Bible students in English have a wealth of translations with which to delve into the Scriptures! Although there is no standard version that is absolutely free from theological biases, errors, or somewhat unclear passages, valuable learning is derived from prayerfully comparing various presentations of Scriptures. Whether we be among the few who read ancient languages fluently or among the many (like me) who depend on the detailed studies of scholars, we can benefit from the abundance of diverse efforts.
Instead of recommending that somebody choose a translation and stick with it, I endorse the idea of reading and re-reading multiple versions as a part of regular Bible study. It is wise to consider that if one is faithful to devour the Scriptures according to only one translation over years and decades, it would be possible to repeatedly fall into the rut of mentally anticipating the exact phrase to come (in a section of familiar, well-trodden ground). In that way, it might be easy to gloss over well-known words without really concentrating on their intended meaning. On the other hand, the occasional fresh study of an unfamiliar rendering of Scriptures might obviate the tendency to get stuck in such a rut. It may also be a way to stay humble and alert regarding certain nuances of meaning. One’s attention might then be drawn more readily to the need for further research into specific words, phrases, verb tenses, and other grammatical features.
For example, a focus on verb tenses displayed in the Williams New Testament might result in careful thinking about the need for continuous, faithful effort to desist from certain habitual activities and proactively to embrace other actions:
Why do you keep watching the tiny speck in your brother’s eye, but pay no attention to the girder in your own? (Matthew 7:3)
Keep on asking, and the gift will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and the door will open to you. For everyone who keeps on asking, receives, and everyone who keeps on seeking, finds, and to the one who keeps on knocking, the door will open. (v. 7, 8)
Also, familiarity with a variety of translations might help Christians avoid tendencies to think and speak according to the traditional jargon of a private club. As an example of jargon, King James-minded parents might instruct their children to “hearken” to them, instead of using the word “listen.” Along with this avoidance, knowledge of diverse vocabulary options might help prevent the trend that people get carried away with dubious ideas which are often rooted in misunderstood wording or questionable translations. For example, “despising” [the shame] in the KJV of Hebrews 12:2 means “disregarding“, “ignoring”, or “making light of”; it does not mean passionately “hating.”
In evaluating translations, one should keep in mind that ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are just as idiomatic (and full of allusions to cultural norms) as modern languages. We surely desire that a translation be as accurate as possible in dealing with the original languages, while presenting its truths smoothly in modern, target languages. While respecting the complexity of such an undertaking, words like “literal”, “free”, and “paraphrase” as commonly understood might be somewhat misleading.
For example, there is an expression in Spanish which, in its infinitive form, reads: tomar el pelo. A “literal”, word-for-word reading in English would be: “to take the hair.” Clearly, the concept of “taking one’s hair” makes no sense at all in English! So, one could say that the hyper-literal approach to translating, in this instance, is totally useless! The Spanish idiom expressed by “taking the hair” means to trick somebody, so one could translate it as an explanation of that idiom, using the word “trick.” Nevertheless, there is a better option available. One could render the phrase with an equivalent idiom in English: “to pull one’s leg.” Even though there is no word-for-word correspondence here, “to pull one’s leg” is much more precise as a translation than any other approaches! What has been done here is really not a paraphrase or a “free translation.” It is an example of what one would call “dynamic equivalence” or “functional equivalence.” (1) It involves the careful, exact translating of a concept, expressed with a group of words.
In addition to these idiomatic concerns, word order, sentence structure, and other aspects of grammar vary widely (from one language to another). This makes exact translation painstakingly demanding! For example, an individual (or a committee) might make a very concerted effort to be as literal as possible, yet produce glowing errors or incomprehensible wording. That could be due to lack of idiomatic awareness or due to losing sight of basic, English grammar. One might read some very clear, well-translated passages in several useful, older versions, like the KJV, NKJV, or Young’s Literal Translation (YLT). Nevertheless, the reader could suddenly find himself/herself bogged down, while meandering through tedious passages that are practically unintelligible! The obstacles in understanding are not all due to outdated patterns in English itself. Many such oversights and errors (in earlier versions) are lately corrected in updated versions that lean toward “formal equivalence” (i.e., staying literal). (2) Three good versions of this sort that incorporate modern textual scholarship are the NRSV, NASB, and ESV. They basically revise and update previous revisions of the KJV.
