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Is There a “Best” Bible Translation Out There? A Blast from the Past

Here is one of the most frequently questions I have received over the years; I addressed it exactly seven years ago on the blog, as I have just discovered while rummaging through the archives.  And since it continually comes up, I thought it would be a good time to address it again.  Here’s what I said then (and what I still think now!).

 

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QUESTION:

Dr. Ehrman, most of your readers doe not know the ancient languages thatthe Bible was written in and therefore must rely on translations. Clearly no one translation is conclusive, but for clarity of reading and reliable research, can you recommend some translations to us? Conversely, do you have any that readers should avoid, because of clear bias or a little too loose?

 

RESPONSE:

When I published Misquoting Jesus (2005) I received a lot of emails from a lot of people asking a lot of questions.  But the one question I got asked more than any other was this one (in various forms):  which translation of the Bible do I recommend?   I should have answered it in the book itself; it would have made my life oh so much easier.

There are lots and lots of good translations that are available today.  The first thing to stress about them is that just about every one of them (just about!  I’m sure there are exceptions, although offhand I can’t think of any) has been done by bona fide scholars who know perfectly well everything that I set out for a general reader in Misquoting Jesus.  In other words, the fact that we don’t have the original manuscripts but only later copies that were changed in many, many places is not news to Bible translators.  It is precisely one of the things they have to deal with, constantly, in their work.   I stress this because some of my readers have thought that what I explained in the book was “news” and that someone should tell the Bible translators!

There are several views of what a translation should be.   In rough terms, some translators think…

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    saavoss  June 5, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, in you opinion, is it possible & feasible to learn biblical Greek & Hebrew independent from university study? There are no universities near me that have language classes in biblical (Koine) Greek or Hebrew. Due to family & financial obligations, I cannot relocate. There are many books available on Amazon… What are the best ones to start with?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      I’m afraid I don’t know. There are probalby online help groups that could make suggestions and guide you through it. I would suggest starting with just one and learning it well; definitely don’t try two at once. And definitely get an expert or more to guide you. I’ve never met someone self-taught in either language who actually understood it (though I’ve met several who *thought* they did!)

    • Avatar
      Silver  June 7, 2019

      Learn New Testament Greek by John H. Dobson. Baker Academic 2014.
      The ISBN is 9780801017261.

      This is the book which I am thoroughly enjoying using. I am still very much struggling but at least I am able to read passages from my Greek NT. I find verb tenses particularly hard going. However I feel that each lesson is very well structured and the vocabulary is systematically introduced to enable me to work through the translation exercises. These in turn then lead in to the suggested Bible text.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 5, 2019

    Isn’t “the Revelation of St John” written in very poor Greek? Would be amusing to have a translation that tried to reproduce the sense of someone who doesn’t know the language very well writing it. Maybe just run it through Google Translate… 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Yes, there are actual translations errors. Or maybe I should say there are error.

  3. Avatar
    gwayersdds  June 5, 2019

    Obviously we all have our personal preferences on which Bible we like to use. My personal preference is the Common English Bible. In your opinion is this a good translation or should I switch to the NRSV? Thanks.

  4. Avatar
    tskorick  June 5, 2019

    An old friend was guest speaking at a conservative church and after his first sermon was admonished by the elders to “stick to the King James Version” when reading scripture. So his next sermon he opened up his Nestle-Aland Greek text, read the Greek and translated on the fly into English. I LOLed.

    2
  5. Avatar
    Todd  June 5, 2019

    Very good. Not much more I can say. I agree.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 5, 2019

    With regard to you new book project about Christians taking on the Old Testament as their Bible, you might consider writing a later chapter in the book about when and why many Christians began interpreting the Old Testament literally.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Interesting idea. I suppose the problem is that they probably took it literally at the very outset! (Only to change later. But that too is interesting)

  7. Avatar
    davebohn  June 5, 2019

    Hi Dr. Ehrman- On a related topic to this post: Members have previously asked if you ever plan to do a NT translation yourself, and you have very tactfully indicated that the answer is “no,” and that there are several good translations out there already.

