Bible Babel


Bible with crossGrowing up in the American Lutheran Church, you had one version of the Bible: the Revised Standard Version (RSV). When our pastor read from the pulpit, the RSV sang to me. Later, kids in the ALC got exposed to The Good News Version (AKA Today's English Version—TEV). But that came after my confirmation, so for me, RSV was The Word.

I memorized most of the Scriptures I know today out of the RSV, using a Harper Study Bible. Went through The Navigators Topical Memory System, a couple sets or more, all in RSV. I'd recommend the TMS to anyone.

But I can't recommend the RSV because they don't print it anymore.

Herein lies my problem.

It's a huge frustration committing to a version of the Bible only to watch it fade from use. AV1611-KJV-only adherents will probably hoot at my dilemma, but the fact remains: Bible versions that go "out of style" represent a thorny problem for people. Anything I memorize now won't jive with the memorized RSV passages I already know. And when I pull up those old RSV passages, they sound wrong since no one quotes RSV anymore.

My son and I read a Good News together. I love the remarkable line illustrations and so does my son. Several years ago, I read through the entire Old Testament in the TEV, and I loved the simple flow of the words (though the translations of the Psalms left a lot to be desired). For a child, the TEV is a Bible that works on several levels.

But I can't recommend the TEV because they don't print it anymore.

See the trend?

I've actually not started my son on intense Scripture memorization (no nasty comments, please) for this simple reason. I'm bothered by quoting a version that doesn't exist anymore, so I'd prefer him not to have to deal with that problem himself.

I sold Bibles for a living at one point in my jack-of-all-trades life. Zondervan had to create a new quota category for me because I sold (the then new) NIV Study Bible like no one else. They posted a sales contest at one point and I sold so many that they gave me their top model, a Moroccan Goatskin version that cost almost $200.

So I know Bibles.

What I don't know is how to reconcile the Edelen family's Bible dilemma.

My main Bible is a Zondervan/Kirkbride Thompson Chain Reference NIV from the ill-fated NIV alliance of those two companies. Hardback, too, since that was the first model offered. A hardcore Thompson Chain fan after encountering a KJV version of it, the idea of getting the relatively new NIV in a Thompson Chain made my mouth water. Nearly twenty-five years later and that old Bible's STILL holding up.

I'm not limited to one Bible, though. I have a plethora of versions at my disposal. I use a very handy NRSV Greek Interlinear at Bible studies, and I love to read for pleasure out of the energetic Phillips NT Translation. To me, no translation can match the astonishing flow of phrasing found in the Jerusalem Bible, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien being one of the English advisors on that Catholic (horrors!) version. The Psalms never sound better than when read in the KJV. And the NKJV offers a solid translation that maintains some of the KJV's grace and none of its archaic English.

Here at Cerulean Sanctum, most of the Scripture verses I quote are English Standard Version (ESV). It's the closest I get to the old RSV.

So I use an NIV primarily, my wife's a longtime NASB reader, and my son reads from the TEV. At our church, they use NIV and KJV. We get a lot of The Amplified Bible (or as I call it, "The Multiple-Choice Bible") and The Message (which sounds dated already and has a host of other problems) in some of our small groups

Though I agree with the original translators in their preface to the 1611 KJV that a number of translations are required for thorough study of the Bible, it bothers me that we're creating this environment where countless translations exist, but everyone's using something different. Most small group Bible studies suffer from too many translations. People show up with a half dozen versions and the next thing you know, a simple passage winds up muddied, especially when the people in the study aren't experts in Greek and Hebrew (as if any ever are).

I'm not liking the Bible Babel we've created.

Too much of the babel we confront exists for no other reason than marketing. Each Christian publishing house has a fiendish urge to market their very own translation, gambling that it will strike a chord and become the next NIV. What else explains Holman (Holman!) drawing up their own translation? Zondervan pretty much owns the NIV, Thomas Nelson's got the NKJV, Tyndale the NLT, Crossway the ESV, and on and on. And the NKJV isn't the only KJV refresh; at least a dozen others exist, including the MKJV, KJV2000, and KJV21.

The list of English Bible translations is reaching an epic length. I'm not happy with that arrangement, but what to do?

My wife and I enjoy Jack Hayford's teaching. At our church, many people use his NKJV Spirit-Filled Study Bible from Thomas Nelson, and my wife's expressed interest in getting one for her own study. Hmm.

