Bible sales in America, this year and every year, are huge. The Bible actually is consistently the best-selling book of all in any given year, and it never makes the bestseller lists. You can tell this is a lucrative business with so many secular companies involved in the battle for Bible sales, even major University Presses like Oxford and Cambridge. Yes, its the most owned book of all time, and in far to many cases the least read or studied. If salvation was based on just owning a Bible, America would be a truly Christian country for sure. Alas, it's not so simple as that.
At Christmas time, the Christian buyer is presented with a bewildering array of Bibles to choose from and so I thought it might be useful to give some guidance for Bible buying. Now of course when I say Bible, I am in the first instance referring to the Biblia Hebraica and the Greek New Testament-- that's actually the Bible in its original languages. But for most folks in America the Bible is simply synonymous with their favorite translation. This is in many ways a dangerous equation since every translation is already an interpretation of the original language text, and no translation is perfect (no, not even the King James by a long shot). Bearing in mind then that we are dealing with English Translations which are more or less faithful, more or less interpretive of the original language text of the Bible, how should we pick our Bibles?
Well the first thing to say is--- one size (and type) does not fit all. Different translations are done for different purposes and different audiences. So a better first question than "Which Bible should I buy?" is "Who am I buying this for, and what do they already know when it comes to the Bible, the Christian faith etc.?" You will also want to ask the question-- "What age range was this translation written for?" Different Bibles target different audiences. You need to be aware of this before you walk into Billy Bob's Christian bookstore and plunk your money down on the counter. In other words, you need to come as an informed consumer-- informed about the different Bibles, and informed about who you are buying it for.
Bibles range in scope from very paraphrastic (e.g. The Message or the Living Bible), to idiomatic translations (e.g. NRSV, TNIV, NEB, Jerusalem Bible, NKJV, TEV-- in fact most translations fall into this camp) to nearly literal translations (NASB and a few others). Here is not the place to debate the literal vs. non-literal issue of translation, but you should be aware that there is no such thing as an absolutely literal translations because: 1)English is a very different, and non-genderized language than the Biblical languages (i.e. we don't have masculine or feminine nouns and adjectives etc. unlike Hebrew and Greek); 2) the structure of English sentences are often different than these Biblical languages; 3) there are words in these languages which have no one word English equivalent; 4) sometimes the language in the source is used figuratively sometimes literally. We could keep giving many more reasons why there is no absolutely literal translation-- and frankly you wouldn't want one because you would have to keep unscrambling the word order, the syntax, and other difficulties. The bottom line is, you want a translation that conveys accurately the original meaning of the Biblical text.
Let us suppose you are shopping for a children's Bible. The question then becomes what age of child? If you are dealing with really young children you could go for the Living Bible which was originally done as a paraphrase for children by Ken Taylor, or the Today's English Version (originally Good News for Modern Man) which is written with no words over an eight grade vocabulary. It contains none of what my Granny used to call $25 dollar words. If on the other hand you are getting a young adult a Bible for graduation or confirmation, you need to take into account what sort of reader they are. If the goal is to get them to read the Bible stories at all the Message is not a bad choice, but it is a major league paraphrase which tends to be more interpretive rather than less, compared to an idiomatic translation. I would suggest going with the TNIV.
What do I mean by an idiomatic translation? This approach to translating, while following a word for word approach if it makes sense in English, tends to go for a meaning for meaning, concept for concept approach, being sensitive to idioms in both the Biblical language and in our own.
For example, the word "foot" was an idiom in Hebrew for the genitals, in particular the male genitals. Thus when we read that Saul covered or uncovered his foot, we are talking about him relieving himself. How should the translator translate this, given that a literal translation will not convey the meaning? Here a rendering of the meaning rather than just what the text says might be preferable, given that not everyone is going to use an anotated Bible with notes.
