If I had a Rand for every time I was asked, “is this a good Bible translation?” I would have enough money to own them all (leatherbound!). Jokes aside, this is one of the best questions a lover of God’s Word can ask, and it is important to know what you are sticking your nose into when you sit down to read Scripture. This is why I am writing this blog. My hope is that it will empower the reader to make an informed decision when shopping for Bibles. While I will single out a few translations, the aim is not to tell you what to read, but to equip you with a checklist to use when exploring which translation would be best for you.
Principle 1: Wisdom in the Counsel of Many
The Bible contains 66 books, written predominantly in 2 ancient languages (Hebrew; Greek), by diverse authors to diverse recipients through different genres with differing purposes. No one scholar is an expert on everything. This convinces me that the best translations will come from collaboration. When considering a translation, the first thing I do is visit the translation website and search for a translation committee. What you are looking for is something like the what the NLT, NIV, and ESV offer on their websites. In print versions, the translators will be listed in the front or back. If there is no committee, you might want to reconsider the purchase. It is also important for editors to state the credentials of the various translators. An education in either Old or New Testament and a mastery of Greek or Hebrew is essential here. While we want our Bible translators to be in love with God and his church (and the overwhelming majority of them are!), spiritual maturity or intimacy with the Holy Spirit alone does not qualify someone to translate an ancient text.
Principle 2: Good things take time
Despite having more than 100 qualified scholars on board, the original translation of the NIV took a full ten years to complete. Even revisions of older translations take years (the NRSV took three years). Beware of Bible translations that mushroom overnight. While I know that this information is not always available to the purchaser, you might want to heed the red flag if a so-called translation was completed by one author in a record time of two years.
Principle 3: Know thy Translation Philosophy
Perhaps it is important to note here that no translation is a mirror of the ancient text. All translations need to balance form (faithfulness to the ancient text) and meaning (understandability for the modern reader)—two components that are often at odds. The translation philosophy of your Bible will determine to which side they lean the heaviest. Understanding the philosophy will help you understand why your translation differs from your neighbor’s and can guide you in purchasing complementary translations for a fuller reading experience. Let’s start with those who prioritize form. These are commonly referred to as formal equivalent, or “word-for-word” translations. Examples include the Lexham English Bible, NASB, KJV, NKJV, and the ESV. The aim is to mirror the ancient text as closely as possible. While this is a noble undertaking, it is important to note that translators are always interpreting texts as they work with them, so absolute “word-for-word” translation is impossible. For example, have you ever read a translation of Psalm 145:8 that states that Yahweh is long in nose? This is what the Hebrew text says. Translators have had to interpret this idiom to bring its meaning to the fore (that Yahweh is slow to anger).
On the other side of the spectrum, we have translations that emphasize meaning. These so-called, “thought-for-thought” translations use a philosophy referred to as dynamic equivalence, where translators are looser with the exact words, but prioritize that the meaning of the text comes across to the modern reader. Examples of such translations include the NET and NLT. These translations have often been criticized for having less regard for the word of God. This myth needs some busting. The work of a translator is to convey meaning and, if the example of Psalm 145:8 above teaches us anything, it would be that, sometimes, wording needs to be changed for meaning to be clear. Moreover, if a translation can help the reader understand the meaning behind the ancient text, it has succeeded. Other translations, often called “moderate translations” like the CSB, NIV, and NRSV are somewhere in the middle on the form/function spectrum.
There is another category that warrants some discussion, namely, the paraphrase. These include the Living Bible and The Message. While these versions are often meaningful to explore, it needs to be noted that they are not technically Bible translations, but rather a running commentary on the Bible. I would not advise anyone to use paraphrases as their primary texts nor to teach from them, especially if it is used to bring some “revelation” to the fore that other translations do not contain. However, these should not be burned at the stake. They can be used alongside another translation—as long as the reader knows what they are getting.
