Choosing a Study Bible – Part 1

A discussion of Bible translations can instigate a holy war in some circles of the church. Some folks have very strong opinions about which translation is “best”. I’m not going to wade into that war here. But I will give a quick, very high level overview of the options.

Bible translations can run the gamut from literal translation to paraphrase. On the scale below, the left edge represents literal word-for-word accuracy from the original languages, and as you move to the right you generally gain more readability, but in exchange for direct translational accuracy. It’s a trade-off.

For example, the original Living Bible from the 1970s, designed to be readable for kids, would probably be a 9 or 10 on the scale. It’s very readable, but doesn’t even try to be word-for-word (or even thought-for-thought) accurate. Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ would have a similar spot on the scale. Such versions of the Bible can be wonderful for a fresh perspective when reading the Bible, but because they’re more removed from the original text, they don’t lend themselves very well to a more rigorous study of God’s word. On the other end of the scale, a direct translation from Hebrew or Greek would be nearly unreadable because, aside from some words not having direct English corollaries, the grammar and sentence structures in those languages are different. So you’d have a situation where the “words order out of are”. (Think of a highly intoxicated Yoda).

Of the most popular study Bibles available today, the New King James Version (NKJV) and the English Standard Version (ESV) would probably be a 3 or 3.5 on the scale. The New Living Translation (NLT) would probably be about a 7, and the New International Version (NIV) would probably sit smack dab in the middle at about a 5.

While I like having multiple Bible translations for comparison, when it comes to a serious study Bible, you’re probably best focusing on the left-to-middle part of the scale. (Still, rest assured that none of the current major translations is going to lead anyone into grave theological error). At sites such as Bible Gateway, you can actually pull up multiple translations side by side and compare how they read for you. (This comparison exercise obviously works best on a computer monitor rather than a phone).

Of course, it never hurts to get input and recommendations from your pastor as well. If you’ve got the same translation that your pastor preaches from, it can be a little easier to follow along during worship.

In the next installment, I’ll talk a little about some of the options regarding different page layouts and fonts.

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