There are many English translations of the Bible, with some estimating that there are nearly 900 different English Bible translations. The idea of sifting through the various translations to find a single Bible translation from which to do your reading or studying can sound daunting. Choosing the “best” translation will ultimately depend on your needs and preferences. So before you answer the question, “Which Bible translation is best?” you should consider the question, “For what purpose am I purchasing a Bible?”
If you’re like most people, you want a Bible that resonates with you and helps you to comprehend and connect with the text. There are some translations that, while popular, are not good for accomplishing this goal. For example, the King James Version (KJV) is a very popular classic translation of the Bible that was written in 1611 under the authorization of King James VI and I. Many readers, including myself, appreciate the poetic language and historical influence of this translation, however, because it was written in the Early Modern English dialect, its archaic words and grammar make it difficult for some modern readers to understand. I keep a 400th-anniversary edition facsimile of the original 1611 KJV on my office bookshelf.
Another translation that I keep near my office desk is Da Jesus Book, a Hawaii pidgin translation of the New Testament by Wycliffe Bible Translators. While I don’t speak Hawaii pidgin, the English is comprehensible enough that it makes for an entertaining read if you take the time to sound out each word. As an example, here is one well-known Bible verse, John 3:16, in Da Jesus Book:
“God wen get so plenny love an aloha fo da peopo inside da world, dat he wen send me, his one an ony Boy, so dat everybody dat trus me no get cut off from God, but get da real kine life dat stay to da max foeva.”
Unless you live in Hawaii or are otherwise conversant in Hawaii pidgin, this translation will only be useful for entertainment but will not be much help for gaining a deeper understanding of biblical texts. Below I list a few translations I use when engaging in serious study or reflection on the Bible.
The Best Bible Translations for Personal Reading
The New American Bible (NAB) is a popular translation among Catholics and Lutherans, as well as other Christians. I personally use the Saint Joseph’s edition (paperback), which has very nice images, commentary, and cross-references, making it highly accessible for the lay reader while still adequate for seasoned students. I enjoy this version because I think it does a decent job of balancing accuracy with readability, and it contains both the Old and New Testaments as well as some Old Testament Apocrypha. While this version of the Bible has not gained wide popularity among less liturgical strains of Christianity, it is truly a gem that anyone could benefit from.
The JPS Bible is published by the Jewish Publication Society and is a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible (= Christian Old Testament). This Bible has significantly fewer footnotes than the NAB, but the scattered footnotes are interesting and useful. This one is better if you prefer not to have lots of footnotes and marginal notes but rather focus on the translated text. Even if you are not of the Jewish faith, having a Jewish translation of the Bible along with your Christian translations is nice because it eliminates the worry that you are getting a Christian theological bias in your translations. It is for this reason that I sometimes suggest people compare Jewish and Christian Bibles when doing English-language Bible study.
The English Standard Version (ESV) has become a personal favorite of mine, particularly when quoting the Bible in English in my blog. There are probably other translations that would serve me just as well, but in my experience, the ESV tends to translate passages in such a way that it communicates most of the things that I find interesting in the verses I’ve looked at so far. The balance between literal translation and dynamic equivalent is more to my taste than what I’ve found in other English translations.
There are way too many Bible translations out there for me to give a satisfactory review of even the most popular ones, and even if I could, such an exercise would probably not be very helpful for you. When all is said and done, there is no “best” translation for everyone, and the best advice I can give is that you try out a few different translations until you realize what translations you prefer.
The Best Bible Translations for Deeper Study
Perhaps you are interested in digging a bit deeper into the study of the Bible but still don’t know any of the original languages (e.g., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). While there is no substitute for reading the texts in their original languages, there are some helpful resources for those who want to dabble in this arena.
The Septuagint is an ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. The Greek text of the Septuagint appears to have been known to the writers of the Greek New Testament, and so it is useful to know how the Septuagint renders certain bible passages, sometimes differing from the Hebrew texts significantly. Brenton’s edition of the Septuagint has the Greek and English translation of the Greek, so if you don’t know Greek this edition can still give you some sense of what the Greek text says.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible is an English translation of all of the biblical manuscripts and fragments found at Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls have provided scholars with invaluable insights into the history of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity since they date to around the time of Jesus of Nazareth. These are the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible and are therefore valuable for engaging in deeper questions about the meaning and history of the Bible.
The Samaritan Pentateuch is an ancient version of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)—sometimes called the Pentateuch or Torah—as preserved by the Samaritan community. The Samaritan Pentateuch is composed in the Hebrew language, like the Dead Sea Scrolls and standard Hebrew Bibles today, but has some interesting variations that give scholars new data with which to reconstruct the history and transmission of the Bible from ancient times.
I hope this brief list helps to direct you on your journey to find the perfect Bible translation for your needs. Happy Bible shopping!
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