In some ways this is a very easy question. Without a doubt the best English translation ever is the King James Version (stick with me) chiefly because of its impact on literature and the length of time that it has been in print (if you include all of the various editions). The KJV was the English Bible for over 300 years…it is highly unlikely any other version will ever play that kind of a role again. Those who have a love for the classics still recommend that the KJV be read and studied. Amazingly enough, the second and third most purchased Bible translations through April 2011 (data from CBA) are the KJV and the NKJV respectively. (The NIV is the most popular).
However, that is not to say that the KJV is the best English translation of the best Hebrew and Greek texts that we now have (many of which were discovered centuries after the translation work done for the KJV.)
Modern translations like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New International Version (NIV), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), the English Standard Version (ESV) and the NET bible (NET) are all based on similar critical Hebrew and Greek texts. I don’t want to go into any real detail on this, but in essence most of the earliest Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (like the Dead Sea Scrolls) have been discovered since the middle of the 19th century. Consequently, almost all of the new translations make use of these earlier manuscripts (as do Wycliffe Bible Translators among others).
The KJV combined with Shakespeare’s works probably sets the standard for classical English. There were English translations before the KJV, but the KJV managed to take the best of that which went before and create a literary masterpiece that was both aesthetically pleasing and faithful to the original texts (that were available at that time).
But the modern translations have access to better manuscripts and they have access to current language use. The English language has changed significantly in the last four hundred years (even in the last forty years) and while the KJV represents English at its classical height…it doesn’t display the English that is used currently. As a result, while some will certainly appreciate its classical beauty while others will find it simply an outmoded relic of a bygone age.
So what is the best translation now? That is a much harder question. In part, it depends on what you want the translation for.
Compare the NIV (2011) and the NET Bible
The Word Became Flesh
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
- John 1:5 Or understood
1:1 In the beginning1 was the Word, and the Word was with God,2 and the Word was fully God.3 1:2 The Word4 was with God in the beginning. 1:3 All things were created5 by him, and apart from him not one thing was created6 that has been created.7 1:4 In him was life,8 and the life was the light of mankind.9 1:5 And the light shines on10 in the darkness,11 but12 the darkness has not mastered it.13
1sn In the beginning. The search for the basic “stuff” out of which things are made was the earliest one in Greek philosophy. It was attended by the related question of “What is the process by which the secondary things came out of the primary one (or ones)?,” or in Aristotelian terminology, “What is the ‘beginning’ (same Greek word as beginning, John 1:1) and what is the origin of the things that are made?” In the New Testament the word usually has a temporal sense, but even BDAG 138 s.v. ἀρχή 3 lists a major category of meaning as “the first cause.” For John, the words “In the beginning” are most likely a conscious allusion to the opening words of Genesis – “In the beginning.” Other concepts which occur prominently in Gen 1 are also found in John’s prologue: “life” (1:4) “light” (1:4) and “darkness” (1:5). Gen 1 describes the first (physical) creation; John 1 describes the new (spiritual) creation. But this is not to play off a false dichotomy between “physical” and “spiritual”; the first creation was both physical and spiritual. The new creation is really a re-creation, of the spiritual (first) but also the physical. (In spite of the common understanding of John’s “spiritual” emphasis, the “physical” re-creation should not be overlooked; this occurs in John 2 with the changing of water into wine, in John 11 with the resurrection of Lazarus, and the emphasis of John 20-21 on the aftermath of Jesus’ own resurrection.)
2tn The preposition πρός (pros) implies not just proximity, but intimate personal relationship. M. Dods stated, “Πρός …means more than μετά or παρά, and is regularly employed in expressing the presence of one person with another” (“The Gospel of St. John,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 1:684). See also Mark 6:3, Matt 13:56, Mark 9:19, Gal 1:18, 2 John 12.
