A Bible Shopper's Guide
From time to time we get the question: Which Bible translation is the best? Let's answer this question in a roundabout way by first tackling another question: Why is it we have so many translations to choose from in the first place? The fact is, since the 19th century, we’ve discovered thousands of manuscripts of various parts of the Bible. What this means for you and I is that we are getting closer and closer to the original text of both the OT and the NT. As we find more and more manuscripts, the greater the need for more updated translations that reflect those new findings.
Additionally, the English language is one that continues to change over time. Here’s one illustration, pointed out by Dr. Ben Witherington in his fine work The Living Word of God. In Acts 26:14, as found in the original KJV, the text read: “It hurts you to kick against the pricks.” Now, considering the change in meaning and the resulting connotations of the word “prick” in today’s English speaking world, the NIV translates this into the following: “It is hard for you to kick against the goad.” Witherington points out that a “goad” is a cattle prod of sorts with spikes that stick out of it and that what this saying inevitably means is that “your actions are self-destructive, for it is futile to resist your destiny.”
So, in the end, English is a moving target of sorts - a language that changes and develops over time. Because of this, a new translation of the Bible is a regular need if we want to understand it in our own vernacular. This, I believe, explains why it is we have so many translations at our disposal in today’s world. Overwhelming, “yes.” But, on most levels, it’s a good thing.
Now, onto the original question - Which translation is the best? Here, let's just say that we don’t believe the KJV (sorry for the hurt feelings here) is the best translation of God’s Word for us today. Before the famous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the copies of the OT portion of the Bible that we did have were only as early as the 10th century. After this discovery, we now have manuscripts of most of the OT books that date back to as early as the 2nd and 3rd century. The King James translators in the 1600’s could have only dreamed of such early copies as they themselves were tied to a much later group of manuscripts. Moreover, the KJV of the Bible doesn’t reflect the way we speak today. We don’t speak in “thous” and thees” in our house at least. Moreover, the difficulty level for readers is also an issue. The KJV is written at the 12th grade level while many newer translations offer the less educated a better opportunity to not only hear God’s Word but to also read it! All that being said, while the KJV was a good translation back in the 17th century, in today’s world, it’s simply not the best.
So which is the best? The reality is, we now have several good translations of the Bible. Our current favorites happen to be the TNIV, NRSV and the NLT (the later being more of a thought for thought paraphrase than a word for word translation). Nevertheless, if your dead-set against anything but the KJV, you’re more than welcome to plow through the “olde Englishe.”
In the end, all translations are a work in progress and none are perfect. As a final note of caution, Witherington writes: “You cannot start acting as if a particular translation was dropped from the sky by God without error. There are no fully inspired or inerrant translations, only inspired original-language texts, which we are still in the process of recovering.”