Sunday, March 07, 2010

choosing a bible translation

Which Version?

by Daniel B. Wallace

Before the year 1881, you had three choices for an
English Bible translation: the kjv, the kjv, or the kjv.
Obviously, this is no longer the case. How did the
King James Version get dethroned? Which translation
is best today? Are any of the modern translations
faithful to the original?

What is a Faithful Translation?
Many people today think that a faithful translation of 
the Bible means a “word-for-word” translation. If 
the original has a noun, they expect a noun in the
translation. If the original has sixteen words, they 
don’t want to see seventeen in the translation. This 
type of translation is called “formal equivalence.”
The kjv, asv and nasb come the closest to this ideal.
On the other end of the spectrum is a “phrase-for-phrase” 
translation, also known as a “dynamic equivalence” or, 
more recently, as a “functional equivalence” translation. 
A dynamic equivalence translation is not as concerned
with the grammatical form of the original language, as it 
is with the meaning of the original. It allows more room 
for interpretation and is easier to understand.
The niv and the neb follow this philosophy.

The Difficulty of Translating a Language
Anyone who has learned a second language knows 
that a word-for-word translation is impossible much 
or most of the time. Idioms and colloquialisms in
a language need to be paraphrased to make sense 
in another language.
Even the kjv translators realized this. In a couple
of places in the Old Testament, the Hebrew text
literally reads, “God’s nostrils enlarged.” But, the
kjv translates this as, “God became angry”—which
is what the expression means. In Matthew 1:18 the
kjv says that Mary was found to be with child. But
the Greek is quite different and quite graphic: “Mary
was having it in the belly!” In many places in Paul’s
letters, the kjv reads, “God forbid!” But the original
has neither “God” nor “forbid.” Literally, it says, “May
it never be!” (as most modern translations render it).
Therefore, when we speak of a translation being
faithful to the original, we need to clarify the
question: Is it faithfulness to form? Or, faithfulness
to meaning? Sometimes faithfulness to one involves
lack of fidelity to the other. There are problems with
each of the translation philosophies. The kjv, with
its attempted fidelity to form, does not make sense
in some passages. (In 1611, these instances did not
make sense either). Likewise, The nasb often contains
wooden, stilted English.
On the other hand, functional equivalence translations
sometimes go too far in their interpretation of
a particular phrase. The niv, in eph 6:6, tells slaves
to “Obey (their masters) not only to win their favor.”
However, the word “only” is not in the Greek, and I
suspect that Paul did not mean to imply it either. This
reveals one of the problems with dynamic equivalence
translations: the translators don’t always know
whether their interpretation is correct. The addition of
one interpretively-driven word can change the entire
meaning of a clause or a passage.
Some versions don’t interpret—they distort. Some are
notorious for omitting references to Christ’s blood, or
for attempting to deny his deity. In these instances,
the translators are neither faithful to the form or the
meaning. They have perverted the Word of God.
Yet, functional equivalence translators who are
honest with the text often make things very clear.
In phil 2:6, for example, the niv tells us that Jesus
was “in [his] very nature God.” But most formal
equivalence translations state that he was in the
form of God. The problem with these formally correct
translations is that they are misleading: the Greek
word for “form” here means essence or nature.
A formal equivalence translation lets the reader
interpret for himself or herself. However, the reader
often does not have the background information
or the tools to interpret accurately. The net result
is that he or she runs the risk of misunderstanding
the text, simply because their translation was not
clear enough.
On the other hand, a functional equivalence
translation is usually clear and quite understandable.
But if the translators missed the point of the original
(either intentionally or unintentionally) they may
communicate an idea foreign to the biblical text.

Which Translation Is Best?
To the question: Which translation is best?—
There can be no singular answer. I suggest 
that every Christian who is serious about studying 
the Bible own at least two translations. At least one 
formal equivalence (word-for-word) translation and 
one functional equivalence (phrase-for-phrase) 
translation. It would be even better to have two 
good functional equivalence translations because in 
this type of translation, the translator is also the 
interpreter. If the translator’s interpretation is correct,
it can only clarify the meaning of the text; if it is 
incorrect, then it only clarifies the interpretation of the 

The King James Version (kjv) and
The New King James Version (nkjv)
The kjv has with good reason been termed, “the
noblest monument of English prose” (rsv preface).
Above all its rivals, the kjv has had the greatest
impact in shaping the English language. It is a literary
masterpiece. But, lest anyone wishes to revere it
because it was “good enough for Jesus,” or some such
nonsense, we must remember that the kjv of today is
not the kjv of 1611. It has undergone three revisions,
incorporating more than 100,000 changes. Even with
all these changes, much of the evidence from new
manuscript discoveries has not been incorporated.
The kjv was translated from later manuscripts that
are less accurate to the original text of the Bible.
Furthermore, there are over 300 words in the kjv
that no longer mean what they meant in 1611. If one
wishes to use a Bible that follows the same Greek and
Hebrew texts as the kjv, I recommend the New King
James Version (nkjv).

