Which Bible version should I use?

I regularly receive questions about Bible translations. ‘Why do we have so many versions of the Bible?’ ‘Why are they so different sometimes?’ ‘Which one should I use?’ Along with a vibrant prayer life, reading and studying the Scriptures are essential for our spiritual health. I want to take a few weeks to explore some simple principles for studying the Bible—principles that any believer can use. But before we discuss how to study the Bible, it’s helpful for all Christians to understand a little about the Bible itself and why we have different translations from which to choose.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek and some short sections in Aramaic. Not many of us fluently read ancient Hebrew or Greek, so we can’t simply pick up these manuscripts and read them for ourselves. We need the Scriptures to be translated for us so we can read them in our own language and clearly understand what’s being communicated.

For many years, the common translation for most English-speaking Christians was the King James Version. But we no longer speak to each other in the archaic English used in the KJV. In fact, the language has changed to the point where many words found in the KJV have completely different, even opposite, meanings from what they meant in 1611 when the KJV was first published. Because of this, most people today find the KJV to be indecipherable or even misleading. The purpose of the KJV translators was to “deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they understand.” For most of us, this means choosing a modern translation—but which one? How do the translations differ from one another?

The most significant difference between the modern translations is how they’re translated. There are three basic approaches. Let me explain the different translation styles, and then we’ll compare them.

Some people say they prefer “literal” translations. While there is no truly literal, word-for-word translation, some Bible versions strive to be as close to the original languages as possible. They focus on the meanings of individual words, and they try to retain the original word order as much as they can. This is known as a formal approach to Bible translation. Examples of formal translations would be the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Other Bibles are extremely free and dynamic in rendering the original into English. This kind of Bible is called a paraphrase. Paraphrases try to make the Bible as understandable and fresh as possible, but sometimes by going beyond the meaning of the text. The most well-known paraphrase currently is The Message.

Other translations aim for a median approach, striving for a thought-for-thought translation (which is the standard method of translating) as opposed to a word-for-word translation. Rather than focusing on individual words, these translations seek to accurately convey the meaning of whole phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Examples of these functional translations would be the New Living Translation (NLT), the New International Version (NIV), the New English Translation (NET), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

Which is the best kind of translation? It depends on how you intend to use it. All of these versions can be used effectively. But you’re also going to discover some limitations. For instance, anyone familiar with a foreign language will understand that a truly “literal,” word-for-word translation is seldom possible. The familiar Spanish phrase “como se llama,” would have to literally be translated as something like: “as it is called.” But anyone who knows even a little Spanish recognizes this isn’t what the phrase means. The “literal” translation doesn’t accurately convey the actual, literal meaning of the phrase. (Which is why we don’t translate that way.) To accurately translate the phrase, we have to put it into a corresponding, functional English phrase: “What is your name?”

A great way to illustrate how the different approaches work is to translate the French expression: J’ai le cafard. [I’m borrowing this illustration from James R. White’s book The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?] If we were to translate this as literally as possible, we would end up with: I have the cockroach. So now would you understand what your French friend is talking about? Not unless they were speaking of a literal cockroach (which they wouldn’t be). We haven’t really gotten that far, have we? We’ve translated the individual words into English, but we haven’t conveyed the idea the person is expressing. We’re as much in the dark as we were before. We’re still stuck with a sentence we don’t understand.

But what if we were to translate the whole phrase instead of just the individual words? What if we took what the entire expression means in French and conveyed it in clear English? Then we would have something like: I am depressed. Or—since this is a colorful French idiom—we could even try to find a similar English expression, such as: I have the blues. This is the functional approach. Since this method of translation conveys to us what the phrase really meant to the original speaker, it’s actually much more accurate in translating the meaning of the original than a strictly “literal” translation would be.

On the other hand, a very dynamic paraphrase will go to great lengths to make sure the phrase is understandable. A paraphrase of this French saying could be something like: I’m having a lousy day! This is definitely more expressive, but we have to be careful. The more freedom that’s taken in the paraphrase, the more the chance that accuracy will be sacrificed.

