Which is the most accurate translation of the Bible in contemporary English?
Answer (Part 1 of 4):
I will tentatively suggest that the English Standard Version (ESV) is a good modern English version to use. However, there are many aspects that I would like to consider. So this will be a four-part post. This first post provides some comments on the Old Testament. The second post will comment on the sources for the New Testament. The final two posts will provide examples and comments on translations of the Old Testament and then the New Testament.
The question asks about contemporary English. There may be more accurate translations. I will discuss them in the last two posts. As another general comment, I only recommend translations that strive for literal accuracy. No “paraphrase” or “amplified” translations are recommended.
This is an important topic. Yet, I have hesitated for some time to try to answer it. I have to admit that I am not a scholar in textual or translational matters. I do not know any Hebrew or Greek. So, on what basis do I try to answer this question? I must answer it—or I should say, give my opinion—based simply on almost sixty years of reading Scripture itself and the expertise of many good and knowledgeable expositors who have helped me understand to some degree the meaning of the text. Over the course of these years, I have read the text in many different translations. So I am going to give my own observations and opinions based on what I have learned in the hope that it will be helpful and, I might add, will somewhat qualify the recommendation I gave above.
Before continuing, I need to acknowledge that many prefer the New American Standard Bible (NASB) with good reason. I simply chose to name the ESV above because it seems to me to be a little easier to read. The NASB certainly seems as accurate as the ESV, and I often will use it in my posts when I feel that it is better at bringing out what I believe is the meaning of the passage. Other versions preferred by some include the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New International Version (NIV). I will consider these in the last two posts when we look at examples.
Why are there different translations?
The first thing to remember is that the text of the Bible was written in languages that are not in common use today. Most of the Old Testament was written in Biblical Hebrew, which is different from the Hebrew used in Israel today. Parts of the Old Testament were written in Chaldee. Scholars1 spend their lives studying ancient languages in order to gain sufficient understanding to determine the meaning of words written. Modern students learning Biblical Hebrew can look up words in dictionaries produced by scholars and so benefit from these efforts.
Translators use their knowledge of words and grammar but must also find words and expressions in a modern language that convey the sense of the original language as clearly as possible. This depends on the definitions of the words but also the context in which the words are used. It is important to realize that there are only a little more than 8000 words in Biblical Hebrew, whereas modern English has as many as one million words. So, individual words often have multiple meanings. This is seen in the Strong’s numbers in Strong’s Concordance. This accounts for some of the differences between translations of the Old Testament. In addition, because Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language, some words for plants, animals, and minerals cannot be translated with certainty.
What about translator bias?
I have been told that we cannot let our theology guide the translation. However, a moment’s thought will tell us that it is impossible for this to be followed absolutely. We will see examples where different translations reflect different theological biases. Fortunately, Scripture is designed to be very robust as a whole. A good understanding of the doctrines of Scripture, resulting from careful study of the whole Word of God, gives the insight to allow the simple reader to recognize such bias. This is why it is so important to gain a general knowledge of the general themes presented to us in God’s Word by careful and consistent study.
At the same time, it is good to respect the scholarship that has gone into the various translations available. Those who work on modern translations are devoted to the principles of good scholarship and fundamental principles of Christianity. This is why I take all translations seriously while still being willing to compare one translation with another and seeking to find the best rendering based on this comparison as well as the study of reliable commentaries. I say this to encourage everyone to use more than one translation in their study.
A personal recommendation
As a personal, practical recommendation, I suggest while studying Scripture you compare translations and keep a pencil handy. If the translations differ in significant ways, then that means the verse is troublesome to the translators. Put the initials of the translation you think is best in the margin. Use a pencil because you will invariably change your mind as you gain knowledge of Scripture. When we look at examples in succeeding posts I will give more recommendations along this line.
This practice will show you how little real difference there is between translations. You will be all the more encouraged that we really have in our hands the Word of God preserved. In my next post, I will discuss some issues with the New Testament. Then, we shall look at examples from various translations.
