Which version of the bible should I read and why are there so many versions?
December 15, 2005 12:38 PM   Subscribe

BibleFilter: Why are there so many versions of the new testament?

I would like to read the Bible. I went to the bookstore the other night to pick up a bible and I was amazed and dazed by the selection. King James, New International Version, New Living Translation, Catholic Bible, Jerusalem Bible, etc.

Why are there so many versions of the bible? Do different Christian faiths (Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) prefer one translation/version over another? Is there a significant difference between the versions? Finally, if there are significant differences, which one, if any, is most commonly regarded as the true bible?

**Small disclaimer: I am interested in reading the bible, not finding god. I am an atheist, though I was raised Jewish. When I ask about the difference between bible versions, I am specifically talking about versions of the new testament, not the difference between the new and old testament. **
posted by necessitas to Religion & Philosophy (52 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A biblical scholar could give you a more complete answer, but essentially, it's because there were a number of translations of a document that was produced from an oral tradition and therefore had many different written verisons.

Different churches usually standardize on one, and that may vary within a denomnation. I own both a King James version, as that's what my catholic church uses, and a New International Version because that's what my friends that go to the big foursquare megachurch use.
posted by SpecialK at 12:43 PM on December 15, 2005

They're mostly differences in translation, but Catholic Bibles have some books other Bibles don't.
posted by leapingsheep at 12:47 PM on December 15, 2005

I highly recommend the annotated version of the NRSV as a good place to start for relatively impartial study.
posted by selfnoise at 12:49 PM on December 15, 2005

I can't answer your question and I won't try because I am in much the same state as you.

However, yesterdays interview on Fresh Air was enlightening.

She interviewed Bart Ehrman, author of 'Misquoting Jesus' and discussed some related topics.
- why different books in the bible disagree with each other
- why the text changed over time

I am sure that the explosion of versions in the recent past has something to do with the urge to find the most uncorrupted form of the original texts.

I suggest getting the King James and reading it. It's not the "true bible," but it is a good benchmark to compare with other versions.
posted by Seamus at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2005

Why are there so many versions of the bible?

Because lots of people really really REALLY give a hoot about getting the connotations "right" (whatever that means to them), so they have what are to them reasons to make another translation that highlights what they want highlighted.

Do different Christian faiths (Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) prefer one translation/version over another?

Some do, some don't. Some have an official version, some tend to favor one or another, and in others you could go to church and find that different people are using different translations and that no one version is dominant.

which one, if any, is most commonly regarded as the true bible?

The one in koine Greek, which isn't any help to you.

You will find crazy people who insist that the King James version is the most truest Bible ever, apparently because if Renaissance-era English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us. These are very, very silly people and few in number.

Otherwise, I think just about everyone recognizes that they're all different translations with the usual problems inherent in that. I don't know the Catholic position on their official translation.

Pick up some different versions and read a bit from the NT in each. Leave with the one that feels least stilted to you, and has lots of footnotes to explain translation decisions that you can look up if you want to.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:51 PM on December 15, 2005

They're mostly differences in translation, but Catholic Bibles have some books other Bibles don't.

I think you have that backwards, some Protestant bibles don't have books that the others do.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2005

Finally, if there are significant differences, which one, if any, is most commonly regarded as the true bible?

That is going to depend on what church/seminary you go to. I've heard all of the following described as the one "true" bible: KJV, NIV, NRSV, NASV.

I personally recommend you buy a Bible that you feel is readable. Some people can read KJV; I try and I can't comprehend a word of it. For you, I'd recommend the New International Version (NIV); you'll still get a lot of the KJV flavor, but with a bit more readability. Plus, any quotes you'll recognize are probably from the NIV.

On preview: it is Catholic Bibles that have more books than Protestant Bibles.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:53 PM on December 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

And for God's sake, avoid the King James like the plague, unless you want to slog through translations of the translation in order to make sense of the Renaissance-era English. Skip to something modern.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:54 PM on December 15, 2005

New Testament on Wikipedia.