How does this actually work with Scripture? Let’s look at an example from Luke 9:44.

Let these words sink down into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.

Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.

The Message
Treasure and ponder each of these next words: The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands.

Which of these most accurately communicates the original meaning to us? Have you ever tried to get someone’s attention by telling them: “Hey, let these words sink down into your ears”? We just don’t speak that way, do we? The literal translation may tell us something about Greek colloquialisms, but it doesn’t communicate the actual meaning as clearly as the other two. But then, was Jesus telling the disciples to treasure and ponder each of his words? You can see how the paraphrase embellishes the actual meaning of the text. The NLT, though, gives us a very clear reading of the passage and one which is easily understood in our common language. So, in this example, the NLT most accurately translates the meaning of the text.

But some protest that they like the more formal translations because they “sound like the Bible” to them. For these people, when the Bible reads a little awkwardly or uses language that sounds holy or spiritual, it feels like the Word of God. (One example is what some of us call ‘Yoda translations.’ [I first heard this description from Rick Mansfied over at This Lamp.] They’re called this because you can almost hear the familiar voice of the Star Wars character as you read the strange, backward sentence structure: “Fear not,” “Fret not yourself,” “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” etc. [examples from the ESV].)

Now, in one way, I wouldn’t want to argue with this perception because the best Bible for you is the one you’ll love and use. If this is merely a personal preference, that’s fine. But I also want us all to understand that this isn’t really a good way to evaluate a Bible version. You see, when the Bible was first written it didn’t sound like a religious text. To those who love the familiar cadence of traditional readings and word orders, the original Bible wouldn’t sound like the Bible! It was written in normal, everyday Hebrew and Greek, using common words and expressions. So if we want the Bible we’re reading to be as similar as possible to how the original Scriptures were read, they should be translated into common, everyday English.

Sometimes the literal translation may be a little cumbersome, but still understandable (as with “let these words sink down into your ears”). Sometimes the wording may just sound so odd that it inspires giggling, like calling Jesus a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19 in the NKJV) or claiming that “the ants are a people not strong” (Proverbs 30:25 in the ESV, and notice again the strange, Yoda-like syntax).

Other times though, the “literal” wording actually obscures the true meaning. Continuing in Matthew 11:19, the NKJV tells us “wisdom is justified by her children.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? I’ve asked this many times of students, and I haven’t had one guess correctly (and they all had to guess). Compare that with the NLT reading: “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” Isn’t this much more clear? Or what of the NASB’s statement from the Lord in Amos 4:6: “I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities.” Is the meaning clear in English? (Does it have something to do with oral hygiene?) Because the meaning is perfectly clear in it’s original Hebrew context. Is this more understandable (again from the NLT): “I brought hunger to every city”? We shouldn’t need someone to translate the translation for us!

So am I suggesting that formal, “literal” translations serve no purpose? Not at all! They can be very helpful, particularly for those who teach and need to do word studies or get the feel of the original structure of the text. But for general reading, the formal translations are usually too wooden and frequently obscure the flow of the passage. Paraphrases also can be useful by expressing the text in a completely new way that can be fresh and thought-provoking. But we shouldn’t rely on paraphrases to determine the precise meaning of a certain passage. It’s best—especially for teachers—to compare different kinds of translations when studying the Bible. But for general reading and studying, I recommend choosing a functional translation.

Our church uses the New Living Translation (NLT), and I haven’t found any other translation that combines accuracy and clarity so effectively. A good test when comparing translations is to read whole chapters in a book such as Romans or 1 Corinthians, first in one translation and then the other. As you read, see which one makes it easier to follow the flow of thought in the passage. You won’t always understand the concepts that are communicated in Scripture, but if you can’t grasp even the wording in the passage, then it’s really not doing you much good to be reading it! I was delighted when I saw how refreshingly easy the NLT was to understand without sacrificing the accuracy of the text. For a teacher, this means I don’t have to waste time explaining an unclear translation; I can devote that time to actually talking about the main points of the passage.

