Which Bible?

Published on: 1 January 2018

KJV? NIV? NLT? The Message? To the question, 'which is the best Bible?', the answer is, 'best for what?' Paul Overend explores the different translations of the Bible.

The issue of translations is not simple. Translators drawn on many sources and have in mind a target audience, before deciding how to translate.


It is helpful to know that no English Bible translations are from an ‘original’ source text. All Bibles involve translations of copies of copies of the lost originals. What is surprising is that, in spite of editorial errors that creep into these hand-written copies (missed verses, repetitions, editors’ additions and “corrections”, changed spellings, and so on), there is still remarkable consistency in variant copies.

The picture shows something of the tree of editions, which until the 20th century were dependent on the Rabbinic Jewish Bible (the Masoretic text, c.6–10th century), which was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, or on the Latin Vulgate (c. 5th century), which was an English translation from a Latin translation. The Vulgate had more Old Testament books than the Masoretic text, and these extra books became the ‘apocrypha’, or secondary writings, in printed Protestant bibles.

Modern translations draw on recently discovered manuscripts, both biblical and non-biblical books. For some words that occur only once in the Bible, their meaning has only become clearer from seeing uses of that word in other literature. These recently discovered manuscripts have shown that the King James Bible is not always the most accurate, significant though it has been for our language!

Translation philosophies and uses

When translating any language, we become aware that no two languages are the same. Words have ranges of meaning – and those semantic ranges are not shared in other languages. For example, the English word ‘can’ may be a verb (‘I can’), or a noun, whether a tin or, in American, a toilet. Or in French, there are different words for the English verb ‘to know’ (savoir and connaître).

So choices need to be made when translating as to which the text might mean. The Hebrew word torah can mean ‘law’ in our legal sense (as with divorce law), but the meaning of the Hebrew torah includes much guidance and instruction that is not ‘legal’, such as dietary regulation. So the word torah might be translated in different ways, depending on context.

There are two trends in translation. The first seeks to preserve a word-for-word correspondence (or ‘formal equivalence’) – aiming to communicate in English something of the tone of the original. This aims at accuracy, in spite of the difficulty of semantic range, but can make for very difficult reading, as the reader has to become attuned to the Biblical use of words. But even some of these word-for-word translations do make exceptions for issues of gender inclusion (‘people’ for ‘men’, and ‘they’ for ‘he’). So where the Revised Standard Version (RSV 1962) tends to a formal equivalence, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1989) compromised that intention by using gender inclusive language. Such texts are generally good for academic study and for formal liturgy, especially for exegetical preaching.

Another way is paraphrase (or ‘functional equivalence’). This aims to be intelligible within the readers’ culture. Amplified versions (such as The Amplified Bible, AMB, updated 1987) add explanations to help make the text intelligible. But such paraphrases may take liberties with the text and can sometimes be idiosyncratic when trying to translate an idiom into something nearer to home for us. At best, this can bring the text to life for readers familiar with only one translation, as is true of The Message Bible. They can also be accessible to those who have no familiarity with the Bible. But even the best paraphrase can lose something of the original and paraphrases can make too easy some complex cultural and theological ideas.

Between these two there is a middle ground, often called a thought-for-thought translation. In this middle ground are found the New International Version (NIV, 1978) and its revision as Today’s New International Version (TNIV, 2011), The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB 1985, which includes the apocrypha) and the Revised English Bible (REB, 1989, which I still use for daily prayer). These are all good for general use and a suitable compromise between literal word for word accuracy and communal intelligibility.

Interestingly, the NIV Readers Version (NIrV) is a plain English version with the lowest ‘reading age’ of all Bibles, with short sentences and intelligible phrases, and can be very useful for children’s work as well as in some working parishes where educational attainment is not high. Yet it remains more accurate than some paraphrases.

Romans 8:35-37


Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 37Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.


Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

NLT (1st ed)

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36(As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

The Message

Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us.

(While The Message is a lively and punchy translation, the underlined words show a liberty taken here by Eugene Peterson in referring to ‘the worst sins in scripture’, which make it inaccurate as a translation.)

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Each year, churches the length and breadth of the country celebrate to Bible on a Sunday in late October - Richard Hooker describes how they used this opportunity at St Edmund's parish church in Taverham.


Praying with the Bible

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Bringing the Bible to life

The Rt Revd Alan Winton, Bishop of Thetford enthuses on the 'Open the Book' teams that bring Bible stories to life for children across the Diocese.


The Bible in a digital age

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