Of the many, many Bible translations available, which is the "best" and most thorough?
October 8, 2008 9:07 AM   Subscribe

I have recently become interested in Christianity. I wouldn't call it "born again" as much as "Got around to it". Anyway, I need a Bible. Being a book nerd, I consider this a serious task. More inside.

It has come to my attention that a Bible is not a Bible is not a Bible. Just last night at Fellowship I saw that the words being read aloud were not the same as the words in the Bible I'd borrowed, nor were they the same as the words in the Pew bible.

So, there are a lot of variations. I'm deeply interested in the text and I'm looking for what might be generally accepted as the "best" translation, but also something with a lot of footnotes and addendum to explain why "rest" was chosen and what the original Greek/Hebrew word was and what it's implications may have been.

In short, I'm looking for the direct opposite of "The Message". Something dense and thorough. I want the ur-Bible. Suggestions welcome!

(And, yes, I know that the message of the text is more than just the words on the page and I understand that. But I'm also interested in expanding my, uh, field of thought, so to speak.)
posted by GilloD to Religion & Philosophy (43 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Well, depending on which circles you run in (I'm assuming because you didn't mention it that you're not talking about Catholicism), the most common translations are the King James Version (the old school folks and/or the "fundamentalists") , the Revised Standard Version (for those mainline Protestants out there), or the NIV (most common among evangelicals). So, if you're looking for ubiquity, those are your best bets. The NIV is actually based on some older texts that have been found since the older translations.

Now, my absolute favorite is the Oxford, which comes from a more scholarly point of view than religious, although a good friend of mine who actually studies these things prefers the New Jerusalem, which. as a side note, renders Jewish names more accurately (for example: Joshua=Yeshua and Jesus=Yeshua).

And, of course, your mileage will absolutely vary. I recommend just trying a bunch out and seeing which you prefer.
posted by General Malaise at 9:19 AM on October 8, 2008

There are TONS of translations, but the King James version is generally considered to be the most accurate and the most literary. A few minutes of googling with find you any number of KJV, but if you are also interested in a scholarly look at the bible, try and find a "teaching" bible.
posted by elendil71 at 9:20 AM on October 8, 2008

I can't think of a good dead tree version off the top of my head, but if you want an online reference, check out the Blue Letter Bible Online.
posted by cimbrog at 9:21 AM on October 8, 2008

I would think something like the New Oxford Annotated Bible (which used the New Revised Standard translation). Pretty comprehensive, though some Fundamentalists don't like it.

posted by aught at 9:21 AM on October 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I am still a new hand at the act of being spiritual, so what I'm about to say may change, but: I view the Bible as deeply mythological. That is, the truth of the events therein have been confounded by the great game of telephone played with it across the centuries. I believe it has tremendous value in our lives and I believe it contains the essential truths of God. But I'm much more interested in it's philosophical and scholarly implications than treating THE WORD AS LAW. The spirit of the law versus the word of the law, that kind of thing. I find this most useful as it allows me to sort of draw out the important lessons and put them to practical use, rather than getting entangled in their spiritual suggestions.

Thanks for the ideas, I'll certainly give the Oxford a look and take a peek at teaching Bibles.
posted by GilloD at 9:24 AM on October 8, 2008

The best translation in my opinion for accuracy is the Revised Standard Version. It was done by a team of scholars using the best available (earliest/most complete) versions of the historical texts.

Of course, for English poetry, it's hard to beat the King James Version.

You may be interested in the ongoing work of "higher criticism" and "lower criticism."

Higher criticism is a contextual analysis of the texts (how does it fit together?) and lower criticism is a textual analysis (is this word translated correctly?). Those are broad-brushed descriptions, of course. Both of these are challenging, but very helpful to for a good understanding of the text.

