Best English Bible Translations


(1)       Bible Translations Online

BibleGateway (www.biblegateway.com ) is a free web site that allows you to view any Bible passage in any chosen version (translation) of the Bible.  It contains about 55 versions in English, including 4 different versions of the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV.  It also has good background information on each translation, and a very useful option to place translations from two different versions of the Bible side-by-side, for easy comparison.

That web site also says: A “No translation is ever completely successful, however, whether of the Bible or any other text. All translations fall short for a variety of reasons. First, no two languages are equivalent in their vocabulary, sounds, rhythms, idioms, or underlying structure. Nor are any two cultures out of which languages arise equivalent in their way of understanding and expressing reality, their value systems, or their social and political organization, among other factors. Second, the meaning of a text includes much more than its abstract thought. The sounds and rhythms of words, word play and puns, emotional overtones, metaphor, figurative language, and tone are just some of the other devices that carry meaning. No translation can transfer all these things from one language to another. Third, all translation requires interpretation. One cannot convey meaning in a second language without first deciding what it means in the original. This step of interpretation in translation is unavoidable and imperfect; equally skilled and well-meaning scholars will interpret differently. Fourth, a traditional translation requires one to choose a single possibility—whether of a word or an interpretation—when in fact two or more may be plausible.”


(2)       Short List of the Best English Translations

Four Bible Translations

Four Bible Translations

Here we limit ourselves to considering English translations that are: modern, produced by teams of scholars, and offer a Study version or Annotated version.  The use of a study version is highly recommended for both Christians and skeptics alike, as it will greatly increase your understanding of the passages you are reading, and it contains much important background information.  Based on these three criteria, the three best English translations are:

  • RSV       Revised Standard Version, originally published 1952.  The study version, still available in 2020, is: The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version. by Collard Professor of New Testament Emeritus Bruce M. Metzger and Herbert G May, 1977.

  • NRSV     New Revised Standard Version, originally published 1989.  The study version is: Attridge, Harold W., general editor. The HarperCollins Study Bible; fully revised and updated.  Revised edition.  HarperOne an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.  It is based on the best available manuscript evidence, and is gender-inclusive.  For example, in verses where ‘brothers’ means everyone, it is translated as ‘brothers and sisters’.

  • NIV        New International Version Study Bible.  Zondervan, 2011.  The 2011 update is the latest.  This is the most literal, and least allegorical, translation, and therefore favoured by Evangelicals.

Comparison of three translations of Paul’s words in Gal 2.15-16.

This table shows one example of the differences in the translations of the three different versions.

RSV NRSV NIV
We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles
yet who know that a man is not justified [or reckoned righteous] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, yet we know that a person is justified [or reckoned as righteous] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ [or the faith of Jesus Christ]. know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, [or the faith of Christ] So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ [or through the faithfulness of Christ]
and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. and not by doing works of the law, because no one will be justified by works of the law. and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

Notes on the Table.

  • The passage has been broken into four parts to make text comparisons easier.
  • Note that the three versions use slightly different wording throughout. Some of these differences are highlighted by underlining.
  • All words in [bracketed italics] are offered as alternative readings in the footnotes to that version of the Bible.
  • In the second part: the two newer versions use person instead of man, to make the word clearly gender-inclusive; and the RSV and NIV say ‘not justified by works’ but the NRSV says ‘justified not by works’ – does this have a different meaning?
  • In parts two and three, the ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ of all three versions is given an alternative translation as ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ in the NRSV, and as ‘through the faithfulness of Christ’ in the NIV. These are clearly different meanings.
  • In part four, shall and will don’t have quite the same meaning.

(3)       Choosing the NRSV

According to BibleGateway, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV) has received the widest acclaim and broadest support from academics and church leaders of any modern English translation.

“The ecumenical NRSV Bible Translation Committee consists of thirty men and women who are among the top scholars in America today. They come from Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic church, and the Greek Orthodox Church. The committee also includes a Jewish scholar.

The NRSV stands out among the many translations available today as the Bible translation that is the most widely “authorized” by the churches. It received the endorsement of thirty-three Protestant churches; the imprimatur of the American and Canadian Conferences of Catholic bishops; and the blessing of a leader of the Greek Orthodox Church.”

“The NRSV stands out among the many translations because it is ‘as literal as possible’ in adhering to the ancient texts and only ‘as free as necessary’ to make the meaning clear in graceful, understandable English. It draws on newly available sources that increase our understanding of many previously obscure biblical passages. These sources include new-found manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, other texts, inscriptions, and archaeological finds from the ancient Near East, and new understandings of Greek and Hebrew grammar.”

For the reasons given above, we choose to use the NRSV as our primary Bible – unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations on this web site are from the NRSV.  This choice is supported by the availability of two useful complementary publications, which we also recommend:

  • Bdict      Powell, Mark Allen, general editor.  HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011. 