    But, I think (many) readers (myself included) are asking/hoping to see a full rendition of, say, Mark, based on your scholarly analysis of what probably was and was not in the original. Alternatively, where could we find a “New Testament” that comes close to including what you (Bart) think IS original, and omits what IS NOT? Simply stated, a “Bart’s Book” like that would be fascinating…but I realize there would likely be fairly complicated professional considerations to such a publication. Thanks for what you do!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Ha! Fair enough. But really, it wouldn’t differ *that* much from the NRSV or other good translations…..

  8. Avatar
    Sisu  June 5, 2019

    Speaking of translations, it looks like the Pope made it official today. For Catholics, anyway, there is a new version of the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into temptation” is now “Do not let us fall into temptation.” I think you have commented on this before but perhaps you can chime in again. My feeling is, I get it. Sort of. It does make sense that God wouldn’t lead us into temptation. That’s the devil’s job. But, on the other hand, that’s not what the original Greek says, is it? And I can also ask, why? Was there this huge outpouring of opinion that The Lord’s Prayer was somehow faulty? Also, should we not then update some other problematic words in the Bible (that would be a long list, indeed)? In the end, I find it a stretch that many Christians will change the way they speak the words to The Lord’s Prayer no matter what the Pope says.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      It does indeed make good sense theologically, and it is indeed not a good translation of the Greek! So it just depends which you prefer.

      1
      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  June 7, 2019

        Do you consider the Lord’s Prayer to be original to Jesus or an addition by adherents or evangelists?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 9, 2019

          Matthew and Luke report it in different forms (Luke’s version is much shorter). But yes, I tend to think something like it was said by Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  June 8, 2019

        Speaking of the Paternoster, I recently became aware of a translation problem with the “daily” in “daily bread.” Apparently the Greek is an otherwise unattested word, ἐπιούσιον, which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “daily.”

        Would you care to give us some thoughts on what ἐπιούσιον might mean in the context, i.e., what Q (presumably) intended it to signify?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 9, 2019

          Wow — that would be a hard post! It’s a very debated term, and has been since the early church. I’ll think about it.

  9. Avatar
    mikezamjara  June 5, 2019

    Dr Ehrman
    how do the NSRV relates with: the masoretic texts or the septuagint?

    How do major christians denominations accept or reject it (catholics, evangelicals, orthodox, jehovah witnesses)?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      It is a translation of the Masoretic Texts. And yes, it is the “official” translation supported by the National Council of Churches.

    • Avatar
      AstaKask  June 7, 2019

      I have some friends who Jehova’s Witnesses and they have their own translation. I think it’s called the New World Bible, but I could be wrong on that. They used to take a very literal approach – which made the text damn near unreadable – but the latest edition strives for a less literal translation. And they have their own theological prejudices baked in. For instance, they are adamant that Jesus was *not* crucified, but hung on a pole.

  10. Avatar
    James Chalmers  June 5, 2019

    I’d love to hear anything you might have to say about David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament. I assume it doesn’t displace the NRSV as your preferred version, but does it come anywhere close? Is it in any way preferable to the NRSV? Do its quirks put it beyond the pale?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      It’s brilliant in places and quirky in more! But fun to read.

  11. galah
    galah  June 5, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I know this is a crazy question, and perhaps a little out of order here, but I have to ask it. Would the Gospels be historically reliability if you could reconcile the discrepancies and miracles? Your comment about the NIV translators covering up discrepancies has me wondering.

    1
    • galah
      galah  June 7, 2019

      When I say miracles, I mean anything that may be considered mythical, legendary, etc.

      1
    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      The best way to answer the question is to ask it more broadly. If a book has no internal contradictions and does not claim miracles happened, is that book necessarily historically accurate? Think of other books about other historical figures/movements (say, books about Caesar Augustus; Abraham Lincoln; Barack Obama)

      3
      • galah
        galah  June 7, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman, I don’t mean to waste time and space but I just want to add, I’m probably older than most who post here on this forum and I can’t tell you how appreciative I am that you’ve given us the opportunity, in this modern internet age, to communicate with people who are up to date in the world of scholarship. Not too many years ago, some would have given anything for such a privilege. Today, you offer it for very little.

