. I have read, in Greek and Latin, scores of myths but I did not find the slightest flavour of myth here. There is no hysteria, no careful working for effect and no attempt at collusion. These are not embroidered tales: the material is cut to the bone. One sensed again and again that [the Gospel writers tended to] understatement, which we have been taught to think is more ‘British’ than Oriental. There is an almost childlike candour and simplicity, and the total effect is tremendous. No man could ever have invented such a character as Jesus. No man could have set down such artless and vulnerable accounts as these unless some real Event lay behind them.”

The Bible truly is a wondrous text if you will take the time to read it.

Like The Message, other contemporary English versions come round regularly.

People are undoubtedly helped by paraphrases that express the Bible in everyday English. Phillips explains that he was inspired by two previous efforts at a modern language version of the New Testament — those of Dr R. F. Weymouth, and Dr James Moffatt (Phillips, p.xiii). Since Phillips wrote his paraphrase, and before Peterson’s work, there was also The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor (published in 1971).

NT (Tom) Wright has also published a paraphrase of the New Testament. And in 2017 there was a less favourably received work by Brian Simmons, The Passion Translation (which is not properly a translation, but a paraphrase). You can read Andrew Wilson’s critique of The Passion Translation here. And Brian Simmons’ gracious response here.

Paraphrases tend to be the work of one person, often a labour of love over many years. Almost always paraphrases take the thought for thought method of translation to the extreme.

Many paraphrases have their merit, but they also have their day. They date more quickly than translations.

Bible versions which are better for regular Bible reading aims to find a middle way between thought-for-thought and word-for-word translation.

A credible translation is a work of a team of Bible scholars drawn from a cross-section of church affiliations and from diverse theological positions, provided they respect the intentions and inspiration of the original authors. The many Hebrew and Greek texts we have (which is another subject) assure us that we have a substantially accurate record of what was originally written. A good translation is based on the best available Greek text which amalgamates the most reliable text from the extant manuscripts.

In summary, the best translations are made by people who honour the Christian Bible as the word of God, as well as being scholars of the Hebrew, Greek and English languages.

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Which of the many versions is to be recommended and why?

Whenever you translate a text from one language to another the translator has a choice of how to put the original into the new language.

  • Words in one language rarely have a direct correlation in another language — for example, Greek has several words for love and English just one; and New Testament Greek differentiates between ‘you’ in the singular and ‘you’ in the plural in the way English-speakers once did when we still used ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ as well as ‘you’.
  • There will always be some degree of interpretation imposed on the final text by the beliefs of the translators.
  • All translation teams are forced to select from various options when doing the translation and must inevitably be swayed by their convictions when making that choice.

Broadly speaking there are three types of Bible versions that fall into a range.

  • Thought-for-thought translations – with paraphrases being the most obvious examples of this type.
  • Bible versions that take a middle road combining the best of word-for-word with thought-for-thought models of translation.
  • Bible versions that attempt to stick to the word-for-word model of translation.

Can we rely on these various Bible versions?

Yes, we can have confidence in our English Bibles! We should trust God the Holy Spirit to use the translations we have for our spiritual instruction and nourishment.

Yes, we can avoid errors of understanding by consulting several different English versions when we study the Bible to ensure that we are not being misled by one version’s “angle” on a text.

Many is the time that a verse speaks to me powerfully — but when I examine it in another English translation the key word that spoke to me is absent. And when I check the Greek, I can see why. I do not deny that the Holy Spirit might have spoken to me usefully through the first version I read. But I will certainly avoid making a major preaching point from that variant reading!

Do I need to learn Hebrew and Greek?

Those doing academic study of Scripture will usually learn the Hebrew of the OT and/or the Greek of the NT so they can go back to original language texts. But that’s not possible or relevant to most readers.

We can take comfort from the fact that from the very start the Christian Scriptures have been conveyed in translation. Almost all would agree that while Jesus would have been multi-lingual, able to speak (and read if it was a written language) Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew and possibly Latin as well, his mother tongue would have been Aramaic. And yet the New Testament manuscripts were written in Greek. Our sacred texts as Christians were, from the get-go, works of translation. Our current Bible versions continue this trajectory.

What do I need to know to choose from all the Bible versions?

In simple terms, when translators are working on a new version of the Bible in English, as I wrote earlier they have a choice between doing a word-by-word translation; or a thought-by-thought interpretation; or they can go somewhere in the middle. The chart below shows where different Bible versions fall on this scale in my opinion. I am sure that others can quibble with whether the exact ordering below is correct — but this is good enough to help readers to choose a version to buy and use — whether in an app, or a print version.