  • Bconc    Kohlenberger, John R., III. The NRSV Concordance Unabbridged.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991.  Includes the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books in the 1483-page primary index.  The separate Topics and Footnotes indexes are also useful.

(4)    Translations of Selected Passages

Here are examples of different meanings in five Bible passages.

4.1       Isaiah 7.14  “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman[a] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel[b].” Superscript [a] notes that the Greek OT says the virgin in place of the young woman.  [b] says that Immanuel means God is with us.
The Bible Dictionary has these notes under “Virgin Birth”:  the original Hebrew word was almah, which means young woman of marriagable age.  It was translated for the Greek Septuagint version of the OT as parthenos, which can mean either young woman or virgin.  The NT authors, reading the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament,  decided to choose the meaning of virgin, so that the birth of Jesus would appear to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14, and this would make Jesus the Son of God.  The virgin birth story is only told in Matthew and Luke at the time of Jesus’ birth.  It is never mentioned again in these gospels nor in any other NT book.  Neither the disciples of Jesus, his family members, nor any others ever betray any indication of knowledge of his miraculous birth. [Bdict, 1088]

4.2       Lk 14.26    “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  The Bible footnote says hate is prophetic hyperbole, but the Peshitta version (in 5.3 below) says put aside is a better translation of the Greek word.

4.3       Acts 13.18  “For about forty years he [God] put up with them in the wilderness.”  A first footnote says ‘Other ancient authorities read cared for instead of put up with.’  A second footnote says ‘The difference between put up with and cared for in the Greek words is only one letter.’

4.4       1 Thess 1.6:  “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in [spite of]  persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”   The NRSV (as shown) and the NIV both insert [spite of]; the RSV does not, which Prof. Ed Sanders says is correct!  [EPS1, 206]

4.5       Luke  9.52-6.  Here, the passages in [italics in brackets] are from other ancient versions.   “And he [Jesus] sent messengers ahead of him.  On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them [as Elijah did]?’ But he turned and rebuked them [and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’] . Then they went on to another village.”


(5)  Three Examples of Peshitta Translations Differing from the NRSV

The Peshitta is an old Syriac bible that has been translated into English by George Lamsa, amongst others [Peshita].  My  dictionary says that Syriac is “a literary language based on an eastern Aramaic dialect and used as the literary and liturgical language by several eastern Christian churches.”   Lamsa thinks that the books of the NT were copied from earlier Aramaic versions into the later Greek ones.

Here are three important differences between translations in the NRSV and the Peshitta:

5.1       Matt 19:24
NRSV:  “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Peshitta:    “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

 5.2       Matt 27:46 (part)
NRSV:    “And about three O’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Peshitta:   “And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Eli, Eli, lemana shabakthani!’  which means, My God, my God, for this I was spared! ”.

The three differences in the translations are: the hour, the two question marks vs exclamation marks, and the forsaken me instead of was spared.

5.3       Luke 14:26 (part) concerning the requirements to follow Jesus as a disciple.
This is the same as example 4.2 above.
NRSV:   “and hate not his father and mother “ etc.
Peshitta:   “and does not put aside his father and his mother..”


(6)  Expert Opinions on the Best Translation

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic scholar at Emory University, says that “the NRSV has the advantage of using the best available manuscript evidence and of being gender-inclusive. I tend to prefer its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, which is not gender-inclusive but is overall a more accurate translation.”  [LTJ2, 102]

Dr. Paula Fredriksen quotes from her favorite version, the Oxford Annotated Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, and occasionally offers her own better translation of words or phrases. [PF2, 303]

Dr. Ed P. Sanders, of Duke University,  says that the best English translations of the Bible overall are the official translations produced by groups of scholars: the RSV, NRSV, Jerusalem Bible, New English Bible and the New International Version.  His own preference is the Revised Standard Version, but since it is no longer readily available he usually quotes from the NRSV.  He sometimes alters the wording slightly in order to present the literal translation of the Greek.  [EPS1, Xxvii]


Sources

  • EPS1           Sanders, Ed Parish. Paul: the apostle’s life, letters and thought.  Mineapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015.  Ed Parish Sanders is Professor of Religion Emeritus at Duke University.  He is the author of at least six other books on Judaism and Christianity.  On page 370 of this book he says he is a Christian.

  • LTJ2           Johnson, Luke Timothy.  Early Christianity: the experience of the Divine. Course guidebook. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses www.thegreatcourses.com,  2002.

  • PF2             Fredriksen, Paula.  Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews. NY: Vintage Books edition, 2000.  Original Random House, 1999., www.vintagebooks.com, 1999.

  • Peshita        Lamsa, George M.   The Holy Bible: from ancient eastern manuscripts. Translated from the Peshitta, the authorized Bible of the Church of the East.  Nashville, TN: A.J. Holman Co.  Holman Bible Publishers.   1957.  Lamsa’s English translation of the Aramaic (Syriac) version of the Bible.  They claim all the gospels were written first in Aramaic for the people, and then translated into Greek.