I'd like to go in the ESV direction since it's closest to my RSV upbringing, but honestly, I've really loathed what Crossway has done with the overall design choices of every ESV Bible they've released. The typefaces look terrible and are hard on my eyes, the paper's too thin, the references limited, and on and on. Plus, worst of all, there's no Thompson Chain ESV and probably never will be if my last call to Kirkbride is any indication. Yeah, Crossway has slapped some really funky covers on their ESVs, but if the insides look bad, who cares?

And then there's my son to consider. I mean, what's with the translations they're giving kids today? Ten years from now, do I want my son evangelizing others from memorized Scripture by pulling up International Children's Version (ICV) text written to a third grade reading level? By no means!

So what to do.

I'm considering making the switch to NKJV. My wife gets her Hayford study notes, I can have a Thompson Chain, and my son…well, hmm—again.

My son's only six, but reads at a fourth or fifth grade reading level, so he might be able to handle the NKJV. But that thorny issue of revision rears its ugly head again. The most recent NKJV goes back to a 1984 update. Will Nelson one day do to the NKJV what Zondervan did to the NIV by bringing out the terrible TNIV. Probably.

Poor kid. I don't have a good answer for him.

What are your insights into this issue? Readers, here's a chance for you to sound off. 

43 thoughts on “Bible Babel

  1. I can sooo relate to your feelings on this issue, I grew up in a KJV-only preacher’s family. With the benefit of only one translation, I have huge quantites of Scripture committed to memory, a lot of it intentional, but a lot more from just hearing it again and again. I mourn my children not having this advantage. I was stuck on the old KJV for a long time because my mind “self-corrected” every other translation I read. I could hear the KJV’s word choices. But then, I fell in love with the ESV. I read it and it was smooth, not stilted like the NASV. It was accurate, and I could hear God speaking to me without sorting through archaic words and meanings. But now the memorization dilemna. I believe that the ESV is here to stay. I even venture to believe that it will be the leading translation soon, and for a long time. I also believe, even more strongly, that the hiding of God’s Word in our hearts and in the hearts and minds of our children is crucial. My children are 5,3,and 1. I try to teach them a passage(not verse) every week or two weeks. My oldest is able to learn very quickly and we review a lot so that my three year old learns much of it too. I often use the KJV for more traditional passages, like the Lord’s Prayer and the Christmas story. Partly because it’s so much easier to teach them what I already know. I also use the NKJV because the wording is still very familiar to me, but easier for them. But I plan to ease all of us into memorizing from the ESV because that is what I read to them from at Morning Gathering and what my husband reads for Family Devotions. My goal is that they too will be so saturated with God’s Word that it will soak into every part of them, and I believe that for us, finding the one translation that my husband and I both love is going to help that cause immensely. Of course, when I need a verse to help nail down a character issue, I’m not at all above punching the reference into Bible Gateway and using whichever accurate translation sounds the clearest and easiest to memorize.

    • Alicia,

      Thanks for writing!

      I personally don’t believe that any translation “owned” by a publishing house is here to stay. Publishing houses today get sold and traded, plus new editors come in, and the process repeats.

      Crossway has done a good job opening up the ESV to media resources, so that’s encouraging, but I’m not convinced they won’t tamper with it in the future or farm it out when it loses market share to some new translation ten years down the road.

      My greatest concern about the ESV, besides my issues with typeface and design, is that it has so little support from Christian bookstores. It’s the redheaded stepchild of Bible translations. Since Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and Tyndale own almost all the shelf space in most Christian bookstores, Crossway sees the ESV shunted to the least conspicuous spots in the store. Every Christian bookstore I’ve visited in the last year (and I make it a point NOT to visit them if I don’t have to—their commercialism gives me the creeps anymore) does the same thing to the ESV. They tuck a dozen or so into a corner and that’s it.

      One last thing. The ESV gets good traction in Reformed churches, but little elsewhere. Non-denominational churches, the growing sector in America and abroad, don’t have the ESV on their radar screen and probably never will.

      So I’m not as positive as you. I’d go ESV if they’d do something about the design. While that sounds like a cop-out, the typeface really bothers me and makes me not want to read it if I can read it better in another Bible/translation. What makes this issue worse is that Crossway standardized that text across their entire line, at least from what I’ve seen in every ESV I’ve picked up. That’s too bad.

  2. A little clarification:

    While I said that I object to the typefaces used in the ESV, the leading and kerning bother me more than anything. Everything feels jammed together on the page. The pages are quite thin, too, amplifying the jarring look of text on the page.

    One of the things I love about my regular Bible is the amount of whitespace between words. Zondervan keeps the text centered in the page, with Thompson Chain notes on the perimeter. That works well.

