Some Reflections on Selecting a Bible

I frequently get asked what version of the Bible I would recommend. It is a good question because there is a bewildering variety of translations and special editions on the shelves (physical and vitual) of booksellers. And the truth is that not all of them are created equal. Some translations are easier to read while others are more accurate in their translation of the Bible's original languages (Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament). Translators are always trying to render the biblical text in ways that are both accurate and readable. The problem is that this is not always possible and they have to make a choice as to which direction to lean. In addition, some versions display a bias towards certain understandings of Christianity while others do not. Such biases can hinder or prevent the reader from arriving at an accurate understanding of the biblical text. Therefore a more neutral translation is preferable to heavily biased one. What version of the Bible that you should buy depends on how you plan to use it. People read the Bible for a wide variety of reasons but the two main purposes are for study (such as participation in a Disciple Bible Study class) or devotional reading. If you have to choose one type over the other, I would opt for a Bible designed for serious study because it is possible to use a study Bible for devotional reading but the reverse is more difficult. Below, I have divided some of the popular versions of the Bible into these two categories and offered some thoughts on them.

Study Bibles: 1.Harper Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version/NRSV with verse notes and various explanatory materials) - There is some top notch scholarship in this version which should come as no surprise since some of the best translators and scholars worked on it. 2.New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version/NRSV with verse notes and various explanatory materials) - This is another product of great scholarship. Some of the best scholars were involved in its production. For what it is worth, this my favorite study Bible. It got me through seminary at Duke and has served me well in seventeen years of ministry. 3.The New American Standard Version of the Bible – I use this one to check my own translations from Hebrew & Greek. It is very faithful to the original languages but it sometimes sacrifices readability to accomplish its goal. If you want to get a sense of the original languages of the Bible without learning Hebrew and Greek, this a good way to start.

Devotional Bibles: 1.The Message – a new and very readable translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts into contemporary language and idioms (Be prepared for a double-take; this is not your grandfather’s Bible). 2.The New International Version of the Bible (NIV) – This is an easy to read translation that does a respectable job of faithfully rendering the original Hebrew and Greek. I am not a fan of some the ways that it chooses to translate certain words and grammatical constructions of the original Hebrew and Greek but this is more a matter of personal preference than poor skill on the part of its translators. It has a tendency to be used in more conservative Christian circles but it is not overly biased in that direction. 3.The New Living Bible – This version tries to do the same thing as The Message, but is a little less startling.

*The Life Application Study Bible bridges the two uses reasonably well. It does neither in exceptional fashion, but it is relatively good for either study or devotional reading. It is essentially a New International Version or New Living Translation of the Bible with added explanatory notes and suggestions on how to apply passages to our lives. It leans a little toward the conservative side of biblical scholarship but not excessively so. The suggested applications may not work for everyone but they can jump start your own reflection on how to apply the scripture to daily living.

** I would avoid the Ryrie Study Bible or the Scoffield Reference Bible. These are biased toward a very literal interpretation of the biblical text that reads a particular schema for understanding the end times into every nook and cranny of the Bible. It does so with biased and dogmatic explanatory notes and by deliberately choosing to translate words and phrases in ways that are favorable to its viewpoint. To a certain extent, all translations are guilty of bias but these two are off the charts in this respect.

***If you like Shakespeare and can understand him without Cliff Notes then buy a King James Version of the Bible and take delight in the fact many Christians will think you have bought the only real version of the Bible. According to them, the Bible was first written in the King’s English and only later translated into Hebrew and Greek. Or as one sagely woman once put it to me when I served a six point charge in the North Carolina mountains, "If the King's English was good enough for our Lord, then it is good enough for me." All kidding aside, the King James Version is a beautiful text that was the product of some of the best scholarship of the 17th century. The problem is that English language has evolved since its creation in 1611. In addition, more original language manuscripts have been discovered over the past four centuries and these have allowed scholars to fill textual gaps and compensate for the errors of scribes who hand copied the early texts. Therefore newer translations are more readable and more accurate.

No matter which translation you use, the important thing is that you spend time in the Holy Scriptures. I hope this brief guide has helped you select the version of the Bible that best suits your needs.