For anyone looking for a new Bible, there is no shortage of versions. There are tons of options across a wide spectrum of translation theory, from rigidly word-for-word to loose paraphrase. The Bible you select will largely depend on your purpose. This post is for those looking for the best translation for developing a daily Bible reading habit.
While specific Bible version choices are largely going to depend on personal preferences, the best type of translation for daily reading is going to be more idea-for-idea and less word-for-word. This describes various modern translations, such as the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and the New English Translation. Some may even prefer something more paraphrastic, such as The Message Bible.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at the two major camps when it comes to translation theory and talk about why idea-for-idea translations are better for daily reading than word-for-word translations. We’ll also touch on why paraphrases have such a bad reputation and why they shouldn’t. While I can’t tell you which version you should select, I can walk you through the pros and cons of some of the most popular modern translations, allowing you to make a more informed decision.
Without further ado, let’s jump into the post!
Translation Theory: Word-for-word vs. idea-for-idea
Translation theory is one of my favorite topics, which I could talk about for hours. That said, I’ll try to make this quick. What we need to accomplish in this section is an understanding of the word “equivalence.” This likely requires a bit of deconstructing some ideas that you may or may not already hold about language.
The word “lamp” and a physical lamp are not the same things. The word “lamp” is a sign, so-to-speak, that points to the physical object, which we describe as “lamp.” A French speaker could look at the same lamp as me and call it “Lampe.” Both “lamp” and “Lampe” are signs which point to the actual lamp. They sound similar enough, so we could probably figure out that we were talking about the same object. But just because these words point to the same object doesn’t mean the words are the same word. “Lampe” does not mean “lamp” or equal “lamp.” It is equivalent to “lamp” insofar as “lamp” and “Lampe” both point to the same signified meaning.
It sounds kinda silly when we’re talking about two words so close in etymology with such concrete meanings. But it illustrates the concept, a concept that’s worth repeating. Two words in any two languages are not inherently equal to one another; they are merely signs that may or may not point to the same concept or concepts.
How is this important for our purposes here? It’s simple. Every Bible version in English is a translation of ancient languages. This means the words of scripture in our English translations are not equal to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words in our ancient manuscripts. But our English words do have ancient equivalents, insofar as the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word and the English word point to an equivalent meaning.
That said, there are two main translation theories when it comes to Bible translation: formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.
Formal equivalence is a theory that tries to reflect a word-for-word translation. “Lampe” means “lamp.” These versions try to be more consistent with their translations. If they translate one Hebrew word with a particular English word, they’ll try to use that same English word every time that Hebrew word appears. Obviously, that doesn’t always work, because these words don’t have one-to-one meanings. They overlap across a wider semantic range. But they do the best they can.
Dynamic equivalence is a theory that tries to reflect an idea-for-idea translation. “Lampe” could mean “lamp.” It could also mean “light” or “lantern” or “flashlight,” depending on the context. These translations aren’t overly concerned with reflecting the Greek and Hebrew behind a translation; they’re more concerned with bringing out the sense of the Greek and Hebrew and making it clear in English.
There are merits to both translation theories, and both definitely have their place. But when it comes to daily reading, dynamic equivalence is a good theory to shoot for when picking out your translation. Why? There are several reasons.
Dynamic Equivalence is More Englishy
First and foremost, dynamic equivalent translations just reflect better English than their more formal counterparts. This is just how translation works for any other document or work of art. When translating a novel or a movie into English or another language, the translator seeks to present the ideas reflected in the original, not the words. Why do we change our concept of translation when the Bible is involved?
When it comes to daily reading, the closer we can get to the language we speak, the better. This is the foundation for why dynamic equivalence is the best choice for daily reading. All the other reasons flow from this.
Dynamic Equivalence is More Stylistic
The Bible is a sacred text. But it’s also a literary text. It’s full of poetry, narrative, and a dozen other literary styles. When we seek to translate these ancient texts word-for-word, we lose some of the literary aspects. It becomes just a rigid text that can be rather difficult to read, seeing as how it’s not very Englishy.
But when we translate idea-for-idea, a whole new world of creativity and style opens up to us. Now we can reflect the ideas of the original languages using English forms of literature. We can reflect alliteration and rhyme when we see it in the original text. We can be more stylistic with our word choice and sentence structures.
When looking for a Bible version for daily reading, it just makes sense to pick a Bible that actually reads like literature.
Dynamic Equivalence is More Understandable
Formal equivalent translations are difficult to read. I’ve heard the argument that we should read formal equivalent translations more often simply because it makes us think harder. We have to really focus on the words and really seek to understand what the text is saying.
