How to Read It—Choosing a translation

You may have decided that you want to read the Bible, but which Bible? There are a bewildering variety of Bible translations in English, not to mention different sizes and style of Bible even within the same translation. One good idea is to have one of the classic older translations, and a good modern translation as well. This page makes some suggestions about where you might begin.

The very concept of having to make a decision about which Bible to read (in the sense of ‘which translation?’) can be almost shocking to a newcomer to the Bible. On the page Modern Translations we walked through some of the reasons for all these different translations, and introduced some of the more popular ones.

To some extent your choice will depend where you are already in terms of your familiarity with the Bible, and with what you hope to get out of it. If you are very unfamiliar and want a kind of ‘crash-course’ exposure, you might be best to get a readable modern translation like the NIV or ESV. If you are meeting and discussing with believers who regularly use a particular translation, you might find it easier to be on the same page (quite literally!) with whatever they happen to be using. If you are interested in a closer examination and study of the Bible, you will probably find it useful to have a more literal translation, if not as the basis of your studies, then at least for comparison.

A good strategy is to have the best of both worlds. Give the classic King James or Authorised Version (AV or KJV) a try, and try a modern version as well (NIV or ESV – a personal preference would be for the latter, but there are thousands of Bible readers who use the NIV also). The NKJV is something of a compromise between the two, so it may be worth checking that out.

A couple of points to remember: first, it’s generally better not to go for one of the more strongly paraphrasing translations; second, no one translation has a monopoly on truth; third, whichever you choose, remember to use others for comparison, particularly when you are drawing big doctrinal conclusions; fourth, while some versions may obscure things a bit, any reputable Bible translation will help you in your understanding of God and His purpose – don’t get so hung up on the question of which translation that you never get round to actually reading the Bible!

Different layouts

Once you’ve made your choice of translation, the list of options is not over! There will be various options of binding, colour, and text size. They may be easy enough, but some Bibles will include so-called marginal references – links between words and ideas in one passage which connect with another elsewhere in the Bible. These can be extremely useful, but again, they do vary from translation to translation and publisher to publisher (even of the same translation!). A particularly good set of marginal references is that found in the KJV or AV Bibles published by the Oxford University Press (OUP). It’s probably worth having one Bible with marginal references in your collection. They can sometimes help a great deal.

Some Bibles also come with a blank wide margin at the side of the page which enables you to write notes at the side. Some people prefer not to write on their Bibles; others find it tremendously useful to note down helpful explanations they have heard, cross-reference links, explanation of the meanings of words, dates when events happened, and so forth.

Finally, some Bibles come with extensive study notes. Again, these vary considerably in their quality from publisher to publisher. The notes in the NIV Study Bible are generally of a pretty good quality.

Speciality translations

For the avid Bible student and collector there are a number of ‘specialty Bibles’ that can be useful to have, even if they are probably not good choices as one’s main Bible.

It’s occasionally useful to read a ‘looser’, paraphrase-style translation. These translations should certainly not be taken as gospel, but they can give a fresh take on a familiar passage or express something in a different idiom which can inspire reflection and make well-worn words sound new again.

Then there are slavishly literal translations which can help you understand, almost in a word-for-word kind of way, what the original literally says. Some of these are done in an interlinear style, with the original language printed on one line, and the meanings of each of the words below it. This is very much a specialist tool and should be used with caution, particularly if you are not familiar with foreign languages and the way they work. Used sensitively, they can be quite interesting, however.

There are also some multi-translation Bibles which use multiple columns or marginal references so that you can quickly compare the differences between translations. Probably the easiest way to do that kind of comparison nowadays, however, is through the use of a Bible software program.

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