Scroll down a little to 'The History of Translation and Usage of the Phrase New Testament'
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:55 PM on December 15, 2005

But ROU_Xenophobe, the KJV is so much more fun to read than all of those medern versions.
At least you can pretend you are reading literature and not a bad adventure novel.

Um, for those of us that have to pretend, at least.
posted by Seamus at 12:57 PM on December 15, 2005

Catholic Bibles that have more books than Protestant Bibles.

Yes, because some Protestant groups have removed books, not because the Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Copts, Mar Toma, etc. have added them in.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:58 PM on December 15, 2005

it was my understanding that most of the versions actually use the same original greek, it's just the interpretation is written differently. Much like how there are many different translations of Albert Camus' "The Stranger", there are many translations for the bible.

Yes, most denominations tend to stick to one version over another because it matches their ideology better. Catholics tend to use the King James Version since it is archaic and they like things that way. Progressive christian sects might choose the new living translation or something similar. Each has the same basic concepts but with different emphasis, like one would expect from any translation.

The most common translation is the king james translation as it's been around the longest. (ref)

Most churches in southern california at least use either the new king james or the new international version. Both are pretty similar, and only differ from the original king james version by removing the "thou" and "thee" and whatnot.
posted by escher at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2005

There are two things that you should not confuse:
1. There are different versions of the bible, different faiths do indeed prefer one version over another. The word you are looking for is 'canon' or 'canonization'. Wikipedia has a lengthy article

2. There are different translations of the bible, just like there are different translations of every important literary work.
  • There are old translations (King James) and recent translations (New International)
  • Translations that are more literal to the source text (every hebrew word is always translated to the same English word), and translations that try to re-tell the story in modern English, and everything in between.
  • A major issue is how to translate the name of God (JHWH, Jehovah, Jawheh, The Lord etc.)
    Wikipedia has an article about English bible translations, which also gives some comparisons between the different translations.

  • posted by davar at 1:02 PM on December 15, 2005

    IANAC, but the Christians I work with have and use several Bibles - for comparison, for readibility, etc. Starting with a Children's Bible, portable Bible for the train, King James or annotated version for study and reference. They are Southern Baptist (ministry) and Catholic.

    There's so much stuff in the Bible - some history, some verse, some things that require study and can yield different interpretations. It depends if you're into hardcore study, reading it to be knowledgeable or just looking for something inspirational. When I showed an interest they gave me several editions and told me to start with the most readable one, then graduate to the more difficult.
    posted by Marnie at 1:05 PM on December 15, 2005

    Since you are Jewish I would highly recommend the NRSV (new revised standard version). They consulted Jews for the Old Testament and it was done as close to the original text as possible.

    I think your question might be more loaded than you realize. All those different translations mean several things, how its translated and which books it includes. I'd stay away from older translations as there are a lot of problems in mistranslating the original Greek texts and the use of archaic English phrase (Though shalleth not goeth to thy Lord, etc.). For critical analysis you want to keep the translator's interpretation to a minimum, or learn Greek.

    The other issue is mainly the difference between Catholic and Protestant bibles. This wikipedia article gives a nice overview of the differences between the different New Testaments. It gets sort of complicated as each demonination has an agenda it wishes to push.

    The first Bible as we know it was the Vulgate Bible. It's okay, but has some serious translation errors. Notice the influence on the style of prose and later editions (King James especially). Modern English editions have moved away from this poetic translation in favor for a more accurate translation. Of course translating from first and second century Greek will always have its problems that others can better explain.

    As I'm sure you're somewhat aware, the Bible is hard to read without context. If you wish to really understand the symbolism and what it all means from an academic standpoint I'd recommend The Story of Christianity: Volume 1 : Volume One: The Early Church to the Reformation which clearly surveys the development of modern Christianity (with a bunch of juicy political pressures that influenced its development). You can't really understand the Bible, or at least how its understood today, without some sort of survey or copious reading of major religious figures (St. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine) and a lot of knowledge of European machinations of the time.

