Choosing a Bible Translation

by James Akin


At Catholic Answers we are often asked which Bible version a person should choose. This is an important question about which Catholics need to be informed. Some have been given very little help about how to pick a Bible translation, and this can lead to misconceptions.

For example, when my wife and I were first dating, she told me that Catholics were not faced with problems over translations because they all use the same one: the King James Version. Unfortunately, I was too ignorant of Catholicism at the time to know that this is not the case (the King James is a Protestant translation).

There are two general philosophies translators use when they do their work: formal or complete equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence translations try to give as literal a translation of the original text as possible. Translators using this philosophy try to stick close to the originals, even preserving much of the original word order when.(1)

Literal translations are an excellent resource for serious Bible study. Sometimes the meaning of a verse depends on subtle cues in the text; these cues are only preserved by literal translations.

The disadvantage of literal translations is that they are harder to read because more Hebrew and Greek style intrudes into the English text. Compare the following renderings of Leviticus 18:6-10 from the New American Standard Bible (NAS literal translation) and the New International Version (NIV dynamic translation):

The NAS reads: “None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am the Lord. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for their nakedness is yours.”

The NIV reads: “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord. Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; do not have relations with her. Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father. Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere. Do not have sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter; that would dishonor you.”

Because literal translations can be difficult to read, many have produced more readable Bibles using the dynamic equivalence philosophy. According to this view, it does not matter whether the grammar and word order of the original is preserved in English so long as the meaning of the text is preserved. This frees up the translator to use better English style and word choice, producing more readable translations. In the above example, the dynamic equivalence translators were free to use the more readable expression “have sexual relations with” instead of being forced to reproduce the Hebrew idiom “uncover the nakedness of.”

The disadvantage of dynamic translation is that there is a price to pay for readability. Dynamic translations lose precision because they omit subtle cues to the meaning of a passage which only literal translations preserve. They also run a greater risk of reading the translators’ doctrinal views into the text because of the greater liberty in how to render it.

For example, dynamic Protestant translations, such as the NIV, tend to translate the Greek word ergon and its derivatives as “work” when it reinforces Protestant doctrine but as something else (such as “deeds” or “doing”) when it would serve Catholic doctrine.

The NIV renders Romans 4:2 “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works (ergon), he had something to boast about not before God.” This passage is used to support the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. But the NIV translates the erg– derivatives in Romans 2:6-7 differently: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done (erga).’ To those who by persistence in doing (ergou) good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

If the erg- derivatives were translated consistently as “work-” then it would be clear that the passage says God will judge “every person according to his works” and will give eternal life to those who seek immortality “by persistence in working good” which support the Catholic view of salvation.

Even when there is no doctrinal agenda involved, it is difficult to do word studies in dynamic translations because of less inconsistency in how words are rendered.

For example, the NIV renders Romans 2:17 and 23 like this: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God . . . ” (Rom. 2:17), “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Rom. 2:23).

The Greek word translated “brag” is kauchaomai, but when the same term appears in Romans 5:11 it is rendered this way: “Not only is this so, but we also rejoice (kauchomenoi) in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Because the term is translated two different ways the reader misses an important aspect of what Paul is saying. It would be better to translate the term as “boast” in both cases (as the New American Bible does). This would make Paul’s thought clear to the reader. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in boasting about God. Both Jews and Christians do it (Rom. 2:17, 5:11a). Understood in this sense, it is not bragging about how good you are, but making God attractive by proclaiming what he has done for you.(2) The difference is that while Jews boast of having a relationship to God through the Mosaic law (Rom. 2:23), Christians boast of the relationship God has given them through Christ (Rom. 5:11b).

All this is lost if the word kauchaomai is rendered differently in the two passages, and it illustrates why literal translations are better for doing serious Bible study.

Both literal and dynamic equivalence philosophies can be carried to extremes. One translation that carries literalism to a ludicrous extreme is the Concordant Version, which was translated by a man who had studied Greek and Hebrew for only a short time. He made a one-to-one rendering in which each word in the ancient originals was translated by one (and only one) word in English. This led to numerous absurdities. For example, compare how the Concordant Version of Genesis 1:20 compares with the NIV:

“And saying is God, ‘Roaming is the water with the roaming, living soul, and the flyer is flying over the earth on the face of the atmosphere of the heavens'” (Concordant Version).

“And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky'” (NIV).

At the other extreme from absurdly literal translations are absurdly dynamic ones, such as the Cotton-Patch Version (CPV). This was translated from Greek in the 1960s by a man named Clarence Jordan, who decided not only to replace ancient ways of speaking with modern ones (like most dynamic translations) but to replace items of ancient culture with items of modern ones.

