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Which Bible Should I Use?

"Which version of the Bible should I use?"

First, we must distinguish between versions of the Bible, translations of versions, and types of Bibles.

Technically, there are several versions of the Bible:

  • The HEBREW BIBLE is the Bible used by non-Messianic Jews (most Jews).  This is the same as the Christian Old Testament, except that (a) the books are arranged in a different order (b) the books have different names and (c) a number of the books are combined, e.g., the twelve "minor" prophets are considered one book.  (Even if it's in English, it's still called the Hebrew Bible.)

    Jews routinely refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Tanakh.
      

  • The PROTESTANT BIBLE consists of the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament.
      

  • The CATHOLIC BIBLE consists of the 39 books of the Old Testament, the 27 books of the New Testament, and the Apocrypha, 14 books written mainly during the intertestamental period, the period between the end of the writing of the Old Testament and the beginning of the writing of the New Testament.  The Apocrypha were never quoted or referred to by New Testament writers as authoritative and were not declared canonical (i.e., divinely-inspired) until 1546 A.D., largely in response to the Protestant Reformation. Jews have never considered the Apocrypha to be scripture.
      

  • The JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES' BIBLE is called The New World Translation. Jehovah's Witnesses are not Christians -- they do not believe Jesus Christ is God.  They used some very forced interpretations of certain phrases in order to avoid saying that Jesus is God.  (A "forced" interpretation means that in theory a section of text can have more than one interpretation and the translator picks the one that is very unlikely.  Imagine that the original says "What is your name, Miss?" and the translator renders it "What is your name?  Is your name 'Miss'?")  In other cases, they simply mistranslate.
      

  • The MORMON BIBLE is a "new" "translation" done by Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism.  Interestingly, Smith had no training or knowledge of Latin or Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic, yet he still claimed that he did a "corrected" translation.  Among other things, he just outright added text saying that a person has to believe in him in order to be saved.  No early, medieval, or early modern manuscripts support his additions.  Do not confuse Smith's alleged "translation" of the Bible with The Book of Mormon.

     

There are numerous translations of the HEBREW, PROTESTANT, and CATHOLIC BIBLES.

Just to make things confusing ... the word "version" is usually used to mean "translation!"

For instance, the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible and most editions of the King James Version are all translations of the Protestant Bible.

There are also different types of Bibles:

Ordinary Bible

This is the run-of-the-mill Bible that starts with Genesis, ends with Revelation, and is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Topical Bibles

The Naves Topical Bible, Easton's Topical Bible and Zondervan Topical Bible are common examples of this.  Technically, these aren't really Bibles.  Passages are grouped by topic.  This is good for studying or teaching on a particular topic or finding additional passages on a topic when studying a regular Bible.

Parallel Versions Bibles

One of the problems with any translation is that there will always be some difference in the message understood.  A parallel versions Bible has the text of two or more translations side by side.  For instance, it is common to have the King James Version (KJV) and the New International Version (NIV) side by side.  These are usually limited to some combination of the King James Version, NIV, New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New King James Version (NKJV).

There are no true parallel version Bibles, i.e., you won't find a Bible that has the Protestant Bible in one column and the Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation or the Mormon "translation" of  Joseph Smith, Jr. in another column.

Parallel or Dual-Language Bibles

A parallel languages Bible presents the text in English, with the Hebrew and/or Greek text in parallel columns.  Other versions contain parallel English and Spanish, English and Russian, etc., texts.  The Hebrew and Greek versions are generally used for advanced study. Other language combinations are generally used where the reader or family members are not fluent in English or where most members of a congregation are bilingual and often switch between languages in ordinary conversation, such as a predominantly Hispanic congregation in the United States.

Amplified Bibles

An amplified Bible is another aid at overcoming difficulties in translation.  If four English words each conveys part of the meaning of a word in the original language, an amplified Bible will use all four words.  For instance, a phrase such as "God made a covenant with man" might be rendered as "God made a covenant, an agreement, a testament, a contract, a legally enforceable agreement with man, with mankind, with humanity, with all nations."