    Going further find an Orthodox viewpoint of Vactican II. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox dominate in demonination popularity polls so if you don't go past the reformation at least check them out. Post-Reformation and around the time of America being colonized every kook in Europe began to have his own Christian demonination. It's much easier to follow Catholicism, though seeing how the different Protestant faiths intertwine and came to me is interesting in itself.
    posted by geoff. at 1:09 PM on December 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

    There are many different translations of almost any old book (I have I think four translations of a lot of Aristotle, for instance, and they're all relatively modern - 20th c.). Re: the bible, I have the KJV and "The Book" which is a modern 'easy-reading' translation that I found kind of amusing when I picked it up (in college I think) (I'm not at home so can't check which official translation it is). It's the same stuff, though. The modern translations can be fun because they don't talk around the point at all, and certain stories seem especially dirty or weird when you read them in straight language. But if you're interested in intelligent scholarship etc, then just find one that you find readable. Anything you have long term interest in, you'll need to look over at least a couple translations of, but for plain curiosity, I wouldn't worry about it too much.
    posted by mdn at 1:12 PM on December 15, 2005

    Can I also recommend that you get a red letter bible? It will have the words attributed to Christ in red, and the rest in black. It is interesting to compare what he is actually reported to have said with what everyone else says about him, particularly after his ascension. (For example you'll find him ordering his followers to worship God as he worships God, rather than worshipping him.)
    posted by leapingsheep at 1:13 PM on December 15, 2005

    You will find crazy people who insist that the King James version is the most truest Bible ever, apparently because if Renaissance-era English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for us. These are very, very silly people and few in number.

    Well, that depends what you mean by "few in number." Relative to all Christians, maybe, but the KJV fetish actually seems to be pretty big among fundamentalists, including good old Jack Chick.
    posted by staggernation at 1:18 PM on December 15, 2005

    escher is completely wrong about the King James Bible. It was never used by the Catholic Church and has several books not contained within Catholic Canon.

    Most translations are going to be basically the same, and the differences in translations are debates for the scholars. Anyone takes Bible reading seriously (i.e. not in a religious but academic context) knows koine Greek. I'm only recommending the NRSV for you because it was translated by the National Council of Churches which includes all the heavy weights and brought in Jewish scholars for Old Testament translation, which gives you an idea on how they were trying hard not to be agenda driven. The NRSV Catholic Edition has 77 books ordered in the Vulgate format. The other editions are the same translation, just moving the books in, out and around.
    posted by geoff. at 1:18 PM on December 15, 2005

    You're getting a lot of great information here.

    Read the wikipedia articles, of course... but here's my take:

    I would suggest getting a couple of bibles and read them concurrently. Also, I would get a copy of Strong's Bible Concordance. It's a must-have.

    I grew up reading the KJV (King James), which is in the language of Shakespeare... it's the version quoted so often, especially around Christmas. If you can get through the language, it's a wonderful version to have for its history. Beyond that, it's a solid and conservative translation. Of any in English, I would submit that it's the most-widely used in North America.

    I also have a New Jerusalem bible (which contains the apocrypha — those extra books everyone's talking about), and I love it... but the commentary is clearly written by scholars who don't believe in the prophetic spirit. Which is funny to someone who believes in the gifts of the Spirit.

    I also have the Oxford Reader's Edition, which is a nice counter-point to the other two.

    I have an NIV that I don't read (mostly because it has such small type).

    And finally I have the JPS Torah Commentaries, which discuss much of the Old Testament — it's a must-have.

    Hope that helps.
    posted by silusGROK at 1:20 PM on December 15, 2005

    A good friend of mine is a x-tian of the highest order, and he is taking courses in ancient greek in college so as to read the "origional" source works. He probably has one of each of the translations you saw in that bookstore and checks across all of them constantly. He has a pocket bible. He has bibles for annotation. He as a bible up every sleeve, in every cupboard, and behind every door.