One final tip for this week. If you don’t already have a good study Bible I encourage you to invest in one. The best introductory study Bible I’ve found is the Life Application Study Bible, and it’s available in the NLT. I’ll write more next week about why this is important, but for now, the Life Application Study Bible has generally balanced notes and tons of in-text maps and charts. It will answer a lot of your questions as you’re reading, and it makes studying the Bible more fun. (If you’d like to see some of the features of this study Bible, just click on the book cover to the right.) Next week, we’ll start looking at some tips for digging into the Bible on your own.

(For a Spanish translation, I recommend the Nueva Traducción Viviente [NTV]. And for those who will be teaching or who have moved beyond a beginner’s study Bible, my favorite study Bible is the NLT Study Bible. By the way, I should clarify that I don’t receive any form of payment for products I recommend.)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use? [see above]

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

The NIV controversy, part 2

Pray without ceasing?

How many times have we heard the familiar quote: “Pray without ceasing”? How do you feel when you hear this? A little guilty? After all, you know you don’t pray nearly as much as you probably should. Maybe confused? Even frustrated? I mean, how are we supposed to pray without ceasing anyway? Does this mean we’re somehow supposed to pray 24 hours a day?

I get questions about this every now and then. Some of you have asked about it recently. Actually, when we look at this verse in a clear translation of Scripture, our discussion might seem anticlimactic. We find this instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Here’s how the verse reads in the New Living Translation:

Never stop praying.

Oh. This gives it a slightly different twist, doesn’t it? This is an example of why I urge people—when they choose a standard reading Bible—to choose one that doesn’t just “literally” translate the individual words, but one that conveys the actual meaning of the phrases and paragraphs (which is how we communicate, but that’s a topic for another post).

“Pray without ceasing” conveys an expectation that the activity is going to be without any breaks, every second of every minute of every day . . . . Some have concluded from this that the Bible routinely asks us to do things that are simply impossible. So they just shrug their shoulders and give up. “Who can do that?” Even if we were to plug some other activity into the phrase—say: “read your Bible without ceasing”—it still suggests the same expectation, this time reading your Bible around the clock. Is this really what the Bible means in 1 Thessalonians 5:17?

What if the apostle Paul had been visiting our church. Now he’s leaving us with some final, encouraging instructions, and he tells us: “Never stop reading your Bible.” How would you understand that? You wouldn’t confuse it with: “Read your Bible 24 hours a day,” would you? The meaning is clear. Don’t stop your practice of reading the Bible. The same would be true if a coach was retiring and he told his team: “Never stop practicing.” He wouldn’t be telling them not to eat or sleep or do their homework, but only practice. Just, ‘don’t stop practicing,’ right? It really makes perfect sense when the meaning is clearly translated.

So, we’re not to stop our practice of praying. Got it. But this isn’t just a warning about what not to do; it’s an encouragement of what we should be doing regularly. It’s like a doctor talking to a recovering patient, telling them to “keep eating healthy foods,” or “keep drinking plenty of fluids,” or “keep getting enough sleep.” Prayer is essential for a healthy Christian life. It should be a regular, ongoing part of our lives.

The Jews at that time, and even some of the Gentiles, were accustomed to praying at certain times of the day. ‘There, I’ve recited my prayer at the set time—I’m all done spending time with God until the next scheduled prayer.’ To them, “never stop praying” may have challenged their perception of spending time with God in prayer.

Many of us today think of prayer like a “SitRep.” SitRep is military jargon for a ‘situation report,’ which is pretty much what it sounds like: a report giving the pertinent details of your situation. Sometimes we approach prayer this way. We tune in at the appropriate time, rattle off all the essential details (using the proper code words), and then sign off until we make our next report tomorrow.

But, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, prayer is part of the communication process in a relationship with God. If you don’t believe this approach is inadequate for real relationships, you guys try getting by with occasional “SitReps” to your wife for awhile! I’m telling you right now, that is not going to fly! God doesn’t want us to file a daily report or check something off our spiritual checklist. Amen doesn’t mean “over and out.”