Language Reference Bibles (my term)

These are Bibles with the text in English and a parallel column that gives the definition of major Hebrew words or major Greek words.  For instance, John 1:1 really says "In the beginning was logos ...", not "In the beginning was the Word ...."  The Greek word logos has a much broader meaning than simply "word."  (Wolfgang Goethe, the greatest German-language author, examines this in detail in a scene in his play Faust.) As a practical matter, anyone who would seriously consider buying this type of reference Bible would already be familiar with the different types of Bibles and other advanced research materials for biblical research.

Study Bibles

A study Bible is a Bible that has extensive footnotes, commentaries, maps, outlines of each book, etc.  These are simply added to a major version.  The most popular study Bibles use the NIV text, since it is easy to understand.

Thomas Chain Reference Bible

The Thomas Chain Reference Bible has verses linked by topic.  (I only examined a TCR on one occasion, for only a few minutes.)

Scofield Reference Bible

This is for serious study of the Bible.  It is expensive and probably not particularly useful except for scholars, researchers and ministers.

 


"Are there other things I should consider?"

PHYSICALLY EXAMINE A BIBLE BEFORE YOU BUY IT!

Yes, this means it will be a problem buying over the Internet.  Frankly, maybe someday I'll take my own advice! I have repeatedly bought Bibles—mainly through Amazon.com—that looked and sounded great from their descriptions and previews, but when I received them I found out there were problems with paper translucency, size and weight, or type size. I want to make it clear that these were not manufacturing defects—they were just things I find objectionable that I had not thought about when I ordered the book. Yes, I could have returned the books. But my personal sense of ethics is that if I make a stupid choice and there is nothing wrong with the product, I shouldn't return the product.

So . . . here are some things to consider:

Physical size and weight

The Bible is not a short book.  Editions with reasonable type size (generally 8-point or larger) tend to be over an inch thick and can be fairly heavy for extended handheld use, particularly hardcover editions.  Study Bibles often approach two inches.

Paper density

For a given thickness, dense paper weighs more than paper that is less dense.  For instance, slick "shiny" magazine-type paper is much denser than ordinary book (paperback-type) paper, so a foot-high stack of magazines weighs a lot more than a foot-high stack of paperback novels.   There is a special type of paper that has about the same thickness as the type of paper commonly used in books but much less density.  Therefore, books made with such paper weigh less, even if they are physically larger. Conversely, a Bible that uses slick pages will weigh a lot more than other books of the same physical size.

Metalic trim

Many more expensive Bibles have silver- or gold-colored metalic trim around the pages, so that when you look at the closed Bible edge-on you see a metalic shine. This is basically for decoration. I doubt that there are any editions where the only difference is with or without edging. Whether to get metalic trim would really only be a consideration if you are buying the Bible as an "occasion" gift such as for a graduation. (By an "occasion" gift I mean you are not really giving it with the expectation that it will be regularly used for study.)

Chapter indentations or tabs

Chapter indentations are curved cuts in the pages with the name of the chapter. So, for instance, if you want to go to the book of Lamentations, you can just look at the chapter names in the cuts, put your thumb in the cut area and open the book. Some Bibles use chapter tabs instead. However, frankly, tabs look pretty tacky, so they are fairly rare pre-installed. Christian bookstores and other major retailers do sell tab sets that you can attach yourself.

Type size

To keep Bibles fairly thin and light, publishers often use exceptionally small type, sometimes as small as 5 or 6-point type. (A point is 1/72 of an inch.) This will cause eye strain for extended sessions. People in their late forties or older or who need fairly strong corrective lenses may find the text simply impossible to read. Bibles with text around 10-point Roman or larger are generally designated as "Large Print" or even "Giant Print" editions. Unfortunately, that size type can cause the book to be fairly thick and correspondingly heavy. Also, because the books are larger they cost more to print. Because they cost more, they don't sell as well—which, of course drives up the price because of lower demand . . .