Palestine became transformed into the modern American South; Jerusalem turned into Atlanta; Matthew the tax collector worked for the Internal Revenue Service; and Jesus became a roughshod inhabitant of Valdosta, Georgia.(3)

Consider how the CPV and the NIV render Matthew 9:16-17:

“Nobody ever uses new, unshrunk material to patch a dress that’s been washed. For in shrinking, it will pull the old material and make a tear. Nor do people put new tubes in old, bald tires. If they do, the tires will blow out, and the tubes will be ruined and the tires will be torn up. But they put new tubes in new tires and both give good mileage” (CPV).

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (NIV).

Between the extremes of the Concordant Version and the Cotton-Patch Version is a spectrum of respectable translations which strike different balances between literal and dynamic equivalence.

Toward the literal end of the spectrum are translations such as the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New American Standard (NAS), and the Douay-Rheims Version.

Next come slightly less literal translations, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the Confraternity Version.

Then there are mostly dynamic translations such as the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Bible (NAB).

And finally, toward the very dynamic end of the spectrum are translations such as the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), the New English Bible (NEB), the Revised English Bible (REB), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the “Good News Bible,” whose translation is called Today’s English Version (TEV).

One translation that is hard to place on the spectrum is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The basic text of the NRSV is rendered literally, following the RSV, but it uses “gender inclusive language,” which tries to translate the original text into a modern “gender neutral” cultural equivalent (like the Cotton-Patch Version does with other issues). When you read the NRSV you will often encounter “friends,” “beloved,” and “brothers and sisters,” and then see a footnote stating “Gk brothers.”

Sometimes this significantly affects the meaning of the passage. For example, the NRSV renders 2 Thessalonians 3:16, “Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.” A footnote reveals the text literally reads, “Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as a brother.” Everyone knows what warning someone “as a brother” means (that is, correct them in the same manner you would correct your brother), but what does it mean to warn someone “as a believer”?

The NRSV also shows a preference for using “God” and “Christ” when the original text says “he.”

There is also a host of minor versions, most of which are dynamic equivalence translations. These include well-known ones, such as the Moffat, Philips, and Knox translations, and also unique, specialty versions such as the Jewish New Testament (JNT, translated by David Stern), which renders New Testament names and expressions with the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Yiddish equivalents.(4)

Finally, there are a selection of paraphrases, which are not translations based on the original languages but are paraphrased versions of English translations. These tend toward the extreme dynamic end of the spectrum. The best known is the Living Bible (TLB), also known as “The Book.”

The basic question you need to ask when selecting a Bible version is the purpose you are pursuing. If you simply want a Bible for ordinary reading, a moderate or dynamic version would suffice. This would enable you to read more of the text quickly and comprehend its basic meaning, though it would not give you the details of its meaning, and you would have to watch out more for the translators’ doctrinal views coloring the text.

If you intend to do serious Bible study, a literal translation is what you want. This will enable you to catch more of the detailed implications of the text, but at the price of readability. You also have to worry less about the translators’ views coloring the text, though even very literal translations are not free from this entirely.(5)A second question you will need to ask yourself is whether you want an old or a modern translation. Older versions, such as the King James and the Douay-Rheims, can sound more dignified, authoritative, and inspiring. But they are much harder to read and understand because English has changed in the almost four hundred years since they were done.(6)

One down side to using certain modern translations is that they do not use the traditional renderings of certain passages and phrases, and the reader may find this annoying. For example, most people have heard a verse from Isaiah 9 that sounds like this: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6, NIV).

Here is how the New American Bible renders it: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5, NAB).

The replacement of traditional Christological titles such as “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” and “Everlasting Father” can be grating on the nerves of one used to hearing them. It is also questionable whether the new renderings are actually better translations.(7)

The “Good News Bible” or TEV is especially known for non-traditional renderings. For example, “the abomination of desolation” referred to in the book of Daniel and the gospels is called “the awful horror”(8) and the ark of the covenant is known as “the covenant box.” The latter is actually a better modern English rendering of the original since it avoid the obscure word “ark,” whose meaning most people do not know.(9)The question of whether to use an old or a modern translation is sometimes complicated by attitudes held by very conservative Christians. Some Protestants will tell you that the only acceptable version of the Bible is the King James. This position is known as King James-onlyism. Its advocates often make jokes such as, “If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough for me,” or, “My King James Version corrects your Greek text.”