Additionally, if the above interests you, you may be interested in the "Crown of Aleppo." This is believed by many to be a very reliable old testament text that is, unfortunately, mostly missing.
posted by Pants! at 9:29 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

When choosing a Bible, you'll also want to know if you want a standard Bible, or one with the apocryphal books. (The deciding factor will probably be whether or not your church uses them. Or your level of interest.)
posted by Xere at 9:33 AM on October 8, 2008

The King James version is wildly inaccurate. It often sounds very pretty, but it is heavily biased to align with politics at the time of translation, uses vocabulary dated enough to require some translation of its own at times into modern English, and is sometimes just dead-on wrong. We have learned a lot about the languages and texts since 1611 (the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, are fairly important).

My impression has been that the New Standard Revised Version and the Oxford version based on it are the ones closest to what you're asking for. Both do explain translation choices where the editors feel it's necessary.
posted by fidelity at 9:38 AM on October 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

You will need more than one Bible to do this right. As you probably know, they have gone in many different directions and through many iterations. The versions aren't just a few points around some common core, they're more like a very tangled up tree diagram, and may even contain different different verses, differently-named books, and most certainly a different order for those books, so roadmaps are never simple.

Worse, most popular or "standard" versions don't come with translator's notes -- the reasons for the word choices and even the authors of the KJV, for example, are the subject of much mystery. (Psalm 46, woo!)

But if you consult three or four versions from very different branches of the tree, you'll probably get the gestalt info you're looking for. Once you get into third-party apologies for specific word choices, though (given that they're almost never from anyone who made the choices themselves), you're getting a bit too distant from the source, I think. There are entire books and hundreds of papers published that debate single verses, after all.

The KJV and NIV are probably the most important two versions you want, as they're from very different branches of that tree and so are probably the most different. They don't quite line up (the NIV omits many verses, for example) but they're the most mainstream 'extremes', and the rest are somewhat in between in terms of how conservative or liberal they were with their translating style. Most of NIV's translators are still around to comment and give explanation, too.

A "parallel Bible" is a great time and money saver. You can get one big book that contains the biggest three or four (typically KJV and NIV along with the next-most popular, usually NLT and NAS), and often also includes Hebrew and/or Greek (and/or Aramaic when possible) alongsides.

Among a billion related works (I'm not a Christian, but I'm a religion wonk), I have this, which is pretty good, if a bit shallow, and like much of modern/American writing, it only covers the New Testament.

Of course, the really interesting stuff is outside today's standardized canons. :)
posted by rokusan at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2008

New Testament scholars are making discoveries and hypotheses which are deeply at odds with the received notions of what Jesus stood for. Some of these scholars have made new translations of biblical texts. I don't think that you'll be able to find these translations as a single, collated text however. Here is one example:


There are also non-canonical books, which are not considered second-class by scholars, and are only considered by believers to be inferior due to the decisions of politicized and compromised church councils:

posted by goethean at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2008

You may also want to check out the works of Bart Ehrman.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:39 AM on October 8, 2008

Sorry, that's New Revised Standard Version, not New Standard Revised.
posted by fidelity at 9:40 AM on October 8, 2008

There can be only one. The Oxford. It has fantastic footnotes.

Also, read Bishop Spong's Resucing the Bible from Fundamentalism. It is essentially a modern version of Spinoza's discussion of the translation problem.

The Bible is an interesting book. But it isn't for the casual reader.

Also, pretty much no one considers the King James to be accurate. Well, no one that knows anything about translation.
posted by ewkpates at 9:40 AM on October 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

No way. That "Hidden Gospels of Matthew" book is written by and old professor of mine. Well, I never had a class with him, but I crossed paths pretty often. Interesting.

Thanks for all the suggestions. It's a bit overwhelming. It looks like the Oxford is a good place to start and I think I'll start there and add ancillary materials as I go along.
posted by GilloD at 9:49 AM on October 8, 2008

I have heard many good things about the New Jerusalem Bible, if the fact that it's a Catholic translation does not bother you.
posted by jquinby at 9:56 AM on October 8, 2008

As far as actual translation, I always liked the New American Standard version, because it uses contemporary language for the most part, but preserves the "thees" and "thous" in passages where it is poetically appropriate.

