“Which Bible should I read?” The question is simple enough, but sometimes people ask the question with a subtext. The subtext goes something like this: there are so many different translations of the Bible, how does God expect me to sort this out? The subtext’s complaint then becomes an excuse for procrastination and inaction.
Informed Christians know that the Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew with a small portion in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. That means when there are controversies over meaning, the final appeal must be to the original languages. Yet, that does not rule out the importance of translations.
Translating the Bible into various languages has been done since earliest times (for example with the New Testament into Syriac and old Latin), but it received a greater emphasis beginning in the Reformation. Most people are not going to be in the position to learn Greek and Hebrew, yet we have a great interest in knowing what God’s word says.
So what are some good guidelines for choosing a Bible translation?
- Choose a translation done by a committee. Committee members serve as checks and balances on one another to prevent a bias from entering the translation. Most major translation have been done by a committee, and most modern ones have had committees composed of a spectrum of Christian groups. That doesn’t mean never read a translation by an individual, and it doesn’t mean that bias can never be found in a committee translation. It rather reflects the safest place to start.
- Be informed about translation philosophy. There are two basic approaches to translations: formal equivalence (more word to word) and functional equivalence (more thought to thought). Most translations can be described as formal equivalent or functional equivalent. Most translations will describe their approach in the preface. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Comparing the two approaches can be valuable. It is important to know which approach you are reading. I find formal equivalence helpful for close study, but when I was a new reader of the Bible, I found the functional equivalence helpful to my fledgling understanding.
- You can read more than one and compare. Although most of us will choose a primary translation for reading and study, we live in a world where it is easy to compare translations. Computers and mobile devices make this especially true. I’ve learned a lot through the years comparing the two kinds of translation approaches and different translations. Sometimes differences in translations make no real difference in overall meaning. Sometimes differences reflect possible nuances in the original languages, and sometimes differences alert the reader to problems of interpretation. But having read many different translations of the Bible, my overall impression is that they are all translating the same book. We may find verses where one translation is preferable to another, but the overall, big picture message remains the same.
According to a recent listing from the Christian Booksellers Association, these are the top selling translations by units sold:
- New International Version
- King James Version
- English Standard Version
- New King James Version
- New Living Translation
- Holman Christian Standard Bible
- Reina Valera 1960 (if you read Spanish)
- New International Readers Version
- Common English Bible
- New American Standard Bible
Although I would have preferences in this list, the reality is that you could learn how to become a Christian and what you need to be saved from reading any translation on this bestseller list. Just read it!