They commonly claim that the King James is based on the only perfect set of manuscripts we have,(10) that it is the only translation that avoids modern, liberal renderings, and that its translators were extremely saintly and scholarly men. Finally, because the King James is also known as “the Authorized Version” (AV), its advocates sometimes argue that it is the only version to ever have been “authorized.”(11)As amusing as King James-onlyism may sound, some people take it very seriously. There is even a Catholic equivalent, which we might call “Douay-Rheims-onlyism.” The Douay-Rheims version, which actually predates the King James by a few years,(12) was the standard Bible for English-speaking Catholics until the twentieth century.

The arguments for Douay-Rheims-onlyism mirror the arguments for King James-onlyism. Just as the King James is said to be superior because of the manuscripts on which it is based, so the Douay-Rheims is said to be superior because it is based on the Vulgate, Jerome’s ancient Latin translation of the Bible. Appeals are made to how saintly and scholarly Jerome and the translators of the Douay-Rheims were, and to the fact that the Douay, like the King James, avoids modern, liberal renderings. Finally, stress is laid on the fact that the Douay, being based on the Vulgate, is based on the official or “authorized” Bible of the Latin Church.

In support of Douay-Rheims-onlyism, the Council of Trent’s decree authorizing the use of the Vulgate and Pope Pius XII’s explanation of this decree are often taken out of context. In his 1943 encyclical, Divino afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII stated that the Vulgate, having been used for so many centuries by the Catholic Church, has been shown to be free from doctrinal and moral error. This is not the same, the pope stresses, as saying that the Vulgate supersedes or is more important than the early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for telling us what the authors of the Bible wrote.(13)The pope’s point is that if something is said in the Vulgate then it does not contradict any doctrine of faith or morals. He is not saying that we should ignore earlier manuscripts to determine what had been originally written by the inspired authors of Scripture. In fact, he explicitly commends the making of common language translations from the original manuscripts.

Pius XII informed us that it was common knowledge that the Council of Trent’s authorization of the Vulgate applied only to the Latin rite of the Church (not to Eastern-rite Roman Catholics), and then only to the public reading of Scripture. He states that the comparison Trent was making was not between the Vulgate and early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, but between the Vulgate and other Latin translations then in circulation, and that Trent’s authorization of the Vulgate does not diminish the authority and force of the early texts. The decree, he tells us, had juridical rather than critical force, meaning that it made the Vulgate the official version for Church use but did not intend to put a stop to all scholarly-critical work being done with early manuscripts to determine the original reading of Scripture. (See end of this article for the full text of the pope’s statement.)

What many advocates of both King James-onlyism and Douay-Rheims-onlyism do not know is that neither Bible is the original issued in the 1600s. Over the last three centuries, numerous minor changes (for example, of spelling and grammar) have been made in the King James, with the result that most versions of the KJV currently on the market are significantly different from the original. This has led one publisher to recently reissue the 1611 King James Version Bible.

The Douay-Rheims currently on the market is also not the original, 1609 version. It is technically called the “Douay-Challoner” version because it is a revision of the Douay-Rheims done in the mid-eighteenth century by Bishop Richard Challoner. Bishop Challoner updated the Douay by removing numerous archaic spellings (for example, “blood” instead of “bloud”). He also consulted early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, meaning that the Douay Bible currently on the market is not simply a translation of the Vulgate (which many of its advocates do not realize).

For most the question of whether to use an old or a modern translation is not so pointed, and once a decision has been reached on this question it is possible to select a particular Bible version with relative ease.

Personally, I prefer to stay away from translations with unconventional renderings, such as the TEV. Since I do mostly Bible study rather than simple Bible reading, I also prefer using literal rather than dynamic translations. My personal preference is for the New King James Version, but since this is not available in an edition with the deuterocanonicals, I normally use the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition. This is a Church-approved version of the RSV which has a few, minor changes in the New Testament.(14) Until recently, the RSV:CE has been hard to find in America and could only be ordered from the Catholic Truth Society in London. But it has been reissued by Ignatius Press under the title, The Ignatius Bible. This is, for my money, the best Catholic Bible on the market today.

In the end, there may not be a need to select only one translation of the Bible to use. There is no reason why a Catholic cannot collect several versions of the Bible, aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each. It is often possible to get a better sense of what is being said in a passage by comparing several different translations.

An anecdote about Billy Graham contains perhaps the best advice about Bible versions. According to the story (which may be apocryphal), Billy Graham was once asked which Bible version is the best. “The one you read,” he replied.