There are many many "study bible" versions, of course, but I tend to dislike versions that include a lot of interpretation or lessons, because they are based on doctrine that may or may not be accurate. I do like having references to related verses, and footnotes explaining the meanings of obscure words or measurements. Unfortunately, I can't give a specific recommendation at the moment, but there's my two shekels.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:58 AM on October 8, 2008

For reading/studying in English:

HarperCollins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Version, 2nd edition, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. Text is approximately 60% NRSV translation and 40% study notes. The study notes are written from many, many different ecumenical and interfaith perspectives (the scholars are listed in the front matter). It was produced under the auspices of the professional society of biblical scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature.

I also use the Jewish Study Bible (study notes from a Jewish perspective), the Everett Fox translation of the Five Books of Moses (helps you hear the rhythm and use of language of the underlying Hebrew, but in English), and the New Interpreter's Study Bible, NRSV (study notes from a mainline Christian perspective).

I don't recommend either the KJV from a scholarly perspective (many manuscripts now available to translators were not available then) nor the NIV (since its translation of the underlying texts incorporates specifically conservative Christian interpretations, and such issues are better left to study notes). The NRSV, in its footnotes, notes many alternative translation issues. (Note: footnotes are not the same as the study notes.)

If you really want the ur-Bible, then you need to study the texts in the underlying Hebrew and Greek. Under the tutelage of a competent and skilled teacher, it is not such a hurdle (to get at least the basics) as it might seem at first glance. Judaism has maintained the tradition of reading and hearing the text in its original language, a tradition which Christianity might seek to emulate. Seek out a competent academic environment for this.

Also recommended: introductory courses in biblical studies and good introductory textbooks to the Tanakh (aka the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament) and the New Testament. Try Collins, Bandstra, or Coogan for the former, and Ehrman or Barr for the latter. Also, one-volume encyclopedias such as The Oxford Companion to the Bible and The Oxford History of the Biblical World are helpful for helping to understand the biblical text in the context of the time in which it was written.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:02 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I see what you're saying about wanting to read the texts from a philosophical perspective, and for me, the NIV has been good for that. (Or TNIV if you care about stupid little things like gender roles... but it also has a handful of slight updates and corrections to the NIV.) I like the NIV because it is not a reiteration of a previous translation, but rather a completely new translation altogether.

I have always found it handy to keep a copy of Young's Literal Translation around as well. It would be very difficult to read through any one passage in this translation, but it's a good comparison point if you're struggling with the true meaning of a word or phrase.

Lastly, the World English Bible, while not quite proven, is an interesting "open-source" take on the Bible.
posted by joshrholloway at 10:03 AM on October 8, 2008

Despite what has been suggested above, the KJV is not a very accurate translation, and compounded with archaic English, the KJV is best used for literary purposes, not theological ones. There has been so many documents discovered since the KJV was first published 400 years ago--like the Dead Sea Scrolls--that it's value beyond literature is increasingly in question. The amazing thing is that it's as close to modern translation as it is.

You really should look into the English Standard Version. Latest scholarship and modern English. Very readable. It is beginning to replace the NIV as the translation of choice for most Evangelical traditions, especially as it doesn't muck about with politically-correct pronouns the way the NRSV does. Still, the NIV remains influential, and the odds are that if you want into some random, non-mainline, non-KJV-using, Protestant church, you'll hear the NIV read from the pulpit.

If you're looking for a straight-up literal translation, the New King James Version (NKJV) is hard to beat. Slightly less readable than ESV or NIV, but it better preserves the original grammatical structure.

Also, despite the media hype about "new" and "recently discovered" books of the Bible, these aren't really new. The Church has always known of these works, and the reason they were "lost" is not because they were "suppressed," but because they were judged not to be either inaccurate or untrustworthy. As there wasn't anyone else to teach them, they fell out of view.
posted by valkyryn at 10:05 AM on October 8, 2008

I forgot about the Oxford. It is a very good one that should also be on your shelf, and the footnotes are fascinating jumping-off points. So an nth to that one too.