Revised Standard Version (rsv)
and New Revised Standard Version
The rsv was completed in 1952 and was intended
to be, in part, a revision of the kjv. Its attempt to
be a fairly literal translation makes its wording still
archaic at times. The nrsv follows the same principle
of translation, though it has been updated based on
new manuscript discoveries, exegetical insights, and
linguistic theories. Much of the difficult wording has
been made clearer, and gender-inclusive language
has been incorporated. At times, this is very helpful;
at other times, it is misleading.

The American Standard Version
(asv) and The New American
Standard Bible (nasb)
Like the rsv, the asv and nasb were intended to be
a revision of the kjv. However, there are three major
differences between the rsv and the nasb: (1) the nasb
is less archaic in its wording; (2) its translators were more
theologically conservative than the rsv translators; and
(3) because of the translators’ desire to adhere as closely
as possible to the wording of the original, the translation
often contains stilted and wooden English.

New English Bible (neb) and the
Revised English Bible (reb)
The neb was completed in 1971, after a quarter
of a century of labor. It marks a new milestone in
translation: it is not a revision of the kjv, nor of any
other version, but a brand new translation.
It is a phrase-for-phrase translation. Unfortunately,
sometimes the biases of the translators creep into
the text. The reb follows the same pattern as the neb:
excellent English, though not always faithful to the
Greek and Hebrew.

New International Version (niv) &
Today’s New International Version
The niv was published in 1978. It may be considered
a counterpart to the neb. (The neb is strictly a British
product, while the niv is an international product).
It is more of a phrase-for-phrase translation than
a word-for-word translation. The translators were
generally more conservative than those who worked
on the neb. I personally consider it the best
phrase-for-phrase translation available today.
However, its major flaw is its simplicity of language.
The editors wanted to make sure it was easy to read.
In achieving this goal, they often sacrificed accuracy.
In the New Testament, sentences are shortened,
subordination of thought is lost, and conjunctions
are often deleted.
The tniv is to the niv what the nrsv is to the rsv.
Gender-inclusive language is used, and specific
terminology is clarified (e.g., instead of “the Jews,”
the tniv will read “the Jewish leaders,” and
when “Christ” is used as a title, is substituted
for “Messiah”). This is usually helpful, but such
interpretations built into a translation can at times
be misleading.

There are pros and cons of
each philosophy of translation

New Living Translation (nlt)
The nlt was first published in 1996. The nlt is a functional 
equivalence translation, which focuses on the thoughts of 
the biblical authors, rather than their actual words. The 
translators of the nlt have gone to great lengths to convey 
the meaning of the text. Although this is helpful, it often
results in large interpretive decisions being made for the 

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (hcsb)
The hcsb, first published in 1999, uses a translational 
philosophy called “optimal equivalence.” Where a word-for-word 
translation is not clear in English, they will opt for a phrase-for-phrase 
The translation incorporates new manuscript discoveries, 
as well as contains many important translational footnotes. 
The hcsb is a nice alternative to choosing between a formal 
equivalence and dynamic equivalence translation.

English Standard Version (esv)
The esv, published in 2001, is the newest and most 
up-to-date formal equivalent translation. The esv has 
eliminated the stilted English of translations like the  
nasb, while maintaining the literary excellence of
translations like the kjv. Even though the esv is a new 
translation, it maintains some of the theological terms 
that have systematically developed in English (e.g., 
justification, sanctification and propitiation). The esv 
 has also consistently translated specific terms in the 
original language to make theological developments easier 
to follow, and English concordance searches more 
accurate. Like the kjv, it has many unforgettable 
expressions, suitable for memorizing.

New English Translation (net)
The net Bible was published in 2005. The net has all 
the earmarks of a great translation. At times, it is more 
accurate than the nasb, more readable than the
niv, and more elegant than either. It is clear and 
eloquent, while maintaining the meaning of the original. 
In addition, the notes are a genuine gold mine of
information, unlike those found in any other 
translation. The net aims to be gender-neutral. The 
 net Bible is the Bible behind the bibles. It’s the one that
many modern translators use to help them work through 
the original language and express their meaning in literate 
English. I would highly recommend that each 
English-speaking Christian put this Bible on 
their shopping list.

New World Translation
Finally, a word should be said about the New World 
Translation by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Due to the 
sectarian bias of the group, as well as to the lack of 
genuine biblical scholarship, I believe that the New 
World Translation is by far the worst translation in 
English dress. It purports to be word-for-word, and in 
most cases is slavishly literal to the point of being
terrible English. But, ironically, whenever a “sacred 
cow” is demolished by the biblical writers themselves, 
the Jehovah’s Witnesses twist the text and resort
to an interpretive type of translation. In short, it 
combines the cons of both worlds, with none of the pros.

In summary, I would suggest that each English-speaking 
Christian own at least an rsv, niv, and net. For someone 
who wishes to study the Bible, an esv, kjv and neb would 
also make good additions to their library. And then, make 
sure that you read the book!

An earlier version of this article was previously published on
under the title “Why So Many Versions?” (Biblical Studies Press, 1998).

For more information on the history of the King James Version of the
Bible see Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible
and the Revolution It Inspired by Benson Bobrick Also see God’s
Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson

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