    Crossway’s ESV design puts the whitespace on the perimeter and within the center (in reference models). I find that highly distracting. Plus, rather than italicized letters, Crossway uses numerical footnotes that make readers wonder if they’re looking at a verse start or a footnote designation. The example they give online from the first few chapters of Genesis shows a couple instances where the same footnote number and verse number exist within the same verse! This makes for a bad case of double vision.

    My old Harper Study Bible used a single-column format and I wonder why more Bibles don’t go this route. It, too, had good leading and kerning.

  3. Bible translations never bothered me much, though I did buck a bit at the “promise box” translation of Ark of the Covenant, until I learned another language and discovered that ‘Ark’ meant ‘box’. Somehow it doesn’t have the same resonance, though. Regarding memorization, I don’t think of memorizing the Bible as being something I do so I can have the right verse at the right time for someone else, I do it for me, and so I think you do your son a disservice, there. When we talk to someone else about God, the Bible, Christ, or the Holy Spirit, we should do so out of personal familiarity, and who cares what version that is? As a person grows in Christ comes the awareness that His Word has been hashed and rehashed, and that ultimately it’s the Spirit that translates. So find one that is readable, and be flexible. sheesh.

    • David,


      I really detest the “But my Bible says…” stuff this plethora of versions has created. It makes everything more difficult, especially when dealing with people who aren’t familiar with the Bible.

      I’ve got to ask: has your preferred version, the one you’ve used most of your life, gone out of print? If not, count your blessings. You’ll have to take my word that it creates problems—and even a sense of loss.

      • We usually have 5 or 6 versions at a bible study, and it is interesting the confusion different versions produce, but the annoying part for me is the lack of discernment in understanding how or why the versions are different, and how to sort through the differences.

        My first Bible was a childrens bible in what I think was RSV. Next came NRSV, and now I use NIV for teaching, KJV for study, and I listen to others fumble through whatever version they have and marvel that they have never figured out that the Bible is for daily study and reference, not for dusting off once a week to spend time with your Christian friends.

  4. Ron Lusk

    I have grown to like the ESV, primarily for its attempt to be “transparent to the text” (see Leland Ryken’s Word of God in English—yes, it’s at the Crossway site—for his discussion of the literary qualities of translations). With the ESV, I am somewhat less inclined to pull out the Greek or Hebrew to see “what the text really is”.
    In a world where ballparks are now named “Megabucks Savings and Title Abstract Company Stadium”, perhaps we will not see again a non-owned translation. Royal patronage is rare, especially in the US, and we may be stuck with the fact, and with the babel.

    • Ron,

      I had Prof. Ryken for a couple classes at Wheaton College and in both cases, I really didn’t like the class. One of those classes featured the Bible as literature, and while the subject matter was okay, Ryken and I were like oil and water. I don’t think I ever saw him smile except when he got to touché a student he disagreed with. In other words, I probably won’t read the Ryken book.

  5. I am a bit puzzled over your reference to the Jerusalem Bible. I agree with you that it cannot be beat for flow of translation. However, I am very disappointed to see the word “horrors” after the word Catholic. Not to be divisve, but the last time I checked the bible was compliled by the Catholic Church to begin with. I just hate to see vestiges of anti-Catholicism on an otherwise outstanding blog.

    Alleluia! He Reigns!

    • I think he was being facetious, playing on the Christian tendancy to look at Catholicism a bit askance. C.S. Lewis was warned by his mother to stay away from fundamentalist Christians and Papists, and Lewis was startled to find that Tolkien was both! I once attended a concert by John Michael Talbot, soon after he donned the robes of a monk. His voice was a bit off due to a cold, so he mostly talked. At the beginning he asked for a show of bibles. Many bibles were hoisted into the air of the packed catholic church. “I want to thank our protestant friends for coming.” He said in dry response. Denomination shouldn’t matter until it interferes with the foundations of our salvation: Jesus Christ and Him crucified. For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid. (what translation is that, anyways?)

    • Max,

      I’ve written a few posts here covering my opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m a Protestant for a reason. Despite all the supposed changes in the RCC over the years, nearly everything Luther protested about the RCC still exists.

      That said, I think Protestants get this idea that they’re the ne plus ultra of Christianity and can’t learn anything from Catholics or the Orthodox. That sort of self-righteousness gets me. I think the RCC has a few things we Protestants need to reconsider (that were a part of Lutheranism long ago, but have since vanished). Yet, the disturbing theology of the RCC that I cannot support still lingers at the core.

      I also wrote the “horrors!” comment because I know some people would label me a RCC sympathizer simply for mentioning the Jerusalem Bible. Believe it or not, this blog has Protestant foes and I don’t wish to give them more fodder for personal attacks on me.