Yeah, no. That’s not how language works. If something is harder to understand, it doesn’t help us get more sense out of it because we have to think harder. Especially if it’s hard to read because it’s written in bad English, which many formally equivalent texts are.
Actually, if a translation were to be rigidly word-for-word, it wouldn’t make any sense at all. Here’s John 3:16 translated literally word-for-word:
“Thus for loved the God the world, as the son the only he gave, that all the believing in him might not die but might have life eternal.”
That’s hard to understand. Not because it’s some deep, transcendent message that imparts wisdom and knowledge to those who reflect deeply on the odd sentence structure. It’s hard to understand because it’s not English! It’s Greek grammar and syntax with English words replacing the Greek words. It’s a code.
For daily reading, an understandable translation is essential.
I hope this John 3:16 illustration also shows you that there’s no such thing as a true word-for-word translation of scripture, apart from an interlinear. Even those formally equivalent translations can’t stick to their word-for-word guns 100% of the time. Or even close to that.
Dynamic Equivalence is Fresher
I don’t know if you realize this, but we Christians tend to use really, really old words. Like, archaic words. Why? Because these words have survived even in our modern translations.
Salvation? Redemption? Righteousness? Glorification? These words may sound normal to your ear, because we use them all the time in religious circles. But what do these words mean in English? They’re not really used anymore, outside of our circles. They’re old.
Granted, most modern translations, even those of dynamic equivalence, will keep many of these religious words, like salvation. But they will also update many phrases and concepts to make them more understandable and, frankly, more Englishy.
When daily reading is your goal, you need a Bible translation that freshens up ancient phraseology and linguistic structures.
Dynamic Equivalence is Ironically Closer to the New Testament
The case for word-for-word translations is that they get us closer to the original Greek and Hebrew languages.
But the irony here is that these translations actually separate us from the original intent of the authors.
Take the New Testament, for instance. It was written in koine Greek, the “common tongue.” Not classical Greek. Not Attic. The New Testament was written in accessible language. It was read in public gatherings for everyone’s benefit.
Some of the most formally equivalent translations also have pretty high reading levels. The ESV, for instance, has a 10th-grade reading level. NRSV is 11th grade. KJV is 12th grade. Word-for-word interlinears are all 12th-grade plus.
NIV, on the other hand, has a 7th-grade reading level. NLT is 6th grade. The Message is in 4th grade.
Those grade levels may sound misleading. It sounds at first like anyone who graduated high school should be able to easily read any of those translations. But when you keep in mind that the average American has a reading level of 7th or 8th grade, it becomes clearer that lower reading levels are ideal for daily reading Bible versions for the majority of the population.
The more formally dynamic, the higher the reading level, and the harder to read. The more dynamically equivalent, the lower the reading level, and the more accessible. The more accessible the translation, the closer it is to the New Testament’s level of accessibility.
Common Criticisms of Dynamic Equivalence
I’ve been very open about the weaknesses of formal equivalence, but it should be noted that dynamic equivalent translations aren’t perfect, either. One of the biggest criticism of dynamic equivalence is the fact that they are too interpretive. The more dynamic a translation, the more interpretive it has to be. The further you get from the original words, the more you have to make interpretive leaps. This, understandably, makes people nervous.
Here’s my response to this criticism.
The translation is interpretation. Period. It doesn’t matter how formal or dynamic the equivalence. To lift the meaning from one modern language to another modern language takes a hefty amount of interpretation. To lift the meaning from one ancient language in an ancient culture across time and space into a modern language… to do so without interpretive leaps would be impossible. Every Bible translation is full of human interpretation; some just show their interpretive cards more than others.
Reading the Bible is interpretation. The interpretive act doesn’t stop with the translator of the ancient text. The reader of the modern translation also makes various interpretive acts through the reading process. The more word-for-word translations, in making fewer interpretive leaps, leave more interpretation up to the reader. The more idea-for-idea translations do a lot of the heavy lifting, leaving less interpretation up to the reader. However, the reader definitely still has to filter the text through their own interpretations, biases, and beliefs.
Again, both translation theories have their place in scripture translation. But this post is specifically talking about daily Bible reading. As such, I lean toward dynamic equivalence because much of the interpretation is built into the text. If I’m simply reading, I don’t have time to do word studies. I don’t have time to read up on ancient history or dig into commentaries and dictionaries. Sure, I’ll still have to make my own interpretations of the text. But those interpretations will likely be more faithful to the text because they will be aided by the interpretations already embedded into the text by the translators.
So What About Paraphrases?
