Picking the Best Bible Version

by Johnnie Godwin

In different contexts, I've heard people say, "If the King James Version was good enough for Paul and Silas, it's good enough for me." Some may have been serious when they said that. Others may have been condescending. This seems like a good time to consider which is the best Bible translation to read on both sides of the pulpit. And the KJV is a good place to start.

What About the KJV?

I love the King James Version and usually preach from it. Why? I grew up on the KJV. I memorized Vacation Bible School Scripture cards in the KJV. I got saved under KJV preaching. Over 50 years ago, I began preaching from the KJV. So the KJV is like comfort food to my soul. Ever since King James I authorized this stately translation of the Bible, it has served the English-reading world well and continues to hold a special place.

So Why Consider Other Translations?

The English language has changed so much over almost 400 years that we don't even understand many of the words used then. Now, some words may have opposite or ambiguous meanings. For example, "let" may mean either permit or prevent. And who refers to 1 Corinthians 13 as the "Charity Chapter"? As one wise person observed, each generation has the responsibility of putting the faith of its fathers in the language of its children. That's partly why we have lots of English Bible translations. Other reasons include improved understanding of original languages (Hebrew and Greek), discovery of older manuscripts than were available in 1611, and new insights from archaeological finds.

A Translation Toolbox

Bible translations are like a toolbox full of tools for specific purposes. I don't throw away an old tool just because I get a new one. Rather, I recognize what my dad taught me: namely, there's a right tool for every job. So I keep on using and enjoying the KJV, but I also find help from other Bible translations.

For example, early on, when I urged congregations to read the Bible, I preached, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life" (John 5:39, KJV). My truth was right; my text was wrong. Jesus wasn't commanding but stating a fact to Bible-reading Jews. The NIV reads, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40): bibliolatry instead of Christology.

A principle of Bible interpretation says for every truth there is a proper text. I kept my Bible-reading sermon but changed the text to 2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17. We're not to worship the Bible but follow its wisdom that points us to Jesus and shows us how to live His kind of life. Various Bible translations can shed even more light on eternal truths.

The Complication of Translations

As long as there is only one of anything, our only choice is to take it or leave it. When two or more of something comes on the scene, it complicates our lives and our decision making. Most of us have experienced such a choice explosion in our lifetime that nothing seems simple anymore. This fact applies to English Bible translations. Today, a dozen or so English translations make up the most popular choices for buyers and readers of the Bible. In the U.S., the NIV has moved ahead of the KJV as the bestseller—but not necessarily as the best-read version. There are numerous other good Bible translations to consider, and new ones keep coming out all the time (such as the Holman Christian Standard Bible).

Which Translation Is Best?

How can a person know which Bible translation to choose? Which one is best? There are some guidelines for buying and using Bible translations, but let's answer the question about which one is best. The answer to the question is: The one that you read.

Before the Iron Curtain melted, I used to work in International Book Fairs in Russia. We could freely exhibit Bibles but not sell them or give them away. More than one Russian—who didn't own even one Bible—asked, "Is it true that in America people have more than one Bible?" When I thought of the many Bibles most of us own, I answered yes. Then the Russians would ask, "Why?" And I was ashamed. The questioners would have been satisfied with any translation—in Russian or in English.

Yet, many of us neglect reading even one of our Bibles. The best Bible translation is the one you read.

Basically, English translations differ in whether they try to translate the Hebrew and Greek literally word-for-word or sense-for-sense. Sometimes word-for-word translations don't make sense because of idioms, peculiarities of expressions, or syntax. Other times, sense-for-sense translations reflect the interpreter's theology and bias to a greater extent than a more literal translation. So it's a trade-off. Standard translations tend to be those sponsored by Bible societies or denominations and involve groups of scholars (for example, the KJV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, Holman CSB, and others). Individual translations represent one person's best efforts to translate Scripture (for example, Moffatt, Phillips, Barclay, et al).

So what's a person to do? I prefer standard translations; I profit by many individual translations. I don't know of a single Bible translation that has hurt my spiritual understanding. All Bible translations I've read have enriched me spiritually. If I were counseling, I would recommend having both a KJV and at least one contemporary standard version of the Bible. The main thing is to read the Bible and follow it to Jesus.

Challenge and Stewardship Responsibility

The world has over six billion people on it. About 380 million of those people don't have any Scripture in their language. Out of 6,809 languages in the world, some 3,000 of those language groups are Bible-less. We're entrusted with the stewardship responsibility of helping the rest of the world to have the Bible in a language it can read.

Individually, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make one of our Bibles the best of all by reading it every single day.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
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