Dedicated to Billy Graham (1918–2018).
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The everlasting God, the Lord,
The Creator of the ends of the earth,
Neither faints nor is weary.
His understanding is unsearchable.
In many ways, bibles are a lot like telescopes; both have the potential to transform your perspective. Some folk struggle to find even one. Others collect many different kinds. Some bibles are small and ultraportable, while others are large and unwieldy. Some copies of Holy Scripture are beautiful and ornate, lavished with fine art, and painstakingly assembled from the choicest natural materials. Still others are plain Jane, simple, with no frills; just the text, and maybe a concordance. Some folk parade their bible as if it were a measure of how well one walks with Christ. But many, not seeking to be ostentatious, quietly and modestly read their bibles in complete privacy. Some like to look at their bibles and never really look through them. Some learn a great deal from their bibles, others, little or nothing.
There has never been a better time to read the bible, for it is the only collection of books that makes sense of our earthly predicament and provides a coherent and just solution. The world is changing too fast and too much, and I fear that many have no real idea of where our kind is destined to end up. But by studying the biblical narrative, we can get a clear picture of where the world is headed for and what its fate will be. The bible shapes your worldview like no other body of literature, and keeps you moored in a view of morality that is absolute, and which cannot be changed by the fickle and ephemeral nature of human culture.
Today, many excellent translations in hundreds of languages are now available online or in traditional form. But are some translations better than others? Let’s look at the kinds of English bible translations that are now available.
‘Word for Word’ or ‘Thought for Thought’?
As any linguist will tell you, the process of translation is a task that cannot, by definition, satisfy all of the people all of the time. This is particularly true of the bible, where the original manuscripts were written in Hebrew, Aramaic and so called Koine (read common man’s) Greek. Thus, any translation involves a fair degree of discernment in choosing the right words to express, as precisely as possible, the original meaning conveyed in these texts. That has led modern biblical translation scholarship to adopt two basic philosophies; ‘word for word’ and ‘thought for thought.’ The former variety strive to exchange the words written in these ancient texts with modern words that, as far as possible, adhere to the original wording found in the most ancient texts. The latter adopt an entirely different, but no less important approach, taking the ancient texts and imparting a modern rendering that captures the essential thoughts conveyed by the original authors. Examples of good ‘word for word’ translations in the English language include the English Standard Version(ESV), the Modern English Version (MEV), the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New American Standard Bible(NASB). Examples of popular ‘thought for thought’ translations include the New International Version (NIV), the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Good News Bible(GNB).
Still other translations seek to reach a particular subset of society. For example, so−called Messianic Bibles, such as the fairly new Tree of Life Version (TLV), was compiled by Messianic Jewish scholars with the express intention to impart a distinctive Jewish voice to the Scriptures, removing words like ‘Lord’ and ‘Jesus’ and replacing them with their Hebrew equivalents, ‘Adonai’ and ‘Yeshua,’ respectively. Not a bad idea! Finally, there are very loose paraphrases of the bible, where the author’s intent is to summarise whole paragraphs of biblical text with a wording that departs quite a bit from the originals, and for the purposes of conveying the key ideas therein. Examples of these include the Message Bible (by Eugene Peterson) and the older but still highly popular Living Bible (by the late Kenneth Taylor). I use the latter to read extended passages of the biblcal narrative to my sons; a duty I take very seriously.
An aside: Did you have your children Christened? If so, you made an oath that you would bring them up in the Christian faith. Do they know the Lord’s Prayer? How about John 3:16? Do they know anything of the Gospels? Can they recite something from the Psalms?
Finally, there are corruptions of the biblical text that should be avoided at all cost. Examples include the New World Translation (NWT), used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has monkeyed with the divinity of Christ, portraying Him not as God but merely a powerful angel, and the Book of Mormon, used by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which concocts an entirely fabricated narrative that mimics the bible (they’re bible wanabees). Another is the tongue−in−cheek Queen James Bible, which has removed all references to the abominable practice of homosexuality.
Choosing a bible can be a daunting task for a beginner, especially when one is confronted with the proliferation of translations. Having read and enjoyed many bible versions, I have found all of them to be useful and enriching. The ‘thought for thought’ versions are very easy to assimilate but at the cost of veering away from the technical precision of the ‘word for word’ varieties. In the end, I have found it helpful to enjoy a good example of both; the NKJV (for accuracy) and the NLT (for readability). We’re all different though, and get different things from different translations.. And that’s OK too.
Features to Look for in a Good Bible
All that having been said, there is another aspect of bible culture that is of some importance and this pertains to how well made the copies are. In short, a bible that is to be used regularly must ideally be well made and last many years if it is to be of maximal value. So, here I wish to offer some thoughts on my own experiences with a variety of bibles, and what features I tend to look for when shopping for a good, durable bible.
I have found hardback versions of the Holy Bible to be the least durable. They are generally quite poorly bound and tend to fall apart quickly with continued use. If you use a hardback version, chances are you’ll be taping it up before long. Much better are the soft covered bibles, which come as simple paperbacks, imitation leather (usually polyurethane or ‘trutone’) and bona fide leather bound incarnations. I avoid bibles that are heavily glued and not Smyth−sewn.
