“Meh, the Bible has been translated so many times over the last two thousand years that the original meanings are probably lost.”
I’m sure many of us have heard a version of this statement over the years. I’ve been hearing something like it ever since I was in high school. It doesn’t go away. It’s one of those arguments that make a certain amount of sense to someone who doesn’t really know anything about the subject they are talking about (which is a pretty common thing in the realms of politics and religion). There are certainly many debates surrounding the authorship and authenticity of the scriptures—it’s called Biblical Criticism. What isn’t under debate is the original translations of the texts. We have those. And we’ve had them for a very long time.
Apart from a few sections in Ezra and Daniel written in Aramaic, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. The New Testament was written entirely in Greek.
In terms of the New Testament, we have over 5,800 Greek manuscripts. The oldest complete New Testament, from the Codex Sinaiticus, is dated to around 330 A.D. The oldest known manuscript is a fragment from the Gospel of John, dated to around 125A.D. (which is only a few decades after the gospel was first written).
As for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, we’ve had the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint or LXX (which is arguably the first “complete” version of the Hebrew Bible) about as long as we’ve had the New Testament. The oldest complete Hebrew manuscripts (called the Masoretic text) date between 900 and 1000AD, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948 this was mostly all that we had. Among the Scrolls (individual scrolls have various dates c.200BC – c. 70AD) were found the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament, and many even predated Christianity. And best of all, they were about 99% the same as the previous oldest manuscripts. The discovery of the Scrolls proved that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (the original) had basically stayed the same for almost 1000 years. That’s pretty amazing if you really think about it. So don’t let anyone ever get away with that “so many translations” remark—we have the original translations.
Types of Translations
Unfortunately, most of us do not have a working knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, so we have to rely on those “many translations” floating around in the world. Going to the book store and seeing the multiple shelves of Bible translations can be very overwhelming. It feels like a very important decision, and one in which we can make a seriously bad choice. But which translations are best? Are some better than others? How should I go about choosing a translation?
Those are all good questions in need of answering and I shall do my best.
(I’m going to be using English examples because that is my native language, but the discussion applies to translations in any modern language.)
There are basically two types of Bible translations—Formal Equivalence (literal/word for word) and Dynamic Equivalence (idea for idea). Every translation falls in between these two types to some degree or another. Some are more dynamic while others are more literal. At the far end of the Dynamic spectrum is the Paraphrase, an example of which is the Message translation.
Language and Culture are inextricably bound together. Words and phrases are expressions of a particular culture and these phrases will ultimately lose their meaning when translated literally. For example, in English we tell people to “sleep tight” when we say goodnight. It comes from an old folk blessing we tell children, “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” For someone who doesn’t quite understand where the meaning comes from, it sounds like we are telling people they need to sleep curled up in a ball or maybe even wrapped up in a blanket like a human burrito. The same is true for ancient languages and cultures as well, and it’s why translating the Bible can be so tricky.
Take Ecclesiastes 1:2 for example,
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
(King James Version. Many English translations are essentially the same on this one.)
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
(New International Version)
There are two troublesome words/phrases in this verse, first is the Hebrew word Qohelet (which is also the name of the Book of Ecclesiastes in Hebrew). It’s a rather unique word in the Hebrew Bible and neither “Preacher” nor “Teacher” really captures what the word means. Imagine it sort of like the ancient Israelite version of the classical Greek philosopher. Most Jewish translations of Ecclesiastes will just keep the word Qohelet (or Koheleth).
The second issue is the phrase “vanity of vanities.” We see this particular grammatical structure a lot in the Bible. For example, “Holy of Holies,” “Song of Songs,” and “King of Kings.” It’s just the Hebrew way of saying “the greatest” of a particular thing. That’s why you will often see “Most Holy Place” instead of “Holy of Holies” in some translations. The Hebrew word translated “vanity,” hevel, is another peculiar word that literally means “vapor” or “breath.” It carries with it a sort of “here today, gone tomorrow” connotation. It also happens to be the Hebrew name for Abel, who was also here one day, and gone the next.
Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC, Berkley, has produced some wonderful translations of the texts of the Hebrew Bible with a lot of these narrative poetics in mind. Here is how he translates this verse,
“Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.”
from Wisdom Books, by Robert Alter.
In terms of popular English translations of this verse, the NIV is the best at capturing the meaning of the Hebrew phrase. Like Abel, and like each breath we take, all is here one minute and gone the next—in the end, meaningless.
So in light of all this language and culture jargon, what translation of the Bible is the best?
Honestly, none of them. There is no best translation. None of them are perfect and all of them are worth reading. Choosing a Bible translation is, and should be, a deeply personal experience. We can’t make that decision for you. What we can do is offer a bit of guidance and share our own personal preferences.
When it comes to the scriptures, I’m usually in one of two mindsets—academic study or devotional/reflection.
In terms of in depth bible study, I like to have a more literal translation so I can investigate the nuances of terms and phrases. When reading very interesting or troublesome passages, I usually have a few different translations open at once. This is the beautiful thing about having so many translations to choose from. You can use dynamic and literal translations to help you understand the meaning of the passage. If I had to choose just one translation for overall study purposes, I would probably choose the NIV. It’s the version that I think best grasps the delicate balance between literal and dynamic. It’s by no means perfect, though, and there are certain things about it that I wish they would change.
When it comes to devotional/reflection, I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about the original audience. I’m the audience, so I want to read a translation that speaks the best to me. Again, this is a very personal choice. For me, it’s a little bit more difficult to read certain translations of the Bible because I’ve had formal education in biblical studies. If I read a particular translation that’s a little too dynamic for my taste, it will annoy me and distract me away from spiritual matters. I’m also a big fan of some of the “archaic” language choices that are influenced by the King James. Criticize the KJV’s accuracy all you want, but at the end of the day, it’s still a very beautiful translation that has stood high and tall for over 400 years. It’s a paragon of the English language on par with the works of Shakespeare. Even so, I just can’t ignore some very huge and obvious errors with the translation so I prefer to read one of the many “updated” versions of the King James (e.g., RSV, NRSV, and ESV). My particular favorite for the past decade or so has been the English Standard Version.
So when it comes to choosing a Bible, the best advice I can give is to pick one of your favorite verses or passages, one that has always spoken to you, and then read it in a few different translations. When you find one you like, be sure to turn to the very front and read the Preface. There you can learn all about how the translation came to be and whether or not they chose to take a dynamic or a more literal approach to the scriptures.
In the end, the choice is yours.
(To help, I made a handy chart of popular translations)