        3
      • Avatar
        doug  June 8, 2019

        As a professor of mine used to say, “I’d rather be inconsistently right than consistently wrong”.

        1
  12. Avatar
    Stephen  June 6, 2019

    What is your opinion when classicists who have the Greek but are not NT scholars have a go at it? I’m thinking of folks like E. V. Rieu and Richard Lattimore.

    thanks

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      I think in most instances their translations are very interesting, but possibly not as well informed about some of the critical issues pertaining specifically to the New Testament.

      1
  13. Avatar
    kqn  June 6, 2019

    Thanks for including these Blasts from the Past. I’m never going to get through everything you’ve written in this Blog, especially considering the stack of books on my desk awaiting reading, some of them yours. And now the lawn needs mowing again, darn it! So, these “gems” from years ago are very much appreciated.

  14. Avatar
    VEndris  June 6, 2019

    1. As far as I can see, most people are fascinated by the differences in translations. Is this your experience? If so, have you thought about a book that talks about many of the different translations and gives specific examples to demonstrate the points you make about them? From what I can tell, it would be a best seller. In fact, I know many church leaders that would use such a book as a bible study.

    2. For here or readers mailbag: why do I never hear much about the difficulties in translating the Hebrew bible? There is so much information on textual variations in the NT. Surely we have the same with the HB.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      1. There are certainly books like that, which can be very interesting. Most of them have titles like The History of Bible Translation. 2. I don’t know. The problems are even more severe — much more severe — there.

      1
  15. Avatar
    rivercrowman  June 6, 2019

    I’ve added the Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible to my personal library.

  16. Avatar
    Matt2239  June 6, 2019

    I recommend the King James Version (KJV). It’s a beautiful work of literature and the language is dated enough that you will never forget the important role of interpretation. More modern versions sound like they were written last year, which can have the effect of causing the reader to read the bible as if it were meant to be read cover-to-cover and understood without further explanation.

  17. Avatar
    eonxl  June 6, 2019

    What is the best “literal” translation? I have used Young’s Literal Translation. Are there any others?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      I”m not sure how I would evaluate the “best” literal translation. A translation that is *most* literal would sound like gibberish to most English speaking folk. When I was young, the one most widely used was the New American Standard Version.

  18. Avatar
    fishician  June 6, 2019

    I use a New American Standard edition because it tries to be close to the original words, but where it is not possible it will put the literal translation in the margin notes, which I find most interesting. Mine also includes in the margin notes alternative wordings or will note questionable passages, like the end of Mark. My least favorite (aside from all the paraphrase versions, which are not even translations) is the NIV – I have found too many examples where the translators deliberately changed the text to fit their theology. Granted that there is some judgment involved in translating from one language to another, but how can you claim that the Bible is the inerrant inspired Word of God and yet deliberately change what it says?! It makes no sense to me.

    1
  19. Avatar
    Sisu  June 6, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Somewhat unrelated question. Do we ever have ancient texts with “mistakes” that have been “scratched out” and replaced by something else? Knowing that writing materials were scarce and valuable, what were a scribe’s options if he made an error and realized it right away? There probably wasn’t anything like a “rough draft” in those days, I imagine, so there must have been some things some of the authors wrote, then later reflected on it and thought, “You know, I think what I should have said here was…”. Also, is it possible that the original authors of the Gospels made multiple “original” copies, perhaps updating and changing certain details with each change? That’s what I do when I go back and update any creative writing in my meager canon. If this is true, then more than one “original” text could have been in circulation. This would certainly compound the challenge of identifying the “original” text.

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      Yes, we have manuscripts that do that, definitely. Corrections are sometimes interlinear, and sometimes in the margins.

      1
  20. Avatar
    forthfading  June 6, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Knowing that the NIV and the NASB are translations from conservative Christians, do you still find these usefull as a scholar?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2019

      No, I almost never read translations, at least of the NT. For the OT, I don’t trust them becuase of problems I’ve found, where the translators make consistent what hte Hebrew leaves as inconsistent.

      1

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