Paper translucency

To keep Bibles fairly thin and light, publishers often use extremely thin paper that allows text on the other side to "bleed" through. It is often difficult to read with such a background and it particularly increases eye strain during extended reading sessions. This is a particularly common problem with study Bibles, since the extensive study materials can add as much as one-third to the book's thickness and those books are especially likely to be used for long reading periods.

Writing and marking potential

Many people like to hi-lite or underline Bible text or write notes in page margins. Several factors affect this potential:

  • Hi-liter and ballpoint ink will probably bleed through translucent paper even more than printer's ink. This can make the opposite side even more difficult to read.
  • Slick magazine-type paper does not take hi-liter or ballpoint ink well. If the ink does not absorb and dry quickly, the result can be smears on both that page and the opposite page.
  • Some Bibles have margins so narrow or filled with cross-references that there is almost no room for notes.  Others deliberately provide large margins.
  • The smaller the type size used, the more text there will be on the page. The more text there is on the page, the more marking there will be.
  • Smaller type sizes will mean that markings such as underlining will be closer together also.
  • The larger the margins and type size are, the more the book will weigh.
  • Some study Bibles use background colors to indicate different themes. Obviously, it is hard to hi-lite text that already has certain background colors.
  • When buying a used Bible, extensive underling and hi-liting generally are pretty annoying. You generally should only consider buying a Bible in that condition if you need a fairly rare specific edition.  For instance, for one research project I needed the same edition of a German-language Catholic Bible that a particular author had used.
      
Paper acid content

The paper commonly used in mass-market books contains a moderate amount of acid, which causes the paper to deteriorate over time, change color, and even develop the common "musty library book" odor. Books that use acid-free paper will have less deterioration but cost more.  In most cases this will not be a significant problem because for study purposes people rarely use the same Bible for decades.

Cover and binding

The more a Bible costs, the better the binding it should have.  Covers and bindings range from paperbacks to leather to hard cover. In general leather will be most durable. Particularly with leather-bound Bibles, which tend to be relatively expensive, it is a good idea to physically inspect the book, taking particular note of (1) weight, (2) type size, and (3) paper translucency.  It is quite annoying to buy what seems like a great study Bible through the mail only to find when it arrives that it uses very small type and the paper allows a lot of "bleed through", making the book very difficult to use for an extended period.

Concordance and/or Glossary

Fairly expensive Bibles will often contain a concordance or glossary at the back. A concordance shows page numbers where particular words are located. A glossary will define major concepts such as "the gifts of the Holy Spirit" and have relevant page or chapter-and-verse references. A concordance or glossary should not be confused with the extensive materials contained in study Bibles.

 


The King James Version is a "must have" for serious Bible study.  It should not be your primary study Bible because of the many words that have changed meanings and the many changes in grammatical structure over almost four centuries.  Nevertheless, it is still referred to regularly by teachers, preachers, and others and is still the standard against which all other English translations are compared.
  


KING JAMES VERSION (KJV)

This is the "granddaddy" of commonly-used English translations although it was actually based on the Geneva Bible English translation.  Until the mid-1980's it was the most widely-used English-language Bible.  It is the English-language Bible most often quoted, for a very non-obvious reason: Because it is so old, it is not copyrighted.  Therefore, authors and publishers don't have to pay royalties.

PROBLEMS

In its time, the KJV was equivalent to today's NKJV -- it was a solid translation into good, readable English of the time.  Today, the King James language is archaic.  The translation was done in Shakespeare's time.  If you can understand Shakespeare as easily as you understand a newspaper, then by all means use the King James.  Otherwise, don't.

Even if you can easily understand the King James language, most people can't.  Listeners find it extremely difficult to follow.  Congregations find it hard to read in unison, often mispronouncing words or accidentally substituting other words and thereby changing the meaning of what is spoken.