DA Carson is very helpful on this question in his book “The Inclusive Language Debate” by DA Carson (see especially page 69).

All the versions listed have their merits and uses (as already discussed, even paraphrases have their uses).

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I recommend those Bible versions that fall in the middle for everyday Bible reading and study.

The ‘literal’ word-for-word versions at the left-hand end are useful for Bible students, but are often hard work both to read and understand. They can fail to convey the overall sense of a sentence or paragraph because a strict word-by-word translation can focus more on keeping to the words than conveying the meaning!

The free interpretations (or paraphrases) at the right-hand end are easier to read, and can open up the text in fresh ways making them very enjoyable. However, those versions are so free with the text, and so clearly take a particular “angle” on the text, that they should not be relied on for formulating doctrine, or for guiding a Christian in the knowledge of God and his ways. They date quickly too.

Gender-inclusive language.

Languages are living things. Not only do words go out of fashion, or change their meaning, but usage also changes over time. In the past the masculine pronouns in English (him, his) were neutral – by which we mean they encompassed male and female. The same was true for ‘man’ – it used to mean humanity, not just ‘menkind.’ And the same was also true for ‘brothers’ – it encompassed the sisters too.

Modern English usage has changed. These nouns and pronouns are now gendered. To communicate accurately in English in these changed times translations must be gender-inclusive or else our readers will misconstrue the meaning.

For that reason I do not recommend the 1984 edition of the NIV, nor the ESV. The 1984 edition of the NIV was published before these changes in usage had really settled. The ESV, however, was published as a direct effort to stand against the move towards using gender-neutral language.

The versions that are gender-inclusive are the NRSV, CSB, the 2011 edition of the NIV, CEV, TEV/GNB and others.

Bible versions made some time ago become dated.

The Authorised Version is beautiful in its own way, but it is based on a Greek Text that has been superseded with the discovery of many more ancient manuscripts since its publication. In addition, its language is often hard to understand for modern people.

To a lesser extent the language used in the Revised Version (not listed above), the NASB and even the RSV has also become dated.

Key to the abbreviations:

AMP = The Amplified Bible

AV = Authorised Version (also known as KJV = King James’ Version)

CEV = Contemporary English Version

CSB = Christian Standard Bible

ESV = English Standard Version

GNB = Good News Bible (also known as TEV)

JB = Jerusalem Bible – a Roman Catholic translation

KJV = King James’ Version (known as the AV (Authorised Version) in England).

LB = The Living Bible = a personal paraphrase, not a translation, of the Bible in English by Kenneth N. Taylor and first published in 1971

Message = The Message is a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary English written by Eugene H. Peterson and published 1993 thru 2002

MSG = The Message

NASV = New American Standard Bible

NCV = New Century Version

NIV = New International Version

NKJV = New King James’ Version

NLT = New Living Translation

NRSV = New Revised Standard Version

Passion = The Passion Translation is a paraphrase by Brian Simmons published in 2017

RSV = Revised Standard Version

TEV = Today’s English Version (also known as GNB)

TLB = The Living Bible = a personal paraphrase, not a translation, of the Bible in English by Kenneth N. Taylor and first published in 1971

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Where did the headings come from?

The sub-headings added in most modern Bible versions are NOT part of the original text — except in The Psalms where there are headings that are present in the Hebrew.

The headings are added by the translators to help the reader and divide up the text usefully. So the headings are NOT inspired. They are a guide only.

Paragraphing is also something chosen by the translators.

Most of the original Greek manuscripts were written entirely in capital letters and without gaps even between words, let alone sentences or paragraphs (Source IVP New Bible Atlas, 1985). The material on which all texts was written was scarce in those days so people did not waste space!

Papyrus Bodmer II P66
John 1.48-2.3 in Papyrus Bodmer II P66

Where did the chapter and verse divisions come from?

These are added to help the reader find their way around, and they are not part of the original text.

Who added them?

Well, if you believe the internet, we have an Englishman and a Frenchman to thank for this useful development.

It does seem that Stephen Langton (c. 1150 – 9 July 1228), who was an English Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and Archbishop of Canterbury between 1207 and his death in 1228, played a part. He is credited with dividing the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into chapters. He may, however, have been copying the divisions already made by Jewish scholars for what Christians call the Old Testament.

