Beginning a Bible study – Which Bible?

PART ONE:  Choosing a Translation


“Which Bible should I buy?”  was a common question I encountered when I was managing the bookstore, five years ago. I still hear it fairly regularly, now.  With several translations and multiple features vying for attention and purchase dollars, there are a lot of choices available, and those choices can be daunting.

The answer is simple, however: you should buy a Bible you will read.

The NAB – the New American Bible – is the official text of the Catholic Church in the U.S.  It was chosen by the USCCB for all our official liturgies – the Mass and the Divine Office.  It is straightforward, plain and direct.

Frankly? I don’t like it. The NAB reminds me, in its plainness and its attempts to be simple, of the TEV (Today’s English version), also known as the Good News Bible, that came out while I was in high school.  Wildly popular for a few months, possibly because of the cute little stick-figure “illustrations” that had been so popular in the New Testament release, known as Good News for Modern Man, it was actually translated from the original language to accommodate a third- to fifth-grade reading level.  A lot of us found it (and the paraphrased Living Bible) a good starting place for Bible study and daily devotional reading…  but we very quickly outgrew it.  By simplifying the translation so rigorously, much of the color and richness of the biblical language were lost, and simultaneously much of the meaning of the Scriptures.

There’a huge difference between these –

Good News Translation (GNT) Revised Standard Version (RSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. 1 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
2 He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. 2 he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
3 He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised. 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me
5 You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
6 I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Scripture taken from the Good News Translation – Second Edition, Copyright 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission. (The Good News Translation – The Holy Bible Online) Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (Revised Standard Version – Holy Bible)

And you can compare these to the NAB:

New American Bible (NAB)


Psalm 23

1 A psalm of David. I The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
2 In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;
3 you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.
4 Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.
5 II You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.

There’s a vast difference between “deepest darkness” (TEV),  “dark valley” (NAB), and “valley of the shadow of death” (RSV), to offer only one example.

Which leads me to the RSV, my comparison text, above.  The RSV gets a lot of criticism from fundamentalists because it is a product of the National Council of Churches, which fundamentalists see as apostate.  Certainly I’m no fan of that organization, myself. But they did a good work on this translation, with representatives from all the major American churches on the editorial and translation boards.

What I like about the RSV is that the language comes much closer to the original languages’ meanings than the NAB. When you read it, you get a better idea what the text actually says. In addition, the RSV was translated not so very long ago, so the language used is not so heightened or “academic” as to be daunting or off-putting.  It’s a good translation, all-around. And it’s one I gravitate towards because the heightened language reminds me that I am encountering something and Someone far above myself. That’s a good thing.

There’s also the Douay-Rheims.  The Douay was translated at the English Catholic colleges in Douai and Rheims, in France, pre-dating the King James Version by roughly 30 years (so much for the assertion that the Catholic Church didn’t want the laity to know the Scriptures!), and it’s been updated on nearly the same schedule.  The very popularly-known KJV, the one that fundamentalist preachers are mistakenly given to claiming is the “1611 King James Bible!” was updated in the 1830s. The Challoner edition of the Douay dates to the 1740s and ’50s, and allows for a modernization of the language (and attention to some highly Latinate portions of the original Douay translations).

The language of the Douay is very heightened, according to the style of the period.  Many people find it off-putting.  As an English major, I am not only comfortable with the Douay, I really, really like it.  When I’m reading for prayer, for lectio divina, it’s the translation I’m more likely to pull off my shelf.

And here’s Psalm 23 in the Douay:

Dominus regit me. God’s spiritual benefits to faithful souls.

[1] A psalm for David. The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing. [2] He hath set me in a place of pasture. He hath brought me up, on the water of refreshment: [3] He hath converted my soul. He hath led me on the paths of justice, for his own name’ s sake. [4] For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me. [5] Thou hast prepared a table before me against them that afflict me. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; and my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!

[1] Ruleth me: In Hebrew, Is my shepherd, viz., to feed, guide, and govern me.

[6] And thy mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days.

Quite the difference, eh?

What’s more, the Thomas Nelson Company, publisher of fine Bibles for generations, published a little pamphlet, a few years back, comparing available Bible translations, and scored the Douay highest for accuracy of translation from the original languages!

That might not matter so much to you as it does to many, if you’re only beginning a personal study — or the practice of lectio divina –for the first time. And so I recommend you either pop in to your local bookstore — preferably a Catholic bookstore! — and pull the Bibles off the shelf and browse through them.  See which translations you feel most at home with. Because a Bible you feel daunted by or disappointed in is a Bible you probably won’t read.

Tomorrow: Other considerations (Price, for one)
Thanks to Bible Study Tools for the comparison between TEV and RSV, above — BibleShark for the NAB — and DRBO for the Douay)