This post is a response to a question coming from one reader who decided to tell me what to write. The reader question boils down to this: There are many English translations of the Bible and a lot of controversy over some of them. Which should we read?
There are two major considerations when choosing a translation: source text and translation philosophy.
Bible translators must decide which “family” of documents they will use. This is really only a consideration when discussing the New Testament because the Hebrew tradition is pretty well standard. There are two “families” of the New Testament: the “received” and the “critical.”
The “received” text family (also called “Byzantine”) is a collection of Greek New Testaments (GNTs) which were the standard texts of the Eastern Churches. As one text passed out of its usable life, it was copied and the new text was used. This was the only GNT for most of Church history.
The second text family is called the “critical” text. In the past two hundred years or so, with modern advances in archaeology, we have discovered very early copies of the GNT. Scholars have pieced together very early fragments to recreate the content the earliest copies of the “received” text must have contained.
The major controversy in the “received vs critical” debate is that the received text is slightly longer. The early manuscripts of the GNT are “missing” some words found in the received text. The difference is almost certainly due to scribes incorporating small, typically inconsequential, edits or additions to the text. For example, one common occurrence is the addition of “Christ” after the word “Jesus” in the received text. These differences make almost no difference to the text itself and in all but one case have no theological significance.
Though there are some who will only read from their preferred text family, most readers will not see any difference between English translations from the two source texts. The real difference is in translation philosophy.
There are two dominant translation philosophies and a third option that also warrants discussion. They are, in order of “literalness,” formal equivalent, dynamic equivalent and paraphrase.
Formal Equivalence: This is commonly called a “word-for-word” translation. It is an attempt to recreate the original Greek (NT) or Hebrew (OT) text into English with as much precision as possible. These translations are incredibly exact but can sometimes be a little “wooden” because they are following the grammar and syntax of foreign languages.
Examples: NASB, ESV, NET, KJV
Dynamic Equivalence: These translations try to capture a “phrase-by-phrase” or “thought-by-thought” rendering of the text. They are, for the most part, easier to read. The main criticism of this translation philosophy is that the translators must add interpretation to their translation. Unfortunately, it is impossible to separate this from the translation philosophy.* To the credit of most dynamically equivalent translations bias in translation rarely makes an impact on these translations. However, there are certain verses where the translators have made a theological decision in rendering the text one way or the other without the reader’s knowledge.
Examples: NIV, NLT
Paraphrase: I add paraphrases to this list reluctantly: They are not translations. Paraphrases are not attmpts to render the original texts in English but describe an author’s own interpretation of it. The benefit of these Bibles is their “readability” – they flow extremely well. The main drawback is their lack of precision and the large amount of interpretation involved.
Examples: The Message
So, what Bible should I use?
That’s impossible to answer. My best advice is not to rely on one translation. I use two different formal equivalent translations (primarily the ESV) for my study and a dynamic equivalent translation for devotional study. That’s just how I operate best. Your needs may be different.
Oh, and don’t bother with the Amplified Bible. It’s the worst of both worlds: It puts every possible meaning of the Greek/Hebrew word in the text and essentially gives you the option to “choose your own adventure” with the text. It’s very hard to read and is more confusing than helpful.
*Formal Equivalent translations also suffer from this problem – it is impossible to create a true word-for-word translation – but they do not have it in nearly as many instances, nor is the interpretation as significant.
Image by Ryk Neethling