The majority of the books of the Bible were written in Hebrew (the Old Testament) and Greek (the New Testament). Eventually the Bible was translated into other languages such as Latin and German, and then English. In 1611, the King James version (KJV) of the Bible was released and it remained the most popular English translation for over 300 years. In the last 100 years, there have been many other English translations, resulting in literally dozens being now available.
Essentially, there are three types of translations:
- A Literal Translation - this is an attempt at a direct 'word for word' translation. The New King James Version (NKJV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are literal translations.
- A Dynamic Equivalent Translation - this type of translation endeavors to translate the broader sense of the phrases, not just the literal words. The New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT) are dynamic equivalent translations.
- A Paraphrase - this is a translation into modern English. The Good News Bible (GNB) and the Message Bible (MB) are paraphrases.
Each of these types of translations have to try to balance readability with faithfulness to the original text. Because of this, there is really no fixed boundary between these three types of translations. They simply represent a range of translation methods.
The New Testament was written in Koine or 'common' Greek, which was the local street language of the day used for speaking with your neighbors or shopping at the market NOT in classical or 'proper' Greek, which was used for writing history, philosophy or poetry. As Eugene Peterson says, 'Our Bible was not written in the educated and polished language of scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians but primarily in the common language of fisherman, prostitutes, homemakers and carpenters." It was said about Jesus, "... and the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12:37 NKJV)." The Bible is meant to be readable as it is. It is not a book of secret knowledge accessible only to the academic elite. It is written plainly for plain men and women.
So which is the best translation? The Hebrew and Greek, of course! But unless you read these languages, you'll need an English translation. The best translation depends on your purpose. For something closer to the original words, use a literal translation. For something more readable, use a dynamic equivalent translation. For something fresh and contemporary, use a paraphrase.
The King James Version (KJV) was ‘contemporary’ 400 years ago. Unless you still speak to your neighbors like this - “Yea, verily, whither dost thou goest and how art thou?” ... it's probably time to move on.
The main Bible that I use is the NIV, but I also really like the NLT, as well as the Message Bible.
For further information on choosing a Bible translation, I recommend the following two books:
- NEW: How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth - A Guide to Understanding an Using Bible Versions by Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss (Published Oct.2007). This excellent book has extended and up-to-date information on all current Bible translations, including the TNIV.
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart
- Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson
Thankfully, with powerful Bible software anyone can now discover the meanings of Bible words in the original languages and do all sorts of interesting background studies. I recommend PC Study Bible.