Meaning after all occurs in contexts. Words do not really have meaning in isolation from their use and contexts. Take for example the English word 'row'. It could be a verb telling a person in a boat what to do. It could be a noun referring to a line of seats, it could refer to a fight and should be pronounced differently. Words only have meaning in contexts, and this is as true of words in the original Biblical languages as ours. Moral to the story--- Go for a Bible that best conveys the meaning of the original inspired text to the particular target audience you have in mind.
When we are dealing with the idiomatic translations, which for the most part are the most widely used and most popular, there are a variety of factors to keep in mind. Principle One: All other things being equal, a team translation will be much better than an individual translation. Why? Because no one person is an expert in the meaning of every verse of the Bible. Thus Eugene Peterson's or Ken Taylor's paraphrase or J.B. Phillips translation done all by himself, is less likely to be accurate at all points than a team translation.
Principle Two: But of course not all teams are created equal. For example, the team which, with Lancelot Andrewes translated the KJV in 1611 were only as good as their skills in the Biblical languages and in the English of Shakespeare's era, and more to the point could only be as good as the original language manuscripts that lay before them. The truth is, we have far better and earlier manuscripts of both the Hebrews and the Greek texts of the Bible today than they did back then, and so can produce a translation much closer to the original wording than they could have done.
You might want to read Alistair McGrath's fine book on the history of the KJV.
While we are dealing with the KJV it is well to point out that we don't speak olde englishe, yea verily, anymore. There is an issue of archaic English if you are a KJV only person, and you discover that you have to end up retranslating the English of the Bible since English is a living language. I once had a young lady in Sunday School in Durham England ask me why the Psalm says "God is an aweful God...." I tried to explain that the word aweful in 1611 meant full of awe and wonder, whereas today it means bbbbbbbbad to the bone.
There is a good reason to give persons an up to date translation not an archaic one. The Bible is hard enough to understand without having to deal with archaic English. What about the NKJV? Well it overcomes the archaic language issue for the most part, but alas, it doesn't do a better job with the text criticism. There are consequences to knowing the Vulgate and the Majority Text and the Textus Receptus do not represent the earliest and best text of numerous Biblical verses. If you do a translation that pays too much hommage to any of these later texts, then you are ignoring the evidence from 2nd and 3rd and 4th century papyri and codexes that indicate that the original text did not have this word or that phrase, and so one.
The question you must ask is--- do I want what the original inspired writer wrote PLUS NOTHING, or do I want to sing "if it was good enough for grandma, its good enough for me"? In my view those who know something about the history of the English translation of the Bible (for instance knowing how much of the KJV was cribbed from William Tyndale's translation), know that English translations are a work in progress. There is no way you can start acting as if a particular translation was dropped from the sky by God without error. There are no inspired translations, only inspired original language texts, which we are still in the process of recovering.
I personally would recommend for pulpit and pew use, and for Bible study for young adults or adults one of the following Bibles--- TNIV (first choice, done by an excellent team of Evangelical scholars), Jerusalem Bible ( particularly if you want a Catholic Bible that has the OT Apocrypha), NRSV (less preferrable but still good, and done by a theologically broad group of translators, and too tied down to the RSV as well, which was of course a revision of the KJV), the New Living Translation (not to be confused with the Living Bible. Its a bit too paraphrastic for my taste), TEV (especially for congregations mainly composed of those without college degrees).
Translations to avoid: 1) The New World Translation (this is the Jehovah's Witness translation, and it makes a mess of the Greek in various places; 2) the ESV-- an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV. Go with the NKJV if this is your orientation, its much better; 3) Amplified Bible-- not bad as a tool for Bible study, but too confusing to be read in church or used as a Pew Bible-- its too paraphrastic frankly.
If you are into using multiple decent translations of the Bible The Evangelical Parallel New Testament published by Oxford is a very useful tool, and a comparison of the translations shows where there are difficult verses, and why any Bible study leader needs commentaries to make sense of the text especially with difficult verses.
Happy Christmas Bible Shopping. Find something that fits you or your audience!