Paraphrases get a bad reputation in the world of biblical studies. And perhaps for a good reason. Before I explain why paraphrases should have a place within our study and daily reading, let me first explain what a paraphrase is.
First, a paraphrase is not a translation of the Bible. Formal equivalent translations focus on the word, translating each word in the ancient text into an English word. Dynamic equivalent focuses on individual ideas or phrases, translating groups of words into English phrases. Both of these theories are concerned with translation, taking a word or idea from one language and presenting it in another language. Paraphrases, on the other hand, are concerned with explanation, taking a group of ideas from the ancient languages and presenting that information in a totally different way to explain those ideas to a modern audience.
So why do these books have such a bad reputation?
For a few reasons. One, these works are usually created by one singular author instead of a translation board or committee. One human being, as the argument goes, is more likely to make interpretational errors than a committee. In the end, I’m not so sure having multiple error-prone humans working on a Bible translation makes it any more error-proof, but I understand how someone could make this argument. But at the end of the day, having one person working on the paraphrase from beginning to end does make the whole work more cohesive.
Another reason paraphrases have a bad reputation is that they’re just not as accurate as translations. But the issue with this criticism is that it assumes a paraphrase has the same goal as a translation, which is just not true. Yes, a paraphrase is more “inaccurate” than a translation, if by “inaccurate” you mean “not a word-for-word or even idea-for-idea translation.”
Lastly, people have a hard time trusting paraphrases because there is so much interpretation built into them. But as I’ve stated previously in this blog post, this isn’t really a strong argument against any translation. Interpretation is going to happen, both on the part of the translator and the reader. How much interpretation the translator does totally depends on the nature of the translation. If someone is reading a paraphrase, they should be aware that the purpose of that work is to do as much of the interpretation for the reader as possible. Yes, the reader will still have interpretive work to do on their own. But most of that work is done by the writer of the paraphrase.
And that’s okay!
I think this is where people start to get weary about dynamic equivalent and paraphrastic Bible versions. Somehow people think if there is too much interpretation embedded in an English text, we will no longer have the Word of God in its purest form. We will have a manmade document, twisted to fit a certain agenda.
In reality, it’s okay to read a paraphrase that is heavily interpretive. Not only is it okay, but it’s good. As long as you understand that you’re reading an interpretive, paraphrastic text, you could learn a lot from the person or people who compiled the work. It’s no different from reading a book or a commentary about the Bible.
Personally, I think paraphrases are fantastic candidates for a daily reading Bible version. Partially because they take a lot of the interpretive work off of your shoulders so you can spend less time researching and more time just enjoying the reading process. But there’s another, larger reason why I think paraphrases should be read more often, and it has to do with where meaning is found in a text.
Formal equivalent translations focus on the word; dynamic equivalent translations focus on the phrase; paraphrases focus on the sentence and the paragraph. This wider linguistic focus really is where the meaning of the text lies. Not in individual words or groups of words, but in how those words work together to build meaning. Paraphrases are great because they really work to pull out this meaning and to make it as plain as possible. Since they’re not directly translating the text from one language to another, they have more freedom to focus on translating the meaning from one culture to another.
Don’t be afraid to pick up a paraphrase and read it every so often, or even every day. Reading paraphrases is a great way to start training your brain to think about how the original authors and readers might have been thinking about these texts. They weren’t picking words apart or dissecting sentences. They were swallowing full sentences and paragraphs and digesting the meaning of the text.
With all that explanation out of the way, here are my five recommendations for a daily Bible reading version.
I love the NET because it really is the best of both worlds. It’s a great translation written in smooth, readable English. It’s a dynamic equivalent translation that’s pleasant to read. But it also has thousands upon thousands of translation notes explaining why they translated the text the way they did. These notes explain everything from cultural nuances, to specific word choices, to theological interpretation and exegetical insights. If you’re looking for a great daily reading Bible but still want something to whet your appetite for deeper study, the NET Bible is a great solution for you.
Ah, the NIV. This is the classic example of a dynamic equivalent translation. In fact, I think people tend to shy away from the NIV because it’s so classic that it’s almost cliche. But I hereby grant you permission to pick up the NIV and read it without shame.
Did you know the NIV was updated in 2011? I’ve actually seen viral Facebook posts that claim this is a reason to not trust the NIV. How can you update the word of God? Well, the thing is, language is always updating. Always. That’s why we don’t read the King James Version anymore. If a translation update is a cause for celebration, not mistrust. Woohoo! Our understanding of the biblical texts and how we can relay their messages in English is evolving! The only time an update should cause you to mistrust a translation is if the translation committee is intentionally refusing to ever release another update. (That’s right, I’m looking at you, ESV.)
