Like most everyone else, I abhor visiting the dentist. The sound of the drill makes my skin crawl. My teeth and gums are so sensitive, I even need a local anesthetic just for a cleaning.
So imagine my shock when I read this in the Bible:
“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities…”
Amos 4:6 – English Standard Version
Egad! Does God have a penchant for oral hygiene? Did he go through the Israelite camps with one of those fastidious metal hooks giving its inhabitants sparkling chompers? Did he lecture the Hebrews on tartar control and floss use?
No. This passage, like several others in the Old Testament, uses a Hebrew idiom—a phrase that is easily understood by native speakers of a language, but not by others because its meaning is not literal.
In English, there are many such as a piece of cake, back to the drawing board and let the cat out of the bag.
So, what does cleanness of teeth mean? Famine. God caused a famine among the Hebrews. Their teeth were clean because they had no food to soil them up.
What would you prefer to read if you came across this passage in the book of Amos? Would you want a literal word-for-word translation of the Hebrew idiom that lets you figure out its meaning or would you want the translation to read famine so it’s more easily understood? Your answer to this question will help in determining the right Bible translation for you.
For the most part, Bible translations can be placed on a range where the two ends are formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence.
If the translators use formal equivalence, their goal is to stay as true to the original text as possible. This type of translation is ideal for Bible study and scholarly research because of its exactness. Sometimes there are nuances and word plays in the source language that are lost in looser translations, but are maintained in these.
The literal translation of formal equivalence strives to preserve even the word order of the original text. The fidelity to the Hebrew or Greek, however, could lead to a stilted, awkward reading.
In English, for example, the name of the place where the president lives is the White House—adjective before noun. In Spanish, the name is Casa Blanca noun before adjective. If one were to translate Spanish to English using very scrupulous formal equivalence, the president lives in the House White. Yes, it’s accurate, but sounds funny to our ears.
The Concordant Bible is an English translation compiled by the Concordant Publishing Concern (CPC) which uses extreme formal equivalence where each word-for-word is translated and the order preserved. Here is their translation of a passage that is accurate, albeit very difficult to read:
“I am marveling that thus, swiftly, you are transferred from that which calls you in the grace of Christ, to a different evangel, which is not another, except it be that some who are disturbing you want also to distort the evangel of Christ.”
—Galatians 1:6 – Concordant Version
For comparison, here is the NIV (New International Version)
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
—Galatians 1:6 – NIV
At the other end of the spectrum is dynamic equivalence. This method of translating prefers a more natural and smooth reading than staying true to each word of the source. Here, the translators look at what the original text means, then finds expressions in English that communicate a similar message.
Translations that use dynamic equivalence will also likely convert archaic measurements—stadia, cubits and shekels to miles, feet and pieces of silver.
These types of translations are ideal for private reading and public proclamation.
The New American Bible (NAB)—the only translation approved for use at Mass in the dioceses of the United States and the Philippines—employs the use of dynamic equivalence.
The looseness of dynamic equivalence, however can go to extremes. The Cotton Patch Gospel recasts the stories of Jesus and the letters of Paul and Peter into the language and culture of the United States South in the mid-20th century. Here is their rendering of the birth of Jesus:
“When Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia during the time that Herod was governor, some scholars from the Orient came to Atlanta and inquired, ‘Where is the one who was born to be governor of Georgia? We saw his star in the Orient, and we came to honor him.’ This news put Governor Herod and all his cronies in a tizzy. So he called a meeting of the big time preachers and politicians, and asked if they had any idea where the Leader was to be born.”—Matthew 2:1-4 – Cotton Patch Bible
For comparison, here is the NIV:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.”—Matthew 2:1-4 NIV
I would not recommend the Cotton Patch Bible if you are wanting to read scripture. If you want to read it as fiction inspired by scripture, then by all means, go ahead.
What’s the Best Bible?
So, which Bible translation should you use? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. It all depends on your intent.
If your goal is to get through the Bible and read it easily, then a more dynamic version is best. If you want to study the scriptures and dissect key passages that often hinge on the nuance of a single word, then a Bible that leans toward formal equivalence would be best. You can always have more than one!
Here is a list of USCCB approved translations and a few popular ones separated into categories:
Skew toward Formal Equivalence
- King James Version (KJV)
- New King James Version (NKJV)
- New American Standard (NAS)
- Douay-Rheims Version
Less Formal Equivalence
- Revised Standard Version (RSV)
- New International Version (NIV)
- New American Bible (NAB)
- New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
- New English Bible (NEB)
- Revised English Bible (REB)
- Contemporary English Version (CEV)
- Good News Bible
- Today’s English Version (TEV)
- Living Bible (TLB), also known as “The Book.”
So how about you? Which translation do you prefer? Do you use more than one? Share and let’s learn together.