Which translation of the Bible do you use?

Which translation of the Bible do you use? (AKA, my defense of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible)

I grew up with the New International Version (NIV)—standard text, I think, for my generation of evangelicals—and I still use it: I use an NIV Thompson Chain Reference Bible and have an exhaustive concordance based on the NIV text, and most of the scripture I remember is from the NIV.

In the last couple of years I’ve been checking out other translations.  Initially it was about finding the best translation, but I no longer believe there is an overall “best” translation or that such a thing is even possible.  Of course, each translator or translation committtee claims that their version is the most accurate or the most faithful rendering of the original languages of the Bible, and each of us poor, non-original-language-reading saps must decide which committee’s or scholar’s word to go by.

Now, from what I can tell (as a layperson) the difference between the translations is for the most part superficial: placement of punctuation (which does not exist in the original text), word choice (between similar English words), word order and whatnot.  Two people using two different translations are not likely to come away from the same texts with a different interpretation or understanding—if they do, it’s because of what the interpreters bring to the text, rather than what the translation gives the interpreter.  But with the proliferation of translations these days, we do, at some point,  have to make a choice.  (Is it me, or is it evangelical Protestant groups that are releasing all these new versions these days?  What does that say about us?)

In the last couple of years I’ve been drifting more towards the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  Growing up, I was told that this was a “liberal” translation, though the reason for this was never made clear to me.  As far as I can tell, the NRSV is considered “liberal” because of two things: the use of gender inclusive language and the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (is it “virgin” or “young woman“?).  I’m assuming gender inclusive language is no longer much of an issue, as both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Today’s New International Version (TNIV), both generally accepted in conservative circles, use inclusive language.

As for the translation of Isaiah 7:14: first and foremost, it seems to me to be a moot point, given that in the NRSV both Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:26-34 use the term “virgin” in reference to Mary.  So the doctrine of the virgin birth is not at issue between translations.  Second, I don’t want my choice of translation to be based on an ideological or doctrinal slant.  In fact, I don’t want the process of translation itself to be based on that (which again makes me wonder about the myriad new translations appearing from evangelical publishers). The goal of any translation should be to provide an accurate, faithful rendering of the original text (within the limits of the translation process), even if that means that the most faithful, accurate and, dare I say, honest translation of that Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 (for example) is “young woman” rather than “virgin” (I’m not a scholar, so I’m not saying it is).  This is not at all an unreasonable expectation, particularly from an evangelical viewpoint which believes that it should be scriptures shaping our theology rather than our theology shaping scripture (or translation).

I’m sure the issue is more complicated than I’ve described here and I don’t have the answers in the translation debate.  I simply have to take someone’s word for it, and before I can do that, I have to decide whose word is most trustworthy.  And so on and so forth.

Which is precisely why I am increasingly leaning towards the NRSV.  The NRSV is the only translation, as far as I’m aware, which in general knows no denominational boundaries.  The NIV, TNIV, NLT (New Living Translation), ESV (English Standard Version), and others tend to be accepted and used specifically by evangelical or conservative denominations.  This doesn’t make them poor or inferior translations, but I do find it curious that the majority of those using these translations belolong to a relatively small section of the Christian spectrum (I admit this is conjecture, rather than fact).  The NRSV, on the other hand, is widely accepted among evangelical Protestant churches and mainline Protestant churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (there may be exceptions of course, such as the King James Only-ers), and academics and scholars respect the translation as well. So I lean towards the NRSV because it’s ecumenical—it’s not the translation of one view of the Bible.  The NRSV is not a conservative Bible or a Reformed Bible or a Catholic Bible or what have you—it can be any one of those, but it need not be any.

I’m not saying the NRSV is perfect.  I’m not saying the other translations are bad (I can be kind of neurotic about having one of everything, so I own several translations).  I’m not saying the NRSV the most readable. I’m just saying I appreciate the fact that it’s ecumenical.  It is meaningful for me that, in a world of increasing division between liberal and conservative, this ideology and that ideology, this theology and that theology, the NRSV is a translation of the Bible that seems to transcend those boundaries.

