Ages ago, people did not have so many Bible translations. The clergy who spent their lives serving in churches translated the holy book, and the church’s authority guaranteed that the translation would be used everywhere. Nowadays the situation is different. The sacred text — for good or bad — became a commodity and was merchandised for all purposes. We have a Bible for teenagers, for teenage girls, for women, for men. We have a devotional Bible, a study Bible, a red letter Bible, and a seemingly unending supply of Bible translations.
Naturally, it makes hard to choose, buy, and use a Bible edition or translation. Moreover, publishers, who are motivated by the desire for profit no less than by the desire to make the Bible accessible, tend to manipulate believers into buying their edition. This muddy situation often works against the believer because it makes choosing a hard and confusing task. Besides, not all Bible translations are high quality or have been made with morally acceptable intentions. So a believer who does not pay enough attention may end up buying a Bible translation that could be misguiding.
This means your choice to buy a Bible translation matters. It will affect your faith whether you know it or not, and because of that, it is better to slow down and take your choice seriously. Before you buy a Bible translation, you may want to think about it. But thinking about the Bible translations is not easy. To make an informed decision in this matter requires an elementary knowledge of the art of translation, Bible manuscripts, and the theology of translators. So I wrote this guide to ease that task. Below you will find some information that I believe will be helpful to you when you buy a Bible translation (without having to do a huge study on history or textual criticism).
What you need to know before you buy a Bible
- First, you need to know that there is no pure English Bible. All Bibles we use are translations from Koine Greek and the Hebrew languages. Some chunks of the Bible were written in the Aramaic language. So unless you read Koine Greek or the ancient Hebrew languages, whatever Bible you read will be a translation. Period.
- Second, you need to know that there is no solid, unconstructed Bible that somehow fell from heaven as a finished book with golden edges and a long bookmark. All Bibles we have are based on a large number of manuscripts, which have some differences from one another. So each Bible edition or translation is put together from an in-depth study of those manuscripts or is based on the Bible edition that itself is based on those manuscripts.
- Third, there is no neutral Bible translation simply because that is impossible. Translation is not just a science but also an art, and in every translation specialists make judgments about the text and its meaning. Their theological leanings and the purpose of the translation always affect their decisions. That is why Catholics use a Bible edition adjusted to their needs. That’s why Jehovah Witnesses have their own Bible translation.
- Fourth, there are different kinds of translations. Some translations of the Bible are based on a functional equivalence principle. In popular culture, this is a thought-for-thought translation. Other Bibles are based on a formal equivalence principle. In popular culture, this is a word-for-word translation. Thought-for-thought translations sacrifice words, word order, and details for the sake of making sense because certain elements of the Bible would be hard to make sense of if translated literally. Word-for-word translations sacrifice smoothness and sense for the sake of capturing the original words as faithfully as possible. Most Bible translations fall somewhere in between.
- Fifth, all translations are made with some purpose or audience in mind and are affected by the context or the period in which they were made. Whether it is the KJV or the NIV, all of these Bibles reflect certain theological biases and the need that gave rise to their translation. For example, some Bible translations use gender-neutral language in response to the increasing awareness of gender inequality in societies.
A Woman Reading the Bible
Concrete Steps to Choose the Bible You Want
Praying before you embark on Bible shopping is a good idea. At no time is your faith so vulnerable as when you are choosing what Bible to buy. If you buy a Bible that was intentionally distorted to confirm some theological views (such as the Watchtower Bible), you are running the risk of distorting your own faith. So pray for the guidance of the Spirit in your decisions. Pray for an open and honest discernment. Ask God’s help to avoid confusion.
Think about what you believe as a Christian.
Many Christians who buy a Bible simply skip this step because they assume they know what they believe. At some level that is true, but buying a Bible may require giving more thought about what you believe and why you believe it. Are you a King James Version Bible—only person? Then perhaps you already know what to buy. Are you a person who goes to church only during Christmas? Then maybe you need to start with the Message rather than the English Standard Version. No matter how well you think you know your beliefs, you need to think about the content of your beliefs and the level of commitment you have for your faith.
