I have been conducting seminars on the history of the English Bible for the past dozen years. Inevitably, I get questions like, “What’s the most literal translation out there?” “What’s a good study Bible?” “Which Bible is the most accurate?” “What’s a good Bible for a new Christian to get?”
These are excellent questions. I will try to offer some guidelines here for the general English-speaking reader of the Bible, though it will be necessarily brief.
Let me start with two assumptions. First, your native tongue is English. Second, you live in a country whose native tongue—or one of them—is English (e.g., United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand). Obviously, not everyone reading this blog post will qualify, but these are the folks that I am addressing.
There are far more translations of the Bible into English than any other language on the planet. There are historical reasons for this, but we won’t go into them—except to say this: English-speaking countries for the most part have a broadly Christian culture as part of their heritage. To be sure, all are living in a post-Christian age now, but a large part of the heritage of that culture involves the Bible and Christianity. The influence of the Bible on the English-speaking world is absolutely stunning. It permeates almost every nook and cranny of our society, even if not intentionally so. E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1988) has a 60+ page appendix of words and phrases that every literate American ought to know. It’s amazing how many words and phrases are right out of the Bible and Christian thought.
Or consider the other end of the cultural continuum, pop music. Some of the best known rock songs, especially from the 60s and 70s, have allusions to the Bible and Christianity. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, for example, speaks of “stairway to heaven” (of course!), “there are two paths you can go,” “our soul… the truth will come to you”; Don McLean’s American Pie: “do you have faith in God?”, “can music save your mortal soul?”, “If the Bible tells you so…,” “while the King was looking down the Jester stole his thorny crown,” “Fire is the devil’s only friend,” “no angel born in hell could break that satan’s spell,” “the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost…”; Steppenwolf’s The Pusher: “God damn the Pusher,” “I’d declare total war on the Pusher man…I’d kill him with my Bible…”
Whether one is a Christian, non-Christian, or anti-Christian, the Bible is a book that has infected our culture and the way we communicate.
So, what’s the best Bible to get? There’s no simple answer to this question. I will instead offer three or four categories of Bibles that every English-speaking Christian should own.
First, I think everyone should own a King James Bible. It has been hailed as one of the greatest literary monuments to the English language, and the greatest literary monument every produced by a committee. Regardless of what you think of the KJV’s accuracy, it is a must for all English-speaking Christians. I would add that I think it’s a must for all English-speaking people, regardless of their faith commitments. The KJV will celebrate its 400th anniversary next year. I would recommend that folks get a hold of Donald Brake’s A Visual History of the King James Bible, which will be released next year. Fascinating study of this incredible literary achievement. The only modern translation to come close to the KJV’s lyrical quality is the REB.
Second, I would propose that every English-speaking Christian own a good study Bible. It should be accurate and readable, and have plenty of helpful notes. There are several excellent study Bibles available, but the one I like the best is the NET Bible (available at www.bible.org). Why the NET? In part, because I worked on it—both as a translator and editor. But I was also a consultant for three or four other translations. What makes the NET Bible unique are three things: its philosophy of translation, how it was produced, and its extensive footnotes. The translation philosophy was to combine three different approaches: accuracy, readability, and literacy. The history of the Bible in English actually breaks down into three periods: the KJV was a literary production (following in the footsteps of Tyndale); beginning with the Revised Version of 1885, accuracy was king; beginning with the NIV, readability was of primary importance. The NET Bible’s philosophy of translation was to combine the three periods of English Bible translation. Often these three objectives are opposed to each other. In such cases, the footnotes in the NET give an alternative, usually the more accurate translation (which is also less elegant and readable).
The NET’s method of production was to put provisional translations of each of the books up on the Internet for the whole world to see. Over 100,000 comments and suggestions were made by reviewers, many of which were incorporated into the final translation. This was the first Bible ever beta-tested on the Internet.
Finally, it has more footnotes than any other Bible in history—over 60,000 of them! They are of three types: tn, which are translator’s notes; sn, which are study notes, often giving the various interpretations of the text; and tc, which are text-critical notes, giving the data from ancient manuscripts for competing readings.
But there are other good study Bibles, too. The ESV is an excellent, literary translation with understated elegance, in keeping with the KJV and RSV. And its study Bible, with articles and notes, is excellent. The NIV Study Bible has very good notes and a very readable translation, but it interprets a bit too much for my tastes. The NRSV is a very good translation, though its stance on gender inclusivism sometimes mars the beauty of the translation and is even, at times, misleading (cf. Matt 18.15; 1 Tim 3.2). The REB is a gender-inclusive translation but it has sidestepped the problems of the NRSV by giving literary power a higher priority.
One of the myths of a good translation is that to be accurate it must be a word-for-word translation. Languages don’t work that way. A word in one language cannot always be translated by one word in another language. For example, Greek has four different words for love, six different words for mind. Sometimes a paraphrase is necessary to bring out the nuances of the Greek into English. Further, idioms in one language are often, if not usually, unique to that language. In Matthew 1.18, the KJV says that Mary was ‘with child’; the NET says she was ‘pregnant.’ But the Greek idiom says, literally, that she was ‘having [it] in the belly’! Every woman who has ever been pregnant knows what that is like! Very graphic, but not particularly appropriate for a translation. Ironically, the most literal translation is probably the worst translation because it fails to communicate the Greek or Hebrew into acceptable English, misleading the reader.
Finally, I suggest that every English-speaking Christian get a Bible that is readable, lively, and captures the ‘feel’ of the original. The more accurate Bibles usually don’t do this (including the NET and ESV). The NIV comes close, but Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the Living Bible, and J. B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English do well in this regard. These are Bibles that are meant to be read one chapter (or passage) at a time, not verse by verse. In fact, Phillips stripped out the verse numbers and only had chapters so that the reader would not get bogged down when reading the text.
So, what Bible should you own? At least three, and one of them needs to be the King James Bible. But whatever you get, make sure to read it!