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Question: Why are there so many modern English translations and which one is the best for studying the Bible?
In the midst of the bewildering plethora of English translations, the first thing we ought to do is give God thanks that we have His word in our own language. For hundreds of years, people had to learn Hebrew, Greek, or Latin if they wanted to read God’s word. John Wycliffe risked his reputation and life to translate God’s word into English for the first time in the 1380s. William Tyndale, who gave us our first printed English Bible in 1525/6, was martyred for his work in publishing the Bible in English.
At that time his opponents believed that “The New Testament translated into [English] is … the fuel of sin, … the protection of disobedience, the corruption of discipline, the depravity of morals, … [and] the well-spring of vices….” Imagine that! We owe much to these and other men who were willing to lay down their lives so that you and I could read God’s word in our own language.
Second, we need to understand that different translations have different purposes so we can know how to use them properly. Let me start with the New International Version.
New International Version (NIV)
The purpose of the NIV’s translators was to produce an accurate, readable translation that was “faithful to the thought of the biblical writers” (NIV preface).
The twofold result was a version:
- That is highly readable, and
- That is more interpretative than the KJV and some other modern versions (NASB, NKJV).
Because of its readability, I recommend the NIV as a reading Bible, particularly in the Old Testament prophets. If you want to read through large portions of the Bible, getting a good overview and general understanding of the text, the NIV is a valuable translation.
Because of its interpretiveness, I don’t recommend it as a study Bible, despite the fact that the NIV study Bible is a very popular study Bibles. The NIV often makes interpretive decisions without letting the reader know. A good study Bible will preserve both the clarity and the ambiguity of the original language. Admittedly this is a difficult task, but a student of God’s word should have the opportunity to consider the interpretive options that the original languages leave open. Let me give you one example.
In the NIV James 1:14 reads “but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” The translators have interpreted the Greek word epithumia as ‘evil desire,’ even though the word means only ‘desire.’ In this case, the NIV is not only interpretive, but it is wrong. We are not enticed only by evil desires. We are most often enticed to fulfill legitimate desires in wrong ways.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The New American Standard Bible (NASB), first published in 1971 by the Lockman Foundation, was translated “with the conviction that the words of Scripture, as originally penned in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, were inspired by God. Since they are the eternal Word of God, the Holy Scriptures speak with fresh power to each generation, to give wisdom that leads to salvation so that men and women may serve Christ for the glory of God.” The translators’ goal was to produce a word-for-word, literal translation that was still readable in modern English.
Anyone who has studied Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, will recognize that a completely literal, word-for-word translation would often make no sense in English. For example, the first part of John 3:16 would read, “So for loved the God the world, so that the son the only begotten he gave.” No modern translation is a strictly word-for-word translation.
However, the NASB comes about as close as a translation can while still being understandable. For this reason, I regard the NASB as probably the best modern version for personal Bible study. In 1995 the Lockman Foundation updated the NASB.
The update removed the archaic ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ from the few places they were still used in the 1971 edition (primarily the Psalms) and generally made the NASB a smoother translation without sacrificing its literalness. If you are interested in a chart that shows where most modern translations fall in relation to the NASB, you may find one here.
New King James Version (NKJV)
The New King James Version (NKJV) is another good, conservative modern English translation. Its translators were all committed to the inerrancy of the original manuscripts as well. The primary purpose of the NKJV was to update the Elizabethan English of the KJV into modern English.
In general, the translators were careful to follow the lead of the KJV and thus retained it overall style and flow of thought. The Wesley Study Bible used the NKJV text and was a valuable study Bible. Unfortunately, it is now out of print, and I have been unable to find it available anywhere.
One of the primary differences between the NKJV and the NASB is the underlying Greek text preferred when translating the New Testament. The NKJV used essentially the same Greek text the KJV translators had used in 1611, whereas the NASB used a Greek text that took advantage of the tremendous amount of NT manuscripts discovered in the last nearly 400 years. This is one reason I prefer the NASB over the NKJV.
One final word on studying the Bible in English: although I have recommended the NASB as the version I personally prefer to study from, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that the NASB is the only English version you should consult when studying the Bible. You should make it a habit to compare several versions. Where you find significant differences between versions, you should consult conservative commentaries for further information on the passage.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.