    Good luck getting an answer on this one, almost everyone feels very strongly about which is right, and since most of them contradict one another in some significant way or another (after all, why else would you do a new version, other than to warp it...?) you'll have difficultly finding a definative answer on any of this.

    I personally like the silly-titled "Skeptics Bible".
    posted by phrontist at 1:21 PM on December 15, 2005

    How serious are you? If you're looking for a translation that takes full advantage of modern scholarship; works fastidiously to avoid theological bias; and provides a thorough commentary on the text and the process of translation, you might want to take a look at the Anchor series.

    Anchor gives each Book its own volume (some books take up multiple volumes), and they are aimed at a serious scholarly audience. If you're interesting in that kind of perspective, take a look at one of the volumes, and you'll get an idea of the complexities involved in the process of translation.
    posted by mr_roboto at 1:26 PM on December 15, 2005

    If you want an online resource that allows you to read a passage in several different Bibles, check out BibleGateway. Hope you find what you're looking for.
    posted by tayknight at 1:27 PM on December 15, 2005

    When you hear someone refer to "the Bible as literature", be aware that the King James Version of the Bible is what they mean. It's like reading Shakespeare: it's demanding to modern ears, but it's worth it from an aesthetic point of view.
    posted by gd779 at 1:27 PM on December 15, 2005

    Anyone reading the Bible seriously will be doing it in Greek. It sounds like you want to give it a fair shake, but perhaps aren't interested in devoting years of your life to it. So an English translation is probably best for your purposes ;)

    Recommendations: Avoid the Good News Bible like the plague. If you can deal with the language, and want to, the King James Version is pretty poetic and is the "classic" version ("thou shalt not" kinda thing). But you'll probably have to work harder to get much out of it.

    If you want a Bible that's easy to understand, period, I really like the Kid's [sic] Life Application Bible, which is what I had as a kid. It includes oversimplistic kid-like stuff about "sticky situations" and "heroes and villains" in sidebars, but the actual text of the translation is simple without being patronizing, and beautiful without being unclear. It's not definitive, but it would make a great introduction.

    If you want something more scholarly and closer to definitive, go to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV with Apocrypha, whatever the latest edition is. This is the main Bible I use now, in college. The Apocrypha aren't generally considered to be part of the Bible proper, although it depends on whom you ask, and Bibles that include them will go into a lot of detail on what they are, when they were written, etc. -- more than I can here. Actually, this puppy should go into a lot of detail on everything.
    posted by booksandlibretti at 1:34 PM on December 15, 2005

    If you are going to read only one bible, I would recommend to stay away from the ultra-modern varieties such as 'The Book'. They are not translations, they are re-writings, and show too much bias from the translators (who are often evangelical Christians who are on a mission).

    There are bibles that show different translations next to eachother on the same page, you may find that useful. There are also bibles that show the four gospels next to eachother, so you can see the differences and similarities.

    And where I said Hebrew before, I meant of course Greek, since you asked about the New Testament. previous posters that stated that Catholics have more books in the bible also meant Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Both catholics and protestants have the same 27 books in the New Testament, except for the Syriac Orthodox Church (according to the Wikipedia article I linked before).
    posted by davar at 1:40 PM on December 15, 2005

    My personal as well as pastor's preference is the New King James. Some of the magesterial language of the King James has been dutifully preserved yet the glaring errors of the King James bible have been fixed.
    posted by Heminator at 2:05 PM on December 15, 2005

    As a religious studies major focusing on early Christianity, I learned Hellenistic Greek to read from the original texts. As part of the learning, we compared with every translation we could find and they all had flaws in varying degrees.

    The NRSV was the "closest" in meaning and text to the original Greek that I found. If you get interested and want a scholarly bent, the Complete Gospels from the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars looking for the "historical Jesus", is a good read too, but it is strictly Gospels not the letters and post-Jesus material.

