So which Bible version is really the most authentic?

DUANE ASKS:

There are many different versions of the Bible: King James, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc. Which is considered the closest to the earliest available manuscripts?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Folks shopping for Christmas gift Bibles are well aware of the countless editions on sale, those aimed at Moms, teens, substance abusers in recovery, ESL students, and the like, and all the useful study Bibles with marginal notations, explanatory articles, timelines, maps, and indexes. However, Duane isn’t asking about such add-ons but the many English translations of the Bible itself.

The beloved “Authorized” or King James Version from 1611 is a monument of English literature that retains wide popularity, especially among Protestant Fundamentalists, some of whom champion a “King James Only” movement. The King is the sole Bible used in Mormonism. But experts note that it isn’t ideal in terms of Duane’s criterion of closeness to the best ancient texts. (The question says “earliest,” which is not always “best,” but let’s leave aside the textual technicalities.) Important ancient manuscripts were not available to the King James team, for instance key 4th Century codices and the Hebrew scriptures found among the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls. A secondary problem is that the King’s Elizabethan language is occasionally hard for 21st Century readers to comprehend easily or correctly.

Still, something is lost with today’s profusion of modernized translations compared with the time not so long ago when generally similar and memorable phrasing was shared by the Protestants’ King James, the Catholics’ Douay-Rheims Bible from that same era, and the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (the Hebrew-based term for what Christians call the Old Testament).

Proponents of each modern translation on the market will assert that it’s faithful to the Hebrew and Greek. Indeed, most renditions from recent decades are reliable products from well-credentialed scholars capable of wrestling with the best available texts. Because there are so many ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts and the meaning of some Hebrew Old Testament terms is unclear, there are differences in wording among the translations, but key substantive disagreements are few. Instead, the major differences involve the philosophy of translation and, to a lesser extent, the reading skill of the intended audience.

One approach is thought-for-thought or “functional equivalence” translation that emphasizes the text’s meaning for clear understanding. An example is the Good News Bible, a.k.a. Today’s English Version, which is especially helpful for those who aren’t fluent English readers. The other main option is more literal word-for-word or “formal equivalance” renditions. The King James leans that way along with modern translations generally following in that tradition such as the Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and somewhat more literalistic New American Standard Bible.

An interesting Jewish translation by Everett Fox works to evoke the wording and feel of the underlying Hebrew. For instance, here’s the call of Abraham in Genesis 12: “YHWH said to Avram: Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you and will give-you-blessing and will make your name great. Be a blessing!”

One recent issue is the degree a Bible uses gender-inclusive language, a hallmark of the 1989 New Revised Standard Version.

Traditionalists object, for instance, that the NRSV has many plural pronouns that alter the literal meaning and effect of the original singular pronouns.

Religious affiliation shapes some preferences. Evangelical Protestants embrace the best-selling New International Version. The Southern Baptist Convention sponsors the Holman Christian Standard Bible. And the U.S. Catholic bishops authorize the New American Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses publish their own unique Bible whose anonymous editors adhered to their faith’s doctrines, such as downgrading of Jesus’ divinity in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”

Popular paraphrases such as Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, or J.B. Phillips’ elegant New Testament in Modern English aim for literary flow more than accuracy and are not true translations. Such loose versions can be helpful for fresh thinking and overview, but an actual translation is recommended for careful study of a passage.

Thanks to the computer age, www.biblegateway.com can provide Bible browsers the full text of no less than 46 English translations to search and compare, not only the modern RSV, ESV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, or HCSB, but the King James, Douay-Rheims, John Wycliffe’s pioneering and outlawed version of 1382, and the influential Geneva Bible from 1599. This Web resource has texts in many other languages. It lacks two important English Bibles, the Catholic NAB and the Jewish Publication Society’s modernized Tanakh of 1985.

Conservative Protestant exegete Daniel Wallace offers an interesting assessment of major versions right here (click for .pdf).

So, comments please on what’s your favorite, and why.

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Darren Blair

    My recommendation is that people actually use at least two Bible translations for some of the very same reasons brought out above. This way, they can study the differences between each translation and so be more aware of the way that each translation handles everything.

    I’m being literal when I say that I’ve seen a lot of bad theology and bad religious arguments surface because people go off of one or two verses from one single translation w/o realizing that what they’re seeing is unique to that translation.

  • Taylor

    I remember when I first started taking classes in Hebrew and Greek and how all my translations came out in a very KJV sounding way. Partly because the cadences and syntax of older versions of English follow the original more closely, but also because that it was I was used to reading.
    That all being said, I was amused when I went to look for an intertextual New Testament when I was takinga Greek class (that is where they have a line of Greek with a translation directly below it, or Greek on one page and English on the facing page). The only one I could find was four different translations compared to each other, with no original text.