Also, the words don't mean what they say!  In King James' time testament was another word for covenant.  Covenant is another word for contract.  A contract is a legally enforceable agreement.  The Bible is a set of books about two legally enforceable agreements God made with Man: the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  Most speakers of modern English think "testament" has something to do with "testimony" or "last will and testament."  Several hundred words have changed their meaning since the King James Version was translated.  In King James' time ghost was a synonym for spirit, hence Holy Ghost.  Today, ghost has assumed the much more narrow meaning of the spirit of a human being who has died.

Many people have "deified" this translation -- made it into an object of worship.  There are Bible scholars who actually claim that the King James Version is the most accurate version of the Bible available today.  They don't simply claim it's the most accurate translation, they claim it expresses God's message to mankind even more accurately than the original text in the original languages!

Jesus didn't speak in archaic language, but most people have come to think of the language of the King James Version as the way Jesus spoke.

Many people think The Bible is not understandable because of the King James Version's archaic language. They don't say "I don't understand this translation, I'll get another one," they say "I tried reading The Bible and I couldn't understand it, so I stopped reading it."

BENEFITS

This is the most widely-known translation.  Because  is not copyrighted, it is generally the only one available free or cheap.  It is a fairly literal translation.  It is a good translation; the problem isn't the quality of the translation, it is the changes that have occurred in the English language since.

 


REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV)

NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION (NRSV)

Over the years, there have been numerous updates to the King James Version.  The more modern ones are the RSV and the NRSV.

BENEFITS

King James is a good translation; there is no reason to totally abandon it.  These updates build on a solid base and make it more understandable to modern readers.  Also, many people were raised hearing particular phrasing and feel uncomfortable with a completely new wording, even if it is an accurate translation.

The NRSV is a good, modern English translation, similar to, but different from the NKJV.

DISADVANTAGES

Neither of these updates has become particularly popular; hence, if you are reading one in a group, the chances are you will be the only person with that translation.

Regarding the RSV, words spoken directly by God are still translated with "thee" and "thou" instead of "you."  Most of the Psalms are still translated with archaic words such as "doth" and "hast."

The NRSV updaters go out of their way to be "gender neutral". In doing so, they are changing the text, e.g., using "brothers and sisters" where the original says "brothers."

 


NEW KING JAMES VERSION (NKJV)

This is a completely new translation that has endeavored to keep the phrasing and tenor of the King James Version while updating the individual words.  Although it uses the name "King James" it is not simply an update. The NKJV translators/updaters originally planned to simply replace obsolete words and verb forms and archaic word order, e.g., update " thy servant thou hast forgiven" but they found out that so much of the text would remain unchanged that they could not copyright the new version, so they did more extensive changes. However, they kept the name "King James", giving the general public the impression that it is an "official" update.

BENEFITS

This is a highly-regarded translation into modern English.  It builds on a solid, established, good translation, the KJV.  Of the three major modern-English translations (NKJV, NIV, NASB) it follows the original language closer than the NIV but not as close as the NASB. Special care was given to "beauty" of the final text. There is "something special" about the phrasing, etc. It has the benefit of a "pedigree" that gives it credibility with many people who consider other translations as altering the word of God.

Like the NIV and the NRSV, the NKJV completely does away with antiquated language such as "thou, thee, thine, hast, hath, doeth."

DISADVANTAGES

Although NKJV is a good translation, it has not caught on as well as the NIV.  In a study group or congregation it is more likely that listeners will have an NIV than an NKJV.

Because the NIV uses more "dynamic equivalence", because the NIV editors deliberately concerned themselves with modern English literary style and usage rather than trying to track King James style and wording where possible, and because the NIV aims specifically at seventh-grade reading level, it is somewhat more readable than the NKJV, which uses language closer to a college level.  I teach in Children's Church and I often have to rephrase NKJV text so the children will understand.

It is important to realize that none of these "disadvantages" are really negative -- they have nothing to do with the quality, accuracy or usefulness of the NKJV.

The NKJV is an excellent translation.  I highly recommend it as a primary Bible for serious study.  I find that as people get more into studying the Bible, they start to prefer the NKJV over the NIV.  Also, I would particularly recommend it for high school students, as it will improve their reading skills.

