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Ask the Preacher

I am frequently asked, “Which Bible translation is the best?” This is an important question, especially if you don’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the original languages of the Bible. There are some bad translations out there that we should avoid.

Broadly speaking, there are three different approaches to Bible translation. The New American Standard is an example of the Formal Equivalence approach to translation which renders the original texts as close to word-for-word as possible. The New International Version is an example of Dynamic Equivalence approach which seeks phrase-for-phrase translation. The goal is to maximize both readability and adherence to the original text. The third broad approach to translation is a Paraphrase, which seeks to maximize readability, which sometimes results in sacrificing adherence to the original text.

Which translation to use is extremely important. We are not just dealing with just any book. Words are critical to the Christian life. God spoke the universe into being (Genesis 1:3). Jesus is the word of God in the flesh (John 1:14). Jesus tells us that heaven and earth will pass away, but His word will remain forever (Matthew 24:35). It is absolutely essential that we have as close to the original words of Jesus, so we can make sense of what Jesus actually said and the intent of the biblcial writers. It’s not as if we are translating a John Grisham novel into Spanish. The Bible contains the inspired word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). A good Bible translation is foundational to a strong faith.

What follows is a couple of comparisons between the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update as a representative of the Formal Equivalence Approach to translation, the New International Version as a representative of the Dynamic Equivalence approach to translation, and The Message as an example of a Paraphrase.

Matthew 6:9

New American Standard Bible

Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.

New International Version

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,

The Message

With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.

This familiar beginning to the Lord’s Prayer contains some important information about how we are to address God in prayer. According the the NASB and NIV, we are to “hollow” God. The word means that we are to understand that God is holy. When we approach God in prayer, we recognize that God is holy. Describing the holiness of God is beyond the scope of this article, but whatever it means, it does not mean “reveal who you are,” as The Message reads. God has many characteristics, but the one characteristic that Jesus juxtaposed with the Fatherhood of God is His holiness. Also, the original language (Greek) does not have an imperative verb (a command) directed to God. The Greek does not command God to reveal Himself to us. The Message does more than simply make this passage more readable. It misrepresents the original meaning significantly. If one were to read The Message only, one would miss THE MESSAGE entirely.

 

John 4:23

New American Standard Bible

But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

New International Version

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

The Message

That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship.

This verse near the end of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well also serves as an example of the weakness and distortion that paraphrases like The Message can render. The Message makes “simple and honest” people the type of people God is looking for who will worship Him. The NASB and NIV more accurately render the Greek by communicating that God is looking for people who are Spirit and truth-focused in their worship. The NASB and NIV differ as to the nature of the spirit: do we worship God in His Spirit (NIV) or in our spirit (NASB)? This is a legitimate area of debate among scholars because the Greek is ambiguous on this point. The ambiguity can add additional insight depending on which interpretation approach one takes. Nevertheless, what we can say with absolute certainty is that The Message absolutely distorts the original language such that one cannot grasp Jesus’ intended meaning based on that “translation.”

 

Paraphrases, like The Message, are Inadequate

There are many more examples, but these two are enough to communicate one idea clearly: The Message is not a Bible that anyone who takes their faith seriously should be reading. If anyone wants to grow in Christilikeness, choosing a good Bible translation is of utmost importance. The chart below is from Christian Book Distributors. If you click on the chart, a new tab will be opened directing you to the page that describes Bible translations. I share this chart with you to give you some advice on which Bible translation to choose. An interlinear translation, on the far left of the chart, has both the Greek and English words in the text (usually one on top of the other). I consult an interlinear in all my sermon and Bible study preparation. As one moves from left to right on the chart, one moves from Formal Equivalence (word-for-word) translation through Dynamic Equivalence (phrase-for-phrase) translation to Paraphrase on the far right. Notice that The Message is on the far right hand side, indicating that it is the least reliable of all translations.

The Bottom Line

My advice to you is to choose a translation from as far left on this chart as you are comfortable reading. I prefer the NASB for study, but most people like a translation that reads more smoothly. For devotional reading and public reading in Bible studies and worship services, my experience is that people prefer the NIV because of its smooth readability. Chuck Swindoll reads the New Living Translation (NLT) before he preaches. The issue is this: the further right one moves along this chart, the less reliable the translation becomes. It may be more readable, but it is a less accurate rendering of the word of God. And what we want is a reliable translation.

The bottom line: I strongly encourage everyone to read only translations to the left of the NIV on this chart. All the translations on the left of the chardt have strengths and weaknesses, but all of them reliably, to one degree or another, reflect the intention of the biblical authors. All the translations to the right of the NIV, should be avoided, even for devotional reading.

 

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WadeArnold

Husband. Father. Pastor. Psychologist. I am passionate about leadership and discipleship.

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