There is a bewildering array of English Bible versions available. Which one should you read?
We want one that is accurate, based on the best manuscripts and the latest scholarly research. This excludes outdated versions like the King James Version, and also recent paraphrases like the New Living Translation and The Message. We should also set aside “cosmetic” translations that change the Bible’s words to cover up its nasty bits and blatant contradictions, for example the New International Version.
But we also want one that is readable. A too-literal translation like Young’s Literal Translation actually obscures the meaning of the text for laymen.
For the beginner, the best option is to use several Bibles. If you have more time, read supplemental materials like Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. And of course the best solution is to become fluent in the languages of the Bible: ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. But assuming you only have the patience to consult a few English translations, which should you choose?
The New English Translation is a superb translation: accurate, readable, and based on the best manuscripts and scholarly work available. Its best feature is its extensive footnotes, which discuss the reasons for each significant translation decision. (For example, the footnotes on 1 John 5:7-8 comprise over 900 words.) It also does an admirable job of not interpreting the Jewish Bible (the “Old Testament”) in light of Christian polemics (the “New Testament”).1 It can be read online, and future printings will include the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books.
Christian Bibles are produced by Christians who interpret the Jewish Bible in light of the New Testament, not in light of its Jewish authors and context. The best English version of the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) is The Jewish Study Bible, based on the NJPS translation but also with helpful essays and notes.
How We Got the Bible is the first non-translation I must recommend to anyone who wants to read the Bible for all it is worth. It is a popular introduction to who wrote the books of the Bible, how they were preserved (or not), and how they were translated.
If you have the money, you’ll also want software like BibleWorks or PC Study Bible, which allow you to compare dozens of Bible versions, examine manuscript variants, and read additional materials like commentaries and research works.
In summary, I think the most basic Bible study collection should include:
- The New English Translation (with footnotes)
- The Holman Christian Standard Version (with footnotes)
- The Jewish Study Bible
- The Pre-Nicene New Testament by Robert Price
The Bible is the most aggressively altered, well-researched, and historically significant book in all of human history. It is a pleasure to study. Enjoy yourself!
- See Michael Marlowe’s review of the NET Bible. Marlowe sees this theological independence as a problem rather than a virtue, because he is committed to conservative Christian doctrine which hijacks the Jewish Bible for Christian purposes. [↩]
- Also see Lost Scriptures, which contains a few books that The Pre-Nicene New Testament does not, but lacks many others. [↩]