Ask questions like, “What are the primary or non-negotiable elements of my faith? Is Jesus’ resurrection something that I dump without hesitation?” Also, think about from what sources or groups that you learned your faith. Did your church use a particular version of the Bible? Do your parents shift from one version of the Bible to another without ever thinking about it? Do you belong to a certain denomination, and does that denomination use a specific version of the Bible? Answering questions similar to these will refocus your attention and heighten your awareness.
Think about for what purpose you want to buy the Bible.
This is an important step because it will frame your criteria in choosing the Bible translation you want to buy. Take your time, and search your heart. Why are you buying another translation of the Bible? Is this for personal use? Then what is it that propels you to buy a new Bible translation? Or is this a gift for someone else? Then what do they believe, and why are you buying the Bible?
Questions like these help to narrow down the search for the translation that best fits your purposes. For example, for a teenager who is new to the world of faith and the many Bible translations, the Message can be a good paraphrase of the Bible to start with. It is a paraphrase, and you don’t need to feed a person who’s just a baby in matters of faith with solid food. Or do you want to study the Bible in depth? Then you may want to focus on study Bibles. Or do you want to see the Greek text and Hebrew text alongside the English text so that you can compare? Then you need to buy an interlinear Bible. But be aware that interlinear Bibles may not be easy to read.
The more specific you are in defining your purpose, the more fulfilling your search will be. But you need to find a balance between being too specific with your purpose and being too generic. Because sometimes narrowing down your purpose too much will leave you without finding a Bible translation at all. Say, would you be able to find a Bible for Muslim Background Believers between the ages of 20–30 who come from a secularized Islamic background? I bet not.
Choose Several Bible Translations That Meet Your Criteria
After you settle on a purpose, you want to go shopping online and choose several Bibles that either satisfy your criteria fully or are at least close to what you are looking for. When you choose, remember that you will be comparing these Bibles with one another too, so make sure you choose the Bibles that can be compared. It may sound trivial, but at this stage there is no reason to choose Bibles that fall too far away from one another in terms of your criteria. It will simply confuse you, and your decision making process will be distorted. For example, if you are interested in word-for-word translations of the Bible, make sure you choose from among them.
Explore the Bibles You Chose
After you narrow down your search, it is time to dive a little bit deeper and do some research into these Bibles. You can research the Bible translation online by reading reviews of the translations. Try to find scholarly reviews rather than some dilettante’s self-indulgent opinion on how easy or difficult the text is. Scholarly reviews will provide you with in-depth and well-reasoned insights. You can find them in peer-reviewed journals or specialized webpages. Your local library can be a resource too.
Once you are done with your online exploration, it is time to talk to your pastor and friends. Their opinions will provide you with down-to-earth and practical ideas that will balance out those ivory-tower scholarly reviews. Share with them why you want to buy a Bible and what translations you are considering. Ask questions about the pastor’s preference, and check the Bibles in the pews. Talk to your friends to see what their experiences are with reading their Bible versions.
Buy the Bible.
After you complete these steps, you should be ready to buy your Bible. I prefer to go and buy my scripture from a brick-and-mortar retailer rather than online because it gives me the chance to touch the book, to feel it, and to sniff it. Think of it as a way of familiarizing yourself with a treasure that will be with you for many years.
When you buy the Bible, remember to pay attention to its qualities as a product. Here your purpose comes into play as well. Are you going to use the Bible everyday, and will you be carrying it with you? Then a hard cover Bible would be better because they last longer. Are you buying the Bible not just to read but also to put in a highly visible place at home so that seeing it reminds you to read the sacred text? Then perhaps a large-sized Bible would be a better choice. Do you plan to make notes in the Bible? Then a Bible with wide margins would suit you better.
The Last Word
All these steps boil down to one thing: Think before you buy the Bible; don’t buy the Bible haphazardly. You cannot afford to take this issue lightly because it is about your faith or someone else’s faith who trusts you enough to read the Bible you bought for them.