English Translations of the Hebrew Bible

In biblical studies it is absolutely essential to have a copy of the bible in Hebrew. After all, how can you read the Bible in Hebrew if you don’t actually have a copy of the Hebrew text? The standard scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew is BHS.

However, within biblical studies it is often just as essential to have access to good translations of the Hebrew Bible in your native language.

(Because this website is written in English, only English translations will be treated here).

Advantages to Reading the Bible in English Translations

  • By reading the Bible in English, you will benefit from all of the work that the translators have already done in trying to understand the text. By reading their translations, you can quickly and easily benefit from their knowledge.
  • Reading the Bible in English can also give you a sense of familiarity with the text that you might not have if you only read it in Hebrew.
  • If you read the Bible in multiple English translations and compare the differences between them, this can really help you. Often times the differences between different translations can point you to various issues and/or problems that exist in the Hebrew text.

Disadvantages to Reading the Bible in English Translations

  • If you are reading the Bible in English, then you will miss out on understanding certain features of the text in Hebrew. No matter how good the English translation is, it will always be secondary to the original text. Reading in the original language is always best.
  • Translation is a form of interpretation. Although most translations aim to faithfully represent the original meaning of the Hebrew text, others also wish to put forward their particular ideological/theological agenda. Be careful.
  • If you get used to a text in English, then it can automatically condition you to interpret a text in a certain way. Basically, English translations can give you blinders. Using multiple translations can help you to avoid this problem, but the only way to avoid it entirely is to read more in Hebrew!

Why is choosing a translation of the Bible important?

Choosing a translation of the bible is important because not all English translations of the Bible are created equal. There are many important differences that characterize different translations. For example:

  • Some translations were done by teams of highly respected scholars spending years of their lives on this work, while others were done hastily and with more errors.
  • Some translations will focus more on the literal meaning of the text. Other translations will offer a more idiomatic rendering of the text. Others will split the difference. While it may seem to beginning scholars that a more literal meaning is to be preferred, sometimes literal readings can ignore linguistic nuances or poetic features. In truth, there are advantages and disadvantages to both of these styles of translation.
  • Some translations clearly have ideological/theological commitments which come through in the translations themselves. Although every author/translator has a bias of some variety, good translations will try to emphasize the original meaning of the text and filter out translator bias.

There are two main English translations used most frequently by scholars:

NRSV (New Revised Standard Version, 1989)

The NRSV is the English translation of the Bible most likely to be used in scholarly publications. It was completed in 1989 as a revision/replacement to the RSV (Revised Standard Version). The RSV was a revision/replacement to the KJV (King James Version). The NRSV tends to take a more literal approach towards translating Scripture.

JPS Tanakh (New JPS Translation 1985, Jewish Publication Society)

JPS Tanakh is the second translation of the Jewish Publication Society of the Hebrew Bible. The first JPS translation of the Bible was published in 1917 (although the New JPS Tanakh is not a revision of the old version, but an entirely new translation). JPS tends to take a more idiomatic approach towards translating Scripture. It is widely considered the normative Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into English. More information can be found here.

Two honorable mentions for English translations:

NIV (New International Version, latest version 2011)

The NIV is a very popular, perhaps the most popular English translation of the Hebrew Bible. It has gone through several revisions with the latest version coming out in 2011. One of the major criticisms of the NIV is that it occasionally betrays Protestant-Evangelical leanings at certain points in its translation. However, if used with caution, it can still be a very helpful translation of the Hebrew Bible.

NJB (New Jerusalem Bible, 1985)

This is an updated version of the Jerusalem Bible (1966). Both were published specifically as English translations of the Hebrew Bible authorized by the Roman Catholic Church. As all the best English translations of the Hebrew Bible are somehow connected to a religious body (and never entirely free from its ideology), it makes sense to diversify the ideology one might be exposed to. NJB is a fine quality translation.