Apr 7, 2011

"What Bible Should I Use?"

As a pastor, this is one of the questions I get asked a lot over the years.  It usually comes up when someone is looking to buy a Bible for someone in their family or when someone who's been using King James since childhood finally decides to try something else.  Honestly, it was not a question I gave a lot of thought to for the first 10+ years of my ministry.  I would usually answer with "New International Version" because it was the most popular and every preacher I knew used it.  However, sometime around 2004 I picked up a copy of Leland Ryken's The Word of God in English from a recommendation at John MacArthur's Shepherd's Conference.  It was the first time I began to seriously investigate the issue of Bible translation and why it's so important.

First, you need to know that the leading factor driving most of the Bible translation market is "what sells."  Most (not all) Bible publishers only want to produce what they can sell.  Marketing is the master.  This is why you see versions like the New International Version and the New Living Translation advertised so much.  It's not because they are better translations.  It's because they sell well, the publishers can put slick covers on them, and those names are familiar.  Most publishers are not primarily concerned with delivering a faithful and true text of Scripture.  What good does it do to have an accurate translation if you can't sell it?  This is why the New American Standard Bible (probably the most accurate) still only encompases about 2% of Bible sales every year.  John MacArthur tried to publish his first edition of the MacArthur Study Bible in NASB because that is what he preaches out of.  His publisher denied it because NASB doesn't sell.  It was only after he sold hundreds of thousands of NKJV editions that they agreed to release it in NASB.

The issue of Bible translation really comes down to understanding what drives translators.  Basically there are two historic schools of Bible translation.  One is the "formal equivalent" (FE) crowd which tries to be more "word-for-word" when translating.  The other is the "dynamic equivalent" (DE) crowd which tries to be more "thought-for-thought."  The FE crowd desires to get the most accurate translation to what the author says as possible.  The DE crowd desires to interpret what the author was saying and then put it in more modern, understandable terms.  Both of these ideas are difficult because of the syntax of the Greek language.  Greek sentence structure makes a "word-for-word" translation difficult to read.  However, trying to alter the text to fit a nice English structure can lose much of the author's meaning.  The basic historical formal equivalent translations are King James Version, New King James, Revised Standard Version, and New American Standard.  The basic dynamic equivalents are Good News Bible, Contemporary English Version, The Message, and the New Living Translation.  The New International Version claims to be an balance between the two, but leans heavily towards dynamic equivalence in my opinion. 

I have come to the conclusion that I want to have as accurate a translation as possible for both my personal study and for my preaching.  I do have several versions that would be dynamic equivalence that I look at sometimes to see an alternative way to say a text.  However, I think not having an accurate translation hinders people from being grounded in the sufficiency of God's word.  There are deep theological truths buried deep within the greek words and structure.  I don't think that a group of translators can accurately understand or convey what Paul or Peter were thinking enough to put it in modern terms.  I think that DE translations have helped foster the rampant biblical illiteracy we have in the American church.  We have more Bible translations than any culture at any time in history.  At the same time, we have more ignorance to what God's word says and alignment with it than at any time.

A few years ago a group of scholars released a new FE translation called the English Standard Version.  Crossway, a major publisher, has put a lot of money into marketing this very good text of Scripture.  Several well-known scholars were brought in to work on the project and many strong expositors and preachers have endorsed it.  Their website, esv.org, is an excellent one.  You can read the Bible on there.  You can work through a Bible reading plan.  This is the Bible I preach from every week and will continue to do so for a long time.  Here are some reasons why:
  1. It's extremely accurate to the Greek text.  I don't know Hebrew, so I can't comment on that.  However, when I have translated and compared to ESV, I find it to be strong.
  2. It's very readable.  Although it is a FE text, it is not as difficult to read as KJV or NASB.  It reads a lot like the more popular New International Version but stays much more true to the text.
  3. It's affordable.  Crossway has done a good job of keeping these translations where people can buy them.  The Bible I preach from each week is a thinline version that can be bought on Amazon for about $20.  The ESV Study Bible is one of the best I have ever seen and can be bought in hardback for about $30.  
  4. It's popular.  Most of the guys I like to listen to preach are now using ESV.  Men like Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, Mark Driscoll, David Platt, John Piper, and James MacDonald use it.  These men are diligent, faithful theologians and scholars with a deep pastoral heart.  
Here is a great video to watch with some endorsements:

ESV Trusted By Leaders from Crossway on Vimeo.

I would recommend to every one of my church members to get a copy of the ESV and dive deep into it.  Memorize Scripture from it.  Rest in the fact that you can read it and know that you are reading a faithful text written much like the Apostles wrote.  The issue of Bible translation is not a matter of taste.  Not every version of the Bible says the same thing.  It does matter what you read and what version shapes your theology and ultimately your obedience.

Here is a vimeo website by Crossway with other important videos on the ESV and Bible translations.  There are some great interviews on there. 


Amy said...

This is so true and I especially like your last paragraph. Gonna recommend some of my friends read this.

Mark Teel, II said...

Its a wonderful version - the only other one I've found that is up the alley of accuracy and modern English, is the HCSB.

It is an excellent translation, and I hope it becomes a standard as well. It has all the accessibility of the NIV and even more, and is widely said by scholars to be very accurate.

E said...

This version excludes many passages of the bible. How is that justified/ok?

For example, Acts 8:37 or Mark 15:28 ...

That's very unsettling given God's repeated warnings against adding to/taking away from His Word.

Anonymous said...

Funny, you seem to follow John MacArthur who you say uses the NASB, and you chose the "popular" ESV. Your 1st 2 paragraphs almost teach against choosing the bible that is being marketed. If MacArthur is still using the NASB and didn't move to the ESV, it's strange that you did. You've been wrong before (NIV).

Anonymous said...

I agree. I saw a video on YouTube called end times how close are we that talks about how acts 8:37 has been omitted from the newer versions. I looked at my ESV and found they actually skipped that important verse about salvation. Why would they skip a verse about salvation in a more modern version.

Unknown said...

Some bibles are more literal than others. They all do in fact say the samething. Literal doesn't mean more accurate. For example the phrase Christ is the end of the law for righteousness in Romans 10:4 could be taken as before Christ salvation was by works of the law and not by grace through faith.