There are so many versions of the Bible these days, which version is the best?

Translation of the Bible into modern English can be traced back some 600 years. Some of the most prominent names attached to this early work of Bible translation in modern English are John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. However, attempts at translating the Bible into Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) go back to the work of the Venerable Bede in the 7th century. Today there are so many different versions in English that no one seems to know the exact number. I have heard numbers as high as 600 and Wikipedia gives the number as more than 450. As English speakers we might think of this as an embarrassment of riches considering the fact that there are at least 3,000 spoken languages in the world which still do not have even one translation of the Bible.

With so many versions of the Bible in English today, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to do a thorough analysis and evaluate all these translations. In practice however, the number of English versions in widespread common usage is much smaller. I count just over a dozen versions that account for the vast majority of English Bible sales today. That is a much more manageable number and yet it is still very difficult to make a blanket statement in answer to the question, “Which version is best?”

There is no one version which is perfect or even best for everyone.

Each version follows a particular philosophy on translation and there is no agreement on which approach is best, whether in Bible translation or translation of other works of literature. The number of English speakers is vast and varied. There is not just one English language, but many dialects. Bible translators must choose which dialects they will aim to represent. Then there is the matter of English usage which is changing rapidly. The English language commonly used today is quite different from the language of Shakespeare. Bible translators must constantly update English versions to represent the language that people use and understand. Translators must also consider demographics and readability levels in the population. Children generally read at quite different levels and use the language differently from university professors. These factors need to be considered in translation. These are just a few of the many factors that translators need to consider, and how they choose to focus their work will impact their translation.

So, which version is the best?

I think I could make a good case for almost any of the dozen or so versions that are most commonly used today. I like to compare the Bible to a precious gem. Facets are cut in a diamond to bring out the light and make it sparkle. I have read that a modern round brilliant diamond consists of 58 facets. I like to compare the variety of Bible versions to the facets which make a diamond sparkle. As one who has spent my life working in Bible translation I know how often it is impossible to find one way to render the rich and varied message of a Hebrew or Greek text in the Bible. For my own study and meditation, I enjoy reading the Bible in a variety of versions because I find that each one helps to bring the message to light and make it sparkle.

There are some general comments that can be made about choosing a version. For those interested in serious study of the Bible and who are unable to read the original Hebrew and Greek, a more “literal” or “formal correspondence” style of translation is useful. Some excellent choices here would be versions such as the Revised Standard and New Revised Standard versions, or the Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem Bible. The New American Standard is a very literal version and even the venerable King James Version can be a good choice in Bible Study for people who can navigate the older variety of English used.

On the other end of the spectrum are versions which may be most helpful for devotional reading or to help a reader gain a more general grasp of the broad sweep of the Biblical narrative. Here I might profile versions such as the Contemporary English, the Good News Bible, or the New Living Bible. Even a paraphrase such as The Message can open our eyes to the text in ways that help bring its message to light and make it sparkle.

Another way that the Bible is commonly used today is in public worship and preaching. Here people tend to prefer a version somewhere between the most literal and the most dynamic — one that is still somewhat formal but also very readable. Some good choices may be the New Revised Standard Version, the New Jerusalem Bible or the New International Version.

The best Bible version is the one you actually pick up and read.

Ultimately if I had to answer the question in one sentence, I would have to say that the best Bible version is the one you actually pick up and read. As the parish priest remarked at a Bible dedication I attended in the Philippines, “If you leave it on the shelf, the rats will eat it and get fat, but if you pick it up and read it your life will be transformed.”

Then of course there is the fact that some people may never read any of the many written versions available. For them, you and I may be the only Bible they will ever read. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3.2, “You yourselves are the letter we have, written on our hearts for everyone to know and read.” May our lives reflect the message of God’s love — which we read in Scripture so clearly — that the lives of those we meet each day will be transformed by the message they read in our lives.

Quick Guide to Bible Translations (PDF)

About the Author

Harmut Wiens is the former Director of Scripture Translation.

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