Which Version of the Holy Bible is Best?

Anyone who knows me, knows this is a rhetorical question;  if you have been reading much of my blog, you may well have come to the same conclusion.  There is of course a point to the question.  At least three points, in fact!

  •   Which bible?
  •   Which version?
  •   “Best” for what?

Which bible?  

“Bible” derives from the Greek, βιβλίο, or biblio, and it just means “book.”  Any book.  Of course, in the United States most think of the Christian bible if you just say “the bible.”  But we still might wish to know if we are speaking of a Protestant bible or a Catholic bible, as there are some differences between the two.  And some Eastern Orthodox bibles include a few books not found in Western bibles.  Beyond these considerations, we might also ask about the differences between the Hebrew bible and the Christian Old Testament.

As we quickly see, even this simple question can become somewhat complex.

The first point I think important to appreciate is that the Christian bible is comprised of two parts.  The first part is the Hebrew bible;  the second part is the New Testament.  Both of these are anthologies, a collection of ancient books and letters written by a variety of persons.  The Hebrew bible was written across many hundreds of years, while the New Testament was written in roughly a 100-year span, beginning about 30-years or so after Jesus was executed by the Romans.

It is always dangerous to make simplified statements in this area of study, but *essentially* the Christian Old Testament is the same as the Hebrew bible, although arranged differently.  The Hebrew bible was revised in the first century of the Common Era, removing those books for which Jewish tradition says there could be found no copies written in Hebrew.  The assumption was if they could not find any copies written in Hebrew, these books did not belong in the Hebrew bible.  Christians too have historically held some differences in opinion as to which books should be included in their Old Testament (and still do).  Martin Luther felt a number of books should be removed, and most Protestant bibles observe this form to this day.  From this stems the differences between the Protestant and Catholic bibles.

This is only a very rough sketch of the long and complex (and on certain points, still debated) process of determining the canon of Hebrew and Christian bibles.  A great deal more research may be done on the subject, and for those who find this of interest, it is quite an intriguing area of study.

The main point I wish to make for this blog, is simply to alert the reader there are several different authorized versions of the “bible” with which you may wish to be familiar:  the Hebrew bible;  the Christian Protestant bible;  the Christian Catholic bible;  and the Eastern Orthodox bibles.  All hold equal claim to being “the bible.”

The next question is:  Which version?  

At this point I will drop the Hebrew bible from the conversation and refer to only the New Testament.  More specifically still, I will only refer to either the Protestant and Catholic bibles.  Even with these limitations we have a dizzying array of choices before us!  The Biblical Archaeology web site (www.biblicalarchaeology.org) currently offers a very useful PDF guide, highlighting the major differences between 33 versions of the Christian bible.  I found it quite interesting and helpful in determining which bible one may prefer:

Beyond this, I would also like to point out there are a number of “study” bibles one may purchase.  Many of these are quite good, and provide useful introductions to every book within the bible.  Reading these summaries are a wonderful way to begin reading a given book of the bible, and is a very good place to start when looking up a particular verse.  It really adds a lot of depth and dimension to one’s studies.  Critical understanding of the bible is strongly effected by context:  context of that particular book or letter to the rest of the bible;  context of the author to his audience;  and the context within history.  As these considerations are better understood, we may turn to the context of a given passage to the text in which it is embedded.  Among my favourite study bibles are:

  •   “Harper-Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version” (with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books)
  •   “The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation” (edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane)

What about interlinear bibles?

A useful study tool is an interlinear bible.  These bibles provide several languages, one written above the other, line by line, so you may make direct comparisons in your bible study.  These tend to be more expensive bibles, and they are offered by fewer publishers, however there are online versions, one of which is:

If you take a look at the page for Genesis chapter one, you’ll get an idea how an interlinear bible is arranged.  Note that Hebrew reads from the right to the left, so when reading Genesis 1:1, for example, you must start reading at the right edge of the screen, and work your way to the left.  Below the Hebrew, the English translation is displayed.  Sometimes Hebrew words have no corresponding word in English, and sometimes several.

The numerals above the Hebrew typically correspond to Strong’s lexicon, which allows you to look up words by their assigned number.  Why would one wish to do that?  You will discover that the number for a given word always is assigned to the same word in the original language, however, it may be assigned to several words in the language into which it is being translated.  This allows us to see that the original word carries multiple meanings, and this helps us understand which may be the better translation for a given passage, yet be better understood differently in another passage.  And, importantly, this allows us to work with the source language and verify the translation appear to be accurate;  or perhaps we will discover some subtle shades of meaning which would otherwise remain hidden to us:

Which leaves us to answer which is the “best” version of the bible?  

This is impossible to answer, because it depends upon one’s needs and preferences.  For myself, there are some passages which simply only “sound right” to my ear when spoken in the King James version.  On the other hand, I know there are hundreds of words used in that version of the bible which no longer mean what they did when it was written, some of which are now extremely misleading.  Furthermore, I know it was originally sourced from what are now known to have been inferior copies of the manuscripts (this was unintentional;  at the time they made use of the best, or only, copies to which they had access).  So for these reasons, I do not use the King James version when I am critically reading the bible.  But when I want beautiful, poetic prose, I do tend to prefer the King James version.

Of the modern translations, my favorite is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  I also enjoy the New American Bible (NAB) translation.  But realistically, all modern translations are on par with one another, and for the most part make good use of modern biblical scholarship.  Personally, I like to have several translations at hand.

A very useful online study tool is the Bible Gateway web site (www.biblegateway.com) which offers a large number of translations, and the ability to compare them side by side.  This is usually where I begin my bible study, because it is so fast and easy to cross compare multiple translations:

If one is really wishing to get into the thick of working out a translation, one should explore the source language.  In most cases, that is going to be Hebrew for the Hebrew bible, and Greek for the New Testament.  One of the areas I especially enjoy this line of enquiry is when names of God appear in the Christian Old Testament.  This is one case where we who do not speak Hebrew lose a lot in translation.  And I suspect those of us who are not Jewish usually fail to appreciate the depth of tradition in how the various names of G-d are used.

(When speaking from a Christian perspective, I’ll type out “God” but I feel this inappropriate when speaking from a Jewish perspective because they consider this blasphemous;  hence the use of “G-d.”)

It is all really quite interesting!  Words may mean different things in the same language, change in meaning across time, and we even debate the proper definition of certain words to this day!  Surely, this has always been the case.  Add to this the difficulty in translating from one language to another, and dealing with the many decisions in so doing, such as whether one should be translating as literally as possible, or for as similar a meaning as possible, and we can see a great deal of work goes into making a given translation of “the bible.”

And I hope you also see why it is not possible for there to be any “one” or “best” translation of the bible.

Offered with blessings,
Erik+

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