While not a paraphrase, perhaps a few words about the Amplified Bible are important here. I would not raise red flags if someone in my congregation is using the Amplified, but I would caution them against reading the information in parentheses (brackets) on the same level as that in the main text. These synonyms, interpretations, and explanations are not necessarily found in the ancient manuscripts—many of them are interpretive notes added by the translator (think study Bible, but with the notes woven into the text). There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the reader is aware of it. The Amplified is not truer to the ancient text because it says more, and other translations are not hiding crucial information because they say less. A word of caution is in order here: I have seen many people pick and choose from the Amplified Bible to essentially build their own verse—one that says it in the way they like it to be said. If this is a temptation for you, rather invest in another translation.
Principle 4: Back to Basics
If you own anything but an MEV, KJV or NKJV, quickly page to Mark 11:26. Can’t find it? This is because it is not there. Now before you set the pages ablaze, allow me to explain the perceived reduction. The Modern English Version, as well as the (New) King James were translated from the Textus Receptus (Latin for “received text”)—a 16th century Greek New Testament that was created by incorporating a handful of later Greek manuscripts. With the dawn of textual criticism and the rapid uncovering of a multitude of (earlier) ancient Greek manuscripts, scholars have worked hard to produce better-attested versions of the Greek New Testament. This collection is called the eclectic texts. Scholars, therefore, did not remove Mark 11:26 from the Bible (as some would claim). Rather, through careful evaluation, they noticed that the majority of trustworthy, older texts do not contain this verse. Being considerate, they did not renumber the entire New Testament, but simply “left out” verses that could not be convincingly confirmed in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. Most Bibles, do, however, contain footnotes noting why these verses are not there. While translations based on the eclectic texts are thus more reliable than those based on the Textus Receptus, no sinister plot ought to be read into either of these.
Principle 5: Avoid Hubris
Before investing in a translation, make sure to familiarize yourself with its stated purpose. Editors should be clear on the aim(s) of the translation and translations should live up to these. Outlandish claims like those made by Brian Simmons, the author of The Passion Translation—who claims to have received the secrets of the Hebrew and Aramaic language from Jesus-himself—should raise serious concerns. If editors and authors are honest about their translation philosophy and the limits of their work, their translations can be considered. For example, while I do not use the Message, its author and publishing house has been clear that this is a paraphrase, meant to supplement translations of the Bible. Compare this to Brian Simmons’s outrageous claims that The Passion Translation carries the “original meaning…giving you an accurate, reliable expression of God’s original message.” This is simply not true. The Passion Translation weaves the author’s commentary into the “translation,” sometimes marking them in italics but often not! This is a book to avoid—not simply because it is not a good translation, but because its description is deceptive.
Principle 6: A Little Extra Something
If you are in the process of purchasing a new Bible, you might as well spend a little extra money to get one with study notes. Study Bibles are incredibly valuable to sketch the context of a book, outline themes, and comment on translation difficulties. However, do not neglect principle 1 when browsing for a study Bible. Study notes ought to be written by those who have studied the Word and its world.
The above principles are rough guidelines for informed Bible purchasing. They are helpful tools that I use to talk friends through choosing a translation that would work for them. While I have a preferred translation, I know that it will not be wise to recommend it to all of my friends. Remember, there is no perfect translation (although there are some problematic ones). Choose wisely, but select one that you will actually use. If you believe that “word-for-word” is superior, but you seldom read your LEB because it is just too cumbersome, you have not chosen well. Rather opt for a moderate or “though-for-thought” translation then. Even better, read the same passage in as many translations as you can get your hands on. With the modern online offerings, this is not hard to do. Finally, enjoy spending time with God through his Word. Others have worked tirelessly for us to open a book or application and marvel at God’s revelation to humanity. Let us be eager to read it, study it, teach it, memorize it, and live it!
Short Biography: Cornelia obtained her PhD in New Testament from the University of Stellenbosch in 2018. She is currently the Associate Editor of Conspectus and works for the South African Theological Seminary as a lecturer and postgraduate supervisor. Her research interests lie primarily in the Letters and Gospel of John.
 An exception is Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible. This translation is acknowledged and used in the scholarly community. However, it took him at least 23 years to complete and he is a well-known and acknowledged Hebrew scholar.