    And as a complete sidenote for anyone interested, Hellenistic Greek was easier for me than Spanish, so it can be done relatively easily with some dedicated time.
    posted by karmaville at 2:13 PM on December 15, 2005

    And for God's sake, avoid the King James like the plague, unless you want to slog through translations of the translation in order to make sense of the Renaissance-era English. Skip to something modern.

    I LOVE the KJ version -- and when I read it, I don't feel at all like I'm slogging. It's similar language to Shakespeare's (it was created at pretty much the same time S was writing his poetry and plays).

    Of course, some people "slog" through Shakespeare, but not ALL of us find Elizabethan/Jacobean English a chore.

    One MIGHT object to KJ on the grounds that it's more an adaptation of the Greek than a translation -- but it's a beautiful adaptation.
    posted by grumblebee at 2:15 PM on December 15, 2005

    A really interesting and kind of related book is The Gnostic Gospels which talks a lot about how there were a ton of different versions of the Christ story written and how the early Catholic church decided which to accept as gospel and which to suppress and burn as heretical. It talks a lot about the theological differences and the political implications behind them.

    The differences between translations of the greek new testament are all relatively small compared to the suppressed gospels, but it definitely is apropos to the questions "why do people keep retranslating it".
    posted by aubilenon at 2:17 PM on December 15, 2005

    If you get interested and want a scholarly bent, the Complete Gospels from the Jesus Seminar

    This is... misleading. The Jesus Seminar is highly controversial, and I would go so far as to say that they've forsaken their scholarly obligations, choosing to pursue popular success instead.

    If you want a truly scholarly perspective (and it sounds like you don't, but just in case) I suggest that you try the "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series by N.T. (Tom) Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, former Professor at Oxford, and one of (if not the) leading British New Testament scholars.
    posted by gd779 at 2:23 PM on December 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

    There are various struggles within Bible scholarship, most of them well-meaning, that result in the various versions. I was just looking for a new one today, actually.

    Here's my take on a few of the translations:

    KJV/NKJV - King James and New King James - These came primarily from scholarship circa 1611, with the NKJV striving to update it a bit. Many people swear that this is the only real Bible. I disagree, but some believe this.

    NIV - New International Version - This is probably one of the most common Bibles out there, especially amongst evangelicals. It is actually is somewhere between a translation and a paraphrase.

    The Message - This is the latest paraphrase in modern language with modern ideas. The problem with I see with it is that it's less what was actually written and more what some modern folks interpret it to mean.

    NASB - New American Standard Bible - This is a highly respected, word-for-word translation. Generally accepted to be the closest modern English translation of what was written, leaving the reader closer to the text and better able to interpret for themselves.

    Scofield - This is a translation geared towards and containing notes relevant to the "end is near," Hal Lindsey, Left Behind crowd. See also Tim LaHaye's Prophecy Bible or something like that.

    My suggestion is split. If you have to read a modern paraphrase (which probably means The Message), keep in mind that it's geared towards making things more palatable for the unchurched -- so supplement by reading a translation like the NASB later. However, if you want to jump right into the real deal, read an NASB Study Bible (containing lots of notes, charts, etc.) or alternatively read the NASB in a parallel edition that contains KJV and NIV as well.

    Either way, a good Bible commentary (or ten) is helpful.

    Check out Bible Gateway for online texts and comparisons, and eSword for downloadable Bible Study software.
    posted by mumeishi at 2:30 PM on December 15, 2005

    This is... misleading. The Jesus Seminar is highly controversial, and I would go so far as to say that they've forsaken their scholarly obligations, choosing to pursue popular success instead.