Personal side notes:

I have had two KJV's, RSV, Living Bible, Complete Jewish Bible, JPS Tanakh, NJPS Tanakh, NASB study bible, NIV study Bible, and an NKJV regular Bible (and a few others). I use the NKJV as my primary Bible.  I have found that most of the ministers in training at my church (Methodist) gradually do the same. At the Messianic Synagogue I attend most people use either the NASB or the Complete Jewish Bible.

There are three reasons I mainly use NIV on this website, none having to do with the quality of the translation:

  1. When I was putting the site together only my NIV software was indexed.  Indexing makes searches much faster, e.g., seconds instead of minutes to find a phrase.  (NKJV and NASB modules are available, but I hadn't bought them.)

  2. I used to use custom software that ties WordPerfect for DOS to my NIV Bible study software. Only the NIV software runs under DOS.

  3. Only my NIV software displays verse numbers in square brackets.  To maintain continuity of style I have to manually change text I copy from other versions.

  4. Since completing the site I acquired Windows-based indexed versions of both the NIV and NKJV.  Because I consider the NKJV to be a (slightly) better translation, when I do updates I now normally quote the NKJV.

 


NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (NIV)

This is the most popular of the modern translations and since the mid-1980's has been the best-selling English-language translation.  If a church's leaders do not specifically insist on using the King James Version, they will most likely recommend that the congregation use the New International Version.

DISADVANTAGES

"Dynamic equivalence" means that a translator doesn't always translate the words, but rather the meaning.  All translations use "dynamic equivalence" to some degree.  For instance, there is a Russian proverb "One soldier does not make an army."  One Russian translator translated that into English by substituting the English proverb "You can't fight City Hall."  Many places in the New Testament refer to specific amounts of ancient currency, e.g., "200 denarii".  The NIV translators often substitute the value, e.g., "eight months of a man's wages", whereas the NKJV translates literally "200 denarii."

Note that "dynamic equivalence" is not a paraphrase.  Dynamic equivalence applies to individual words or phrases, not whole sentences or paragraphs.

In some places the NIV translators deliberately mistranslate pronouns to make it clear whom is being referred to.

BENEFITS

The NIV is highly-respected for its accuracy in conveying meaning.  According to the translators, the text is aimed at seventh-grade reading level.  Even people of less than average education or intelligence can understand the language whether they are reading it or hearing it.  The footnotes usually indicate where the translators have substituted words. If someone is not using the King James Version, it is most likely he will be using the NIV.

The NIV completely does away with antiquated language such as "thou, thee, thine, hast, hath, doeth."

Dynamic equivalence is both a benefit and a problem.  For deep, scholarly evaluation substitution of words is sometimes a problem, but for the average reader it helps.


NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE (NASB)

This is a highly-respected, high-quality modern translation, although it is less popular than the NKJV or NIV.  Generally, the same comments that apply to the NIV apply to the NASB. The major difference is that NASB uses the least dynamic equivalence. In other words, it follows the original text somewhat more closely than either the NIV or the NKJV.

Do not confuse the New American Standard Bible (NASB) an interdenominational Protestant version, with the New American Bible (NAB), which is a Roman Catholic version that includes the Apocrypha.

 


NEW AMERICAN BIBLE (NAB)

This is a modern English Roman Catholic version that includes the Apocrypha.

BENEFITS

Often this is an excellent translation -- about the same as the NKJV. The biblical text is fine for use by both Protestants and Catholics. English has more words than any other language; hence, it allows finer shades of meaning than other languages.  This translation often uses words that are slightly different from other translations and seem to give a clearer sense of the meaning of the original text.  However, considering problems I have found (especially with the Ezekiel translation), I would suggest that you always compare the translation to another highly-regarded text (such as the NKJV or NASB), and if they differ, the other version is probably more accurate.

The Apocrypha provide important historical and cultural background information about the intertestamental period, the period between the Old and New Testaments.

