About 5 years ago I decided to seek out the 'best' translation of the myriad out there. At that time I had been looking into the Great Version Debate with a view to replacing my NIV (New International Version) for a more accurate translation. And this is what I learnt ...
There are two main types of translation of course: literal (aka 'word for word' or 'formal equivalence') and paraphrase (aka 'thought for thought' or 'dynamic equivalence'). Unfortunately there is no sharp dividing line between these types so what we have is a spectrum from the most literal at one end to the most paraphrased at the other end.
Literal translations not only attempt to translate the original Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) words directly but also attempt to maintain the same word order. The advantage is that you get exactly what the original text says but the disadvantage is that you may not understand it! The most literal translations available today are for example the NASB (New American Standard Bible), ESV (English Standard Version), NKJV (New King James Version) and the KJV (King James Version).
Paraphrase translations attempt to render the meaning behind the original text rather than accurately translate each word. The advantage is that it is easy to read but the disadvantage is that you are relying on the translator's interpretation of the text. The most paraphrased versions available today are for example the GNB (Good News Bible) and TM (The Message).
In between the two extremes of most literal and most paraphrase, we have for example the NIV which tends to the literal end and the NLT (New Living Translation) which tends to the paraphrase end of the spectrum. I wanted a literal translation because I wanted to know that what I was reading was as close as possible to the very Word of God. The NASB is regarded as the most literal but because of this it can be quite hard to read. If it was hard to read I'd probably not persevere with it. So I decided that the NASB wasn't for me. So I was now down to three: the ESV, the NKJV and the KJV.
Now, many of the Christians that have influenced me the most, happen to read the KJV. I don’t know why this is the case. I thought that maybe I’d become a better Christian, just like them if I also read the KJV. I also began to find out that there are plenty of people who regard the KJV as the one and only "God's Word in English". These ’KJV-Only’ people will say that the KJV is the version that people were martyred for and it is the version of the great revivals of the past. They acknowledge that it's archaic but they argue that it's best to stick with the KJV and learn what the archaic words mean than to go with a modern "perversion" (their word, not mine!). And they are particularly dismissive of the NKJV because of its claims to be a modernised KJV. They say it is in fact a deception. They have many convincing arguments for their case. They convinced me and so I bought a KJV plus a little booklet explaining the meaning of all the archaic words. I still wasn't happy though because it was a struggle to comprehend the text in many places. I decided I should look into the other two versions. And so now it was 'NKJV versus the ESV'.
Now I already had a NKJV but one thing above all else put me off it and it was nothing to do with the text. It was the small dictionary/concordance in the back of the Bible which insisted in giving definitions for each of the word entries. Nothing wrong with that … until you get to words which actually don’t need defining and shouldn’t be defined! For instance: “dead” = not alive; deceased (and of course the ‘dead parrot’ sketch comes immediately to mind!); “face” = the front of the head; “hand” = the end of the arm; “mother” = female parent; “night” = the period of darkness between sunset and sunrise. And there are more! It’s probably small-minded of me but unfortunately, this affected the credibility of the whole NKJV for me!
So, what is the difference between the NKJV and the ESV? (The ESV, I should say, is quite a recent translation, first appearing in 2001.) The difference comes down to a consideration of the original texts used in the translation of the NT (New Testament). The translation of the NKJV NT (apologies for all the acronyms which are now seeping in!) is based on something called the "Textus Receptus" (or Received Text). This is itself based on those Greek manuscripts which were around at the time that the KJV was translated. (It is also the basis for the KJV NT.) Since then, many more Greek manuscripts have been found which also support the Textus Receptus. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries 2 more manuscripts were found which pre-dated those which contributed to the Textus Receptus. The Greek text obtained from these 2 manuscripts became known as the Alexandrian Text. Bear with me!
This Alexandrian Text however differs in places with the Textus Receptus. Oh dear! So, the choice becomes 'minority of texts but oldest' (Alexandrian Text) versus 'majority of texts but youngest' (Textus Receptus). I'm probably over simplifying this. On the premise that 'oldest is best' most modern Bible scholars favour the Alexandrian Text and pretty much all contemporary
translations of the NT have relied on this text in preference to the Textus
Receptus (although footnotes often indicate differences). Incidentally, this is where the 'KJV-Only' people have their harshest criticism of the modern
'perversions'. They regard the Alexandrian text as a corrupt text. Most Bible
scholars these days however consider the Alexandrian Text to be the better
of the two. Now the ESV NT is based on the Alexandrian Text but the NKJV
NT is based on the Textus Receptus.
One final consideration is that the NKJV is only available in Americanised
English but the ESV is available in Anglicised English. After completing this research, I decided I had to get an ESV.
Fast forward to 2013. What am I reading now? "I don't care" I hear you say. But, if you've read this far, you clearly do care! Well I didn't actually stay with the ESV very long. I instead went onto the NKJV and in particular the 2002 'New Spirit-Filled Bible'. I'm not sure you can have a Bible which is Spirit-filled but at least it didn't have the silly dictionary/concordance at the back! (Incidentally, it does have at least one mistake in the text - Matthew 1:15 spells Eleazar wrongly as Elaazar.) But I didn't stay there. I now find myself reading mainly from the KJV with occasional dips into the Amplified Bible (AB) which, as a friend once said ... is the Bible for the hard-of-hearing!