    Fair accusation, it is a matter of perspective for me. When I was at it (early 90s) they were too ethnocentric (as is much of Western biblical translation, IMHO) in their studies. My area specialty was the sociology and anthropology of early Christianity, not the theology, so my opinions and experiences will likely reflect that. My advice on all of it is to always read with a critical eye because ALL translators have a point of view, and it comes through in the translation.
    posted by karmaville at 2:38 PM on December 15, 2005

    geoff., while escher is wrong about the KJV's supposed popularity in the Catholic Church [it was certainly not used in the diocese where I grew up, and it was commissioned by King James for the Church of England, not by the Catholic Church], the extra "deuterocanonical" books are present in Catholic Bibles, not Protestant ones. Specifically, Catholics accept Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and Baruch, as well as some parts of Esther and Daniel. Protestant Bibles generally lack these books. The original KJV included the deuterocanonical books along with several non-canonical books, but these were in an appendix, separated from the books generally accepted by Protestants.
    posted by ubersturm at 2:43 PM on December 15, 2005

    I rather enjoy the ESV--it's like the NASB (literal translation), only IMHO it's a better read.
    posted by AmaAyeRrsOonN at 2:58 PM on December 15, 2005

    I grew up with the King James. It's a solid translation, but the dated english can be troublesome. For instance "let" means permit in contemporary English. In 1611, the time of the translation, it meant prevent.

    The New King James is also a solid translation and mostly in our contemporary English.

    NIV is a pretty good translation and flows nicely.

    My personal favorite is the New American Standard. Solid, word-for-word translation, contemporary English and a fairly good flow.

    You must know that the New Testament was originally written in the most precise language linguists are aware of: Koine Greek - a dead language now. The Old Testament was written in two languages: Ancient Hebrew (dead language) and very small bits were in Aramaic (also a dead language). Translation (even into modern forms of those ancient languages) is required and some things are lost in any translation. All of the Bible was written to, about, and in different cultures.

    Nevertheless, most is easy enough to understand. Starting in the New Testament is generally considered the best bet, particularly the book of John. I hope you find this rewarding. I do.
    posted by kc0dxh at 3:04 PM on December 15, 2005

    kc0dxh writes "the most precise language linguists are aware of"

    What does this mean?
    posted by mr_roboto at 3:12 PM on December 15, 2005

    I prefer the New King James version simply because it's in contemporary english AND because the more poetic parts are fun to read aloud. You got that whole meter thing going on in Isaiah. If you read it aloud you can sort of chant or sing it.
    posted by CrazyJoel at 3:23 PM on December 15, 2005

    lots of good answers above, but some are quite misleading.

    the wikipedia articles linked will give you a very basic idea of what you've asked -- the formation of different canons, different translations and so forth.

    I suggest you check out a good introduction of the New Testament: Raymond Brown's, Anchor -- warning: Brown is still very highly regarded, but was a Catholic priest.

    you might find interesting The Text Of The New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration, by Bart Ehrman (a former evangelical, now much less extreme) . if you get the textual criticism bug, you MUST read the Alands
    (they're part of team who decided what Greek text was the most reliable to translate anyway).

    Bruce Metzger is also very interesting. in this comment I suggested some good stuff also


    This is... misleading. The Jesus Seminar is highly controversial, and I would go so far as to say that they've forsaken their scholarly obligations,

    this is your opinion, not really shared by the scholarly community. some JS scholars, like Crossan for example (especially his work on strata, parables, the Passion narratives) are held in very high esteem by most colleagues, even by those who disagree with their conclusions (in a nutshell: most of the JS scholars think that most of the Gospel tradition does not go back to the historical Jesus, that especially the eschatological/apocalyptic parts of Jesus' message in the Gospels do not go back to the historical Jesus but were later additions, and most of them don't believe in Jesus being God, nor in the Resurrection of the Flesh).

    If you want a truly scholarly perspective (and it sounds like you don't, but just in case) I suggest that you try the "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series by N.T. (Tom) Wright,

    the Jesus Seminar scholars are certainly quite liberal (by American standards) but keep in mind that Wright is definitely a conservative. a good read though, but certainly not without a clear religious perspective.
    posted by matteo at 3:28 PM on December 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

