Which Bible is Best?
--Pastor Jamey Nichols
Most people over 50 years of age who have spent their lives in and around the institutional church will be able to tell a personal story about the Bible translation wars. My own personal tale revolves around the King James Version (KJV) and the New International Version (NIV). Christians in the rural Michigan church in which I grew up conversed passionately on whether or not a minister should ever preach from—let alone read from—anything other than the KJV. The KJV had served the church since 1611 and was beloved, while the new-fangled English of the NIV was treated with great suspicion. I listened to the impassioned assertions with great interest. Occasionally, my youthful ears would hear whispered arguments for why the NIV might be a good thing for the church. The decade of the 70’s was coming to a close and so much of American life was being judged outmoded, including the KJV. When I landed in Bible college in the mid 1980’s, certain domains in higher education were increasingly welcoming to the NIV. The rationale was measured and thoughtful. Many in the pews cried “liberal!” at the growing change, but most of those were from single-language people who thought more with their passions than with their minds.
As I matured in my own faith and intellect, I began to discover a love for all things linguistic. I came to appreciate how language and communication were related but different. I also became fascinated with how the latter was impacted by the former and how the rules for words and grammar changed across time and language and culture. To this day I chuckle how many in our current community “used to could” do something in their younger days that they can no longer do today. And that’s effective English!
As I write this, my college-aged children have little to no idea of what was ubiquitously called “the KJV debate.” Instead, they have at their disposal an electronic plethora of English translations. The question I’m most often asked these days can be generalized as, “Of all the translations, which Bible is best?” That is the question I’d like to answer here.
To begin with, the Bible wars are built upon shared premises. Everyone involved in the which-is-best debate typically agrees that:
1) The Bible is the most important book known to humanity
2) Christians everywhere need the Bible in their own languages
3) A correct understanding of the Bible is important for knowing how to please God
4) The original books of Bible did not come to us in English therefore translations are necessary
We are blessed with a myriad of translations. Parallel Bibles in book form or online are marvelous attestations to a reliable rendering of the text. When multiple translations are basically saying the same thing, it’s like having multiple teams of language scholars collaborating together toward consensus. This is a gift to English speakers.
Wycliff Bible translators have taken the 66 sacred books from their original languages into remote dialects. Often just one, maybe two people who are fluent in the receptor language do the arduous work, verse by verse, working to accurately translate from Greek/Hebrew, through their mother tongue of comprehension, and into the native dialect. The final product is a blessing to the people who finally enjoy reading (if they know how to read!) God’s Word in their own languages. Imagine how much stronger the translation would be if several Greek scholars worked on the NT and several Hebrew scholars worked on the OT AND they were native speakers? Then imagine them meeting together to wrestle through difficult translation decisions until they reached a consensus? Now, imagine several different teams of scholars doing that over and over across generations? That’s what we have in English and it is a gift!
“Which Bible? King James? NIV? The ESV?” My answer is: All of them! Read them all.* Compare them to each other. Variations, of course, will emerge. But, overall these variations are minute. The vast majority of verses that speak directly to salvation, elemental theology, the basics of faith, and Christian living are all in complete agreement. Some variations will be difficult to reconcile, but by-and-large, by relying on the passages in which all the translations agree, a simple person employing a plain and simple hermeneutic can easily arrive at a meaningful understanding of Christian truth.
The real question for Stanton, MI Christians is not, “Which translation is best,” but rather “Are you reading any translation at all?”
* I say, “Yes, even read the paraphrases like the Living Bible, The Passion NT, and The Message.” These renditions are very thoughtful and often give us insights we might otherwise miss. Just remember, they are NOT translations and should not be relied on or treated as authoritative. Think of them more like me, your pastor: A decent enough fellow who loves the Lord but might not get it right every single time. Just like Sunday’s sermons, you should always compare information back to one of the many excellent translations.