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Lost in Translations

I still remember that day in Sunday school class. I was about six years old, listening to a middle-aged woman tell Bible stories to us. I don’t remember what it was that week—Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Samson and Delilah, Mary and Joseph, or perhaps some of the other long-dead people in brightly colored bathrobes who talked to God—but I distinctly remember what my teacher asked me: "Do you understand the Bible, Tommy?" I paused for a minute. "I think so," I said a little cautiously, watching her face carefully to see whether I got the answer right. "Except for the thee’s and thy’s and thou’s," I said.

I’m still working on that. The King James Version (KJV) is beautiful and poetic, much like Shakespeare (for good reason—it was written in Shakespeare’s English), and every now and then I want my KJV. But most of the time I would rather read a more contemporary translation, where thou art you and yours is thine. Choosing an English translation of the Bible is always an interesting experience because an astonishing number of translations are available. The vast majority of them are not listed here, but it’s likely that one of the Bibles on this list will speak to you—or to thee.

The King James Version (1611)

The good news: It’s full of beautiful, flowing seventeenth-century English prose.

The bad news: It’s full of beautiful, flowing seventeenth-century English prose.

The King James Bible is generally regarded as the strongest English literary translation of the Bible, and it still defines the biblical tone of voice for most readers.

The Douay-Rheims Bible (1609)

The Douay-Rheims is a Roman Catholic contemporary to the King James Version, translated from the Latin Vulgate translation of St. Jerome rather than directly from the Hebrew and Greek. Because of the consistently Latinate sentence structure, this version has a liturgical sound—almost a chant—to it.

Sometimes the Latin gets a little tricky, though. Perhaps the most famous of Jerome’s errors was his mistranslation of Exodus 34:35, which is preserved in the Douay-Rheims: "the face of Moses when he came out was horned" (the Hebrew states that Moses’ face shone, not that it had horns).

The New International Version (1984)

The best-selling contemporary English Bible, this is widely used in Protestant churches. The language is very warm and approachable.

The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (1985)

This is the most widely used English Jewish Bible translation. It contains no New Testament (it would be a little strange if it did), but the writing style is straightforward and very true to the original Hebrew. The word Tanakh refers to the entire Hebrew Bible and is an acronym for the Torah (Pentateuch), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Kethuvim (Writings).

The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

This smooth, scholarly, gender-neutral translation is owned by the National Council of Churches and is the Bible of choice for mainline Protestant denominations.

The New American Bible (1990)

This new Catholic Bible translation is remarkably readable and has been used by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The New Living Translation (1996)

Patterned on the 1971 Living Bible (a paraphrase of the Bible written for contemporary readers), this translation is extremely readable—even for children—and is widely used as a private devotional translation.

The Absolute Minimum

  • No two people read the Bible in exactly the same way. If you would like to gain a better understanding of the Bible but don’t enjoy reading it, a different approach (or a different translation) might be beneficial.

  • The Bible is most often read through the lens of Scripture, history, and literature.

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