3tn Or “and what God was the Word was.” Colwell’s Rule is often invoked to support the translation of θεός (qeos) as definite (“God”) rather than indefinite (“a god”) here. However, Colwell’s Rule merely permits, but does not demand, that a predicate nominative ahead of an equative verb be translated as definite rather than indefinite. Furthermore, Colwell’s Rule did not deal with a third possibility, that the anarthrous predicate noun may have more of a qualitative nuance when placed ahead of the verb. A definite meaning for the term is reflected in the traditional rendering “the word was God.” From a technical standpoint, though, it is preferable to see a qualitative aspect to anarthrous θεός in John 1:1c (ExSyn 266-69). Translations like the NEB, REB, and Moffatt are helpful in capturing the sense in John 1:1c, that the Word was fully deity in essence (just as much God as God the Father). However, in contemporary English “the Word was divine” (Moffatt) does not quite catch the meaning since “divine” as a descriptive term is not used in contemporary English exclusively of God. The translation “what God was the Word was” is perhaps the most nuanced rendering, conveying that everything God was in essence, the Word was too. This points to unity of essence between the Father and the Son without equating the persons. However, in surveying a number of native speakers of English, some of whom had formal theological training and some of whom did not, the editors concluded that the fine distinctions indicated by “what God was the Word was” would not be understood by many contemporary readers. Thus the translation “the Word was fully God” was chosen because it is more likely to convey the meaning to the average English reader that the Logos (which “became flesh and took up residence among us” in John 1:14 and is thereafter identified in the Fourth Gospel as Jesus) is one in essence with God the Father. The previous phrase, “the Word was with God,” shows that the Logos is distinct in person from God the Father.
sn And the Word was fully God. John’s theology consistently drives toward the conclusion that Jesus, the incarnate Word, is just as much God as God the Father. This can be seen, for example, in texts like John 10:30 (“The Father and I are one”), 17:11 (“so that they may be one just as we are one”), and 8:58 (“before Abraham came into existence, I am”). The construction in John 1:1c does not equate the Word with the person of God (this is ruled out by 1:1b, “the Word was with God”); rather it affirms that the Word and God are one in essence.
4tn Grk “He”; the referent (the Word) has been specified in the translation for clarity.
5tn Or “made”; Grk “came into existence.”
6tn Or “made”; Grk “nothing came into existence.”
7tc There is a major punctuation problem here: Should this relative clause go with v. 3 or v. 4? The earliest mss</> have no punctuation (Ì66,75* א* A B Δ al). Many of the later mss</> which do have punctuation place it before the phrase, thus putting it with v. 4 (Ì75c C D L Ws 050* pc). NA25 placed the phrase in v. 3; NA26 moved the words to the beginning of v. 4. In a detailed article K. Aland defended the change (“Eine Untersuchung zu Johannes 1, 3-4. Über die Bedeutung eines Punktes,” ZNW 59 : 174-209). He sought to prove that the attribution of ὃ γέγονεν (}o gegonen) to v. 3 began to be carried out in the 4th century in the Greek church. This came out of the Arian controversy, and was intended as a safeguard for doctrine. The change was unknown in the West. Aland is probably correct in affirming that the phrase was attached to v. 4 by the Gnostics and the Eastern Church; only when the Arians began to use the phrase was it attached to v. 3. But this does not rule out the possibility that, by moving the words from v. 4 to v. 3, one is restoring the original reading. Understanding the words as part of v. 3 is natural and adds to the emphasis which is built up there, while it also gives a terse, forceful statement in v. 4. On the other hand, taking the phrase ὃ γέγονεν with v. 4 gives a complicated expression: C. K. Barrett says that both ways of understanding v. 4 with ὃ γέγονεν included “are almost impossibly clumsy” (St. John, 157): “That which came into being – in it the Word was life”; “That which came into being – in the Word was its life.” The following stylistic points should be noted in the solution of this problem: (1) John frequently starts sentences with ἐν (en); (2) he repeats frequently (“nothing was created that has been created”); (3) 5:26 and 6:53 both give a sense similar to v. 4 if it is understood without the phrase; (4) it makes far better Johannine sense to say that in the Word was life than to say that the created universe (what was made, ὃ γέγονεν) was life in him. In conclusion, the phrase is best taken with v. 3. Schnackenburg, Barrett, Carson, Haenchen, Morris, KJV, and NIV concur (against Brown, Beasley-Murray, and NEB). The arguments of R. Schnackenburg, St. John, 1:239-40, are particularly persuasive.
tn Or “made”; Grk “that has come into existence.”