The Authenticity of the Vulgate

Pope Pius XII

“But that the Synod of Trent wished the Vulgate to be the Latin version “which all should use as authentic,” applies, as all know, to the Latin Church only, and to the public use of Scripture, and does not diminish the authority and force of the early texts. For at that time no consideration was being given to early texts, but to the Latin versions which were being circulated at that time, among which the Council decreed that that version was rightly to be preferred which was approved by the long use of so many centuries within the Church. So this eminent authority of the Vulgate, or, as it is expressed, authenticity, was established by the Council not especially for critical reasons, but rather because of its authorized use in the Church continued through the course of so many centuries; and by this use it is demonstrated that this text, as the Church has understood and understands, in matters of faith and morals is entirely free of error, so that, on the testimony and confirmation of the Church herself, in discussions, quotations, and meetings it can be cited safely and without danger of error; and accordingly such authenticity is expressed primarily not by the term critical but rather juridical. Therefore, this authority of the Vulgate in matters of doctrine does not at all prevent–rather it almost demands today–this same doctrine being called upon for help, whereby the correct meaning of Sacred Scripture may daily be made clearer and be better explained. And not even this is prohibited by the decree of the Council of Trent, namely, that for the use and benefit of the faithful in Christ and for the easier understanding of divine works translations be made into common languages; and these, too, from the early texts, as we know has already been praise worthily done with the approval of the authority of the Church in many regions.” [from the encyclical, Divino afflante Spiritu, Sep. 30, 1943].



(1) For defenses of formal or complete equivalence as a translation philosophy, see James Price, Complete Equivalence in Bible Translation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987) and Robert Martin, Accuracy of Translation and the New International Version, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989).

(2) For this reason Paul says he glories in his ministry to the Gentiles so that he may win Jews to Christ (Rom. 11:13-14). By telling his fellow countrymen about what Jesus has done for the Gentiles, he hopes to make the cause of Christ attractive to them and win some of them over.

(3) One must admit that the social elite in Jerusalem regarded those from Galilee as country bumpkins; they also regarded Nazareth as a tiny, unimportant village in the middle of nowhere.

(4)For example, the JNT refers to Jesus as Yeshua, Paul as Sha’ul, the Law as the Torah, the Feast of Dedication as Chanukka, and the Holy Spirit as the Ruach-Ha Kodesh.

(5) For example, the New King James Version, my personal favorite for doing Bible study, has a few, unfortunate Protestant renderings. It translates the Greek word logidzetai (“reckon”) as “impute” term carrying more of the forensic implications that characterize the Protestant doctrine of salvation. It also tends to translate erga as “works” when it suits the Protestant cause but as “deeds” when it would suit the Catholic cause, as in Romans 2:6-7.

(6) One of my favorite examples of such change is the King James’s rendering of Ex. 23:19b: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.” This enigmatic phrase is rendered into modern English by the New King James as, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

(7) For example, the rendering of “Mighty God” as “God-Hero” rests on taking the Hebrew word for mighty as a noun, meaning “mighty one,” and then paraphrasing it to “hero.” Some have found the description of Christ as a hero theologically objectionable since traditionally heroes are mere mortals who overcome great adversity by their courage and cunning, though if you use a broader meaning of the term “hero” there is no problem describing Christ as one.

(8) This is a very questionable translation. While the Jews certainly viewed the abomination of desolation as an awful horror, this is not the meaning of the Hebrew phrase for it.

(9) An ark is simply another word for a box, thus the ark of the covenant is the covenant box. This also means that God did not command Noah to build a big boat (contrary to popular belief); he commanded him to build a big box, one which would float and survive the flood.

(10) A false claim; we have no perfect set of manuscripts; furthermore, the manuscripts on which the King James is based were compiled by the Catholic scholar Erasmus.

(11) To this one may point out that it was only authorized in the Anglican Church, which now uses other translations, and that the man who authorized it James I scarcely the wellspring of moral authority King James-onlyites paint him as (in fact, he was a notorious homosexual). For a still-in print critique of King James-onlyism, see D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate, A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979).

(12) The complete King James was published in 1611, but the complete Douay-Rheims in 1609.

(13) For example, many early Fathers and some editions of the Vulgate (but not the original) have Genesis 3:15 stating, “she [the woman] shall crush thy [the serpent’s] head.” While this does not contradict any doctrine of faith or morals (for it was through her Son, Jesus, that Mary crushed the serpent’s head), it is not what the Hebrew original or Jerome’s original Vulgate said, which was, “he [the woman’s seed] shall crush your head.” This shows how a Bible reading can be not-contrary-to-faith-and-morals and yet not what was said in the original. Bishop Challoner’s notes on the Douay state, “The sense [of these two readings] is the same: for it is by her seed, Jesus Christ, that the woman crushes the serpent’s head.” For more information, see A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture [New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953], 186.

(14)These alterations are listed in an appendix in the back of the book. Many of them simply substitute the word “brethren” for “brothers.”


This article originally appeared in the April 1994 This Rock magazine. Used by Permission.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!

What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy