The Confident Christian
4/8/13 at 08:04 PM 6 Comments

Which Bible Translation Should You Use (Part 2)?

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In Part One of this post, we looked at the primary Bible translation methods and described their general approach in rendering a copy of God’s Word. Let’s now continue and start by looking at an example of how the dynamic equivalence and literal/formal differ in just one verse in the New Testament.

The Beginning of the Sermon on the Mount

In Matthew 5, we have the opening lines that kick off Jesus’ most famous discourse, the Sermon on the Mount. The two translation methods deliver the following text:

“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying” (Matthew 5:1–2, NIV – Dynamic Equivalence).

“When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying” (Matthew 5:1–2, NASB – Literal/Formal).

Notice that the key difference between the two translations is found in the phrase “He opened His mouth”, which appears in the literal/formal translation, but not the dynamic equivalence text. The NIV leaves out this phrase because its goal is to produce what the translators believe is the same effect these two verses would have had on their audience back then: Jesus is about to teach a crowd of people on a mountain and how else does someone teach in such a situation other than to open their mouth? Therefore, the dynamic equivalence translators omit this phrase that is found in copies of the original text.

But is there more to the phrase “He opened His mouth” than the NIV translators believe? Many theologians believe there is.

Matthew only uses this phrase one other time in his gospel: to describe the finding of the shekel in the fish’s mouth that Peter is told by Christ to give for payment of temple taxes (cf. Matt 17:27). So why does Matthew use the phrase to begin Chapter 5?

The preceding chapter four describes Jesus’ temptation encounter with Satan in the wilderness. The first temptation of the loaves ends with Christ’s countering Satan’s offer by quoting a passage from Deuteronomy that has Moses giving God’s directives at Sinai: “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3, emphasis added).

Some scholars believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a parallel to the Old Testament giving of the law for Israel and the Theocratic kingdom at that time. In the same way that God gave His laws for that time, Matthew is depicting Jesus giving His laws for the Messianic kingdom in chapters 5-7. As God spoke creation into being and sent his law through that which proceeded out of His mouth, Jesus is giving His law by opening His mouth. Matthew is in effect saying we had all better listen because God is opening His mouth and speaking again.

Much Ado About Nothing?

While it is understandable that some may believe too much is being read into the text from this association, it should also be remembered that the Bible is a spiritually inspired work so such linkages in Scripture can certainly not be ruled out. Moreover, even if such a position is not valid, to remove the Matthew phrase from the painstakingly copied texts that we have from the originals could be seen as imprudent.

Lastly, when one remembers examples from Scripture such as Paul using the difference between a singular and a plural noun to make a fairly significant theological statement (Gal. 3:16), in my opinion, I believe it wise to use a translation that does everything in its power to preserve the literal words found in the inspired text. So for myself, I have decided that this equates to using a literal/formal translation.

But Which Literal/Formal?

When one gives the literal/formal translation a nod over dynamic equivalence, the natural next question is, which literal/formal translation should I use?

Let me be up front and say I have no intention of touching on the “King James only” debate or set of arguments that accompany that crowd in this brief post. If you love and value the KJV or NKJV, then by all means, enjoy. For myself, after some exploratory research and chronicling what translations the expository teaching pastors who I listen to on a regular basis use, I’ve come to restrict myself to the NASB and ESV, in that order.

Few scholars disagree that the NASB closely adheres to the words in the inspired text. Any knock it receives is usually in the area of readability, although I personally have never had a problem with how the NASB structures its sentences.

Without a doubt, the ESV has the most recent momentum in recent years, with heavy hitters such as John Piper (among many others) championing the translation. I greatly enjoy reading from the ESV, however when push comes to shove, I prefer the NASB for some small, but meaningful reasons.

First, I like that the NASB (like the KJV) has the words that the translators have inserted for readability in italics so it’s easy to know what words are from the inspired text and what words have come from the translation committee. The ESV does not do this.

I also like the fact that the NASB capitalizes pronouns (e.g. Him, He) when they are used for God or Jesus. The respect that such capitalization shows for the person of God sits well with me.

Finally, while the ESV is certainly an excellent translation, even its proponents admit it falls below the NASB in a word-for-word/sentence-for-sentence translation. So, for these reasons, in my own personal Bible study, I rely on the NASB.

What about Study Bibles?

A couple of years ago, my wife was serving as a counselor at a Christian youth retreat. She took along her NASB MacArthur Study Bible, but was told by the person heading up the retreat that she should not use a study Bible, but instead use a Bible with no commentary and just let the Spirit of God speak to her through the text. While I understand the spirit behind what the guy was saying to my wife, I don’t agree with his position.

Paul tells us in Ephesians, “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). Now my question is – what is the difference in a gifted expository teacher explaining the Scriptures from the pulpit and a gifted expository teacher explaining the Scriptures with notes inside a Bible? To me, there is no difference.

I personally have many different study Bibles that I use and refer to, and have greatly benefited from the commentary and other information contained within them. Of course, not all study Bibles are created equal and some definitely pack more of a punch than others. Here are the ones I routinely use for study ranked in order of which I believe contain the most beneficial information:

  1. The MacArthur Study Bible. This is the Mac-Daddy (pun intended) of study Bibles. To me, the thing I look for most in a study Bible is one that doesn’t skip over the tough parts of Scripture and contains commentary for most every verse that’s meaningful on the page. I haven’t found a study Bible that equals MacArthur’s in that respect. I have to smile at some pages in his study Bible like the first page of John where 85% of the page is his commentary and 15% is the actual text, but I appreciate MacArthur’s attention to detail and the deep insight he provides.
  2. The ESV Study Bible. This study Bible should come with wheels so you can pull it behind you when you go into church. It’s a whopper. But, that’s good in that the scholars commissioned to provide commentary took their job seriously and supply lots of good information including competing views on difficult passages. Plus, there’s a plethora of articles and other help aids that add to the weight of this monster.
  3. The Ryrie Study Bible. My Old Testament and Hermeneutics professor in seminary was perhaps the most exacting individual (in a good way) I’ve ever encountered, and I watched him time after time pull his completely worn out Ryrie study Bible from his briefcase. I also listen to Chuck Swindoll from time to time and hear him say on various occasions “My Ryrie study Bible says…” Ryrie constantly provides good insight and historical information for many passages that really help take the reader deeper into the text.
  4. The Apologetics Study Bible. Not only do you get good commentary on various passages in this study Bible, but there are solid articles throughout the work that answer critical questions about the Christian faith and give evidence for why what you’re reading is true.
  5. The Life Application Bible. When teaching through a passage, good Bible teachers always follow the three key steps for Biblical exposition: (1) Observation – what do I see? (2) Interpretation – what does it mean? (3) Application – how does it apply to life? What I like about this study Bible is it reminds you to not forget the third step.
  6. The Reformation Study Bible. I enjoy Dr. R. C. Sproul’s teaching, so I purchased this study Bible primarily because of the linkage to him. However, it has the least about of commentary of all my study Bibles. What I do like, though, are the various historical articles and commentaries on reformed theology that run throughout the Bible.


It’s sometimes said that the best Bible is the one that you read. Maybe that’s true, but why not make the Bible that you read one that takes pains to faithfully reproduce the text from the original languages in the most accurate way possible? In my opinion, that equates to using a good literal/formal translation, with my personal favorite being the NASB.

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