Choosing a Bible
Why it Matters
If you’re going to spend a lot of time reading the Bible—if you’re going to invest the kind of time it needs to be able to really soak it in and grow—one very important decision to consider is what Bible you’ll be reading. The translation you are holding will affect everything that happens with your Bible reading plan, for a simple reason: if you can’t understand what your Bible says, you won’t read it! This is why it’s so important to pay attention to what version of the Bible you’re reading.
Why We Need Translations
The Bible was originally written in three ancient languages: Hebrew (most of the Old Testament), Aramaic (about half of the book of Daniel, a couple of sections of Ezra, and two other isolated verses), and Greek (the New Testament). Without translation, we would be unable to understand God’s Word without learning the original languages in our spare time!
But there are so many translations…
The “King” of English Versions
For almost three hundred years, there was really only one choice when it came to the Bible in English. The “Authorized,” or “King James,” version of 1611 has been the most influential of English Bibles. This is the one that has given us the Lord’s Prayer as we know it. This is the one that had such a pervasive influence on English literature for hundreds of years. This is the one with most of the “Thee”s and “Thou”s we’re so afraid of!
To us it feels more than a little remote. To put it in perspective: the King James Version was completed in the time of William Shakespeare, which means (for most people) it is about as easy to grasp as Shakespeare is. If you’ve recently talked to a high school student about Macbeth or Julius Caesar or Hamlet, you may have an inkling that the King James is probably not the best bet for most people!
There are many other factors than just the ease or difficulty of reading each translation. But most of these factors have to do with things unfamiliar to most people in the church (the quality of the manuscripts that have been discovered over the years, the biases of the translators, etc.). So here I’ll mostly focus on the reading levels and approaches of various Bibles, with a couple of extra thoughts at the end.
The two most popular Bible in churches today are probably the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NIV is the most widely used version in evangelical churches, and it’s the one we use in our bulletin printouts of the Scripture each week. The NIV is aimed at a grade 7 reading level, roughly the level of the popular American newspaper USA Today. The NRSV is aimed at a grade 11 reading level. Other good recent Bible translations include the English Standard Version (ESV, grade 10 level) and the Common English Bible (CEB, grade 7 again). Bibles aimed at easier reading levels or people for whom English is a second language include the Good News Bible and the Contemporary English Version (CEV). We have a New Testament edition of the CEV in our pews at church.
A very popular “version” of the Bible is actually not exactly a translation, but a paraphrase. This is The Message, by Eugene Peterson. Whatever people might be able to say about the shortcomings of this Bible, it has one huge thing going for it: it reads really well. If you want to hear a Bible story sound fresh even though you’ve heard it a hundred times before, The Message is the Bible to pick up. It may not be well-suited to close study, but I definitely recommend it if you’re having difficulty “getting into” Bible reading. Peterson is a very responsible and wise pastor and writer (my own favourite!) and he knows the Biblical languages extremely well.
A Couple of Words of Caution
My cautions here are not meant to sound critical, but rather to try to explain why certain seemingly helpful Bible tools may be a little bit dangerous. The first caution is about a particular Bible version, the second about a type of Bible.
The Amplified Bible
Many people who are interested in studying the Bible have found that the Amplified Bible is like a goldmine of Scriptural treasures. What this version does is to expand (amplify) different words or ideas in a verse to bring out their fuller meaning. In its intention this is a good thing. But one trouble with the Amplified is that it ultimately might serve to narrow down our understanding of a verse. It gives the impression that every possible shade of meaning is here on the page. Why search for more? A second danger is that in the Amplified it’s hard to tell the difference between what the Bible says and what a particular person thinks it means. All translation involves interpreting meaning, but the Amplified seems to take it to a bit of an extreme. Nevertheless, if you keep those cautions in mind, the Amplified might still serve to stimulate your thoughts about a particular verse.
The second word of caution is about Study Bibles. There are many popular ones: The NIV Study Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, The Life Application Bible, the Scofield Reference Bible, and on and on and on the list could go. In this kind of Bible there are many notes at the bottom of the page to help you understand what you’re reading. It’s like having a Bible dictionary and a Bible commentary always at hand. The problem is this: once you see something written inside the pages of your Bible, it’s easy to think it’s just as “right” and “infallible” as the Bible itself. The notes are just notes. They might be helpful. But they might be wrong. Some Study Bibles are better than others, and they should be carefully chosen. (I have particular issues about the approach of both the Ryrie and the Scofield, and think we’d be best to do away with them…) And always remember: the notes at the bottom of the page are not inspired!