Literal Bible Translations For Study and Teaching
In this post I will be discussing literal Bible translations, another name for them is Formal Equivalence. These types of translations attempt to stick closer to the grammar and thought of the original languages, even if their English style suffers for it. A person should have at least one of these translations for use and they are widely available everywhere. I would place all of the ancient English translations into this category, the Geneva Bible, King James Version, and so on. I don’t recommend any of these for modern study as the English translation has changed so much over the centuries. They are useful for literary study, similar to if one is studying Shakespeare. Unless the KJV is the only Bible you have access to you should use something else. On a side-note, please do not promote KJV-onlyism in the comments. There are other sounding boards for this foolish idea and I won’t have my blog be a platform for it as well, thanks in advance.
So what literal translations do we have besides the old ones, such as the KJV? There is the update to it, the NKJV that is based on the older textual manuscripts, and which renders the best reading to footnotes. I highly recommend that you do not use the NKJV for this reason and use a more modern translation with higher textual accuracy, this is what we are going for with Biblical study. That leaves us with three heavyweights that are readily available: the NASB, NRSV, and ESV. The NASB was one of my main Bibles in high school and it is criticized as having “wooden” English. I never found using it to be a problem, and the English syntax it employs doesn’t seem any more strange than that of the ESV or NRSV.
The ESV is heavily promoted and marketed these days, and with good reason. It and the NRSV are both revisions of the RSV which is a great update to the original KJV. The ESV Study Bible is probably the best all-around study bible on the market if you factor in layout, design, diagrams, pictures, and content. It has been criticized for being too one-sided in it’s notes and articles but I have found it to be very ecumenical and fair in the majority of it’s notes. My review of the ESV Study Bible accounts for the majority of the traffic on my blog and rightly so, I spent hours trying to be fair and thorough with my coverage of it. If it weren’t for the ESV SB I probably wouldn’t reference the ESV that often, so that speaks a lot for the quality of this specific book.
The NRSV in my mind is an equal to the ESV when it comes down to translation decisions. It is the main translation used in theology classes and serves as the textbook for them. An example is the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (NOAB), which I have blogged about on occasion. The NRSV has the reputation of being a “liberal” revision, while the ESV is considered the “conservative” revision of the RSV. I like them both. The nice thing about the NRSV is that there is a specific resource available for studying the Old Testament, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS). I will cover this more specifically in my final post about OT studies, but if you are wavering between the purchase of an ESV or NRSV, then I would make the following recommendation. If you can afford both an NRSV and the NETS, buy them both. If funds are limited, buy only the ESV Study Bible.
I don’t recommend any of these literal translations as a take with you to church Bible unless your congregation specifically uses one of them for teaching and preaching. I have found that they do not read well when spoken aloud due to syntax constructions. Also, the English found in them is not the modern spoken English that all of us use on a regular basis. For this reason I use these as a back bone for my studies, alongside the original languages, and leave them at home. I should probably mention that there are a lot of websites where you can access translations for free, the main one being Bible Gateway. I just had a quick glance and was surprised to see that the NRSV is not listed there. Another reason to purchase it and the NETS over the ESV. More on the NETS later though. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my suggestions, or your own anecdotes.