Which version of the Bible should I read?

Dear Maggie,

What version of the Bible should I read?

Thanks,
Lost in Translations


Dear Lost,

Wouldn’t it be nice to just sit down and read the scriptures in Greek and Hebrew with everything making all the sense in the world!  Unfortunately, that’s not the case, err actually, it might be fortunately.  Ya see translation could be one way we think about the Incarnation, the Word of God that came to dwell with us.  In each translation of the bible we are seeking again to faithfully transmit the wisdom of God for our age.

Because biblical scholars keep thinking and learning about the scriptures we continue to gain new insights into how to bring the texts of the original languages into our own age.  The reality is that there is no one translation that captures the whole of the scriptures.  In our study of the bible it is really best to read two or three versions, understanding all along that each one has made decisions here and there that will shape how we might understand the scriptures.

In the Episcopal Church the standard of the last few years has been the New Revised Standard Version.  This is the great great grandchild of the King James or “Standard Version.”  The NRSV is the version we mostly read on Sunday mornings in church and a great deal of scholarship has gone into the translation.  However, it does have its problems.  For instance, much of the New Testament was written in a very approachable, everyday language and yet the NRSV tends to be a bit high for most American English speakers of the today.  Also, in some tricky passages the NRSV makes some choices in their translation that don’t fit with some of the best scholarship around today.  Still, this is one of the translations you should use and may be a good first read translation.

Another very good and more recent translation is the Common English Bible.  This is a fresh translation that was sponsored by several denominations including the Episcopal Church.  Many of the world’s best scholars were involved in this translation, but its goal was to make the language of the bible more approachable than that of the NRSV. 

Eugene Peterson’s The Message is a very loose translation, but one that is based in the original languages and really puts the scriptures into the kind of idioms that we can now understand.  His translations have become much loved around the world and I think they are very much worth including in your reading and devotional practice. 

There are hundreds of other translations to choose from, but I’d start with those three.  If you read them side by side then they will help you get a deeper sense of the scripture.  If there is a place where you see a strong difference between the translations then it might be worth looking at an interlinear bible and doing some digging around in why a different choice was made.
As an example, let’s look at Romans 5:1-2.  Here’s how it’s translated in our three examples:

NRSV Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

CEB: Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness,[a] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory.

The Message: By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.

As you can see each translation is very different.  All were working from the Greek but each made very different choices. The NRSV offers a traditional protestant interpretation that reflects the idea that it is by our faith that we are justified (it does offer a footnote in most versions that gives some alternative possibilities).  The CEB, however, seems to offer it is Christ’s faithfulness that justifies us. This reflects more recent scholarship around Paul’s understanding of the work of faith—that Christ’s faithfulness is what justifies us, not our faith.  The Greek can be translated either way, but the CEB made their choice based on the larger theology of Paul.  The Message is different than both in that it is focused on transferring the underlying meaning of the texts into our contemporary language through paraphrase. All of these approaches are helpful as we seek to understand the scriptures. 

So, don’t just read one translation!  Read several.  The website Bible Gateway has all of these and more.  They also have a tool where you can see several translations side by side.  The important thing is that we read these ancient texts and begin to make the story of our own lives a continuation of their stories of God’s grace working in the world.  Our lives, then, become the final translation we’re seeking.

I hope that all makes sense for you Lost!  God’s word is a wonder and translations are just a tool to help us live into the beauty of its gift.

Peace be with ya!
St. Maggie