Which Bible Translation is Best?

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 30, 2008 in Bible

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 This excludes outdated versions like the King James Version, and also recent paraphrases like the New Living Translation and The Message.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 best

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.

The Holman Christian Standard Version is also accurate, readable, scholarly, and heavily footnoted. It, too, can be read online, with footnotes.

For me, the English Standard Version comes in as a distant third choice, though it is still superior to other popular modern versions like the TNIV, the NRSV, and the NJB.

Valuable complements

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.

The Pre-Nicene New Testament is a valuable collection of 54 early Christian writings that makes no distinction between those that were later chosen as canonical and those that were not.2

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

In summary, I think the most basic Bible study collection should include:

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!

  1. 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. []
  2. Also see Lost Scriptures, which contains a few books that The Pre-Nicene New Testament does not, but lacks many others. []

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Berberich March 30, 2009 at 8:53 am

Thanks for the head's up on the NET Bible. I recently finished The Teaching Company's “Story of the Bible”, so I'm really interested in the process of translation and interpretation.

It's great to see a completely new translation done with honesty and accuracy as the primary goals.

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Michael Chang March 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Interesting post, Luke. Thx for the post.

I’d probably disagree about the JPS translation of the Hebrew Bible. When I was looking for Hebrew Scriptures, I had compared this one with the Judaica Press and Artscroll, and (at least according to those knowledgeable), the JPS was a poor edition. My understanding is that its primary basis was the KJV, so it wasn’t in many respects a new translation either. Plus, I had noticed a few places where its translations were just off from all the others I saw.

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Majida June 23, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Dear Brethen,
It is nice and blessed to visit your website. I am Majida Saleem from Pakistan ( a christian believer). I do translation of Biblical documents and I request you to have the Urdu translation of whole of your material. I can translate it in low rates and can distribute in my local churches.
In Jesus
Majida

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Gavin Young September 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm

While the JPS of 1917 was based upon the Revised Version of 1885 (which was a revision of the King James Version), the JPS of 1985 is also known as the New JPS (the one used in the The Jewish Study Bible, published by Oxford) and it is a fresh translation – not a revision of a prior translation.

Interesting post, Luke. Thx for the post.

I’d probably disagree about the JPS translation of the Hebrew Bible. When I was looking for Hebrew Scriptures, I had compared this one with the Judaica Press and Artscroll, and (at least according to those knowledgeable), the JPS was a poor edition. My understanding is that its primary basis was the KJV, so it wasn’t in many respects a new translation either. Plus, I had noticed a few places where its translations were just off from all the others I saw.

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Ahithophel September 28, 2011 at 5:06 am

I tend to agree about the good qualities of the NET, and I’ve heard the HCSB spoken well of, but may one ask what makes the ESV superior to the NRSV and NJB? From the reviews I’ve read of the ESV, it’s basically an RSV worked-over to be careful of conservative sensibilities (some might say that about the NRSV, though in the opposite direction).

Not intended as partisanship, I’d genuinely like to know.

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