But my real point was: you need many books. Get to it.
posted by rokusan at 10:06 AM on October 8, 2008

The New English Translation is a great Bible for anyone who is interested in the scholarly details of Bible translation and wants a perspective that goes beyond the "best English equivalent" approach. As well as being a good modern English translation, it has very comprehensive footnotes explaining literally every possible variation in the source documents, alternative translations, and contextual notes. See for example this single verse from the Song of Songs which has fifteen words of actual text, and 650 words of footnotes!

The N.E.T Bible does have a certain theological bias which does sometimes come across in the text, but in fairness the translators always openly and fairly document the alternative translations and the reason for their choices in the footnotes.

You can get the N.E.T Bible as a hard copy but it's basically an Internet project and most people probably refer to it online.

Contrary to what elendil71 stated above, the KJV is certainly not considered to be the "most accurate" translation by scholars. Generally it is favoured by those who have emotional commitments to certain beliefs that are justified by the KJV text - but which aren't found in more modern translations based on better source documents. For example, see the whole "tree of life" vs. "book of life" issue here, or consider whether or not the Jesus really commanded his followers to pick up snakes and drink poison or whether this passage was a later addition by imaginative copyists.
posted by standbythree at 10:07 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Many years ago, my professor recommended the New Jerusalem Bible - at the time it included the scholarly input and it also avoided reading Christian interpretations into the Old Testament texts.
posted by metahawk at 10:11 AM on October 8, 2008

I second the Everett Fox. As far as I know it only exists for the first five books, but it's something really special.
posted by Salamandrous at 10:14 AM on October 8, 2008

To help you decide on the myriad translations, a must-read is biblical scholar Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

"When world-class biblical scholar Bart Ehrman first began to study the texts of the Bible in their original languages he was startled to discover the multitude of mistakes and intentional alterations that had been made by earlier translators. In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman tells the story behind the mistakes and changes that ancient scribes made to the New Testament and shows the great impact they had upon the Bible we use today. He frames his account with personal reflections on how his study of the Greek manuscripts made him abandon his once ultraconservative views of the Bible."
posted by plexi at 10:23 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I third? fourth? the work of Bart Ehrman. "Misquoting Jesus" was a great look at how the Bible has come to be the version(s) we have today. He has an interesting religious perspective (lapsed Evangelical) and I found the book surprisingly re-affirming of my Christian beliefs (along the mythological line as well).
posted by MissSquare at 10:25 AM on October 8, 2008

The ESV and NAS versions are well regarded as being superb translations, a very good mix of literal translating and readability.
posted by NeoLeo at 10:28 AM on October 8, 2008

Obvious link, but BibleGateway lets you compare many different versions online. Try Young's Literal.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:31 AM on October 8, 2008

The rector of my church has a Bible-edition review page here that might be helpful. A quote:

The Catholic Study Bible (NAB). First class edition. Each book has a reader’s guide, printed in the front half of the book. The reader’s guide (abbreviated RG) outclasses the New Oxford Annotated Bible’s introductions, covering also theological themes, and uses made of the book in the history of the church. The apparatus is better than NOAB [New Oxford Annotated Bible]. The Catholic Study Bible is available in paper for a lot less than the Oxford (and here’s the capper — it, too, is published by Oxford!).

You might like one of those software packages that includes a bunch of different editions of the Bible. I got one on sale at a Best Buy for $20, I believe. Also, reading the Hebrew scriptures as assembled for Jewish readers can be interesting for Christians too. I like my Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (this one), although I think some Jewish scholars consider the translation to be a little too loose.
posted by homelystar at 10:43 AM on October 8, 2008

Choosing a Bible (PDF).
posted by davcoo at 11:02 AM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may also want a concordance. A small one is frequently included in the back of available Bibles, but the larger ones are very satisfying.

A parallel New Testament (Greek/English) is available from Jehovah's Witnesses (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Brooklyn NY). I don't think they charge for this.

