Which Bible to Read? September 25, 2007

Which Bible to Read?

A Reasonable Atheist never read much of the Bible growing up. His excuse: he was a Methodist. He’s finally going to read it, though.

But he has a slight dilemma:

Before I start however, I come to an important question. Which version of the Bible to read? There are lots of translations, so it might be difficult to choose. I could go with the most common one, the KJV. I asked an Episcopal friend of mine, and he suggested the New Revised Standard Version, but I’m wary of that, as the NRSV and some other newer translations contain “gender neutral” language, which I feel isn’t a very good way to do a proper translation of the text.

So, what suggestions do you have for him?

[tags]atheist, atheism, Bible, Christianity, Jesus[/tags]

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  • In my background (white evangelicals and conservatives in the South), the NIV (New International Version) is fairly standard. I think it has a fairly large readership, and the prose is relatively modern & easy to read.

    Of course, if you add in the Apocrypha, you get some nice extra stories that even many Christians think are made up..

  • Joseph Crail

    The New King James Bible is more readable than the KJV. It is untouched more or less from the KJV except for the removal of the Old English phrases (“thee”, “thou”, “verily”, etc).

    The Complete Jewish Bible (Messianic) is structured with the verses in paragraphs instead of chopped into smaller pieces. However, one will have to get accustomed to the original Jewish names for people and cities (anglicized names are removed). On a positive note, it reads more like a conversation.

    As mentioned above, the New American bible (which always includes the Apocrypha plus a few others) is the standard version for Catholics.

    But the version that I have heard the most regard for in terms of readability is the NIV. Modern terms are used when appropriate and additional phrases are bracketed for better comprehension of the original meaning. Also, the NIV is very readable and is a good start for a casual or novice reader.

    Though it is always best to have at least two versions available for comparison and a regional map for the Old/New Testament helps clarify the numerous references.

  • Bad

    Start with ” Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” to get a sense as to why it’s a question without an answer.

  • The KJV is the best read, with the most beautiful language.

    As globalizati said, the New International Version is another one that is quite popular with evangelical Christians, with more modern language than the KJV. That would be my suggestion if you don’t like “thees and thous.”

  • The NIV is pretty standard. The New Living Translation is a newer (circa mid 90s?) translation. You have your translations (KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, NTL) and then you have your paraphrases like The Message.

    If you are going for word-to-word accuracy…stick with a translation. But if you want to find beauty in language, communicating the true concepts of the Bible – check out The Message.

    They also make parallel Bibles with up to four versions side-by-side…a little harder to find but practically any bookstore can order it if you cant’ find it.

    Hebrew/Greek Lexicons are also really handy to have around if you want to do a particular word study…

  • My vote is for the Oxford Annotated NRSV w/ Apocrypha. Excellent essays, footnotes and careful translations. I haven’t noticed any incidence of gender neutral language either. The only thing is that it’s pretty dry.

    For an easier read the Good News Bible is great. Not scholarly but much more fun and a whole hell of a lot cheaper.

    Those are the two I have anyway and I find they compliment each other pretty well. One’s the nerdy brainiac who’s great for a challenging conversation, the other is the cute pool man you invite in for a roll in the hay.

  • nowoo

    You can search for passages and read entire chapters of the Bible in 21 different English versions (although not the RSV or NRSV) and many other languages with the Bible Gateway.

    That site helped me a lot when I was questioning my Christian beliefs, so I have to give it some of the credit for my becoming an atheist. The original version of that search software was written by a guy I went to Christian college with. I should let him know how much his software improved my life.

  • The KJV has the best language.

  • Arlen

    Here’s the problem:

    All of the translations are *translations.* Each of the translators has had to make subjective decisions and thus inserts his or her own bias into the English. I am not an expert on this, but this is what I understand from people who know lots more about this than I do:

    KJV was written to value flowery language above actual accuracy. I’ve heard some people say that it was intentionally twisted in such a way as to encourage serfs to submit to oppression by the church and their rulers. Although still more people see the KJV as the literal word of God transcribed by His hand in the original English.

    NIV is written with the evangelical in mind. Like the KJV, it knowingly omits some verses. It also tends to support evangelical thinking by translating things like “womanly” or “effeminate” as “homosexual” and by eliminating or minimizing contradictions in the Bible.