Soft covers also open out flat on a table or in your hand, largely avoiding the tendency for the pages to flip over accidentally or haphazardly. The font size can also be an issue. If the font is too small, it will be difficult to read, even with eyeglasses. If it is too large, the bible will have to be bigger and heavier than is desired. That said, there are many thinline versions now available in 8 point or larger font, and which can be carried around easily in a rucksack or handbag. The font should be clear and distinct, ideally with good line matching, so as to minimise the effects of text ghosting. Ideally, the bible will have a decent number of cross references, so that you can quickly find quotations taken from other parts of the bible that have a bearing on the part of Scripture being studied. A comprehensive concordance (normally placed at the back of the bible) and a few relevant maps of the biblical world is also a godsend. Some folk like to have wide margins, so as to make notes. Others simply want the text, pure and simple.
In this digital age in which we live there are many excellent online resources to help you study the bible. Bible Gateway and Bible Hub.com provide the entire text of the bible in many different versions, only a few of which I have mentioned in this blog. Perhaps the most comprehensive online resource is the NEW English Translation (NET) bible, which is a novel translation compiled by a team of biblical scholars accessing the best currently available Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, together with over 58,000 translators’ notes. The NET bible is also available in conventional form. I should also mention Biblia.com which seems to offer a similar service to the NET bible. One can also buy Kindle versions of most any bible translation for use on your electronic devices.
My Personal Favourite Bible
While I certainly enjoy and cherish many English translations of the bible, I wanted to share with you some of the qualities I looked for in my own personal quest for a bible for study and use in my daily devotionals. I narrowed the translations down to two; the ESV or the NKJV. And while I can recommend both wholeheartedly, I gravitated toward the latter, owing to its literary ‘cadence’ and its devotion to the tradition of the original King James Version (though the author does not endorse so−called King James ‘onlyism’). I felt the ESV had developed too much of a ‘cult’ following and I’ve always been one to go my own way, championing the ‘underdog,’ as it were.
Having read the NKJV through a few times, I have never come across a typographical error in this version, unlike others I’ve encountered. For example, while reading the book of Jeremiah in the otherwise excellent Tree of Life Version(TLV) of the Bible, I encountered a clear error in this translation (see the TLV Jeremiah 34:14), which (for me) was slightly annoying. The same bible also has printing errors in the short book of Obadiah. Errors are more likely to occur when small teams of biblical scholars are involved and the TLV had a smaller scholarship base than many of the more established English translations. I hope the committee responsible for the TLV can sort out these errors in due course. The NKJV has been around since 1982 (Thomas Nelson publishers) and so any bugs in this version have long been sorted out. Indeed, I was just a boy when the NKJV first hit the shelves; and yet, in the rapidly changing world in which we live, the NKJV is now considered somewhat of a classic lol.
It is also noteworthy to mention that the older Thomas Nelson rendition of the NKJV also featured asterisks alongside passges from the Old and New Testaments, indicating where prophecies were either fulfilled or had yet to be fulfilled. But these are eisegenic interpretations (reading into the text) and I liked the way the new Holman publication removed them so that the reader could interpret them in his or her own way.
I wanted a Smyth−sewn binding for my bible as these are very strong and durable, but also because they open flat without much effort. I also considered buying a copy bound in high quality leather (like with my NIV 2011), but yet again I have found the modern polyurethane (trutone) covers to be just as good. What’s more, unlike leather, they don’t need to be nourished from time to time with conditioning agents in order to keep them in tip top condition. In addition, leather, being organic, is biodegradable, so will decay with time; something the synthetic polymers won’t do to the same degree(so long as you don’t sit it out in the hot sun, day in day out lol).
I wanted a bible with only the text, neither with introductions or other distractions from the text itself. And while I used to take copious notes during my earlier bible studies, these days I just enjoy the bare text without margins.
I wanted a fairly large font, so I could read it without using my glasses, even in fairly dim light.The quality of the paper had to be good too, but not so good that I would be afraid to soil it. The Holman has a single ribbon page marker, and while I would have preferred two, I can live with having only one. The text is printed in American English but that was never an issue for me. It had to be reasonably well line matched and I wanted the words of the Messiah in red lettering. All these requirements led me to a very useful version, published by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Unlike the cheap, bonded leather of the older Nelson version (the newer Nelson NKJV are better made though) of the NKJV, the Holman iteration has a beautiful but not overly showy trutone cover. Finally, I didn’t want to spend too much on yet another bible. The Holman was priced very economically and was well worth the modest price I paid for it. I hope to be able to use it well into my old age.
So, in summary, there are many beautiful bibles available today; something to suit everyone’s taste, and for all occasions. My hope is that this short article will inspire others to begin a new study of the bible and to keep the words of our Creator alive and well in our hearts.
Postscript: Thomas Nelson have now brought out a brand-new Deluxe Reader’s Bible which is beautifully made and very reasonably priced. You can see a review of it here.