I frequently get asked about what Bible translation I recommend. In fact, I get asked so frequently that I thought I’d write this brief page as an answer.
I also get asked about my opinion of the KJV and the Lamsa Translation. Those are touched on here, too.
Bible Translation Recommendation
The first thing I usually say is that the best Bible translation is the one you’ll read faithfully. I am far more concerned with that than staking a position on translation philosophy. I’m even willing to make allowance for paraphrases in this regard, though I really dislike them. You ought to be reading some version with consistency, though.
Second, I always point out that there is no one Bible translation that is consistently superior to all others. (Though paraphrases are consistently unfaithful to the text, but see my caveat above). All translations have problems; they all take liberties; they all have strengths. If you are interested in comparing and analyzing Bible translations, I recommend the Better Bibles blog.
Third, I recommend that everyone read from more than one translation. It’s a good idea to become acquainted with the basic differences in approaches to translating the Bible. I speak here of “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence” (usually referred to as “literal translation”). I prefer formal equivalence, but I recommend reading from at least one translation that follows each approach. The above link contains a listing of how the versions stack up (at least for the writer of that article).
Fourth, you should pick a translation that is textually up-to-date. For example, I want a Bible that adopts readings in its running text from the Dead Sea Scrolls where they are demonstrably superior to the Masoretic Text. My test case for this is Deuteronomy 32:8 and Deuteronomy 32:43. The former should read “sons of God” (ESV; cp. “gods” in NRSV), or something like “heavenly beings” (NET Bible) or “heavenly court” (NLT) instead of “sons of Israel.” Verse 43 should read “bow down to Him, all you gods” (ESV, NRSV) or something akin to it like NLT’s “let all God’s angels worship him.” The preface of the particular version will alert you to such textual issues. (Note, though, that ESV is terrible – and basically unique – at Deut 32:17, where it contradicts the meaning of Deut 32:8, 43). See my scholarly journal article on this verse: Michael S. Heiser, “Heiser Does Deuteronomy 32.17 Assume or Deny the Reality of other Gods?” Bible Translator vol 59, no. 137, 2008.
It is primarily because of my leanings toward formal equivalence and the desire to see more up-to-date manuscript readings making it into the running text of the translation that I recommend the ESV. But, as noted above, it’s best to use more than one. For a study Bible, however, I like the NET Bible (free online). It has 2500 notes just on manuscript (text-critical) issues and thousands more on other items — all related to why the translators did what they did. It’s the best thing out there for that sort of information.
What About the KJV?
I’m arguably the only person in the world who has literally been through every syllable of the Masoretic Text, comparing it to the KJV translation. Seriously. I know the KJV and its relationship to the original languages very well. Why did I do this? It was part of my job at Logos Bible Software. I’m the guy who created our KJV reverse interlinear, OT and NT (by hundreds of thousands of hand links — Hebrew / Aramaic segments to KJV, Greek segments to KJV).1 In broad terms, I like the KJV since I’m used to it and I favor formal equivalence. The archaic language doesn’t bother me much, though it is admittedly impenetrable in places (did you know that “go fetch a compass” means “go around” or “proceed circuitously”?). Don’t feel bad; no one else does either. Aside from oddities like that which simply do not communicate beyond the 18th century, I think the KJV a good translation for the most part. It deserves its reputation as a quality rendering of the original languages. However, I will never trust it again in Job. Job is filled with weird things, such as words that are still uncertain in meaning (since they occur only once and nowhere else in Hebrew) and that must be “translated” by appeal to related (cognate) languages. Ugaritic has a special role in that process (Ugarit = ancient Syria). That alphabetic cuneiform language is the closest linguistic cousin to biblical Hebrew. There were many words in the Ugaritic tablets (discovered and deciphered in the late 1920s-early 1930s) that are consonantal equivalents to difficult words in the Hebrew OT. The KJV translators had no access to that, nor did they have access to other cognate languages for the same purpose (like Akkadian), or the Dead Sea Scrolls. They did the best they could and did it well, but in books like Job, it is easy for someone like me to know they are just simply guessing in places. I also saw many places where one translator (the KJV was a committee translation) knew his Hebrew or Aramaic grammar than another guy, and hence did a better job. But I’m digressing. I like the KJV and the reason I wanted to do the reverse interlinear for Logos was because I felt I owed the project to the translation, since I was weaned on it as a Bible reader.
The above should also inform you that I have little (actually, no) time for the “KJV debate” (aka, “KJV-only”). I taught bibliology and the history of the Bible in Bible college, so I know all the arguments defending the idea that the KJV is the best translation, or that it’s the inspired English translation, or that other English translations are heretical. etc. They are all lame arguments.2 Not only are they lame, but this is really a NT debate (Westcott-Hort vs. the Byzantine Majority text debate). NONE of the arguments for the “KJV only” view work at all when it comes to the OT and the history of the transmission of the Hebrew text. They are DOA (dead on arrival). But KJV-only people usually don’t get into Hebrew. But this is also a digression. If you love the KJV, read it. It’s as good or better than anything out there, as all translations have weaknesses (some have more than others).
The Lamsa Translation
I periodically am asked about this translation, which is an attempt to produce an English translation on the basis of Aramaic (Syriac) manuscripts of the OT and NT. Note: The manuscripts used for the NT are in Syriac, an eastern dialect of Aramaic that is *not* what Jesus spoke. There is no actual manuscript evidence in existence for an “original” Aramaic NT (even Matthew, which is about the only book that would make sense for). Sorry for the digression.
I’ve not used the Lamsa translation, so I can’t evaluate it. However, it has not received good reviews from translators and Syriac specialists. There’s a review located here. It speaks for itself.
Hope this was informative in some way.
- For what a reverse interlinear is and does, click here. I also did the NKJV Old Testament and many sections of the NIV OT, but people who ask this question don’t care about those other translations. ↩
- I recommend the following books about the KJV-only debate: The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism; King James Only Controversy, The: Can You Trust Modern Translations? ↩