    NRSV is shocking to many evangelicals because it parts with translation tradition. While it is true that it errs on the side of gender-neutrality, the lion’s share of this “bias” comes from translating an ambiguous word to the least-restrictive English interpretation (ie, “siblings” becomes “brothers and sisters” as opposed to the traditional “brothers;” also it translates a description of Mary as a “young girl” rather than a “virgin”). It is my impression that most non-evangelical Christians/churches use the NRSV.

    The Message is a very recent and very modern translation of the Bible. It is, without a doubt, the easiest to read translation, but I think few people will argue that it is the least literal translation. Instead of translating the exact meaning of each word, it focuses on conveying the “tone” (or the “voice”) of each author. This is a fun version to have as a second, especially when you get stuck on something really dense and indecipherable.

    I, personally, use an NRSV as my primary Bible. I really like the way that The Message handles the epistles, and I sometimes read the KJV for parts of the Bible where fancy English is more appealing than accuracy (Psalms, etc.)

    I hope that helps you a little.

    PS: I absolutely agree with commenter “Bad.” I whole-heartedly recommend that you read anything written by Bart Ehrman. He’s an agnostic/atheist and I’m a Christian, but the guy absolutely knows what he’s talking about.

  • The KJV may have the best language, but the manuscripts from which it was translated are relatively later than the manuscripts behind more modern translations, and so is less reflective of the original text. The NKJV just uses the same manuscripts as the KJV, so it’s no improvement in that regard.

    If you want both readability and fidelity to the best manuscripts, then the NRSV is probably the best choice. The gender-neutral language in it, IIRC, is mainly used in the places where a masculine plural is used to refer to a mixed-gender group, as is common in languages with gender inflections, and there are footnotes to indicate what gender-neutral substitutions have been made, e.g. a footnote for “brothers and sisters” will say “brothers.”

  • Huw

    Actually, the NRSV is very good provided one reads the footnotes – which point out where “inclusion” has happened. I would suggest the Oxford Study Bible which has very good scholarly articles pointing out issues with the text as we have it, as well as possible resolutions to these text-based issues. The footnotes also offer alternative translations, various places where multiple source documents differ, etc. And for readability it can’t be beat.

  • I’d recommend reading the book “Introduction to the Bible” by Rogerson; it is short but packed with information on questions like these.

    The NIV is an evangelical translation where the translators chose to translate in a way so as to soften any contradictions. The NRSV is a much more scholarly translation.

    But for the Hebrew Bible (commonly called the Old Testament, though this isn’t the Catholic Old Testament), the Jewish Publication Society Tanack (sp) is good.

  • I say you read one of those little Gideon bibles that the people try to give you on the street corner. It is sure to be a sort read. 😉

  • I’ve gotten bogged down in the KJV more than once because of the combination of difficult, overly-poetic language and tedious genealogies and whatnot. I ran out and bought a copy of the NRSV after reading Misquoting Jesus, since that’s the one recommended by Ehrman.

    Robert Price (of the Bible Geek podcast and books like The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man) released the Pre-Nicene New Testament fairly recently, and cast some aspersions both on the NIV (for being slanted toward the conservative evangelicals) and the NRSV (for being slanted the other direction).

    Ultimately, I suppose it’s all about what you’re looking for. I really like the phrasing in the KJV for a lot of the verses, but I trust Ehrman when he says that the NRSV is the most accurate version, and I like that one for how comprehensible it is.

  • I always like The Jerusalem Bible which is a Catholic translation. Among its translator was J.R.R. Tolkien.

  • King James Version with Apocrypha. It is the standard text for most modern Bibles and a brilliant piece of literature. I hate reading Bibles that are not KJV because the Bible loses so much eloquence and literary remarkability when it is dumbed down for today’s readers. Also, the modern versions change word to alter meanings of phrases to make the Bible seem less ridiculous. For instance, the reference to unicorns in KJV’s Job is omitted in many newer versions, replaced by a mule or a horse.

  • These days only fundamentalists regularly read the KJV (it’s not a very accurate translation at all). Most evangelicals prefer the NIV and most mainliners like the NRSV.

    There are three basic types of translations: word-for-word, dynamic equivalency, and paraphrases.

