A student at the youth group where I teach asked me the other day which translation of the Bible I recommend. I made the same two recommendations I always make in that situation: I recommend reading in the ESV (English Standard Version), and I recommend using the Blue Letter Bible app if you have a smartphone—this app makes it very easy to get to the original language behind the text.
But on a bigger picture, it’s probably true that most Christians have no idea how divine inspiration works to get from God’s breathing an idea to an ancient writer and into your hands in the Bible. To illustrate this, you can do the below experiment at home easily.
Imagine that God’s divine word as clear, pure water. The author of a Biblical book (Paul, Matthew, etc.) speaks in a particular ancient language, and has a particular personality and cultural experience. This vessel (the author) has a shape to it, such as we see in this first vase. When God pours out His word into this vessel, His word conforms therefore into this particular shape.
So the language and culture and personality of the author take God’s word, but give it a particular shape or form.
So the divine inspiration stays the same (the water), but it has to change shape and form to fit within the different vases (the language and culture of the translator).
This has several practical impacts on how we read our Bibles.
First, we must understand that the original language had limitations. When an ancient vessel is the wrong shape for the divine word, then he must pick the closest approximation using the language he has available to him. For example, in English we have a word which means, “a class of warm-blooded vertebrate animals that secrete milk for their young”—mammal. The ancient Hebrews had no such word. So when God inspired Leviticus 11:13-19, then the ancient Hebrew vessel is limited: he cannot describe it as a ‘flying mammal,’ like we would. So Moses must choose a word in his language which approximates the divinely inspired idea. So in this passage, he must put the bat in the most logical classification word he has—‘owph, or “flying creatures.”
So when this passage is translated into modern English, what word do you choose for ‘owph in English as the translator? Perhaps 99 times out of a hundred, this is referring to a bird; but in some rare cases it refers to insects or bats. Do you translate them all as “flying creatures” (which makes the sentences pretty clunky to read)? Or do you translate some as “bird” and some as “mammal”?
Often skeptics read Lev 11:13-19 and try to use it as a contradiction, when in reality it is nothing but a limitation of the original language.
Second, we must understand that the modern language has limitations. Just like the ancient Hebrew, our modern English language has limitations. One famous and good example is the concept of love. We have one word for “love,” and we must use it to cover everything from how I feel about my dog to how I feel about my wife. By comparison, the ancient Greek language had four words for love: eros, for romantic love; agape, for sacrificial love; storge, for family affection, and philia, for friendship and loyalty love.
So when the Bible says to love God and love your neighbor, what kind of love should it be? When it says that husbands are to love their wives, what kind of love should it be? What kind of love are wives required to have for their husbands? Each of these concepts in the Bible are translated into our language as just “love,” and therefore the subtlety of the original text is lost.
Third, we must understand that the translator is not inerrant. The word of God (the water in our vases) was inerrant; how it is understood by a translator and rendered into the modern language is not. Some people treat the KJV (or some other version) as somehow perfect and protected from error; God never promised such a thing.
Fourth, we must understand the purpose and goal of various translations. Roughly speaking, translators like to call their translations “word-by-word” or “phrase-by-phrase” translations. What this really means is—which of the two vases are they trying to treat accurately? A word-by-word translation (like the ESV, or NET, or HCSB, or NASB) focuses on trying to accurately represent the original vessel—the Hebrew and Greek. So each word is carefully chosen in order to try and best represent the English equivalent of the ancient word. Meanwhile, a phrase-by-phrase translation (like the NIV or NLT) is focused upon trying to optimize the current vessel (English), so that it accurately represents the thought or concept of the Scriptural passage.
So…what translation should I use?
You see, it is not quite as simple as picking one translation. For new/immature Christians I will usually suggest something like NIV or NLT, so that they can properly get the gist of the passage in English that sounds natural rather than stilted. For those who understand the basic concepts but want a more accurate understanding of the words themselves, I’ll usually suggest the ESV or NET so that they can delve into more depth.
But in all cases, I think the best thing is to read a number of different translations.
You see, if I pour water from one vase into another vase, it will take on a new shape. And it’s possible I might misunderstand the volume of the water as a result. But if I keep pouring it into different vessels over and over, the common essence of the water itself becomes more obvious. It’s like when you were a kid, and your science teacher poured water into a tall thin beaker and then into a short round bowl. At first you thought they were different but as you poured from one to the other, you better understood the true nature and volume of the water, and how the different shapes affected it.
That is why I always recommend the Blue Letter Bible app. (Disclosure: I get nothing free and no pay from BLB! This is an honest recommendation.) It is free, but it allows you to easily switch between each translation and then quickly access an interlinear concordance so that you can see what words were used in the original language (and what they mean). To me, this is the best method for studying Scripture and protecting yourself from misunderstandings.