What follows is a very subjective review of several different versions and editions of sacred scriptures. Before reviewing actual editions, there are a few things to know.
A note about terminology.
Lately, there has been a trend to refer to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures. The term “Old” implies outdated and superseded, which many christians do not want to imply about the Jewish faith. However, the christian Old Testament is not the same thing as the Bible used by Jews. First of all, the Jewish translation of the Bible relies on the Masoretic Hebrew text in use since the middle ages. Most translations of the christian Old Testament use texts of other ancient translations of the writings in question into Syriac, Aramaic, Greek and other language. Some of these ancient translations are less corrupt than surviving Hebrew manuscripts. Secondly, the christian Old Testament and Jewish Bible are arranged differently. The Jewish Bible ends with the Books of the Chronicles, which end with the sentence of Darius’ proclamation, “whoever is among you of all the people, let him go up [to Jerusalem].” The Jewish Bible serves as an etiology of the Second Jerusalem Temple. The christian Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi, which ends with a prediction of the return of Elijah to initiate a judgment. The Christian Bible then jumps directly to Matthew, which begins (after the infancy narrative) with John the Baptist’s appearance in the wilderness. The christian editors rearranged the Jewish scriptures to serve as a preface to the beginning of their own scriptures. I will use the term “christian Old Testament” to refer to the texts in question.
I will also use the term “scriptures” in the plural to remind us that what we have before us is not a monolithic literary achievement, but rather an organic literary development over the course of centuries. Psalms are not the same as prophetic writings; love poems are not the same as theological histories, and so the use of the term “scriptures.”
The “version” of the Bible refers to the actual translation. The original texts of the sacred scriptures were written primarily in Hebrew and Greek. The christian Old Testament was written primarly in Hebrew with a few exceptions (Daniel exists in two versions, one Greek and one Aramaic, but no Hebrew version can be found that is not a translation of one of the other two). The christian scriptures were written exclusively in Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire.
Of both christian Old Testament and christian scriptures, there exist ancient translations into many other languages. We know of Syriac versions of the christian Old Testament, Hebrew versions of the christian scriptures, and of course, Latin versions of both. There are hundreds of translations of both into English. Some are by individuals, some are by committee.
Once the bible has been translated (the version), a publisher will buy the translation from the owner of the copyright (individual or committee), and publish it an edition. Some editions are devotional and include artwork, or meditation helps, and the like. Others are study bibles and include commentary, either as an introduction to each book, or extensive footnotes and cross-references (called the apparatus). There are large print editions, red-letter editions and on and on. Editions currently in print probably run close to a thousand.
For our purposes, I find an intermediate level study edition most helpful (you can of course buy pretty dense scholarly editions, but I don’t use them — you get too much of the editor’s opinion).
Catholics include in their bibles a set of books that Protestants do not include: books with names like The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), I and II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, additions to the book of Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Song of the Three Young Men, Bel and the Dragon, Sussanna, and I and II (and sometimes III and IV) Maccabees. Protestant call these books the apocrypha (things hidden) or the deuterocanonicals (the second canon). The Anglican Church (of which the Episcopal Church is a member), true to our cahtolic heritage, uses a bible that includes the Apocrypha. These are books that were written during the period of the Second Temple (Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 579 BCE, and the Second Temple was rebuilt about 100 years later — Herod rebuilt it even more gloriously around 50 BCE — the Apocrypha comes from the period around 150 – 50 BCE).
Reviews (in no particular order)
King James Version (any edition). Believe it or not, the KJV (or Authorized Version, as it is officially known, published in 1611) is still hands down the best English translation available. There are, of course, a number of drawbacks. First, the language is archaic. Secondly, the translators used the manuscripts of ancient texts that were available in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Since then, many transcripts of the ancient texts have been discovered, and show that some of the manuscripts used by the translators were corrupt (that is, changed accidentally by scribes in transcription). If one could just correct the translation for those corruptions, one would have a very valuable version. The KJV puts in italics words supplied by the translation and not present in the Hebrew of Greek. No subsequent translation has done this. Too bad.
Revised Standard Version (Many, many editions, New Testament copyrighted in 1946, christian Old Testament in 1952, second edition copyrighted in 1971, by the National Council of Churches in the USA): The RSV is a pretty good translation. It is an attempt to modernize the KJV. Mostly it succeeds. It does use the best textual evidence available in the 1940s which was not available in 1611. However, it is a Protestant translation. Greek and especially Hebrew are concrete languages, referring to abstract concepts by metonymy, letting one thing stand for another — for example using “tongue” to mean “language.” A classic example is the word often translated as “had compassion” when Jesus encounters someone; the Greek implies, “troubled in the intestines.” Protestants of the 1950s (and even today) tend to shy away from the sometimes graphic use of language in the bible. Protestant translations tend toward the abstract. Also, there is a real tendency in the RSV to translate particularly the letters of Paul from a Lutheran, or even Calvinist, point of view, in which human nature totally depraved, and only God’s grace, predestined for some but not for others, is effective for salvation. Surprisingly, Paul (in Greek) is not as strong on predestination as Luther, Calvin and later Protestants make him out to be (this is an important caveat — every translation is a theological interpretation).
New Revised Standard Version (copyrighted in 1989 by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA). By and large the NRSV is a great improvement on the RSV. It has two drawbacks, besides being a Protestant translation. First, it is expensive. The copyright owner sells the rights to the version to the publisher who publishes an edition. The National Council of Churches sold the RSV quite cheaply, and so it was possible to get hardback editions with study helps for $12 or so in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the NCCCUSA needed money, and so they sell the NRSV for a lot more money than the RSV. For instance, the Oxford Annotated Edition more than tripled in price. One can pay $50 or more for a good study edition of the NRSV. Secondly, in an effort at inclusive language, the NRSV often uses the plural “they” instead of the singular “he” to avoid gender issues (for example, “Blessed are they” rather than Blessed is he/the one.”). Sometimes, this confuses the issue, and at other times, the NRSV translates words clearly inteded to be gender specific (man and male, not person) without reference to gender. This is not true to the authors’ intentions, and I believe we should be allowed to make up our own minds about how to handle the difficulties.