8tn John uses ζωή (zwh) 37 times: 17 times it occurs with αἰώνιος (aiwnios), and in the remaining occurrences outside the prologue it is clear from context that “eternal” life is meant. The two uses in 1:4, if they do not refer to “eternal” life, would be the only exceptions. (Also 1 John uses ζωή 13 times, always of “eternal” life.)
sn An allusion to Ps 36:9, which gives significant OT background: “For with you is the fountain of life; In your light we see light.” In later Judaism, Bar 4:2 expresses a similar idea. Life, especially eternal life, will become one of the major themes of John’s Gospel.
9tn Or “humanity”; Grk “of men” (but ἄνθρωπος [anqrwpo"] is used in a generic sense here, not restricted to males only, thus “mankind,” “humanity”).
10tn To this point the author has used past tenses (imperfects, aorists); now he switches to a present. The light continually shines (thus the translation, “shines on”). Even as the author writes, it is shining. The present here most likely has gnomic force (though it is possible to take it as a historical present); it expresses the timeless truth that the light of the world (cf. 8:12, 9:5, 12:46) never ceases to shine.
sn The light shines on. The question of whether John has in mind here the preincarnate Christ or the incarnate Christ is probably too specific. The incarnation is not really introduced until v. 9, but here the point is more general: It is of the very nature of light, that it shines.
11sn The author now introduces what will become a major theme of John’s Gospel: the opposition of light and darkness. The antithesis is a natural one, widespread in antiquity. Gen 1 gives considerable emphasis to it in the account of the creation, and so do the writings of Qumran. It is the major theme of one of the most important extra-biblical documents found at Qumran, the so-called War Scroll, properly titled The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness. Connections between John and Qumran are still an area of scholarly debate and a consensus has not yet emerged. See T. A. Hoffman, “1 John and the Qumran Scrolls,” BTB 8 (1978): 117-25.
12tn Grk “and,” but the context clearly indicates a contrast, so this has been translated as an adversative use of καί (kai).
13tn Or “comprehended it,” or “overcome it.” The verb κατέλαβεν (katelaben) is not easy to translate. “To seize” or “to grasp” is possible, but this also permits “to grasp with the mind” in the sense of “to comprehend” (esp. in the middle voice). This is probably another Johannine double meaning – one does not usually think of darkness as trying to “understand” light. For it to mean this, “darkness” must be understood as meaning “certain people,” or perhaps “humanity” at large, darkened in understanding. But in John’s usage, darkness is not normally used of people or a group of people. Rather it usually signifies the evil environment or ‘sphere’ in which people find themselves: “They loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). Those who follow Jesus do not walk in darkness (8:12). They are to walk while they have light, lest the darkness “overtake/overcome” them (12:35, same verb as here). For John, with his set of symbols and imagery, darkness is not something which seeks to “understand (comprehend)” the light, but represents the forces of evil which seek to “overcome (conquer)” it. The English verb “to master” may be used in both sorts of contexts, as “he mastered his lesson” and “he mastered his opponent.”
If you are still with me (and kudos if you are) you can clearly see the difference between the NIV and the NET Bible is found in the footnotes. The NET Bible tries to come up with the best translation that it can, but it recognizes that information is either lost or added in the translation process, consequently it aims to minimize that through its extensive use of footnotes.
I don’t own a paper version of the NET Bible, but I seldom study a passage without looking at it either in Logos or in a standalone document (free). I like this translation, even without the notes, but I recognize that it isn’t very popular and there are significant advantages with using a translation that is popular.
Consequently, the best translation for general use (including church use and devotional) currently is the NIV. It is by far the most popular translation in circulation (the other modern translations aren’t even close). A new version is in the process of being published (see here for more detail then you might want).
There are many translations out there…some of them are targeted towards children (NIrV) some are easier to read than the NIV (NLT), some are more literal (Lexham and ESV). They all have their place (including the KJV). Ultimately, the best translation for you is the one you will read. But that is material for another post.
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