Bible Versions:

Choosing a Translation
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I am often asked about the many various versions of the Bible that are available today and, specifically, about which one is the "best" one. This is a very interesting and often-times difficult question to answer because many factors must be taken into consideration when one is trying to determine which Bible translation to use. I mean, it’s not as if you’re trying to decide which kind of meat to put on your pizza, or even who to vote for President in 2000. No, you are trying to settle on something of far greater importance! "Which translation of the Word of God do I want to use?"

Firstly, one must remember that no matter which version you eventually buy and use, what you are buying is a translation. There is no one single "best" or "perfect" translation on the market today. They are all the product of much research and much scholarly reflection--they are, all of them, serious attempts to translate the Holy Word of God into our language.

Secondly, one must remember that the tastes--the likes and dislikes--of a person are going to differ remarkably from one person to the next; hence, while Barbara may prefer the King James Version, Donald’s tastes and needs may lead him to prefer the New International Version. Now . . . is Barbara’s choice a better one than Donald’s because she has chosen to use the older, more "stately" version of the Scriptures? Or, is Donald’s choice a better one than Barbara’s because he is using a far more recent translation of the Scriptures? Not at all! At least at this level, neither judgment is true. The simple fact is that, be their translation the KJV or the NIV, Barbara and Donald both hold in their hands a translation of the Holy Scriptures which, in terms of message, is identical to the other’s.

Thirdly, the choice of a Bible should always reflect your purposes for buying it. I mean, do you want this translation for prayer-time, devotional reflection, public reading, or Bible Study? Likewise, are you buying it for yourself, or for someone else? Are you buying it to give to a child, a youth, or an adult? Are you buying it for someone with a vast education, or for someone with somewhat less? All of these factors are extremely important in determining which version to purchase. No one single version is good for "all of the above." However, as a rule of thumb the more recent translations are going to be easier for the average person to read and comprehend for nearly all purposes. For Bible Studies the NASB is often looked upon as one of the best English versions because it is just about the most "literal" translation available. Its English rendering of both the Old and New Testaments tends to be somewhat "wooden," but it does do an excellent job of rendering the Scriptures in a form quite similar to that of the original language. It is not, however, the best version for public reading. And, quite frankly, unless you are an exceptionally good reader, the 400 year old syntax and grammar of the KJV make it a poor selection for public reading as well. However, for devotional purposes--and, especially in the psalms--the KJV is often an excellent choice. In my opinion, the NIV, the RSV, and the NRSV are all good translations for public reading and, indeed, even Bible Study. However, certain theological and translational liberties have been taken in them that are not present in the more literal NASB. For example, the NRSV has strong Catholic and United Methodist (ie, Thomistic and Arminian) theological leanings, while the NIV tends to exhibit many particular Evangelical theological perspectives. The RSV, while also reflecting many of the same influences as the NRSV, tends to be more governed by some of the scholastic concerns of the mid-twentieth century.

The same can be said of nearly any other modern translation one might desire to use. The New King James Version, for example, cleans up many of the linguistic problems inherent in the KJV due to its extreme age, but it is still governed by the same theological convictions which governed the KJV: 17th century Anglicanism combined with some strong Calvinist and anti-Catholic leanings. This doesn’t make either the KJV or the NKJV "bad," or "wrong." It just means that whoever uses them for Bible Study should probably have an understanding of how the English language has changed over the centuries as well as a good working knowledge of basic Reformation Theology.

No matter which Bible you use, you will find some theological perspectives in play. There is no such thing as a neutral Bible, although some are more neutral than others.

© 1999, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.