11 thoughts on “Which translation of the Bible do you use?

  1. Ian H.

    Interesting – I generally use an NIV, but if I want to get more perspectives, I use an Amplified and a Message bible.

    I would dispute your assertion that the TNIV is accepted in conservative evangelical circles – one of the things holding it back from more widespread adoption is its use of inclusive language.

  2. Toni

    I’ve been a long-time NIV user, though I did spent about 5 years using the New American Standard Bible.

    As a younger Christian, when given guidance on translations to use it was generally suggested that the Revised Standard Version and the Good New Bible both deviated significantly from the original meaning and intent of the text. I have no experience of the RSV or NRSV, but I have certainly found this true of the GNB, based on comparison across other versions and interlinear Greek.

    So like Ian, I would suggest that the NRSV is probably not going to be accepted readily among conservative circles. The NIV is the most widely accepted translation in this country, and virtually all denoms seem to have large numbers laying around.

    FWIW I have recently also been reading the New King James Bible and the Jerusalem bible. TBH neither really inspire and I have returned to the NIV. I like to look at multiple translations when preparing studies, as sometimes one will make the meaning more accessible than the others.

  3. Linea

    I wonder if it makes a difference depending on what purpose you have in using the version. If you are going to read the Bible for study – for knowing accurately what it says – then you would need to bear that more in mind than the readability of it. I use my Bible most of the time for devotional reading and then it is more important to me that it be readable so I use the NLT or the TNIV. I haven’t used the NIV really for quite a while.

  4. Marc

    Ian: The TNIV is gaining more acceptance in conservative circles, though I know it received some flack (and misinformation) when it was first released. I’ve found this odd from the get-go, since the NLT was released several years earlier and it also uses inclusive language, but managed to appear without much criticism from that angle. And the NLT is rising quickly in the ranks and may outstrip the NIV in popularity soon, if it hasn’t done so already. Not sure why inclusive language is an issue for the TNIV and not the NLT.

    Toni: I believe I was probably told similar things about the NRSV, but I think that probably had more to do with theological considerations (e.g. “We believe this, so this translation can’t be right”) than with faithfulness to the original languages.

    Of course, as I said in the post, most of us aren’t scholars, so we have to choose to take someone’s word for it when it comes to which translation is more faithful and accurate.

    The difference I have seen between “dynamic equivalance” translations such as NIV, ESV, NRSV and TNIV has been relatively insignificant, so I wonder about the assertion that the NRSV says something other than what the original languages intend.

    This also means, of course, that I have relatively little reason to stop using the NIV—other than maybe the existence of the TNIV.

    I’m glad you commented. I was thinking of you when I wrote this post, as I was curious to know what the situation in the UK was. Is the NIV popular among even CoE folks?

    Linea: Purpose of use certainly does make a difference. So far I haven’t found the TNIV more readable than the NRSV, as they’re very similar translations.

    The NLT is definitely more readable, but I’ve only really used the first edition (there is now a third), which in my experience say a whole lot more in any given passage than other translations, which gave me pause.

    However, the NLT 3rd edition and the study bible recently released are getting much attention and (apparently) praise and respect, so maybe I should give it another go.

  5. Ang

    We seem to use a variety of translations around our house. For the most part we use the NIV. A few of our other more commonly used translations would be the NLT, NKJV, KJV and the NASB.

    I like the language of the NIV best but need the KJV for use with our Strong’s Concordance.

  6. Toni

    Marc – at least round here the NIV is pretty much THE standard bible, inc CoE churches. The one exception is likely among the small group that cling to the old (1769?) service format, who are dyed in the wool KJV users.

  7. Marc

    Interesting. But the text in the current BoCP is the NRSV, is it not?

    I suppose that doesn’t mean that people’s own Bibles should be the same version.

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