Church, General

Finding a Good Bible

As a pastor, I am a teacher of the Scriptures. I spent most of my work life studying the Scriptures either alone or with a group.

When someone becomes a follower of Christ, the most important purchase they can make is a Bible of their own. This single book is the revelation of Christ, and without it, there is no Christianity.

I tell people this, so naturally they want to get a Bible. But then they get to a Barnes & Noble or a Christian book store and they discover that there are lots of choices when it comes to Bibles.


The Bible is really a collection of ancient texts, ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 years old. They are in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Since most of us are not too familiar with ancient Greek (and even I’m just barely literate in that language), obviously we have to read the Bible in a translation.

There are a lot of translations of the Scriptures, and the translations are not all created equally. In choosing a Bible translation, you need to consider the difference between a “literal” translation and a “dynamic” one.

To understand that difference, you need to know that translation takes a source language and converts it to a receiver language. Often, these languages are very different. For example, Hebrew is an abstract language with a very limited vocabulary. English on the other hand is a concrete language, with definitive meanings for words. English in 2012 CE is far more rigid than Hebrew was in 1000 BCE.

The difference between “literal” and “dynamic” translations is whether one is more concerned with the source language or the receiver language. Literal translations focus on the source language, which means that they often sound a bit stilted and awkward from time to time in the receiver language but they reflect the source better. Dynamic translations on the other hand focus on the receiver language, so they often read better but there is a certain amount of meaning and form that is lost in translation.

As a teacher, I prefer a literal translation. For literal translations, the King James Version (KJV) is still the gold standard. The KJV was the final version of an English translation that began with the work of a genius named William Tyndale; and continued by the English Protestants while in exile during the reign of Bloody Mary in the forms of the translation of Miles Coverdale and the Geneva Bible.

Although it was published 400 years ago, the KJV literally changed the English language. It is the translation I still remember verses in because I grew up with it. It was also the last time that the translation effort could change English to fit the originals rather than having to make the meaning of the originals fit into English. English has become far more rigid in the past couple of centuries.

The drawback to the KJV is that it is 400 years old and the most recent revision was done in 1769, over 200 years ago. That means some of the language forms are hard to decipher for the modern reader, and a lot of the words have changed meaning over the centuries.

Currently, I use the English Standard Version (ESV) which was completed in 2001 and has seen minor revisions in 2007 and 2011. The ESV is one of a number of translations that are considered the children of the KJV. Without getting into the history, there was a pretty terrible “new” translation done in 1881 that was supposed to replace the KJV, and since then scholars have been trying to get the balance of the KJV back but in modern language, with modern scholarship. The result has been no more than six other translations, all of which share a heritage with the KJV (Revised Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Version, New King James Version).

I am not a fan of dynamic translations personally. They are usually easier to read than literal translations but they often fall short of the meaning of the original text. I find myself looking at them and asking, “Why translate it like that?” But they work for some folks. If you’re not too terribly interested in nuance and subtlety, then a dynamic translation like the New International Version (NIV) might be a good choice for you.

Study Bibles

But choosing a translation is only part of choosing a Bible. The Christian publishing houses have pumped out hundreds of different kinds of Bibles, with explanatory commentary and notes included in the margins.

I personally got tired of these things, and I have not used a study Bible in probably fifteen years. I prefer just reading the text of Scripture. But different strokes for different folks.

I won’t recommend a study Bible to people, but I often suggest that they take a few minutes to research the editor or compiler of the notes in a study Bible. For example, the study Bible I used as a teenager was a Scofield Study Bible. The notes in the Scofield were usually excellent, but it had a very definite agenda. The author of the notes held to two relatively recent views – the Gap Theory of Genesis and Dispensationalism – that he enforced throughout his text. I was unaware of this, so I took the notes to be completely reliable, which of course led to adopting his views.

There are also some fairly complicated study Bibles. The Thompson Chain Study Bible uses a huge set of five digit numbers to link to study notes, and from there to other notes. I owned one for several years before I figured out how the numbers worked.

If you choose to purchase a study Bible, select one done by a conservative teacher and which clarifies the text rather than adding all kinds of unnecessary commentary. But my recommendation is to just go with a Bible that has a minimum of notes.

Size and Binding

And then, there are all the different bindings and sizes of Bibles. I carry a thinline Bible when I preach, largely because I use no notes or outlines. As one of our congregants put it, I “freestyle”. A thinline Bible is narrow and contains only the text. It is easy to use and light to carry.

In contrast, there are many ENORMOUS Bibles that look like leatherbound dictionaries. These are often stuffed out with marginal notes, indices and study guides. Many pastors use these enormous Bibles and take great pride in the worn out nature of their Bibles. As they often say, “I worn out Bible indicates a believer who isn’t.”

There are often hardcover and paperback Bibles, which are usually far less expensive than leather bound Bibles.

The choose of these things is really up to you. Just make sure you make your translation and study guide chooses BEFORE you make your choice for looks.


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