I didn't see anyone mention it above, but The JW Bible is called The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures and is an extremely competent translation. The center columns of the pages contain cross references to other parts of scripture, which is very handy when one writer is making reference to previous writers' work.

I think there is a larger version (more footnotes) less commonly available.

Good luck with this project.

Thomas Jefferson revised the Bible, and I have never seen his version but would like to. It is my understanding that he took out the parts he thought were unbelievable.
posted by Yimji at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2008

Talk to a Jehovah's Witness. We use the New World Translation and it's very good. The goal of that translation is to understand the scriptures the same way people in the old days did, since not every passage is meant to be translated literally. They have a large print version that comes with notations that refer you to similar biblical passages and different translations of the same verse to help you better comprehend the intention behind the verse. The appendix is also very helpful in understanding the original languages and how they differ from ours, such as their use of future tense and different connotations of words at the time they were written.

You'll also notice that Jehovah's name is not censored or changed when inapplicable, since the bible says its important that we know his name (Psalms 83:18, Isaiah 12:4, Jeremiah 16:21).

Also, there's no fee or charge for any of our literature since our goal is to help everybody get to know God and his excellent qualities for a better life and future (Acts 20:35). When you strive for a thorough understanding of the scriptures, you find practical use for that knowledge in your everyday life (Proverbs 2: 1-5)(2 Timothy 3:16-17).

I applaud your sincere interest in what God has to say through his word, keep at it! It holds the truth to many questions and misunderstandings, like why do we die and suffer? Does God care about our suffering? What's the 'Kingdom' the bible refers to, what will it do and when will it come? If we die and go to heaven, what's the point in a resurrection? Does hell exist? Is the holy spirit a person? Do we have free will? When you make an effort to know and understand God, your eyes will open with discernment and deep understanding. (John 17: 3)(James 4:8)

PS. Be sure to ask for the large Bible with REFERENCES or annotations, that's the one you'll like ;)
posted by Zeker at 11:43 AM on October 8, 2008

Salamandrous, Everett Fox has also translated I and II Samuel under the title, Give Us a King.
posted by apartment dweller at 12:05 PM on October 8, 2008

Definitely take a look at the Darby Bible.

But, yeah, I think the Oxford's the way to go. The Darby Bible might be a useful supplement at times.
posted by WCityMike at 12:27 PM on October 8, 2008

Yimji: "Thomas Jefferson revised the Bible, and I have never seen his version but would like to. It is my understanding that he took out the parts he thought were unbelievable."

I couldn't find anything online when I first heard of this, but it is relatively cheap on Amazon.
posted by WCityMike at 12:33 PM on October 8, 2008

Another vote for the new jerusalem bible. Supposed to be the best researched translation, and few in my church use it because it's "too scholarly" now THAT'S an endorsement!
posted by Redhush at 1:30 PM on October 8, 2008

There are TONS of translations, but the King James version is generally considered to be the most accurate and the most literary.

Oh, my goodness, that is NOT true!

My personal favorite translation is the NRSV, although the NASB is a little bit more accurate. If you're interested in buying a book on the subject, I highly recommend Philip Comfort's Essential Guide to Bible Versions.

I agree with everybody who recommended the Oxford--I'm assuming they mean the New Oxford Annotated, which is both a beautiful book and very solid. I have the leatherbound, and I noticed that the hardback version seems to have longer notes. I'm not sure why, or if there's an extra-annotated version that I simply missed, but the hardback version seemed to be more in-depth.
posted by timoni at 2:00 PM on October 8, 2008

It doesn't cover the new testament (I wish it did), but I've been very impressed by The Five Books of Moses (ISBN 0393333930) by Robert Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley. It's extremely readable, and the footnotes are interesting and informative—even to non-academic readers. I'm not religious and not a bible scholar, but I have spent some time with the King James and the NIV. I got more out of the Alter. If nothing else, it would be an interesting secondary source alongside whichever bible you choose.
posted by paulg at 3:26 PM on October 8, 2008

What you need is a study bible. Not a Spong book, not an Ehrmann tome, not a three-volume set of Hans Kung. You need a study bible.

