How to read the Bible (pt. 3) – Choosing the right translation.

This is part three of our several part series on how to read the Bible.

Part One: Don’t be scared! (Click here)

Part Two: The best things in life aren’t free! (Click here)

Part Three: Choosing the right translation.

This is one of the most popular things I get asked about as a minister.  Nearly every week someone e-mails or comments concerning Bible translations.  Usually the questions fall in two categories, both of which will be very briefly addressed here.

Category One – Personal Preference

These questions sound something like this: What translation do you suggest?  What did you preach from last Sunday? I like the NIV, do you?  Should I study with a more literal translation?  Why are those people so crazy about the KJV?  Is The Message legit? Which translation is best for my high-schooler?

At the end of the day, when people ask these questions, ultimately what they are trying to find out is “Which translation works best for which people?”  And it is a viable question.  There are tons of English options tailored for specific audiences.

To be honest, this question is one of my favorites because the answer is very simple, slightly sarcastic, and always moderately challenging.  Plain and simple, the right translation for you is the translation you will actually read.  If you can’t read it, or don’t understand it, or really dislike it, find another translation.  I honestly believe, It’s not terribly important which one you read.  What truly matters is that you read it.

You can understand a large majority of the message of the Bible by simply reading it frequently and thoroughly.  And at the end of the day, all translations are exactly that… translations.  They all have flaws.  They all make mistakes.  They all represent the theological opinions of a given translator.  And unless you are studying the languages at a very high level, you WON’T notice the differences more often than you will.

So enough with this KJV or bust stuff.  Just because your church used the NIV all your life does not mean you cannot switch it up.  Often, when you read a new translation, it gives you a fresh set of eyes to look at old timeless truths in new and invigorating ways. Seriously.

And for those of you just starting to do this whole Bible reading thing, choosing a translation that uses language and words that make sense to you is VITAL.  Or else you’ll never develop the desire and discipline to make Bible study a pleasant routine.

Choosing the right one really all just depends on what you are looking for in your Bible translation.

It’s almost like choosing a flavor at Graeter’s, but, unfortunately, there’s only three to pick from: (a) Literal translations, (b) Dynamic translations, and (c) Free translations.

  1. Literal translations represent a more wooden approach to the original languages that attempts to copy them word for word.  Examples here would be NASB, KJV, or NRSV.  That’s why these texts have a bland personality and are difficult to read.  However, they do give you a better sense of EXACTLY what the author was trying to say.
  2. Free translations (I know, I’m going out of order) represent the opposite end of the spectrum.  Here the translators try to make the original language as easy to read as possible for a twenty-first century American English speaking person. However, the problem here is that free translations tend to ignore some of the minute details of the language.  Translators make judgment calls on specific problem areas that often represent their own theological opinions rather than a more open neutrality.  The most popular example of this type would be The Message.  Most free translations are really more of a paraphrase than an actual translation.
  3. Dynamic translations represent the middle ground.  They try to keep close to the original ideas of the biblical authors but also say things in ways that are fairly easy for modern people to understand.  Examples here would be the NIV, NLT, ESV, etc.

Category Two – Translation Problems

This category is slightly more nuanced and much more complex.  Questions here sound something like: Why does the NIV say this, but the NASB says this?  Which one is right? How do such smart people who translate this stuff arrive at different conclusions?  What are the little notes in the margin of my Bible that talk about manuscripts?  What do they mean?  Which version is the most right with their translations?

To begin to understand the root of these questions/problems, it is important to remember that every translation fits into one our three “flavors” from above and thus were created for different ends.

But even more important than this we must always keep this essential fact in mind: the translations in our Bibles are not based on the original “autographs” of the biblical writers.

The autographs are the original handwritten copies of the texts of the Bible.  The autographs are the only truly 100% inspired/accurate/reliable representations of what God had his servants write.  And we simply do not have them.  We do not have the pen and parchment of the original letter to the Roman church penned by the hand of Paul.  We simply do not have a copy of the first Isaiah scroll or Luke’s rough draft of his gospel.

Now this does not make what we do have unreliable or uninspired.  Absolutely not (and we will address this more in later posts).  In fact, you can rest quite assured that the translations in your Bible are based on the original manuscripts thanks to the hundreds and thousands of copies and fragments of the biblical writings that have been unearthed up to this day. Many of the writings found are very close to the time the autographs were actually written.

So what does this have to do with twenty-first century English Bible translations?  Well, this is part of the reason why today you’ll see occasional footnotes or discrepancies when you compare different translations.  There are certain words or verses that scholars are unsure about because the autographs are gone and the actual manuscript evidence we have is split.

For example, open your Bible to Mark 3:32.  Most of your Bibles will have a footnote here pointing out that there are manuscript discrepancies.  According to a large portion of the ancient manuscripts we’ve uncovered, the crowd seated around Jesus says to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you. (New Living Translation)”  However, evidence from some other very reliable manuscripts suggest that the translation should be, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you. (New Revised Standard Version)”  Notice here that “and sisters” has been added.

At the end of the day, the evidence is split.  It could legitimately be either of the previous readings.  No one knows which one is truly the original.  But honestly, whichever way you decide to go, very little is actually at stake here.  We know from other passages that Jesus had sisters (Mt. 13:56), so no real significant information is gained or lost whichever way you read it.  If I had to guess, I would bet his sisters were probably there because, just like Mary and their brothers, they would have been equally concerned for Jesus.

This is the nature of pretty much all the discrepancies we find in the ancient manuscripts.  They are simply insignificant.  So no matter which way you choose in these debates, it has little bearing on the overarching story the text is trying to tell.  And even more so, it changes absolutely nothing about the larger narrative the entire Bible is trying to tell.

Q: So what is your translation of choice? When and why?

DISCLAIMER: None of this Bible reading stuff matters if you don’t do it.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “How to read the Bible (pt. 3) – Choosing the right translation.

  1. Pingback: How to Read the Bible (pt. 5) – The Story | CROSS-SHAPED STUFF

  2. Pingback: How to Read the Bible (pt. 4) – Understand what the Bible is. | CROSS-SHAPED STUFF

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