    One of the major differences is the greek text used. There are two significant "strains": the Majority text and the minority text.
    The Majority text, which is used by the KJV and NKJV is the text with the Majority (hence) of extant greek manuscripts agreeing with it. This is not necessarily a good thing, as the reason there are the most copies like this is because they're relatively recent and have many "additions" and expansions of the text.
    The Minority text is more in favor with most biblical scholars today. The NIV, RSV, NRSV and other modern translations use this text. It has many small and some large differences from the majority text. A lot of the differences are understandable, such as: The majority text will often use phrases like "Lord Jesus Christ" where the minority will have it rendered "Lord" or just "Jesus" - the idea is that the monks copying out the early copies that gave rise to the majority text would unthinkingly expand phrases to those familiar in their liturgical life. There are also some passages, like the last few verses of Mark that almost all scholars, including most conservative evangelicals, asknowledge that are not likely original, but are found in the Majority but not the Minority.
    The example we always heard while I was pursuing my theology degree: Imagine you're copying a document by hand for years, then one day you get a copy machine. You make thousands of copies of the last hand copy you made. That copy might have more copies agreeing with it, but the first ones you copied by hand are likely to contain fewer errors.

    With that said, I'd find a good modern translation, like the NRSV. The NIV is very accurate, however, it's writing is flat and ugly. If you're an atheist and not reading this book for religious reasons, I'd say it really doesn't matter. The differences in translations are really not significant unless you believe every word of the bible was inspired by God. Which I suppose makes the debate a little more high stakes for some.
    posted by muddylemon at 3:44 PM on December 15, 2005

    Since you're lloking for a New Testament, I would seriously suggest "The New Testament In Modern English," by J.B. Phillips. Its roots are in WWII England, but it has always been regarded as highly accurate and very readable. Eugene Peterson's The Message is also available in New Testament-only; accurate or not, it's a lot of fun to read, full of colloquialisms and surprising insight.

    The NIV is a true translation, not a paraphrase, and has almost nothing to do with the King James. It's solid, modern English.

    The King James is a delight to read if you also love Shakespeare, but it doesn't take into account the scholarship that's gone on the last 500 years. You can get the KJV with the apocryphal books, but the true Roman Catholic answer to the KJV is the Douay translation. The KJV, by the way, was more of a revision of some of the earlier English translations, compared with and corrected in accordance with the original documents as they were known in the early 1600s. The political and historic background of the King James translation is fascinating; a good read is "God's Secretaries," by Adam Nicolson.

    One thing I don't like about the New American Standard is its usual way of seeing each verse as a paragraph unto itself, which makes it difficult to read in any natural way.
    posted by lhauser at 3:55 PM on December 15, 2005

    Do different Christian faiths (Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc.) prefer one translation/version over another?

    It seems that way, from my experience. For example, a lot of Baptist churches are switching to HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible). Here's a page that answers the question "Why HCSB?".
    posted by Mike C. at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2005

    At NYU we used the Oxford Study Bible, which I liked. Annotated, has all the Apocrypha as well. I'll also reccommend Jefferson's Bible.
    posted by scazza at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2005

    Your basic answer is that since translating from one language to another is fairly inexact, the different versions collectively attempt to find the nearest exact meaning between them all, pretty much all of them basing their translations from the same Greek/Aramaic/Hebrew scripture texts.

    They were not passed down on oral tradition (as a reason for so many) as the first poster suggests, but are merely all attempts at translations of the same texts. The books of the New Testament are practically all personal comminiques between believers -- such as letters from Paul to Timothy, making 1st & 2nd Timothy. The rest are either prophetic writings or historical records. Each book has its own story, so it's not likely that one explanation can cover all of them.

    Catholic/Anglican bibles contain more books because a few of them are not accepted as God-inspired while they do have accurate historical reference (such as the Macabees in the OT). There's not a disagreement per se, as Protestants just don't use those generally and their absence doesn't subtract from the bible's complete meaning.

    The "true" (as far as most accurate) bible as far as the NT is concerned is the actual Greek/Aramaic/Hebrew manuscripts themselves (which were not collected into a group until much much later after they were written), as in a similar fashion that Muslims consider the true Qu'ran to be the Arabic version and not English versions because English lacks certain phraseology/terminology to describe exactly what the Qu'ran means when it says this and that. There really can't be a "true" (as in, most accurate translation) unless it is understood exactly what each writer of each book meant to say themselves when writing them.

