What Makes a Bible Translation Authoritative? My Top Five

ElShaddai Edwards at He Is Sufficient posed this question: What makes a Bible translation authoritative? It's a compelling question, and one that has stuck with me for about a month now. I meant to tackle this question three weeks ago, but I have been swamped lately, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Here was my initial reaction to his post (copied directly from the comment I left):

Great question! Since I was set free of my own legalistic approach to finding THE best/most accurate translation, I have adopted a “when in Rome” mentality. I know which Bible most of the pastors at the churches we attend preach from (not that we are members at several, but between visiting parents, grandparents, etc. we can hit 4-5 fairly regularly) and I try to carry that Bible with me.

I would measure authority by how well God speaks to the individual through a given translation. I “get” the NASB, so I get from the NASB. This is not to say that a child who is touched by a children’s version should always regard that version as authoritative, but why not? Jacob called the place where he met God “Beit El,” so I would suggest sort of a “Biblia El” standard, the translation where you meet God.

I still believe this, but I think it is incomplete because it only answers the question on an individual or micro level. I recognize that anyone could receive from a given translation whether it is considered authoritative (by the reading public at large, or on a macro level) or not. However, I would still recommend this approach to help determine what one's personal reading Bible should be.

ElShaddai discusses two of the most common measurements of authority, which are, in short:

  1. Popularity: Popularity = Influence = Authority; and
  2. Objective Excellence: Accuracy, literary style, readability, etc.

I suppose that by employing a popularity standard, the King James Version (KJV) and the New International Version (NIV) are the most authoritative. I think the influence of the King James Version is unquestionable, and the New International Version seems to be the Bible of choice for many in America.

Ironically, it is the "objective" standard that is muddied so much by subjectivity. Which translation is the most accurate? The King James or the New American Standard (NASB)? Which is the most readable? The New Living Translation (NLT), the NIV or the TNIV? Does anyone other than a small number of bibliobloggers even care? I would certainly hope so, but I fall into the small-number-of-bibliobloggers category (or should it be bibliabloggers?).

Based on the Christian Booksellers Association's (CBA's) list of best-selling Bible translations for October 2008 (by units sold and sales dollars), the top four selling Bible translations are the NIV, NLT, KJV and NKJV. If you (bloggers specifically) still doubt the "authority" of the NIV, check out Rick Mansfield's post about which Bible translations are blogged the most (admittedly it is somewhat dated (8/06), but I doubt the numbers have changed that dramatically). So, if popularity is the measure, the NIV reigns supreme, followed by the NLT, KJV and NKJV.

I doubt that satisfies any of my biblioblogging brethren (and brethren includes biblioblogging brothers and sisters, and that includes you too tc) because it doesn't really satisfy me (my own personal favorite, the NASB, is not on the list). I see only one objective (mostly) way to measure authority, apply both and see what happens.

According to the CBA's October sales numbers the top five selling Bible translations are: 1) NIV, 2) NLT, 3) NKJV, 4) KJV, and 5) tie, English Standard Version (ESV) and Holman Christian Standard (HCSB) (ESV in units sold; HCSB in $). Now, regarding objective excellence, my own person subjectivity necessarily comes into play, but I think the most influential translations because of their historic objective excellence are 1) KJV, 2) NASB, and 3) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (and its predecessors the RSV, RV and ASV).

Applying both standards, the only Bible translation that is in the top five in terms of sales and also in the top three in terms of historical objective excellence is the KJV. I suppose this should come as no surprise, but it should confirm what most already suspect. Here is a little table of my findings:

Most Authoritative Bible Translation
Most Authoritative Bible Translation

A few qualifiers:

  • I only took into account English translations.
  • I only took into account those translations appearing on the CBA Best Sellers Top 10. Sorry ElShaddai, no REB on this list.
  • The CBA only takes into account Christian booksellers (I don't think, for example, Barnes & Noble and the like are accounted for).

Here they are, my top five most authoritative Bible translations:

1. King James Version - This is as objective as I can make it, and the KJV reigns supreme.

2. New American Standard Bible - #6 in $ and #8 in units sold, so it was pretty close, but, alas, only #2.

3. New International Version - Can you really argue with the numbers?

4. New Living Translation - Again, can you really argue with the numbers?

5. New King James Version - Although bloggers aren't in love with it, it's top 5 in units and $.

Honorable Mentions:

The greatest proof of this post's objectivity is that these aren't in the top five:

A. Holman Christian Standard Bible - #5 in $ and #6 in units sold, not bad at all, and one of my favorites.

B. English Standard Version - #7 in $ and #5 in units sold, a relative newcomer that will be near the top of this list soon.

C. New Revised Standard Version - #8 in $ and #9 in units sold, still a classic if not a little stale.

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