I do not make a habit of eavesdropping, but curiosity got the better of me on one occasion. I was quietly browsing the solitary shelf of Christian books in a local bookshop when a young woman appeared, looking for a Bible. She was clearly a new Christian; she had that wonderful new-born glow a pastor instantly recognizes. But her search seemed in vain. Several Bibles in different versions were available, but apparently not the one she wanted.
Approaching the counter, the woman explained she was looking for a Bible that was the same as the one used in her church. What translation was it? She didn’t know, but it had a red cover, a dictionary-thingy at the back and some nice drawings. More important, she found it very easy to read. I guessed she meant a Today’s English Version, complete with the delightful line-drawings of Swiss artist Annie Vallotton. But the assistant did not have a clue. He listened sympathetically for a while. Did she know the exact title? The publisher? Or . . . (wait for it!) . . . the author? After a while he sighed in resignation, “Well, madam, if it’s not on the shelf, then we haven’t got it.” The young woman, still smiling in that disarming way brand-new Christians have, left to get better details from her minister.
Had the young woman gone to a specialty Christian bookshop, she would have got better advice. But she would have faced an even greater, near-overwhelming, choice: paperback, hardback or leatherbound—or even an electronic Bible on CD-ROM. With or without cross-references. With or without a concordance. With or without study notes, maps, the words of Christ in red, the Apocrypha. With or without any of a hundred and one other special features.
Buying a Bible can be intensely personal. Physically it is only a book, but a book that is the living Word of the living God. It is a decision we want to get right: a Bible can be a spiritual companion for many years, even a lifetime.
While we like to think the choices we make are logical, they rarely are. Buying a Bible is a matter of head and heart. I have known people who buy a Bible entirely on the basis of its color or cover design.
For others, factors such as print size, durability and weight are of key importance. As for me, I must admit I love the wonderful feel and smell of a leather Bible. But there is a limit to how long you can stand in a bookshop sniffing every Bible in turn before attracting some strange stares!
This book’s chief concern is with which translation to buy. Research undertaken by the Bible Society of England and Wales suggests Christians typically try out an unfamiliar translation for up to five years, using it alongside one they know and trust, before making the new translation their principal Bible.
Today, a typical Christian bookshop stocks between fifteen and twenty different English versions of the Bible. Go to the Internet and the list of available translations climbs to thirty or more. Not only is the choice confusing, it is almost immoral. Why should any language have two Bibles, let alone twenty or thirty, when so many languages—over four thousand—have none? Worldwide, 400 million people do not yet have even a single sentence of the Scriptures in their native tongue.
However we feel about having so many translations of God’s Word in English, the fact is they are there, and more are promised. During the course of writing this book, four new English Bibles were launched, and several more new versions or revisions are due in the next two years.1
Given that English is now a truly global language, the glut of translations is perhaps not so surprising or altogether without justification. For some, the Bible is the 1611 King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version. But when it was translated, there were fewer than 6 million English speakers in the world, and perhaps fewer than one in four of these could actually read the Bible for themselves; the rest had to rely on listening to it read aloud, either in church or gathered around the table at home.
Today, there are around 600 million who use English as their first language and twice that number for whom it is their second language.
Bibles are needed for liturgical and church use, for private and devotional reading, for academic study, for evangelism. Versions are required for highly literate readers and for children, for theologians and for those who have never opened a Bible before. Even if we do not need as many as we have, no single translation can meet all those diverse needs. But which Bible to choose?
Listen in on any discussion about Bible translations and two questions always surface: Why so many? Which is best? This book will answer the first of these questions, and it may help to answer the second. The Bible that is best for you is not necessarily the one that is best for me. The one that is appropriate for reading aloud in church may not be suitable for private devotion or personal study. The one that suits a long-established Christian may not meet the needs of the inquirer or new believer.
This book has two main sections. Part one deals with the principles involved in Bible translation. Part two traces the story of how the Bible came to us. Less space is given to older and more obscure translations, while greater attention is paid to the most popular translations currently available; readers will undoubtedly want to know more about their favorite version!2
In the concluding chapter, I look at current trends in English Bible translation and attempt to reach some conclusions as to which version might be best for you. (But don’t turn to that final chapter just yet; you will spoil the plot!) There are also some appendixes containing technical information and reference material.
Bible translations are often referred to by their abbreviations. With so many versions around, you might think that the various combinations of letters are close to running out! Below is a list of the major translations you are likely to meet in the English-speaking world, together with the abbreviations used in this book. They appear below in date order. All are discussed in part two, and many are cited in part one to illustrate various points of translation theory.
AV/KJV Authorized (King James) Version (1611)
RV Revised Version (1885)
ASV American Standard Version (1901)
RSV Revised Standard Version (1952)
JBP J. B. Phillips’s New Testament in Modern English (1958;
NWT New World Translation (1961)
Amp. Amplified Bible (1965)
JB Jerusalem Bible (1966)
NEB New English Bible (1970)
NAB New American Bible (1970)
LB Living Bible (1962-1971)
NASB New American Standard Bible (1971)
TEV Today’s English Version (1976)
NIV New International Version (1978)
NKJV New King James Version (1982)
NJB New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
ICB International Children’s Bible (1986)
CCB Christian Community Bible (1988)
REB Revised English Bible (1989)
NRSV New Revised Standard Version (1990)
NCV New Century Version (1991)
GW God’s Word (to the Nations) (1995)
CEV Contemporary English Version (1995)
NASBu New American Standard Bible update (1995)
NLT New Living Translation (1996; rev. 2004)
NIrV New International Readers Version (1994-1998)
NIVi NIV inclusive-language edition (1997)
NET New English Translation (2001)
NTPI New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version (1995)
ESV English Standard Version (2001)
The Message Eugene Petersen’s The Message (1993-2002)
HCSB Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004)
TNIV Today’s New International Version (2005)