We need to regain the idea of communion with God. Have you ever been on a long trip with someone you’re very close to? If you see something interesting, and you want to point it out to them, do you have to reintroduce yourself every time? Formally establish a new conversation? “O Kelley, my wonderful wife, it is so nice to be traveling with you on this trip. I want to thank you for being here with me now. You were here at the beginning of this trip, and you’ll be here at the end of the trip. But now, I’d like to take just a few moments and lift up to you the glorious splendor of the sunse—oops, sorry, it’s gone.” Do you feel the need to pray that way every time you talk with God?

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t regularly invest time in purposeful, intentional, deep prayer. We need to have our “quality time” with God. And I don’t encourage a casual, flippant attitude toward God, as if we could punch him in the arm and say: “Hey buddy, look at that.” But we should feel such an ongoing connection with him that we can spontaneously say, “Wow, Lord, what a gorgeous sunset!” Don’t feel as if each prayer needs to have an opening, three points and a closing. I think “Lord, that is so cool!” may sometimes be the most spiritual thing we can pray.

I need to have regular heart-to-heart conversations with my wife. But every time we talk it doesn’t have to be a super-serious, soul-baring, get-it-all-out-there kind of moment. We also need to laugh together. Spontaneously giggle together over silly things that happen during the day. We need to share the sad times, and the daily frustrations. We should have such a strong connection that we can talk about little, trivial things without feeling that we have to turn it into capital C “Communication.” Actually a big part of real communication is the little things. The more we share the little moments, the more the quality time happens naturally. And the more we spend regular time with God in prayer—the big moments and the little moments—without pressuring ourselves to make every time a “Prayer Session,” the more we’ll begin to really feel as if we’re spending time with someone we know. God will become more real to us, and we’ll come to truly experience our relationship with him.

When should I pray?
Most of us have read books about how real men and women of God get up at 4:00 in the morning and spend three hours in prayer—on their knees—before they do anything else. In some circles, there is some kind of standard that all serious Christians should have their prayer time early in the morning.

Now, there are passages that speak of praying in the morning (Psalm 5:3, 59:16), some speak of praying at night (Psalm 141:2, 22:2, 42:8), some speak of praying both morning and night (Psalm 92:2), some speak of praying morning, noon and night (Psalm 5:14), and some speak of praying all night long (Psalm 77:2)! Are we back to “praying without ceasing”? No, this just shows there’s no wrong time to pray—and no single right time, either.

Actually, if we want to find a biblical principle to follow, it would probably be to give God our best time instead of the leftovers. Some people bounce out of bed in the morning, ready to leap into the day with both feet. If you’re like this, then the morning would be a wonderful time for you to spend with God. But if you’re barely able to drag yourself out of bed, and need a couple of hours before you can communicate in whole sentences, then the morning is probably not the best time for you to try to do much praying. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t say anything at all to God until it’s our official “prayer time.” I have friends who aren’t morning people, but they still acknowledge God first thing in the morning. “Today is yours, Lord. Please help me to live it for you.” Short and sweet, and not too painful. Like saying ‘Good morning’ to your spouse when all you want is a cup of coffee.

Be creative with your prayer time. If you like kneeling at your bedside, more power to you. But don’t think this is the only way to pray. There are no scriptural rules about closing your eyes or bowing your head. The Bible actually shows a rich diversity of ways to pray. I love going for a walk and praying. I have some of my best times with God when I’m out walking. Some people use their driving time for prayer. (It’s probably a good idea to not close your eyes while praying if you try this!) Others talk with God while they’re drawing or painting or doing woodwork. Some need to remove all distractions to have a good conversation; others talk better while they’re doing something with their hands. [Maybe some of you could share in the comments your favorite ways to spend time with God in prayer.] God will meet with you any time, any place, so just seek to give him your best.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how we should pray. Should we expect to always receive exactly what we ask God for? Should we just leave it all in God’s hands . . . and not really expect anything to happen? Check back next week as we look for a biblical balance. This week, I want to leave you with some words from a song by Chuck Girard:

Talk to me
Talk to me
I’m waiting in the morning
I wait throughout the day
How sweet it is for me to hear all the things you have to say
How lovely is the music of your heart
Talk to me, my love

Prayer series:

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing? [see above]

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up