I have a lot of great memories gained from growing up in church. Some things, however, brought me brief moments of terror as a child but I can laugh about them now.
I can remember the pastor at our Baptist church calling on men in the congregation to lead prayer. For several years, I thought this was random and I sat terrified that I would be called on and have no words. I still don’t enjoy being called on to pray unprepared.
A few things have changed since then. I am no longer Baptist, for one, but I also learned that the pastor did, in fact, approach men before the service and ask them ahead of time.
It still cracks me up as I think back onto the manner of prayers. Though sincere, it is strange that men from small town Alabama—bankers, farmers, business leaders and more—suddenly turned into 400 year old British men when they prayed.
It’s understandable. At the time, the traditional King James Version (KJV) was the most commonly used translation in church services—at least in our denomination. Other translations existed but some of the modern language translations were still new or not yet published.
I don’t know why they thought you had to pray in 17th century English, but it doesn’t really matter. God hears the prayers in your heart.
What translation should you use?
I am of the opinion that the best translation is the one that you will actually read. A Bible on your shelf is not very helpful to your spiritual growth.
Over the weekend, I decided to survey a Christian Libertarian group on social media to ask members of the group their favorite Bible version for study, general reading or citation. Although my impromptu survey would hardly be scientific, I have to admit some of the answers surprised me. It’s a pretty diverse group.
I didn’t close comments on the post, but after the first 24 hours I found the English Standard Version (ESV) was the overwhelming favorite with nearly half of all responses listing it among their favorites. Other popular versions were the King James Version (KJV) which was a distant second, The New American Standard Version (NASV), followed by the New International Version (NIV) and the New King James Version (NKJV).
The New English Translation (NET), a recent online version, made the list several times as well.
Personally, when I am preparing a lesson or a study, I almost always turn to the ESV or NRSV for citations or cross reference. I will often look at passages in several others but I tend to turn to those two for reasons of accuracy. I am particularly fond of the Life with God Bible, a study Bible, which uses the NRSV.
What translation do you use?
According to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, the top 10 versions of the Bible are (based on volumes sold):
- 1. New International Version (NIV)
- 2. King James Version (KJV)
- 3. New Living Translation (NLT)
- 4. English Standard Version (ESV)
- 5. New King James Version (NKJV)
- 6. Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- 7. Reina Valera (RV)
- 8. New International Reader’s Version (NIrV)
- 9. The Message (Message)
- 10. New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Although the NRSV is the most commonly used version in academic settings, it is not among the most popular Bibles used by average readers. There may be several reasons for this but it could be that it is not favored by evangelicals and it might be that it was one of the last translations to allow Bible websites to put the text online.
Which version is the most accurate?
The question of accuracy is something that can step on some people’s toes fairly quickly. I’ve met a small number of KJV-only advocates in my life. While I certainly respect the translation for many reasons, I find no spiritual purpose in being dogmatic about bashing other versions of scripture.
I can enjoy the language in the KJV but, like the men who prayed in my church as a child, I am also not a 400 year old British man. The NKJV is a very good, modern language translation. Although I always check the ESV and NRSV, I keep a NKJV, NASV and NIV handy as well.
If you were given the task of translating a book from another language, you would translate it into the English you speak, not a version of the language you do not use. In that regard, there are many very good, and likely more accurate, translations than the KJV.
Despite claims by translators, there are not really any truly literal translations of scripture. Every version of the Bible has some level of translation, punctuation, or grammar problem. One cause of this is the difficulty in accurately recreating a work written in one language in another language.
Sometimes, there are no words that translate easily from one language to another and translators have to decide to leave a word untranslated or pick a meaning that they believe is correct. Take this example from Genesis 1 verse 2:
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.ESV
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.KJV
Aside from the different verb tense usage in the two translations in the bold text “was hovering” and “moved,” the translators also picked two different meanings for the Hebrew word, rachaph. Interestingly, the same word has been translated as hovering, moving, fluttering or brooding in other translations.
Did the spirit of God hover over the water or move upon it? Only two sentences into scripture and “literal” translators had to insert personal interpretations. It gets better!
Consider the word “Spirit.” The Hebrew word ruach, used there in Genesis (whether hovering, moving, brooding or fluttering) is a feminine noun. Does this mean the Holy Spirit is a feminine aspect of God as compared to God the Father and God the Son?
Some theologians argue that it does mean exactly that, which would certainly give credence to the use of the term brooding. Early church beliefs, especially Catholic beliefs, taught this very thing—giving the Holy Spirit the name Sophia (Wisdom).
Take that for what you will. In Hebrew, the gender of a noun does not always relate to the physical gender of the subject. For example, the word for leg is feminine and the word for head is masculine. Both men and women have legs and heads.
Ruach also means wind and breath as well as spirit. Here again, translators had to insert their own interpretations twice in the second sentence of the Bible.
Let’s Eat Grandma!
Punctuation is important. A comma in that headline is the difference between having a meal with your grandmother or cannibalism. Punctuation in the Bible is important as well.
Hebrew scripture did not contain vowels or punctuation. The Greek did not break into traditional paragraphs or include commas either. Translators, who actually used the Hebrew writings instead of relying on previous versions of the Bible, had to make decisions on the use and meaning of the language itself.
Consider the first sentence of the previous paragraph presented as if it was Hebrew. It would read right to left and have no capitals, punctuations, or vowels.
Without the text above—”Hebrew scripture did not contain vowels or punctuation”—it’s not likely you would have known what that string of letters represented. That’s just the first sentence. Imagine a whole book of the Bible like that written in another language where words had multiple meanings. Sounds fun, right?
So, translators had to deal with word interpretation, punctuation, and even the source material. Consider the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 (I’ve removed verse numbers, which were also added later):
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
On the left, is the traditional KJV version we have, no doubt, recited many times. On the right is the ESV version of the same prayer.
The first verse is essentially the same, aside from the capital letter for “hallowed.”
The second verse has differences in language given the 400+ years between the two translations (thy or your). Note, also, the punctuation difference with the KJV placing the comma after “earth” as opposed to modern translations placing a comma after “done.”
How might that comma change the meaning of that verse of the prayer?
The next verse sounds simple enough but “daily bread” is not an exact translation and scholars differ over what the Greek word “epiousios” translated here really means. Some say essential bread. Some say enough bread. Some invent another term, supersubstantial, to place here. The translators went with the simple, though redundant “daily bread.” The next sentence is also often translated with trespasses instead of debts.
Most translations ask God to protect us from temptation or not to lead us into temptation. At least one, if not several, ask Him not to subject us to hard tests. Several translations ask to be delivered or protected from “the evil one,” personifying evil.
Some older translations add a doxology onto the end of the prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” Most modern translations come from older texts which did not contain this closing. It is also not included in the version of the prayer recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
So, which is it?
The version of the Bible you prefer is not a salvational issue nor should it cause you stress, conflict, or concern. Maybe you like one of the translations mentioned or maybe you find peace in one of the many not mentioned here.
It is your relationship with Christ that is important.
Yes, some translations are technically a bit more accurate than others but they are all of use to the believer if they strengthen your faith in Jesus.
So, what is the most accurate version? Here’s a good summary from www.gotquestions.com. I like their conclusion which says “Every translation done in good faith by competent scholars can be considered accurate and authoritative. At the same time, human scholarship is imperfect; also, translations need to be updated over time as the English language changes.”
Without conflict or dogma, let me know your favorites in the comments.