Also according to the internet, verse divisions were added by French scholar, Robert Estienne (1503-59), also known as Robertus Stephanus (Estienne or Etienne is French for Stephen). He is said to have created a verse numbering system in his 1551 Greek New Testament and in his 1553 French Bible. The numbers were printed in the margins, but in 1555 he produced a Vulgate (in Latin) which integrated them into the text.

It is said that Estienne was a learned man, but that his working conditions were sometimes not ideal: on one occasion the story is told that he divided the New Testament into verses as he rode from Paris to Lyons to meet a printer’s deadline — in the rain. This is a great story…

However good those these stories are, these accounts are disputed with many Jewish commentators claiming that Old Testament chapter divisions and even verse divisions were developed by Jewish scholars in the early Middle Ages. Evidence for this claim, which I am unable to substantiate, appears in G F Moore’s 1893 article, The Vulgate Chapters and Numbered Verses in the Hebrew Bible, which is available digitally on JSTOR (if you have access to JSTOR).

Whatever the truth of these stories, we know that numbering of chapters and verses occurred in time for when printing was introduced into Europe so that printed Bibles from the start included in-line numbering of chapter and verse. And these divisions were agreed and followed by all… even in today’s bible versions. Hooray!

Some Bible versions to be avoided.

There are a few versions that should be avoided because the people who translated them have questionable qualifications, or they brought a strong factional bias to their work of translation.

For example, do avoid the New World Translation of the Bible [NWT].

The ‘New World’ version of the Bible is a version used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and produced by the JW’s ‘Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’.

This is a version to suit the views of the Jehovah’s Witness group. The names of the people who did this translation in the late 1940s were not made known, which might lead you to conclude that they lacked the qualifications to do Bible translation.

It differs from all other translations in a crucial way. This difference, which I will set out below, is why it is NOT recommended as a translation.

The issues are that the translation committee is made up of people only from the Jehovah’s Witness group. Furthermore, the identity of those people is often not disclosed. When it has been disclosed other scholars note that the translators do not have qualification in ancient languages to make them fit for this endeavour.

By contrast all the main Protestant translations of the Bible were translated by committees of translators who were qualified to undertake this work by holding suitable degrees. In addition, these Bible versions were protected from bias by choosing members of the translation committee from across a broad spectrum of Christian denominations. Frequently, while going back to the best Hebrew and Greek texts, these translators also have an eye to other recognised Bible versions.

In other words these translation efforts are subject to peer review and, when we talk about the translations into English, they arise from a community of reflective learning stretching back to Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, etc.

In short Bible versions like the Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Version, New International Version, English Standard Version, Christian Standard Bible, New Living Translation (Second Edition), Contemporary English Version and Good News Bible, are credible works of scholarship and faith.

The same cannot be said of the New World translation. It is heavily biased because it comes from a single church group whose views are widely regarded as erroneous by the vast majority of Christian denominations.

Happily, there remain a large number of good English Bible versions that have been created by qualified people of faith, who worked according to good practice in translation.

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What about ‘study’ Bibles?

There are various ‘study bibles’ or bibles that contain a lot of other teaching alongside the text of Scripture.

Some of these can be very good. I have heard good reviews of both the NIV Study Bible and the ESV Study Bible — though we should always be aware that the annotations are not inspired, even though they appear alongside the inspired text itself.

Some ‘study Bibles’ are to be avoided, however.

For example, do avoid the once popular “Scofield Bible” which was first published in 1909. While the Bible text used in the Scofield Bible was in its day the gold standard, the Authorised Version, the many annotations inserted by Cyrus Scofield are all from a theological position known as Dispensationalism which I consider misguided.

Summary:

While all the bible versions listed on the chart above have merit, for everyday use I recommend one of the Bibles in the central area. The 2011 edition of the New International Version is a good choice and is the version often used by preachers in evangelical churches. CSB, ESV, and NLT are also good choices depending on how easy to read you wish your Bible to be.

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV-UK)

If you’d like to read some thoughts about the priority of the Bible in the process of doing theology, read this post about 3 ways Bible interpretation is like map-making.

Bibliography

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

D A CARSON, 1998, The Inclusive Language Debate: a plea for realism, IVP, Leicester

G F MOORE, 1893, The Vulgate Chapters and Numbered Verses in the Hebrew Bible, at JSTOR

The Vulgate Chapters and Numbered Verses in the Hebrew Bible on JSTOR

J B PHILLIPS, 1958, The New Testament in Modern English, Geoffrey Bless, London

New Bible Atlas, 1985, IVP, Leicester.

 

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