    The New American Standard (NASB) is a word-for-word translation. They try to get the most direct word-equivalencies and syntax to the original languages. As a result it can often read rather disjointedly when it comes to grammar and sentence structure. Plus they leave idioms as-is while other translations sometimes try to render them into an equivalent idiom in our language.

    The New Living Translation (NLT) is a dynamic equivalency translation. Rather than translating word-for-word, they try to take the whole idea of a sentence or paragraph and put it into modern English. (Obviously this involves more interpretive choices about what exactly a particular passage is about.) They also try to make it very readable and contemporary, so it can often be even easier to follow than the NIV.

    The Message is a paraphrase. It’s the author’s totally interpretive spin on what he thinks the text is saying. I read the Message more like a commentary on the text than as if it were really the biblical text itself.

    Personally in my sermon prep I use the TNIV (Today’s NIV – the “gender accurate” version – i.e. it uses gender neutral langauge when the text itself is clearly referring to both men and women, even if the original language uses a male term “inclusively”), the NLT (for the readability factor), and the Message for those tough passages where I’m just not sure what it’s getting at. I’d use the NRSV too, but I don’t have a copy for some reason.

    I also heavily rely on BibleGateway.com. It’s a great too for finding random verses when maybe you only remember a word or two of it.

  • batyah harris

    Hmmmm. Well, if he wants to really go to the original source, he should get the Artscroll Chumash and the Artscroll Tanakh, which contain the Jewish translations of what are, after all, Jewish scriptures. Can’t help him with Part Two, however.

    The Artscroll Tanakh contains all of the books of the Jewish bible, and has fewer comments. The Artscroll Chumash covers only the first 5 books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, but the commentary is extensive and phenomenal. To my mind, it is absurd to just try to sit down and read the bible straight (this is the mistake that Christians made and it has led to no end of misunderstandings, not to mention all the mistranslations from the original Hebrew). He needs to read a bible that EXPLAINS to the reader what he is reading. To read Jewish scriptures while ignoring the entire body of Jewish religious scholarship and teaching and what it has to say about the scriptures is like ripping one page out of a large manual and thinking you can make sense of the whole by studying that one page. The bible has to be read in a historical as well as spiritual and cultural context.

  • To read Jewish scriptures while ignoring the entire body of Jewish religious scholarship and teaching and what it has to say about the scriptures is like ripping one page out of a large manual and thinking you can make sense of the whole by studying that one page. The bible has to be read in a historical as well as spiritual and cultural context.

    Excellent point batyah. I very much agree.

  • that should be a dilemma. even those professing “Christians” wouldn’t know how to reconcile Bible versions* that contradict each other.

    *note: as a Christian, i put stress on the Bible versions cause i believe that the Bible per se doesn’t contain contradictions.


  • Ada

    I read the bible cover to cover when I was a methodist. NIV and KJV both, actually. After my apostasy I got a Tanakh and I have to agree with batyah on that one.

  • I’d recommend you watch “Real Live Preacher”‘s video clips on “How to Read the Bible”. He has some good ideas, etc., give him a chance. He’s one of the “good Christians”, if you know what I mean.


    I’d love to hear other atheists’ opinions on this series. If you feel so inclined, please drop a comment at http://thinktoomuch.net/2007/03/18/ancient-religious-texts/ – my impression is that this series should be good to watch for fundamentalists and atheists alike. (One of my atheistic friends did give this collection to one of his fundie friends… clearly he liked it…)

  • Hmm, while I’m at it, I loved Marcus Borg’s “Reading The Bible Again for the First Time”. He is a liberal Christian, a theologian, part of the Jesus seminar. He is a theist, he does accept more accounts of the paranormal than we might accept, but his books are great. They helped me escape fundamentalism, and become an atheist. (Hehe, oops?) The book’s taglines are “A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Bible” and “Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally”.

  • I’d go with Revised Standard or New Revised Standard. The language in King James is lovely, but in many places the translation is wildly inaccurate. And it’s not like the NRSV reads like it was written by monkeys. The writing is also graceful and lovely; it’s just more spartan and less flowery. And unlike the King James, it was translated by people who cared about accuracy above anything else.