      So the “horrors!” comment is part tongue-in-cheek and part not.

  6. In light of your post regarding thinking like a follower of Christ, I am going to drop this discussion. I think it would profit us none to pursue it further. I enjoy the enrichment that I get from protestant blogs like yours, I think your ideas make me a better Catholic. I will keep denomination out.

  7. By the way….I forgot to mention that I have a wonderful bible at home and I am not sure of the translation name. But it has Max Lucasdo’s name on it in some way. It is excellent in terms of ease of read… there are a ton of side-notes and related stories.

    It is great for personal study purposes. Has anyone heard of this one? I wish I could remember the translation name.


  8. My parents intended to order me a “grown-up” leather-bound NKJV for my 6th birthday… but when it came, it was actually KJV. (I don’t think they realized the mix-up for a few years, though!)

    I’m not part of the KJV-only crowd, but I have to admit that I credit that “big red book” for sharpening my mind more than most other outside stimulants—if for no other reason than its archaic language forcing me to the dictionary over and over and over…

    I suppose we could avoid this if we just taught our kids to read and write koine Greek? 😉

    • Travis,

      Actually, I’ve long wondered why so many Christian parents who homeschool wax fanatical over teaching Latin, but almost none tackle Greek—a far more useful language for Christians, since their kids could read the NT in its original language!

      When I learned Greek in college, it really brought the Bible alive in a whole new way. It also showed me that every translation is a compromise. People bristle at that initially, but once they learn Greek themselves, they come around!

      • “I’ve long wondered why so many Christian parents who homeschool wax fanatical over teaching Latin, but almost none tackle Greek”

        Could it be that Latin is more of a left-brain workout? How will we continue to win spelling bees if we’re learning an ancient flavor of Greek instead? I mean, c’mon Dan… where are your priorities? 😆

  9. The King James Bible is the right price for publishing houses…free, in the public domain, with no copyright still applicable…so KJVs will remain on the shelves for years to come. Like it or not, the King James Bible is the universally applicable version for the English language.

    If there will be another usable translation that can grow and remain popular, then it probably needs to be done by an open source team, like a wiki project, and placed in the public domain or some less restrictive copyright schema right away. That way, the publishers can publish it without paying anyone royalties.

    • Gaddabout,

      Scene at the bedside of a terminally ill child:

      Dan: “Hey, Billy, what say in tomorrow’s post I tackle seminaries and their woeful preparation of seminarians for practical acts of Christians service?”

      Pale and Wan Child: “Would you do that for me, Mr. Edelen?”

      Dan: “Call me Dan.”

      Pale and Wan Child: “Dan, you give me hope to carry on.”

      Not that gravely ill children in hospitals will live on for one more day just to read the next post on Cerulean Sanctum.

      Though that would seriously rock….


  10. Peter Smythe

    Thinking out of the box – you might consider learning N.T. Greek. I found myself referring to more than 10 translations on particular verses and grew tired of it. So I decided to sit down and learn Greek from Mounce’s book and now I take my Greek N.T. to church. The Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson said that you learn the Bible quite well in the Greek because you have to deal with each word individually. I have found that to be quite true.

    • Peter,

      In my college days at Wheaton, I was invited to join an elite group of top Greek students. I carried straight A+’s throughout my Greek courses. I parsed verbs with the best of them. I personally translated 1 John and Romans. One of my profs thought the way I handled Paul’s grammar to be some of the most clear he’d ever read from a student.

      Nearly fifteen years later, I recognize words, but I can’t read it like I once did. All those declensions and such? Gone. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I was anticipating stepping back into a Christian teaching role upon graduation, but instead wound up in the computer industry. In the fast pace of Silicon Valley, the Greek got away from me. My knowledge of Greek got me labeled and worked against me in Bible studies. I read it for a while afterwards, but started falling back on English.

      Sad, I know.

      Now ask me about the guru-like calculus skills I once possessed….

  11. francisco

    From an outsider. The dominant spanish translation has been RV-60 for quite a bit of time, till NVI (counterpart of NIV) showed up. In fact I was given a bilingual NT as a gift when I became a Christian. The only problem is that you get the sense that both translations don’t match up.
    Now, as far as english translations go, I was hesitant to get a particular bible because I used to read my RV-60 spanish bible…till I found the ESV. Now i believe your statement that in many Reformed churches the ESV is becoming the translation of choice. But if you look their website you can find endorsements even from non-Reformed brethren. Letting the KJV-onlyists aside, maybe we don’t see the ESV taking off because Bible readers tend to be either on the side of the NIV/NLT/Message or in the side of KJV/NKJV/NASB, leaving no room for the ESV which is a relatively new translation.
    Personally I enjoy the clarity and accuracy of the ESV. Having finished James, I can say that it is also good for memorization. Last time Crossway released a reverse Greek-English interlinear OT that I might get my hands on if needed. I look forward to get a Study bible too (perhaps the Reformation bible?). Go ESV!

