What is the best, most accurate version of the Bible? To properly answer that question, one would have to first be vaguely aware of both the complexity of the Hebrew and Greek languages and also the Bible translation processes. When I say this, I don’t mean to imply that it is necessary to be an expert in these fields (I am certainly not) but rather just have a general knowledge and appreciation of them. It is, therefore, possible for anyone to reach an educated conclusion on this subject, not just Bible scholars.
First of all, some basics. It is imperative for us to understand that the Hebrew and Greek languages have a completely different way of word communication than English. Whereas our English words are abstract and narrow, Hebrew and Greek words tend to be very pictorial and very deep in meaning, sometimes with different shades of meanings. One word may at times communicate an entire phrase or thought. This makes translation into the English language very tricky.
For each translation, the goal is and always has been the same: to translate the Bible from the original tongues into the common language of the day so that the message of God’s Word can be read and understood by everyone.
This was true in 1611 when the King James Version was penned, and it is equally true of today’s translations. It is helpful to remember that in 1611, the King James Version was the modern translation of the day and the goal was to put the Word of God into the language of the common people. Because of this fact, I find it humorous when some people today hold that the KJV is the only inspired translation to be used. Because only the scriptures in the original tongues are truly inspired, no subsequent translation is perfect, and the KJV is no different. As a matter of fact, many of the more modern translations such as the NASB are much better translations and truer to the original tongues.
That brings us to the different methodology of translating the Bible. Some translations, such as KJV, NKJV, ESV, and NASB are called “word for word” translations. The translators sought to translate each word in the original language into its closest English equivalent. This has a lot of merit because when each word is translated, that particular word is less likely to be lost in the translation. The challenge to this method, as mentioned above, is that Hebrew and Greek words most times have a much broader meaning than English words do. Therefore, a lot of very important meaning may (and often does) get lost or at least watered down.
Other versions, such as the NIV, NLT, TNIV, and the HCSB are translated by a “thought for thought” or “phrase by phrase” method. Like the word for word method, this has its pros and cons as well. The merits of thought for thought translations are obvious in light of what was already mentioned in the last paragraph. Very often these translations better capture the fuller and deeper meaning of the text because they aren’t bound to the word for word parameters, although the translators still try to translate each word when it is possible to do so and still preserve the meaning of the thought.
The drawback to this method is that sometimes very important individual words become lost. Many times these are theological words such as “justification” and “propitiation.” Great English words that communicate great meaning.
It is interesting to note that the drawbacks to both of these methods are due to the limitations of the English language compared to the richness of the original tongues.
So which translation is the best? I personally prefer to use not one, but all of them, together. I like the ESV and the NASB for their very good word for word contribution. But I also like the NLT, TNIV, and NIV for their thought for thought contribution. Together we get a truer picture of what the original languages say and we can get closer to the depth of meaning that those original languages hold. For all of it we trust, not in the scholarship of man, but in the greatness and ability of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit to preserve and reveal His Word to us.
So is there any room for paraphrases such as The Living Bible (not to be confused with the NLT) and The Message? Sure, as long as we understand them for what they are: paraphrases, and not true translations. Nonetheless, they can be helpful in their place.
So let us all seek to understand the truth about Bible translations and let us see each for the contributions they provide. Then let’s trust in the Holy Spirit to reveal the person and words of Jesus to us as we read the Bible, being thankful that we have His Word in our own language to be read and understood.