  • Vincent

    Ask the Bible Geek.
    He answered this question on an episode of the Infidel Guy Show, and gave compelling reasons for his answer – plus he’s read pretty much every version.
    Unfortunately I couldn’t remember his answer.

  • I think a word-for-word translation is literally impossible. I speak a little German. Here’s an example. “Es tut mir der kopf weh” means “I have a headache”. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But if you try a word for word translation, you get “It does [to] me the head pain” (sort of, because “to” is implied and “weh” doesn’t seem to actually mean anything outside of this gramattical structure). Translation for meaning is much more, well, meaningful. But Germand and English are closely related (English is a Germanic language). If it’s impossible to get exact translations of simple sentences in two related languages, how much more difficult to translate between distant languages that are also separated over time and to try to convey the details of complicated philosophical ideas.

    Obviously we read translations of things all the time and get the gist, but you can’t get the fine details unless you’re fluent in the original language.

    An interesting book on this subject is “Le Ton Beau de Marot” by Douglas Hofstadter. Definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the possible and impossible nuances of translation.

    I personally can’t read anything other than the KJV these days. I tried recently, but the content has no real appeal to me any more, so without the language and the familiarity of the translation I read when I was younger, the Bible holds nothing for me anymore. Although I’m tempted to read the translation Mike C suggested just to see how the text is being read by non-fundies these days.

  • if you are going for accuracy to original languages use the ESV. If you want readability plus a decent translation go with NIV (better translation) or the message (not such a literal translation- but a beautiful read).

  • Rob Linford

    Not sure it really matters which one you read. The bible, especially the old testament, likely came from an oral tradition passed from generation to generation. Then at some point it was written down in different forms by different people at different times. I’m guessing that then these multiple traditions were mushed together to form a single document – which explains some of the glaring inconsistencies and contradictions. Then it was translated over and over, copied by hand numerous times by people with their own opinions and axe to grind, added to, modified, anointed, retranslated, and ‘reinterpreted’. On and on for a couple thousand years. Pick whatever version you want and it will be about as equally flawed as any other. Books written by dysfunctional collaboration over long spans of time are not worth much in my opinion. Unless of course you believe that the bible is the literal word of God in which case it all makes perfect sense.

    Suggest you also read “The Secular Bible” by Berlinerblau. It does a good job explaining why the Bible is a seriously flawed as a factual/historical document.

  • Several of my professors worked on the ESV and I know several people who worked for the company that published it. With all due respect to those scholars, the ESV does have several deliberate theological biases embedded into it – instances where some of the “celebrities” on the translation committee pretty much insisted on their rendering being chosen. Of course, every translation will have these issues, but one should just be aware that the ESV has a deliberate conservative evangelical (and even Reformed) spin to it.

  • Jenn

    I prefer this one:
    The Harper Collins Study Bible – it’s the NRSV, which is a better translation than King James (i.e. as much of it is from the original greek/oldest known texts as possible), and there is a lot of good introductory text before each book describing authorship and history around the origins of the text, along with a lot of footnotes about translating from greek, etc.

    Another interesting read (though not a Bible) is “The Messianic Legacy” by Michael Baigent – he was a scholar that did a lot of work trying to uncover the historical Jesus – who Jesus the person really was – if nothing else it is extremely interesting and gives a very different perspective on the church and the basis of Christian religion.

  • BryanJ

    The NRSV is actually a fairly straight forward translation excluding the “brothers and sisters” parts. The NIV seems to try to soften some of the more embarrassing passages.

  • Hmmmm. Well, if he wants to really go to the original source, he should get the Artscroll Chumash and the Artscroll Tanakh, which contain the Jewish translations of what are, after all, Jewish scriptures.

    As a former Orthodox Jew, I have to strenuously object to the recommendation of Artscroll. While it’s true that the OT is Jewish in origin, Artscroll is well-known (among Orthodox Jews, I guess) as weaving interpretations into the translations.

    My favorite example is in Song of Songs, which to be fair to Artscroll, they admit up from that the translation is interpretive. Anyway, here’s a literal translation:

    Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies”

    I don’t have the ArtScroll translation in front of me, but I know for a fact that they translate “two breasts” as “Moses and Aaron.”