  12. Peter Smythe

    Dan, I’ve run into a number of people with the same story. They see my Greek N.T. at church and then tell me how they once knew it, but now they’ve lost it. Since my wife brings various translations to church (Moffatt, Amplified, RV, Weymouth, etc.), we compare notes during the sermons and I don’t see where I can lay it down. As a practicing lawyer, I know what you mean about “falling back into the English.” And who wants to be known as a geek Greek?

  13. I use ESV, and my daughter listens to Contemporary English on dramatized CD. If you were a good Christian parent, you would learn to read in the original languages and then teach your son to do the same. It’s the only answer! But stay away from the TNIV at any cost…I wonder what Tomorrow’s NIV will look like?

  14. Dire Dan: “I’m not liking the Bible Babel we’ve created.”

    I agree. It’s starting to get out of control.

    Personally, I habitually use the ESV, although the NIV is my second choice. It is highly regrettable that there still isn’t an exhaustive concordance for the ESV. At least I’ve haven’t found one yet in any bookstore.

  15. Don Costello

    My primary translation since my conversion 30 years ago has been the KJV, and I don’t think thats ever going to change. In my studies though, I use the NIV, the NASV, the NRSV, and the Amplified. I can’t read Greek or Hebrew, so I rely on helps such as Strong’s, Zodiates, Thayers, Vine’s, Gesenius, or Bullinger. We are so blessed to have at our finger tips so many helps to study God’s word.

  16. As for the NKJV, the translation is good as far as it goes, but it’s based on the most unreliable texts of just about any contemporary translation. If you want accuracy of text, use another one.

    • Stephen

      Isn’t this one of the straw men that the KJV-Only crowd props up against every other translation? Because that whole controversy is a dead horse that doesn’t need more beating.

      • I have no idea what you’re talking about. The NKJV is based on more or less the same texts as the KJV: late manuscripts full of a number of errors and not benefitting from the past 500 years of textual criticism.

  17. Stephen

    I am a big fan of the NLT — I use it for my daily reading, since it flows very well. I like to think it’s the best dynamic equivalence translation available today. The second edition fixes a vast majority of the complaints people have had from its previous iterations (first edition and the predecessor Living Bible).

    For really digging into the meaning of a scripture, I have an NASB MacArthur Study Bible (which is excellent, having the Bible and the vast majority of the MacArthur Commentary in parallel). I also still love the Amplified Bible — good for seeing some of the nuances of translation without having to break out an interlinear and learn Greek/Hebrew.

    Of course, if all that isn’t enough, there’s always Bible Gateway.

  18. francisco

    Of course we can say that internet resources like BG are great. But what about for those who do not have access to it whether because they can’t afford a connection OR because they live in a country that bans them all? With all respect, have we thought seriously about commiting to memory one translation? This is one of the points Dan tries to bring up. In this regard, I’ve found very helpful memorization with ESV. So, I’d say it again. Go ESV!

    p.s. btw, if you check out the ESV website, you will find that they have produced a reverse interlinear NT. I’d love to use one of those for my personal studies. Surely, God knows better what the future will bring…

  19. I found your site because I recieved a couple of hits from it yesterday. I think though after looking around I have been here before. I am sorry to hear about your Bible delima. I would hate that to happen to me. I personally grew up on the KJV – kind of what you were talking about with the Lutheran thing, Idependant Baptist think God spoke in Old English. ‘If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul…’
    I later switched to the NKJ which I liked very much. After going to Bible college and learning the languages I changed again – but not really to a version but to many. Ofcourse I try to stick with the originals when I can but I am still a novice at that. So as far as English versions go I preach from the HCSB, I study from the NET, NASB and the ESV. If I was made to only choose one I would have a hard time. I really love the flow of the HCSB, the accuracy of the NET and ESV and just like the NASB. So those are my suggestions. For you son I would just have him work on the one that you guys plan on using. He will get it. The NKJ is a lot easier than the KJ and I had no problem as a young kid.

  20. Kevin

    Dan: No need to despair. Cambridge and Oxford still print the RSV. Granted there is not a wide selection, but you can see what is available by searching for “RSV” on

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