Attention Exegetes: Which Bible Translation?

Since starting PhD research on Bible Translation, I’ve regularly been asked, ‘what is the best Bible translation?’ I usually disappoint with my answer because I always say it depends. We use Bibles for different purposes: teaching, private devotionals, public reading, children/youth ministry, verse memorisation, technical exegesis and more. Different circumstances demand a different translation.

For instance, when teaching Bible studies to international students whose grasp of English is sometimes poor, I often use the NLT. For those in youth ministry I have recommended the NCV. For general reading, something like the HCSB is ideal. But since we’re a college that specialises in hermeneutics and exegesis, what is the most useful translation for students wanting to engage directly with the original text?

Firstly, I would encourage learning the Biblical languages. This is a most fruitful activity. But even the best scholars refer to English translations so which is the most useful? Again the answer is not simple. I have deep appreciation for the NASB and NET translations and could pick either but perhaps just ahead as my preference is the ESV (English Standard Version). Here’s why:

1) It is essentially literal. Before continuing I should say that contrary to popular opinion, literal is not a synonym for accurate so a literal translation is not necessarily more accurate than a dynamic translation. However, literalness means the reader can more easily see the underlying Greek or Hebrew text which in turn makes exegesis easier. For example, sometimes a Greek/Hebrew verse is vague or unclear and rather than attempt a guess at the meaning, the ESV tends to translate in a way that retains the uncertainties of the underlying language.

2) It is notable for its accuracy. Again, the ESV is not accurate because it’s literal. It’s accurate because it has good scholarship behind it: the makers of the ESV assembled a fine team of first rank scholars and the quality of their work is evident. It is a trustworthy translation.

3) It is surprisingly readable. When I first read through the ESV, I was surprised at how well it flowed. This is not always true with other translations: my one complaint with the otherwise outstanding NASB is that its literalness sometimes makes it unreadable, especially with Old Testament prophecy. Less so with the ESV.

4) It is a recent production (2001). This is related to #2. Scholarship moves on, and our understanding of the Biblical languages has gradually improved over time. In addition, our usage of the English language changes over time and the ESV is in line with the evolution of both.

5) It has excellent supporting resources. There is a growing number of academic works and Bible software that support the ESV (consider for example the excellent ‘ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament’). These resources are growing, although sadly still missing is a paper based exhaustive concordance.

So regarding the question, ‘what is the best translation for exegesis?’ my gold medal goes to the ESV. But of course that doesn’t mean we ignore other translations so I also suggest making good use of my two other top picks, the NASB and the NET. And, of course, do spend time learning the original languages.

See other Bible translations reviews in this series here.

Andy Cheung is a PhD student researching Bible Translation and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School in England.

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  1. I find it quite distressing how out of favour NASB and other Bible versions seem to be in my country. I could only find, King James versions, NIV, The Message, and some other modern version. No offence meant to contemporary versions, I read them myself quite often. I suppose I just don’t understand why people don’t consider these other versions( such as NASB) and why the market is filtered instead with bibles with TV evangelists names on. Why shouldn’t most Christians have a range of Bibles to choose from? And why should my father not be able to find a NASB Bible for me for Christmas in the religious section of a secular book store or even in a Christian bookshop?

  2. I agree with you: it really is very strange. The NASB is very highly rated in the US but I find few Christians are aware of it in other countries. The same could be said for the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) which I feel is unquestionably one of the finest translations available today. To my continued disappointment, it is also very hard to find even though it is one of the cheapest Bibles to purchase.

    Fortunately, both of these Bibles can be read online for free at various Bible websites but I do wish that Christian booksellers would begin to sell a greater range of Bible translations

  3. I use the ESV and like it very much.

  4. Hi Andy. Do you not think the fact that the NET bible is so open it counts against it? Obviously on the one hand I can see the positive aspects, but doesn’t it make the formal scholarship “weaker”? What I mean is that perhaps people who will not be normally part of a translation committee now has influence on how the translation goes or how it is interpreted (within a translation context).

  5. Hi there pgrobler. I think perhaps you are getting confused with the WEB (World English Bible) which is a user contributed Bible translation. The WEB, as you suggest, might suffer from the fact that user suggestions may not be scholarly. The NET, on the other hand, is not open to public contributions: the work comes from scholars at Dallas Theological Seminary.

  6. Hi Andy. Thanks for the correction. I must admin I don’t have a lot of knowledge on the NET Bible, although I have an electronic copy on my PDA phone and enjoyed reading from it, especially Song of Solomon. I also saw the great amount of textual notes on their site. But I was always a bit weary of trusting it more than just for the sake of interest, because of my uncertainty about their translation committee. But your positives comments on it pushes it up a few notches then. Certainly their concept is quite revolutionary.