Thing is, every study bible suffers from the bias of its commentators. I have a Ryrie I reference every once in a while, but Ryrie is very much a dispensationalist, which really colors the commentary. OTOH, the Ryrie would be challenging, since you'd have to test what he's saying to say if it's true.

The Oxford is good; it's usually assigned in college classes. It does bias towards the left side of the church. The HarperCollins is an American remake of the Oxford. It's not bad.

The NAB study stuff is clearly aimed at Catholics, given that the NAB is the primary English Catholic translation.

There's an NIV study bible, I believe. Yes, here it is, put out by Zondervan. Evangelical spin.

Another option is a solid reading Bible and picking up some commentaries. William Barclay's commentaries are aimed for the right side of the church, but they're very solid and deep and heavily focused on looking at word meaning. Mainline commentaries... can't think of many. But you want commentaries here, not someone's monograph about what they think the Bible means.

Translation-wise I usually suggest three -- NIV, NRSV, and NASB. Three different transition traditions, three different translations. Very clear about their biases, but also very focused on good scholarship. I prefer the NRSV, mainly because I took Greek and their NT reads like the Greek in flow and language (though not always meaning).

ESV I guess is OK, but I'm kinda unhappy about how they're selling it as "the NRSV without that eevl gender-neutral language." Also not a big fan of the HCSB, but I don't think it's been out long enough to have the issues with the translation shaken out. TNIV is becoming more popular in Europe, though it's not popular here. I'd probably stay away from the NKJV -- it's just the KJV in "modern English," which means it loses a lot of the the poetry and anachronism that gives it its power.
posted by dw at 3:34 PM on October 8, 2008

I would answer this, but Gen. Malaise did such and excellent job, I'll just give you a good link.

If you're interested in comparing different versions, you can look up a passage in this electronic version that allows you to translate and compare different versions.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 3:35 PM on October 8, 2008

the King James version is generally considered to be the most accurate

Another voice chiming in that this is completely wrong. I'm curious if elendil71 can come up with a source that calls the King James version the "most accurate" translation of the Bible, because the consensus among Biblical scholars seems to be the opposite. Here's what Ehrman, the author plexi mentioned above, writes on page 209 of Misquoting Jesus:

But what if the translators have translated the wrong text? It has happened before. The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus's edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us...The King James...was a translation by a group of scholars in the early seventeenth century who based their rendition on a faulty Greek text...

A footnote here points to Adam Nicolson's well-reviewed book God's Secretaries: The making of the King James Bible for more discussion. On page 79, Ehrman notes that in the disputed spots, Erasmus simply filled in the gaps in his Greek original by translating the Latin Vulgate passages of his time back into Greek, "thereby creating some textual readings found today in no surviving Greek manuscript. And this, as we will see, is the edition of the Greek New Testament that for all practical purposes was used by the translators of the King James Bible nearly a century later."

Anyway, just wanted to get specific so we could send elendil71's incorrect statement to its permanent rest. FWIW, I've had an Oxford Study Edition for years and love it. The notes are incredibly informative and the language is very clear and readable.
posted by mediareport at 4:41 PM on October 8, 2008

The NIV has a great combination of accuracy and readability.
posted by neuron at 4:53 PM on October 8, 2008

Yeah, for "Old Testament" a Tanakh is a pretty cool option. It has the original Hebrew right there. A good edition will have commentary on both the choice of words used in the translation and on significant interpretations of the various passages.

If you are going to be reading the Bible with others it might be helpful to get a copy of their edition, as it can get a bit confusing if you are reading from a different translation than others'.

Just so you know, if you are talking to some Christians, KJV is the only Bible. Most people probably know that, but if you don't, you're in for a surprise. Your translation isn't just wrong, it's from Satan!
posted by Deathalicious at 9:30 PM on October 8, 2008

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