Way back when I was a Presbyterian religion student at a Baptist school, I thought it would be really, really cool to take Basics of Biblical Greek. One of the first lessons we learned (after copying down our alpha, beta, gammas a bunch of times) was that “every translation is an interpretation.” Basically — it’s next to impossible to translate a text from the Greek without placing some kind of bias into it along the way. There are ways to safeguard against this (to quote my teacher: “It’s all about context”), but in the end there may be more than one legitimate translation to a passage that how you translate it is going to depend on your personal biases.

For example: one particular passage — and I don’t remember which, sorry — can be rendered as either “faith in Christ” or “the faith of Christ.” It won’t radically alter the passage as a whole, but the meanings are different.

Then, of course, there is the issue of how the base text from which you are translating is built. The Greek New Testament we were handed was compiled from thousands of comparative manuscripts and manuscript fragments, and Old Testament Hebrew texts were done the same way.

So, after mangling my way through the Greek text (I’m fairly sure my translations would have made the publishers of the New World Bible blush), I decided that the next best thing would be to get a plurality of Bibles.

(On a side note: there was a time when I was really snobby about what Bible translation I used. I was a strict New American Standard or English Standard Version-onlyist…But I digress. To understand the kind of weird spiritual arrogance I’m talking about, see this Internet Monk post.)

But now, onward Christian soldiers. Though this is not an exhaustive list of the Bibles I own (I have approximately 12 translations among the numerous copies I own), it is a list of Bibles I use, usually to compare against each other.

The main four are all descendents of the one and only, the (Authorized) King James Version.

New Revised Standard Version with Deuterocanon (1989 edition): I know this is supposedly a liberal Bible with a liberal agenda, but its renderings of the Psalms made me love it. I bought my first copy in college for religion classes in the form of “The New Oxford Annotated Bible,” and Susannah recently gave me a much less wieldy copy minus all the study notes than what LC’s religion students used to call “Old Red.” It’s just as well, because the study notes weren’t all that helpful in the Oxford bible. Like at all. This is the Bible I take to church for discussion, because it’s a different translation than anyone else has, and I think that can be helpful. Very readable. Considered a blend of literal and thought-for-thought translation.

The English Standard Version (first edition): I was so excited about this “conservative alternative” to the NRSV that I bought it the first week it was available when I was in college. In fact, I bought a hardcover and a trutone copy. Very readable. Considered essentially literal.

The New American Standard Version (second edition): This was the first Bible I bought when I started to get really, really, really concerned about literal translations and their importance (and before I realized how an absolutely literal translation reads). It kept me company until I got my ESVs, and I still pull it out from time to time despite the fact that a lot of the pages got water-stained after I left it in the car with the windows down during a rainstorm. Moderately readable, though some of the Pauline passages come off sounding like legal copy. Considered essentially literal, moreso than the ESV.

The New King James Version: A few years back my mother gave me a very expensive copy of the NKJV in the form of the Reformation Study Bible, the direct descendent of the Geneva Study Bible. I like translation because it was similar to what I used to memorize scripture with as a child in Bible Drill (we used the KJV, of course). Moderately readable. Considered mid-way between completely literal and New International Version.

The honorable mentions:

The Holman Christian Standard Bible: I only have a copy of the New Testament in the Holman, and I consult it from time to time. It reads like a blend of the ever-popular New International Version. Moderately readable, but not really offering any new perspective on the passages I’ve consulted it on. Considered to be half-way on the literal/thought-for-thought scale between the NRSV and the NKJV.

The New International Version: The evangelical favorite. Considered to be the exact middle of the chart for the literal translation versus thought-for-thought translation ideologies, I used to use it when teaching elementary students Sunday School. Easily readable at a sixth grade reading level.

The New American Bible with Revised Psalms: Not to be confused with the New American Standard Version, this is a Catholic translation, and the revised Pslams just means that the translators revised the numbering of the Pslams to coincide with the traditional Jewish numbering rather than the numbering given in the Latin Vulgate. I like its rendering of much of the wisdom literature, but in other places the reading is stilted. Considered to be between the New Revised Standard Version and the NIV as far as literal rendering is concerned.

I don’t bother with translations that lapse beyond the NIV in terms of paraphrase, but I don’t judge those who do. I am wary, however, of going too far into paraphrase because that is when you really start to open a passage up for personal interpretation in the translation, and a few of the less-literal translations I’ve read have noticeably omitted ideas or phrases central to a passage in a well-meaning attempt to find the heart of that passage. But honestly, if they help you, go for it.

Anyway, for those of you who are still counting, here’s my rundown on a literal-to-not-as-literal scale.

NASB
ESV
NKJV
HCSB
NRSV
NAB
NIV

Of course, I still have a copy of the Authorized Version (the 1769 revision, not the ultra-poetic sounding 1611 version), and — just to feel cool — I still have my Greek New Testament.

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