    Hilarious, right? It’s true that they’re following a relatively common allegorical interpretation of Song of Songs, but I think they lose a little something in translation. 🙂

  • I’m a Biblical Studies student at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, MI. The general answer to this question is, “It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.” For your purposes, I would suggest the New Revised Standard Version. It’s not as readable as the New Living Translation (NLT) or the New International Version. But, it is considered (among the translations) to be the closest to the original Greek manuscripts. I cannot attest to this last fact (as I am a only a first year Greek student), but this is what several professors have explained and, at this juncture, I have no reason to question their scholarship. Happy studying.

  • Matt Howden

    I would say New International Version. New American Standard. New Living Translation.

    Stay away from New King James Version and King James Version.

    The Message is good but it is a translation. So you will have to remeber that as you are reading it.

  • Mriana

    That’s funny, Matt. Robert Price recommends the KJV, but if one can’t stand that then he recommends the NKJV and to stay away from the NAS and NIV because they are too far from the original translation, even worse with the NLT. I also recommend the NKJV IF you are going to read the Bible.

  • I would recommend buying the following book as a study guide to go along with whatever translation or translations this person chooses:

    Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals by John Buehrens

    You can find information on this book online here.

    Buehrens recommends looking at multiple translations because each translations often have theological assumptions — for example, are you using a Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish translation of the text?

    Buehrens recommends the following translations:

    The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha

    The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with Apocrypha

    The Catholic Study Bible: New American Bible

    My local Unitarian Universalist church did a class using Buehrens’ book and when our class would look at a passage, everyone who was reading along in class would have a different translation — the word choice and the emphaasis between the different translations provoked lots of discussion.

    One suggestion in the book is to “read against the grain” when reading the Bible. This means keeping in mind which voices are present and which voices are absent. For example, a feminist reading against the grain would suggest interpreting the Bible through a lens of suspicion. Women were present when the stories were written but were marginalized in these stories.

  • Michael Baigent? Didn’t he co-author that pseudo-history, conspiracy theory book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” that Dan Brown based a lot of the DaVinci Code off of? That’s nice fiction but it has very little relation to actual history.

  • Mriana

    I agree with Mike C, the DaVinci Code is worthless if you are looking for history.

  • Jen

    I think I own the NIV, because that was popular when I was 13 at the church I went to. These days, though, its pretty easy to find verses or chapters online, so I usually head over to Bible Gateway for all my Bible needs. This is because I am a person of the internet generation.

    If you want to read about the Bible from a fairly even-handed source, I suggest Don’t Know Much About the Bible. It divides the Bible into sections and provides summaries and then answers questions about each book. Like the entire series, it doesn’t cite sources or provide references beyond a bibliography and some book recommendations throughout the text, but its a pretty easy and quick read, and is a nice starting point, even if I wouldn’t use it to write a paper.

  • Mriana

    I only have a copy of the NRSV because in an effort to get me to read the Bible when a was teen my grandparents gave it to me. Thinking it was easier to read than the KJV, therefore I’d read it. Well, I did and was bored by it. My mother got me the NKJV thinking I’d like it better. I didn’t, but I used it the first time around in college when I took an Old Testement class, which was an easy A for me and went towards required credits. Yeah, it was and is a State uni, but you have required Humanities classes or whatever catagory it fell into for credit in that area.

    It was there my sneaky suspecions about Christianity and Judaism evolving from other myths was confirmed, just not quite explained enough for me and I had more questions. Which I researched on my own. Now I thought it would be an easy minor for this degree, but Hinduism is proving to be a challenge, but it too is confirming my suspecions and answering some of my questions.

    Those Bibles now have their backs off them and falling a part. So it looks like I read them a lot. 😆

  • Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals by John Buehrens

    Thanks for that Steve, I think I’ll check that out myself.

  • Ric

    Myself, I think it really does not matter. As some said before “…depends on what you seek…”. Read any of them, read them with an open mind, read them with a “hunger” or a “thirst” for truth (for want of a better word). What it comes down to is, does the whole gist of what you are reading tell you in your heart that what you are doing is right or wrong. In your heart, your mind (unless you are insane!) you know whether a thing would be good or bad. Summed up, would you want it done to you? As far as history, is anyone’s history more right than another’s? Just read it, read it often. Practice Love for your fellow “man”, and practice it always. Love, Ric.

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