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What English version should I get?

We must first realize that there is no 'perfect' translation from one language into another. With Bible translation, not only are we translating from one language into another, but we are also translating across significant cultural boundaries. How does one express something written thousands of years ago in a completely different culture in the thought and language of 21st century English speakers? Second, there are so many English versions because of a some important considerations that inform the translation of the original Hebrew and Greek.

Here are the main issues:

  1. What original texts are being used?

  2. Who is doing the translating?

  3. What is the translation philosophy?

  4. What is the intended audience?

  5. For Further Reference

1) What original texts are being used?

The Hebrew text of the Old Testament (OT) has been rather well established. There are some uncertain texts in the standard Hebrew text, and the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Aramaic Targums shows that there were competing textual traditions. Nonetheless, the Hebrew text that forms the basis for most English versions is largely fixed. Some of the Hebrew words or phrases may be unclear, and translators have to make some decisions about what the text meant. For Christians, another factor that comes into play is that the New Testament (NT) authors were dependent (in varying degrees) upon an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. Some English translations of the OT reflect this dependence.

Isaiah 7.14 is the text to check, and you can see a selection of English versions HERE. What you will note is that a number of versions say that a "virgin shall conceive" (KJV and similarly, NIV, NASB, NLT...) while others say a "young woman is with child" (NRSV and similarly NET and BBE) while The Message gives a fuller rendering as "A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant." The Hebrew word really only indicates a "young woman," and generally this would imply a virgin, but it is not the specific term for that concept. When the Hebrew was translated into Greek (and even later into Latin), however, a word that does specify a "virgin" was used, and it is this word that is used in Matthew 1:23 when the birth of Jesus is described. The 'best' translation of the Hebrew, therefore, is probably "young woman," but other factors have led some English versions to use "virgin." A good version will at least provide a footnote to let the reader know what is going on in the text.

The Greek text of the New Testament poses considerably more difficulties. Keep in mind that the authors of the NT did not think of themselves as writing Scripture in the same sense as they regarded the Scriptures (i.e., the OT). There was, therefore, a bit more flexibility in the transmission of the text in addition to the usual problems posed by the act of hand copying a new text. There are literally thousands of variant readings in the Greek NT, but most of them are quite insignificant. Still, there emerged a number of 'families' of related Greek texts. One family is known as the Majority Text (or Textus Receptus), and it is important because it was used as the basis of the King James Version (KJV) in 1611 which has been a reference point for every English version since then. Today, we have access to many more ancient Greek manuscripts, and so, many scholars have tried to use all the evidence to reconstruct a Greek text that they argue is closest to the originals. Some English versions rely on the Majority Text or defer to its readings (KJV, NKJV...) while others base their translations on the reconstructed Greek text (e.g., NRSV, NET). 

Mark 16.9 is one passage to check to see which Greek text is being used. The best and oldest Greek manuscripts end with verse 8, but it has been a puzzling ending to many readers, both ancient and modern. Some have suggested that Mark the author somehow was kept from finishing his text or that the last page of the book was lost. Some Greek manuscripts do indeed have an ending, either a 'shorter' or 'longer' one. This longer ending is part of the Majority Text tradition, and so the KJV goes from verse 8 to verse 9 without any acknowledgement of the textual questions involved. The English versions handle it in a variety of ways, but the 'best' version should acknowledge that our best manuscripts end at verse 8 but that there are other later endings that are known.

Another text that has similar issues is John 7.53-8.11, the account known as the "Woman Caught in Adultery." It is a great story, and it likely is a reliable story about Jesus... but the best Greek manuscripts do not include it all, and others add it after John 7.36 or after John 21.25, and in some manuscripts it appears after Luke 21.38. It was included here in the Majority Text tradition (and so you will see it in the KJV), but most modern English versions will want to let the reader know that it is not original to the text.

2) Who is doing the translating?

Romans 1.16-17 provides a great example for discerning theological tendencies. HERE is a PDF handout I have composed that lays out the text interlinearly and then provides 14 translations. (The relationship between the translations is indicated by the arrows.) What should you note?
In v. 17, how is the phrase "righteousness of God" rendered? Most use that literal phrase, but note:

How is the phrase literally rendered as "from faith to/for faith" in the middle of v. 17 treated?
How is the quotation from Habakuk at the end of v.17 rendered? Especially note the difference the word order makes. Is it "(The one who is righteous by faith) will live"? Or "The one who is righteous (by faith will live)"?

3) What is the translation philosophy?

There are basically three approaches to translation, and the versions may roughly be placed somewhere along a continuum of:

Here is a chart that will give you a rough idea of how the translations line up. (Read the whole page for more descriptions. Do note that the versions which appear exactly in the middle [NIV and TNIV] are published by the creators of this chart!) 

Note that the KJV stayed rather closely to the original Hebrew/Greek. The NRSV, NAB, NJB, NIV, and TNIV are all good examples of versions that seek a balance and try to practice the explicit goal of the NRSV to be “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

Here are some examples of the formal / functional difference.

4) What is the intended audience?

As an example of reading level and audience concerns, compare 2 Corinthians 1.12.

As another example of reading level (and also functional translation concerns), note that you will not find justification, righteousness, sanctification, redemption, atonement, repentance, or covenant in the CEV. Why? In addition to being somewhat technical, 'churchy' terms, they are terms not regularly used in everyday language. Even the simple word "grace" is not used in the CEV (the 1995 edition; it did get added in the 2006 edition). The translators' research showed that the primary way most people used and knew this term was as a reference to saying a prayer or to a graceful style.

5) For Further Reference