Though most of the ancient manuscripts of the Bible agree, wide variation exists among English translations, a fact that becomes evident after perusing several. Translation, it has been said, is an art and not a science, blending verbal precision with literary style. Some translations, though easier to read and more pleasant to the ear, have sacrificed accuracy for that effect. Others, like the dependable King James Version, though somewhat archaic, more accurately reflect the majority readings.
So choosing a Bible is an important task. Though an accurate primary Bible will usually give a satisfactory rendering of most verses, we recommend that one compare difficult passages in a second or third translation to clear up any confusion that arises.
What should one look for in a primary Bible? The foremost consideration should be accuracy. Believe it or not, not all translators of the Bible consider it authoritative, inspired or inerrant! Besides, it is difficult to know whether God inspired their work. The only safe determining factor to assess a translation's accuracy is to research its source text(s).
The New Testament has been transmitted to us in three major text types: the Byzantine, the Alexandrian and the Western texts. The Byzantine or Eastern type represents 85% of known Greek manuscripts, and among these an incredible unanimity exists. This text type was preserved in the Byzantine Empire, roughly corresponding to the area covered by the apostle Paul. Though these texts are not the oldest (the earliest dating from the fifth century), the huge number of Byzantine manuscripts, as well as their inclusion of familiar passages not included in other types (Mark 16:9-19; Luke 22:19-20; 24:12; John 7:53-8:11; Acts 18:21; 24:6-8; etc.), argues for their authenticity.
A growing number of scholars recognize that the Byzantine type is much older than the existing manuscripts suggest. Readings regarded as uniquely Byzantine have been found in far older (second- and third-century) papyrus fragments, as well as in quotations from early church writers. In addition, the Byzantine text has for centuries been the standard New Testament of the Greek-speaking churches of Greece and Asia Minor.
The Alexandrian type represents the oldest manuscripts yet found, and its chief texts are Codex Vaticanus, residing in Vatican City, and Codex Sinaiticus, residing in the British Museum. Today, because of the age of the manuscripts, it is the primary text of modern scholarship. Scholars assume that since these texts date before the Byzantine texts, they are closer to the originals and thus more accurate. However, though written as early as the fourth century, Alexandrian texts often disagree with each other and show signs of poor copying and preservation.
The Western type was developed in the western Mediterranean under the Roman church. Some authorities describe it as a "wild" or "undisciplined" text that shows little editorial control. So little similarity exists among these texts that scholars wonder if there really is a Western type! No major translations rely solely on the Western text, but some occasionally use its variant readings.
Because of the Jews careful treatment of the Old Testament, the Hebrew text has far fewer variants among the handful of texts used for translation purposes. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has verified their accuracy to a remarkable degree. Two manuscripts are most commonly used, the Bomberg (ben Chayyim) and Leningrad (ben Asher) texts, and they are quite similar, though the latter is about 500 years older.
One should also consider readability. A Bible does little good if the average reader cannot understand the language or is constantly baffled by the syntax or flow. Many publishers in recent years have taken up the challenge to present an accurate Bible in modern English, but with varying success.
The English-speaking world's most popular translation continues to be the Authorized or King James Version (KJV). It and its descendant, the New King James Version (NKJV), are the only major versions that represent the Byzantine tradition, although other texts were consulted during the translation of the newer translation. Even in its 1611 English, the KJV is remarkably accurate and understandable, and it is still the most reliable translation on the market. In the NKJV, the archaic language of the KJV is removed while retaining much of its familiarity.
The New International Version (NIV) is an ecumenical, evangelical Protestant translation. Although it reads well, it shows frequent bias toward Protestant doctrine in its choice of various renderings (compare Mark 1:1 in the NKJV and the NIV). It, along with most modern translations, omits or places in footnotes "disputed" sections not supported by the Alexandrian text.
The Revised Standard and the New Revised Standard Versions are distinctly American translations. They are also Protestant in bias but slightly more conservative than the NIV. The New American Standard Version also falls into this class.
The Living Bible, Paraphrased is a free paraphrase, not a translation, and is thus not accurate. Its writers include many details found not in the ancient texts and take literary license to an extreme. Today's English Version ("The Good News Bible") falls in the same category. Other translations and paraphrases good for comparison purposes include the Moffatt translation, the Phillip's translation, The Amplified Bible, The New (or Revised) English Bible and the Jerusalem Bible (Catholic).
Among Old Testament specialty Bibles, the most accurate is The Holy Scriptures published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1917. Their latest version, Tanakh, a looser and less accurate translation, shows influence from modern critical scholarship in its idiomatic rendering.
With literally scores of translations to choose from, deciding which Bible(s) to buy is a task that requires a bit of study of its own. But the study and care are well rewarded when the right Bible is chosen. For years to come one can feel confident that the words he reads in his Bible are as close to the original sense and meaning as we can get today.