What is the best English version of the Bible?

In my recent survey of Bible reading habits of Baptist ministers, the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible was clearly the most popular version of the Bible. For in response to my question, “What is your preferred English version of the Bible”, 62% opted for the NIV.

  • AV/NKJV                                  5%                              
  • NIV (TNIV/RNIV)                      62%                            
  • RSV/NRSV                                16%                            
  • GNB                                         0%                              
  • REB                                          0%                              
  • Other                                       16%                            

As an aside, the ‘other’ responses were a very mixed group: ‘other’ in the first question included the New Living Translation (8%) and the English Standard Version (5%); while in the second question ‘other’ included The Message (8%) and the New Living Translation (6%).

Interestingly a 2008 Bible Society survey revealed that among ‘church leaders’ of all denominations, the NIV followed by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) were also the favourite Bible versions:  37% for the NIV (compared to 62% in our survey) and 17% (compared to 16% in our survey). Among ‘non-church leaders’ the favourite was the NIV (26%) followed by the Jerusalem Bible (12%), read mainly by Roman Catholics.

I confess that I do not share the enthusiasm of church leaders, whether Baptist or otherwise, for the NIV.   My difficulty with the NIV – which I sometimes naughtily refer to as the ‘Nearly Inspired Version’ – is that it consciously set out to be an ‘Evangelical’ Bible translation –  as if translators from other Christian traditions could not be trusted to produce an honest translation.  The reality is that sometimes Evangelicals are not to be trusted: so, for instance, when the NIV was first published in 1978, because at that stage leadership was deemed by many American Evangelicals to be always male, the reference in Romans 16.7 to Junia (a woman), as “prominent among the apostles”, was changed to Junias (a man)!  I am not concerned about the churchmanship of those who translate the Scripture – but rather that the translation is good.  Otherwise, the Bible is able to look after itself.  As Spurgeon said many years, albeit in a different context: “Defend the Bible?  I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it and it will defend itself”

I prefer the NRSV, which claims to be “a Bible for all Christians”.   Interestingly its translators included not only Protestants, but also Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox scholars.  As a result the NRSV is formally recognised by all the main-line denominations.  It is also the preferred English-language text of British university theological faculties.   It is almost certainly the most accurate of all English translations.

When the NRSV first came out in 1989, it was attacked by many Evangelicals because it sought to be ‘gender-neutral’ unless the reference is definitely to a man: so, for instance, in Mark 1.17 NRSV has Jesus saying “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (as distinct from ‘men’).  However, when the NIV was subsequently revised in 2005, the TNIV (Today’s NIV) also sought to be ‘gender-neutral’; the 2011 revision of the NIV, sometimes referred to as the RNIV, also seeks to be ‘gender-neutral’, but not as much as the 2005 revision!

However, accuracy us not everything. Intelligibility is also important. So although for my own private use I have always favoured the NRSV, when I was minister of my last church I always used the Good News Bible (GNB) on the grounds that it was the most accessible of modern versions.  For unlike other English versions, the GNB was produced with the needs of those whose first language was not English:  in this regard the GNB’s use of ‘dynamic equivalence’ has proved most helpful.

So what is the best English version of the Bible?  My preference is for the NRSV – but if I were on a Desert Island and only the NIV was available, I would no doubt be grateful!  We are in fact blessed by the choice that we have.

One comment

  1. Paul. If you have a lot of time on your hands you should look at the New Testament in DorIc the Aberdonian dialect. We hope you enjoyed the west coast.
    Glen.

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