The updated NIV is a much fresher translation. It uses better English. It smooths out the translation. It’s based on updated manuscript information. It uses gender-neutral language, such as “brothers and sisters” and “they.” This is another controversy in the biblical translation world that really shouldn’t be a controversy at all. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
At the end of the day, the NIV is a great translation for daily Bible reading. It’s Englishy. It’s dependable. This is actually the translation I use when I just want to sit down and read large portions of the Bible.
The NIV’s younger sibling is the New Living Translation, which I’ve written about in more detail elsewhere. This is even more dynamically equivalent than the NIV, which means it’s more interpretational and easier to read. It reads very smoothly, almost like it’s not even based on an ancient text.
One of the unique things about the NLT is that the translation committee consisted both of biblical language scholars and also English stylists. The scholars and stylists worked together to produce a text that’s both trustworthy and beautiful.
The NLT is a translation that was based on a paraphrase, The Living Bible. The goal of the NLT was original to update The Living Bible and make it more accurate. Over time it eventually evolved into a full translation. But from start to finish, the NLT’s goal was to stick as close as possible to the heart of the original paraphrase. This is part of the reason why it emphasizes the English style more than some other Bible translations.
The Voice takes the NLT’s concept of biblical language scholars and English stylists working together to produce a literary work of art and injects it with steroids. This is actually a genius concept that I’m very interested in. If I were to produce my own Bible translation, it would be very similar to the Voice.
The concept behind the voice is that the Bible is an ancient work of art. Yes, it’s a religious text. But it’s a religious text embedded eternally in the particularities of ancient Israelite and Hellenistic literary forms. The problem is that our culture no longer uses these ancient literary forms anywhere outside of the Bible. For this reason, someone approaching the Bible for the first time often has a bit of culture shock.
This is the problem that The Voice seeks to solve. You see, The Voice not only translates ideas for ideas. They seek to translate the texts from an ancient literary form to a modern literary form.
If you haven’t seen The Voice, you really need to check it out. You will quickly fall in love with the unique style and presentation of the biblical texts. If you’re a seasoned Bible student or a new reader, you’ll experience a whole new way to fall in love with the literary beauty of the Bible. This Bible translation is genius, and definitely a great candidate for a daily reading Bible version.
We talked about paraphrases in this blog post, so of course, I had to mention The Message. This was my generation’s The Living Bible. Again, it gets a bad reputation. But again, it’s such a helpful resource for better understanding scripture. And since developing a better understanding of scripture is one of the main reasons to develop a daily Bible study routine, the Message is an incredible resource for daily Bible reading.
Something a lot of people don’t realize is that Eugene Peterson is not just a random pastor that sat down one day and decided he was going to paraphrase the Bible. He’s actually a Semitic language scholar. This man knows his stuff. And if you know any Hebrew at all, you should sit down with The Message in one hand and your Hebrew Bible in the other. What he does with the text is very creative. And honestly, I think it tends to be more accurate than some other dynamic equivalent translations. How can that be? It all goes back to where the meaning in the text is found: the paragraph level. The Message has more freedom to translate phrases and sentences out of order. Eugene Peterson didn’t have to follow the standard verse order within the chapter. He could translate an entire paragraph in Hebrew and Greek into an entire paragraph in English.
I do love this paraphrase. But I will be the first to admit that it does have some weird wording. I think Peterson was trying a bit too hard in some spots to use unconventional wording to describe a certain idea or concept. But if you can get past the weird wording, it’s a great option for daily reading.
I have The Message sitting on my bedside table. When I read the Bible to my 2-year-old daughter, this is my go-to book. I won’t read it to her word for word; I’ll read Peterson’s paraphrase and then I’ll paraphrase his paraphrase. Reading the Bible to a 2-year-old is actually a great exercise in appropriating biblical themes and messages for different audiences, which is a nod to Peterson’s entire approach to paraphrasing the Bible. But anyway, I digress.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading this 4,000-word blog post. I hope it helped you reflect on what you should look for in a Bible version for daily reading. I’ve given you some principles to follow, I’ve given you a few starting points. But now it’s your turn. Go out there and experiment. Read different versions. Read the same story or paragraph in several different translations with several different translation theories. See which one you like the best. Which versions do you enjoy reading? Which versions make you reflect more deeply on what you’re reading? Which versions help you appreciate the beauty of these ancient documents? The beauty of the living Word of God to which these ancient documents point?
Let me know in the comments below. What are some of your favorite Bible versions? Which do you use for your own daily Bible reading?
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