New International Version (NIV: copyright 1974 by New York International Bible Society). This is becoming a standard version in many Protestant churches. It is a readable translation and by and large accurate. It is particularly squeamish about sexual matters, steering clear of descriptive words. It sometimes supplies words not supported by the Greek or Hebrew.
The New English Bible (copyright The delegates of the Oxford University Press and sydics of the Cambridge Universiity Press, 1961, 1970). A very good attempt to bring the KJV up to date – if you are British. Many British colloquialisms make this not so useful to Americans. They do a pretty good job with the poetic passages. Almost every Church in England participated in this translation, so it has broad appeal.
The New American Bible (NAB copyright 1970: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine). This is one of the translations approved for use in the Roman Catholic Church in North America. Of the Catholic translations so approved, it is all around the best. At some points, they sacrifice technical accuracy for poetic emphasis, but this serves the original languages well. As a Catholic translation, there is not the same emphasis in the letters of Paul (or the Gospels for that matter) on the total depravity of human nature and predestination. The translation retains the rhetorical feel of Paul’s long speeches and his wildly convoluted logic. The poetry has impact and uses concrete images instead of abstractions. Of the whole Bible, this is probably my favorite translation.
Jerusalem Bible and The New Jerusalem Bible. Originally a translation into French, and the from French into English (the NJB is direct to English, with reference to the JB). The poetry in the JB is better than any other translation, but it suffers in other respects. I love to read Isaiah in the original JB just for the sound of it.
Today’s English Version (TEV). A great all-round translation. The purpose was to translate the Bible into an eighth grade reading level English, and they succeeded brillianlty. It is accurate, reads well and is not too Protestant. Its only drawback is that sometimes juiciness is sacrificed for simplicity. Kids and adults find it very easy to read and understand. For general reading, I highly recommended it.
Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society). A wonderful translation of the Jewish Scriptures — suffers a little from trying to tone things down for an American audience. Uses only the Masoretic Text without reference to any of the other ancient translations, sometimes less corrupt than the Hebrew tradition. The prophets are a joy to read in this translation.
Richmond Lattimore, The Four Gospels and The Acts and Letters of the Apostles. Lattimore is a classicist, best known for his translations of Homer. He claims to approach the christian scriptures simply as a Greek scholar. However, I find his theological slip showing — his interpretation of Paul is Lutheran. A very gritty feel for the language (the christian scriptures were written in the colloquial language of the day).
The Scholars Version (copyright 1992, 1994 Polebridge Press). Angered by the expense of the NRSV, some of the sholars connected with the Jesus Seminar decided to make their own translation available. They went all out in putting the christian scriptures into an English version that reflects the rough edges of the Greek they were written in. Jesus is heard to say “Damn you,” which he did say in Greek. Well worth owning, but it will become dated.
Here are my favorite Editions, along with the Versions in which they are available.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, with Apocrypha (NRSV). This edition is the seminary student’s Bible. It has a complete apparatus, with cross-references to other scriptural allusions, etc. The notes explain what the author is trying to express (or at least what the editors think the author is trying to express — don’t be fooled). There is a good, short introduction to each book printed at the head of the book, giving authorship, time and circumstances of writing. Great maps in the back, a chronology of biblical history and lots of other helps. Drawbacks? You have to read and pay for the NRSV.
The Catholic Study Bible (NAB). First class edition. Each book has a reader’s guide, printed in the front half of the book. The reader’s guide (abbreviated RG) outclasses the New Oxford Annotated Bible’s introductions, covering also theological themes, and uses made of the book in the history of the church. The apparatus is better than NOAB. The Catholic Study Bible is available in paper for a lot less than the Oxford (and here’s the capper — it, too, is published by Oxford!). This is the Bible that sits on my desk — I am now on my second copy, having beat the first one to death.
Good News Bible (TEV). Just a straigh ahead Bible — very little apparatus. But worth owning for the translation.
The Five Gospels (Scholars Version). The (in)famous Jesus Seminar red, pink, gray and black letter edition. This is worth owning to see how some scholars are approaching the words of Jesus — it helps to show that the Gospel writers had as much a hand in what Jesus is claimed to have said as did authentic recollection. Includes the Gospel of Thomas.
The Complete Gospels (Scholars Version). Includes all the Gospels and gospel fragmenst (infancy gospels like the Gospel of Mary, and other fragmentary gospels, like the Gospel of Peter). All of this stuff is very early christian literature that did not make it into the canon. All of it is important in understanding how the gospels we use came to be written. It includes several versions of Thomas, Secret Mark, a reconstruction of Q (that is, the source Matthew and Luke have in common besides Mark) and lots of other goodies. The translation is fun, and the apparatus is very good.
There are many more translations and editions, but these are the ones I find most useful.
A good commentary and a good bible dictionary are indispensable for understanding what you read. The best single volume commentary is The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Unfortunately it is hard to follow, but far and away the best scholarship. Also expensive.
Harpers Bible Commentary is not quite as good, but much less expensive.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary is also pretty good.
The absolute best and most useful resource is The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (IDB). It is five volumes long. Hands down the resource I use most often.
Also very good is The New Interpreter’s Bible. It is 12 volumes long. Probably beyond anything the average reader would need, but it is exhaustive.