    The King James bible has a few extra verses than others like the NIV, because it also includes liner notes, or words marked in the margins of the original manuscripts. The NIV, among others, doesn't include these liner notes and the notes are debatable as to whether they were from a scribe of some kind or the author himself, so some have them, some not, just for the sake of it.
    posted by vanoakenfold at 5:01 PM on December 15, 2005

    You've gotten some great advice here.

    I just wanted to mention one Bible I have: it's a side-by-side King James and New Living Translation. I grew up with King James, but it's nice to be able to look on the opposite page and see how it has been translated into more modern English. I may not always agree with the translation, but it's nice to have it there. It's also a "red letter Bible" in that when Jesus speaks, the words are in red.
    posted by jdl at 6:01 PM on December 15, 2005

    If you want the Bible Belt Experience, the NIV's your thing. Every fundamentalist group I've run across uses it.

    If you want something you can casually sit down and breeze through in a few days, the TEV (the 'Good News' bible mentioned above) is a light read, and is actually priced like any other book - some people take strong exception to it, for what appear (To me) to be trivial reasons.
    posted by Orb2069 at 6:55 PM on December 15, 2005

    Lots of good info here, I'll just add a couple items:

    You asked specifically about the NT however it's worth noting any bible translation such as the King James is lacking benefit of modern scholarship both linquistic and archaeological such as the discovery of the dead sea scrolls in the '40s. Example: the KJV "Thou shalt not kill." is translated in the NKJV as "You shall not murder."

    I'd also agree unless you're already a Shakespeare fan you may get a little confused with the language in parts of the KJV. Simple example: "Suffer the little children to come unto me" has nothing to do with suffering. It just means "Let the little children come to me".

    Another online database containing 19 versions along with several commentaries such as Strongs is StudyLight.
    posted by scheptech at 7:56 PM on December 15, 2005

    Zondervan (big Christian publishing company) has a breakdown of several different translations and their various focuses and features, including the New International Version, New American Bible, New International Readers Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, King James Version, The Message, New King James Version, Contemporary English Version, New Living Translation, Good News Translation, New American Standard Bible, ESV: English Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New Jerusalem Bible, Amplified, and Today's New International Version.

    I would recommend the NIV or NASB.
    posted by heatherann at 10:02 PM on December 15, 2005

    Great thread. I'd pay special attention to matteo's comment; the man knows whereof he speaks.

    I own both a King James version, as that's what my catholic church uses

    Man, that's a weird Catholic church, since the KJV is a Protestant Bible. As for the KJV, pay no attention to ROU_Xenophobe, who for some reason has a bug up his ass about it. It's right up there with Shakespeare as a monument of English prose, and anyone who values good writing and wants to get the innumberable quotes from and references to it in all succeeding English literature should own a copy and read it.

    On the other hand, it's not very useful for knowing what the original Greek actually said; not only has English changed since then, so has our understanding of the text. So get the King James and whichever of the modern ones appeals to you and read them side by side, one for sense and the other for sound.

    /also an atheist
    posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on December 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: Thank you for all the suggestions and information. This has really been a valuable resource.

    I am going to go back to the bookstore over the weekend and check out some of the suggestions. I'll post an update afterwards.

    Thanks again!
    posted by necessitas at 1:31 PM on December 16, 2005

    I have a sub-question:

    I saw a translation of the Bible in a bookstore once that seemed to be a literal translation of what I assume to be the structure of the original Hebrew or how it would have been spoken; that is, it was written with frequent line breaks (like a poem) and exclamation marks. Which translation was this?
    posted by bitpart at 2:06 PM on December 16, 2005

    Catholic/Anglican bibles contain more books because a few of them are not accepted as God-inspired

    Catholics do consider the deuterocanonical books to be inspired by God.
    posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:42 AM on December 18, 2005

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