I was reminded yesterday in a group counseling session how problematic selecting a Bible can be. A young woman was discussing her difficult experience in a small Southern Baptist church that imposed teaching from the King James Version (KJV) Bible as the one acceptable for the church’s congregants. Yes, in the Bible Belt of 2016 there are still pastors and elders that strictly require use of the KJV only, and are actually called “KJV Only” churches. While I love reading the King James English, I can certainly see how 400-year-old English can be a barrier to delivering the Gospel. We have many great translations that serve many legitimate purposes, and KJV Only hurts far more than it helps.
Many different translations are available in your typical Bible bookstore, so I understand how there can be some confusion. My advice for believers shopping for a Bible is to get advice from ministers in and out of your congregation, and read the translations to see which is easier to understand. I hope this column can also be a resource for you. To start your search, you need to have an understanding of (1) formal and dynamic equivalence, (2) Bibles edited to support unbiblical movements, and (3) your purpose / how you will use the Bible.
The ancient languages of the Bible do not flow like we expect modern English to flow. Original Hebrew was written without vowels, and with precariously placed modifying phrases. Ancient Koine (common) Greek is famous for extremely long sentences tied together with seemingly infinite prepositional phrases. Trying to make the ancient Hebrew and Greek (and sliver of Aramaic in Daniel) communicable in modern English is a challenge that has created 2 common resolutions to solve the communicability problem. These solutions are usually referred to as Formal and Dynamic Equivalence.
Formal and dynamic equivalence are the technical words that describe the method that the translator or translation team used to create the translation. The Dynamic Equivalence translations are intended to communicate the language of the Bible in a “thought for thought” translation. Whatever the ancient Hebrew or Greek says, the translators read the ancient passage and then translate the thought of the language into the thought of 2016 in English. The New Living Translation or New International Version (NIV) would be examples of dynamic equivalence. Formal Equivalence translators try diligently to communicate word for word, which is more accurate by some standards, but can also appear clunky and hard to understand. The King James Version (KJV), the English Standard Version (ESV) or the New American Standard Bible (NASB) are all formal equivalence translations. Here is a chart that will help you identify which versions are dynamic and which are formal.
Mixed in the legitimate translations are cult translations that Evangelical and Protestant Christians consider to be illegitimate translations created to twist Scripture to fit a twisted theology. The New World Translation (NWT) was created by Charles Taze Russel to support his idea of theology that became the Jehovah’s Witnesses that we know today. This translation is designed to deny the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, as well as to support annihilationism and deny eternal punishment in
Hell. Similarly, the Mormons (LDS) use their Authorized King James Version which is loaded with LDS perspectives on each chapter and copious footnotes to shoehorn their doctrine into a Bible translation. None of the cult translations should be confused with legitimate translations.
A third consideration one should take into account when selecting a Bible is the reader’s personal purpose. If you are a new Christian, or you have had trouble understanding formal translations, try reading an NLT or NIV dynamic translation so you can acquire a general grasp of the Bible story and context. If your church or class requires use of a formal translation, keep a dynamic translation handy in case you get stuck. If you have an established knowledge of the Bible, and want to do a project that requires technical precision such as an academic paper, start in a formal translation and keep dynamic translations at the ready if you get stuck. As a preacher, I use Wordsearch 10 software that contains dozens of translations for reference as I prepare a message or lesson.
Critics often judge one translation or another to enforce the use of a translation they happen to be comfortable with at the expense of understanding by a larger group. There are dozens of translations of the Bible, and I presume them all to be right, subject to the humanity of the translator or translating committee. I have also found errors in numerous translations, even the KJV. For example, in Isaiah 14:12 the text translates the Hebrew word hallel as the proper name for Satan, “Lucifer”, which is an incorrect copy of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Vulgate noun “lucifer” which means “morning star”. There are a few other errors, well documented by Dallas Theological Seminary’s Daniel Wallace, Ph.D in this Bible.org article Why I Do Not Think the King James Bible Is the Best Translation Available Today
Finally, I want to recommend, and even advocate for grace and kindness toward others who choose a different translation than you may prefer. The Bible is 100% correct and accurate in its original autographs. As language has evolved, the Bible has been translated to communicate the Gospel in the common language of the people and time of the translation. Our focus really should be redirected to the Two Greats, the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission. God has commanded us to prioritize loving each other and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. We should be looking at breaking down barriers to the Gospel and meeting people where they are, as Jesus did.
I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to comment!