Currently, there is a treasury of other helpful versions that lean more towards the use of “dynamic equivalence,” instead of endeavoring to update revisions of the familiar KJV. Comparing a version or more from this group to the more “literal” renderings mentioned above, might enhance the understanding of many Scriptures. Such versions include the Revised English Bible (REB), NEB, Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), NIV, Today’s New International Version (TNIV), GNB (or TEV), and the New Living Translation (NLT). Also, the NAB, Jerusalem Bible (JB), and NJB are three very useful Catholic Bibles. As illustrated earlier with the Spanish idiom: tomar el pelo, “functional equivalence” is absolutely compatible with “literal” precision in language transference. Though some versions listed in this paragraph are “freer” than others, they are not mere paraphrases.
There are, however, some popular paraphrases in existence, like The Message and the Living Bible (LB). Whereas an occasional quote might be insightful, these Bibles lack a studied understanding of the original languages. Thus, they are so “free” as to be of very limited value. On the other hand, there is a truly excellent book called a paraphrase: An Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul by F.F. Bruce. It actually displays a very “literal” rendering (the 1881 revision) side-by-side with a presentation rich in “dynamic equivalent” phraseology! (Don’t judge a book by its title!)
In addition to the above considerations, one can acquire a historical perspective through a perusal of translations that predate the KJV. (See The Printed English Bible, 1525-1885 by Richard Lovett.) Tyndale’s amazing sixteenth century translation from Greek is available (with modern spelling). Wycliffe’s earlier fourteenth century translation from Latin can be acquired. Matthew’s Bible and the superlative Geneva Bible (used by the 1620 Pilgrims) are also currently accessible. Among other things, one can view in such works how the pronoun “it” is correctly used in reference to the logos in John 1:3, 4.
There are many other valuable translations, even if some seem to be outdated. They can get readers’ attention by using simple, sometimes unfamiliar wording. Some, like the CEV and NCV, target young reading levels. One can check out translations by J.N. Darby, R.F. Weymouth, Helen Montgomery, James Moffatt, J.B. Phillips, William. F. Beck, Ferrar Fenton, Kenneth Wuest, and William Barclay. An American Translation (Smith/ Goodspeed), the Unvarnished N.T., the Complete Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, the ISV, the NET, the JAV (by Joel Edmund Anderson), the Amplified Bible, God’s New Covenant, the Kingdom New Testament (KNT – translated by N.T. Wright), the Comprehensive New Testament, the MLV, and the Disciples’ Literal New Testament all offer some wonderful perspectives rooted in genuine scholarship. There are also a few great translations from Aramaic (Peshitta) sources. Furthermore, even translations by skeptics (such as the Scholars Version) in The Complete Gospels can provide great insights.
There are several excellent works that can be studied with careful attention to technical symbols. Among these are Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible (EBR), the Concordant Literal New Testament (CLNT), and the corresponding Concordant Version of the Old Testament (CVOT.) (By the way, one can simply read these translations, instead of following the complex symbols.) The CVOT is particularly good and readable, and it clearly indicates the name Yahweh along with several divine titles such as El, Elohim, and Eloah.
Of course, interlinear works and highly annotated editions exist. Other renderings (like Barclay’s N.T.) tend to incorporate certain explanatory details in the text itself. A variety of parallel editions are easy to find, along with on-line sources. In this article I have not, by any means, listed all potentially helpful versions.
A couple of recent New Testaments that specialize in emphasizing textually accurate Christian monotheism are The One God, the Father, One Man Messiah Translation (OGFOMMT) and The Kingdom of God Version (KGV). There are some often misunderstood verses from the gospel of John that need not be confusing at all:
In the beginning was the message of God’s purpose. This message of His purpose was integral to God, and what God was, the message was. This was integral to God in the beginning. Everything came to be through it, without it nothing came to be. What came into being by means of it was the perfect life, and the perfect life was the light of mankind. John 1:1-4 – KGV
And the message of God’s purpose became a human, and dwelt as the focal point of God’s presence among us. We gazed upon his glory – the glory as of one uniquely brought into existence from a father, one full of divine favor and truth. v. 14 – KGV
Depending on one’s prayerful choices, a Bible student could perhaps incorporate reading one or two fairly recent New Testament translations completely per year, along with an occasional change in Old Testament options. Subsequently, other versions, whether familiar or not, could be mostly used as comparative references for a while. Or, upon studying a particular book in depth, such as Hebrews, a student might want to read and re-read it in a wide variety of presentations. In whatever ways we might choose to use them, the storehouse of insightful learning perspectives derived from multiple translations is vastly rewarding!
(1) Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 4rth edition 2014 ), 44.
(2) Ibid., 44.