    My “regular” reading bible is also the ESV, and I love this translation a lot. I think it is one you can use for good exegesis as well as casual reading, which is a combination that is quite scarce. My church also switched to it a few years back. I don’t know elsewhere, but this version is subsidised by the Bible Society in South Africa so there are versions available that is really well priced for relatively good quality, apart from the more durable versions. I noted with interest the new Literary Study version of the ESV that recently came out. Interesting concept. Have you seen it?

    I subscribe to a few blogs, and I read more and more recently about the HCSB. This bible is not widely available in South Africa at all, but I have seen it in one or two stores. There is an interesting interview with with Dr. Ed Blum, General Editor for the HCSB, that can be found here:
    Perhaps it will be of interest to some of the readers here.

  7. Thanks for the comment! I agree that the concept of the NET is very interesting — it makes us ask the question, \”what is translation?\” Is it just the text or the text plus footnotes?

    You can be quite sure to trust the NET footnotes – among Bible translators, they are considered very scholarly and up-to-date. The New Testament editor is a hero of mine: Daniel Wallace, a giant among Greek scholars. Other members of the committee include Robert Chisholm, Hall Harris III, Eugene Merrill, Allen Ross, Darrell Bock, and Harold Hoehner all of whom are very established scholars. I read a comment recently from a member of the ESV translation committee who mentioned they used the NET footnotes in preparing the ESV.

    I am aware of the Literary Study Version of the ESV — it\’s an ESV text with study notes to emphasise the message that the Bible is a work of literature. I\’ve not read it but given that Leland Ryken and Philip Graham Ryken are behind it, I would expect good things.

    Thanks for the HCSB link. It\’s a fascinating interview. I\’ve seen a couple of articles with Ed Blum and he really impresses me. I think he made some outstanding decisions with the HCSB and I eagerly await the next edition in 2009. If you haven\’t got a copy of the HCSB, get it. I consider it the best general-purpose translation on the market. A couple of years back I was asked to select the pew Bible for a church I attended. I considered several options: NIV, TNIV, ESV but I opted for the HCSB. I still think that was the right decision.

  8. Hi Andy

    That is an interesting thing to think about – is translation just text or text plus footnotes? With the lack of restriction of space, and the philosophy of the translators to put their reasoning and thoughts behind their choices, gives so much more insight into the meaning. I suppose one can say that some exegetical commentaries might simplify the meaning as well, and that the concept itself it not new. But how often do you get a running commentary by the translators themselves? The perspective is also different. In the one you have a theological mindset, in the other a linguistic one (although I am sure that a translator will probably not be able to distance himself completely from his theological preferences when he looks at a passage/word).

    I will try to add the HCSB to my collection, in the mean time at least I have access to it electronically. I actually prefer to have it electronically first, especially in e-sword. I can read and compare it here to my other translations, and perhaps decide to buy it later as a reading Bible.

    I understand that the Crossway will bring out an update of the ESV this year. Do you know anything about it? What was the philosophy/reasons behind the update?

    You mentioned the WEB earlier. What do you think of this translation? I see that they have the apocryphal books on their site as well, a quick look indicates that they have modernised this English too. Is that a good place to read the apocrypha in modern English (for free) or do you have another place you can recommend?

  9. Hi Paul

    You’re quite correct to say that it’s hard for translators to distance themselves from theological preferences. All translation carries with it a degree of interpretation.

    Crossway did announce that they would make a minor revision to the ESV but I think their emphasis was on the word “minor.” This is quite normal with Bible translations – they undergo small changes in punctuation, grammar or the odd word here and there. I wouldn’t expect to see significant alterations.

    I’ve not used much of the World English Bible. A few years ago I did but its now mainly redundant for me. I can access most major Bible translations online and with e-Sword providing the ESV offline I don’t need much else. It would be quite useful if I was working on my own translation — that way, I could base my translation on it and the fact that it is public domain means that I don’t have to worry about copyright issues.

    As for reading the apocrypha, I’m afraid I can’t offer much advice! If you can find an NRSV or NJB that includes the apocrypha, that might be a better option.

  10. Hi Paul
    In the UK at any rate, it’s quite easy to pick up old NEBs containing the apocrypha very cheaply; most second hand book shops/charity shops have these coming in and out of stock quite often. As a translation of the apocrypha, this would be fine for a cursory study, though I wouldn’t get too bogged down with it. Why? For the simple reason that Jesus himself (judging from the record of his words in the NT) seems to have virtually ignored it!

    Blessings… Chris L

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