    • William Barto

      Try this interlinear, Taylor: The New Greek-English Interlinear NT by Tyndale. It’s quite good in that it has the original Greek, and literal translation based on the Greek, and the NRSV (and it’s really inexpensive!).

      Here it is at Amazon: http://amzn.com/0842345647

  • Rev_Aggie_98

    The ESV appears to be replacing the NIV as the go to translation for Evangelicals. Also, with in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod it is the “official” translation as it is the one used in our latest Hymnal and confessional materials. I think a few other denominations have adopted the ESV as their “official” translation.

    Personally, the reason I liked the ESV was the fact it used Nestle-Aland 27th for the Greek rather than its own eclectic text as did the NIV.

    • Nils

      I still see the NAB or NRSV pop up sometimes in church, but yes, the ESV is taking off. NIV 11th Edition has fallen from grace due to its translation choices with respect to the Greek. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the NIV 1984, since it’s the one I grew up with. But nonetheless, gotta go to the Greek first!

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I have generally come to avoid any translation with the word “New” in its title. As a Catholic, I prefer the Douay-Rheims and the RSV (Catholic edition) to the NAB. As a theologian I never make an argument based on what the Bible says without consulting at least the Greek (NT or Septuagint OT) – I don’t remember enough Hebrew to even recite the alphabet, and I default to the observations of reliable scholars who do.

  • JayCZ

    20+ years ago, I was told by people I respect that the RSV was the most accurate. Like Authentic, I reject any “New” (particularly the New NIV). So the ESV seems to be an updated RSV without the agenda of the NRSV, NKJV, NNIV (or TNIV) etc. But I miss the poetry of the KJV for the psalms.

  • John S.

    The best translation is the one I use! Or at least that seems to be the consensus of everyone I ask. Now if they would all just use the same one. One advantage to our rich, capitalistic, exploitive, techno, yada, yada, society is one is no longer confined to a single translation. Thus picking and choosing for particular purposes is easy, practical and recommended, such as I’ve found nothing that beats the KJV for reading the Psalms.

  • Timothy Eric Clontz

    For a full comparison of 20 translations, mapped to their Greek text bases, against a translation of the NA27, I’d recommend The Comprehensive New Testament (http://www.amazon.com/The-Comprehensive-Testament-T-E-Clontz/dp/0977873714/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1387289500&sr=8-1&keywords=the+comprehensive+new+testament ). You’d at least be able to see where each differed from the other, and (more importantly) why.

  • MisterDavid

    It might be worth adding that, in amongst the money-spinning market of new versions, there are now several translations which are intentionally produced so as to be available copyright free, or online only.

    These include the New English Translation (net.bible.org) the Open English Bible (openenglishbible.org), and the World English Bible (ebible.org). Not to mention the Wikisource translation (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Wikisource:WikiProject_Wiki_Bible).

  • John Hockert

    I like the ESV for bible study. It combines information from the the best ancient sources in modern English with the literary stylistic strengths of the KJV. For casual reading, I like the NLT. It flows well and converts archaic terms (like cubits) to something that can be visualized without need for distracting recollections or footnote consultations. I love The Message for reading familiar verses that I think I understand well. Peterson’s modern, almost slangy, language often awakens me to meanings that I have missed in other translations. For word study, I like the NASB with Strongs numbers, which allows someone like me with little formal education to peek at the Greek and Hebrew words behind the translated text.

  • brotheroflogan

    I am currently reading “Da Jesus Book” which is a Hawaiian Pidgin version. I think it is less literal than the King James. I am enjoying it greatly. Hawaiian Pidgin is mostly english with idiosyncratic uses of words and quasi english with words like “jalike” and “kine.” So you get sentences like “Wen you guys give money to da guys dat no mo notting, no make big show jalike da guys dat say one ting an do anodda.” Matt 6:2 (King James “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites.”) You can see that it is geared towards conveying the idea more than the literal translation. In Hawaiian Pidgin, there’s no “trumpet” just a “big show.”

  • Arnold F Williams

    Spent years reading the RSV, NIV, Jerusalem Bible. Decided last year that the KJV was worth a try, and found out two things: 1) the manuscript evidence you cite is either untrue or irrelevant and 2) it’s flat out amazing and worth the time. The argument that two translations are better invites you to criticize the text: it’s more important to let it criticize you.

  • Faitful sonship

    The most authentic is the greek NT scripture which is also in aramaic and hebrew.
    The old testament authentic version is in Hebrew, aramaic and was later translated into greek to the greek jews in that time.
    If you carefully do research on both hebrew, greek and the aramaic. which are the same. and then study the translations there is one which is almost the same in english the New American standard bible really touches the roots, and second is the New king james version. which has some minor errors in translation.
    Catholic bibles they added stuf to the bible which do not belong in the bible, but where written 6/700 years after the NT. God warns in His Word, dont be adding unto His word, or all the plagues will fall upon you which are written.


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