Can we trust the source?
By “source” I mean the text that the translators use. So, as a final observation in this post, I want to say a word about the Hebrew text. How do we know it was not corrupted from the original autographs?2
We shall see in the next post that God in His providential care over His Word preserved its integrity in two very different ways. In regard to the Old Testament, God instituted a special class, the priesthood, who had the responsibility to maintain the words given to Moses and the prophets. It shows the grace of God that He even appealed to man’s natural vanity to preserve the text. We see evidence of this pride in John 7:49. In addition, the king was commanded to make his own copy of the Scriptures (Deut. 17:18). The integrity of the Scriptures was maintained scrupulously by this special class who took great pride in maintaining the Scriptures in spite of the fact that so frequently they ignored or perverted its real meaning.
As additional evidence of the integrity of the Scriptures, God has provided archeological evidence. One well-known example is in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.3
In the next post, I will examine the New Testament.
Have a question or comment? We’d love to hear from you. Submit your response in the box below.
1. I recommend the lecture by Gleason Archer, Answers to Assumed Errors in the Old Testament. Dr. Archer is a highly regarded conservative scholar who contributed to both the NASB and NIV translations. This lecture is also available on DVD: https://jashow.org/resources/answers-to-assumed-errors-in-the-old-testament/.
2. The term “autograph” is used by scholars to refer to the original written document. In all cases, these have been lost.
3. As an additional reference recommended to me, see K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003).
Quick reply: The post makes a suggestion that some younger readers may not understand: a pencil note in the margin.
So, might we urge everyone reading this to keep at least one printed, ink-on-paper hardcopy of the Bible in your home? I myself often read the Bible from a mobile device or PC, and digital media is an incredibly helpful way to quickly search for verses, compare translations, and look up concordance definitions.
However, researchers have been found over and over that information is not necessarily processed or retained the same way from a display device as it is when written down by hand or read from physical media. Studying from a hardcopy, and hand-writing notes when needed, trains the mind in a way that digital media cannot match. Also, digital media are regularly revised. Digital devices have a seeming permanence in our present age but both hardware and information are continually revised or destroyed. Even if they were completely reliable, it is still possible for the lights to go out at unexpected times. A paper copy of the Bible is still there when needed and any notes or comments attached to it will be retained.
[…] the previous post we examined some issues regarding the text of the Old Testament. Here we look at similar issues […]
I really appreciated so much your 4-part articles! Thank you for sharing with us from your studies and prayer on this subject….I found the articles were informative with specific examples to support key points for helping me/us readers to better understand how to navigate so many Bible translations facing us today. I especially appreciated how clearly a big view of God and humble view of our own understanding are woven throughout ….
I would love to hear your input on 1 question I have after finishing the 4 articles you posted:
—You mentioned above, “Those who work on modern translations are devoted to the principles of good scholarship and fundamental principles of Christianity.” Do you have any suggestions for if someone wanted to research that further for themselves, as in to find out (1) what specifically those “principles of a good scholarship” are that different translation committees have and (2) what specifically the “fundamental principles of Christianity “are that said scholars believe in? Or in in other words, how can we find out if we trust a translation committee’s approach to translation?
I do not personally know any members of the translation teams that work on modern translations, so I should have said: “I believe that those who work…”. I can really only judge their work.
Start with the preface to the various editions. These usually contain a statement of the translation philosophy. The website for a translation usually has some articles about their translation. Finally, sending a message to the “contact us” link on the website will probably be answered by a knowledgeable and helpful person.
I found this short mini-documentary particularly interesting.
The History of the English Standard Version | Crossway Articles
Soli Deo Gloria!—To God alone be the glory!
Preface to the English Standard Version | ESV.org
The ESV translation committee was organized by Crossway, whose Statement of Faith is available here:
Statement of Faith | Crossway
The ‘About’ section at ESV.org includes:
Translation Philosophy | ESV.org
I hope this helps. I might be able to return to this topic in the future.
Thank you so much for your helpful pointers. Much appreciated.