DISADVANTAGES

Sometimes the authors take severe liberties with the text. For instance, their chapter 10 in the book of Ezekiel contains verses from three different chapters, and not in the original sequence. Their sequence is:

 

Chap 8:1-2
Chap 8:4
Chap 10:20-22
Chap 10:14-15
Chap 10:9-13
Chap 10:16-17
Chap 10:1-8
Chap 10:18-19
Chap 11:22-23

Rememberthis is Chapter 10.

End of Chapter 10
Then totally re-arrange the middle.


They might as well include the first 8 verses someplace!

They end Chapter 10 with the final verses of Chapter 11 !


In general, the notes and commentaries often are geared to bolstering Roman Catholic doctrinal positions that contradict Protestant doctrinal positions.  Often, points are emphasized not by referring to other Bible passages, but by referring to edicts of Roman Catholic Church councils.

Protestants do not consider the Apocrypha divinely inspired and point to various teachings that directly contradict Protestant, and in some cases even Catholic doctrines.

2 Maccabees 12:31-34, 39-42 [31] Judas [Maccabeus] and his men thanked them [the Scythopolitans] and exhorted them to be well disposed to their race [the Jews] in the future also.  Finally they arrived in Jerusalem, shortly before the feast of Weeks.  [32] After this feast called Pentecost [not to be confused with the Pentecost in the Book of Acts], they lost no time in marching against Gorgias, governor of Idumea, [33] who opposed them with three thousand foot soldiers and four hundred horsemen.  [34] In the ensuing battle, a few of the Jews were slain.  [39] On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his men went to gather up the bodies of the slain and bury them with their kinsmen in their ancestral tombs.   [40] But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law [should be "Law"] forbids the Jews to wear.  So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain.  [41] They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.  [42] Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out.  The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.

 
Here, God protected every Jewish soldier who did not have the idolatrous amulet and let every Jewish soldier who did have the amulet be killed.  And still Maccabeus and his men prayed for them to be saved! This contradicts Catholic doctrine because idolatry is a "mortal sin".

Do not confuse the New American Bible (NAB), which is a Roman Catholic version that includes the Apocrypha with the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is an interdenominational translation of the Protestant Bible.

 


NEW LIVING TRANSLATION (NLT)

This is a paraphrase of the Bible!  It should not be your primary study Bible!

BENEFITS

The New Living Translation specifically aims at presenting text in conversational American English. The language of this Bible is very easy to understand.  In many instances a listener cannot tell whether he is hearing normal conversation or a portion of text being read.  In some instances text has been added to make it clear what the writer is referring to without being distracted by footnotes.

Often, series of items are displayed in list format, making it much easier to remember or see patterns.

This is a particularly good Bible for:

  • general Bible reading
  • reading aloud
  • teaching children
  • beginners seeking general familiarity with the Bible
  • discussion groups such as Bible study classes
  • people who tried to study the Bible, found it confusing and gave up

DISADVANTAGES

The New Living Translation is not intended to be a primary Bible for serious study.  For detailed study each individual word of the original text is important, and a paraphrase does not attempt to maintain textual accuracy.

Large portions of the Bible are poetry or couplets, e.g., most of Proverbs.  The New Living Translation specifically aims at presenting all the text in conversational American English.  Thus, the form, sense and feel of the poetry is entirely lost -- there is no attempt to preserve it.

Any translation requires a certain amount of theological interpretation.  For instance, the original texts had no capitals and no punctuation, yet English translators routinely distinguish Spirit, referring specifically to the Holy Spirit, from spirit, meaning any spirit, and the Word of God, referring to Jesus, from the word of God.  The New Living Translation had to make a greater number of such choices than true translations.

This Bible, and all paraphrases, lack credibility with many Christians, particularly those who are very conservative theologically.

The New Living Translation and other paraphrased Bibles should never be relied upon or quoted in articles, etc.

SUGGESTIONS

Most people are not used to reading conversational English silently.  The New Living Translation is particularly good to read aloud, even alone.  Often, a passage from an accurate translation will be difficult to understand, but on hearing the New Living Translation paraphrase read aloud the meaning is immediately clear.

 


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