What are the most authoritative translations?

ElShaddai Edwards and I have been conversing about the REB/NEB over at his blog at He is Sufficient. Our conversation has become an interesting conversation regarding the authority of bible translations.

ElShaddai said to me: “Thank you for using “authoritative” instead of “accurate”. It’s an interesting distinction and one that I’ve been thinking of exploring rather than needlessly continuing the translation philosophy wars.”

Then I responded by saying: “Yes, I do like the use of “authoritative” when I’m not talking about the formal-dynamic equivalency issues. This is a totally different issue when it comes to translations.”

I think the most authoritative translation today is still the NIV. Here’s my order of ranking:

1. NIV authority based on popular usage in all genres of publications, and usage in evangelical churches today
2. NKJV (authority based on popular usage in evangelical churches today)
3. KJV (authority based on popular usage in evangelical churches today)
4. NLT (authority based on huge growth in general popularity)
5. NRSV (authority based on usage in academic journals, reference books, and usage in mainline churches)
6. NAB(authority based on usage in Roman Catholic churches in the USA)
7. NASB (authority based on usage in Christian magazines and by pastors)
8. ESV (authority based on usage by pastors)
9. TNIV (authority based on usage in books)
10. Message (authority based on usage by pastors)

How often a translation is quoted by teachers, pastors and Christian publications of any sort (books, news magazines, ministry publications, academic journals, websites, etc.) are very important factors when we are considering whether a translation is authoritative, or not authoritative.

The authority of a translation is also dependent upon how accurate it is, and it is also less dependent upon whether it is a formal or dynamic translation. However, these factors are less important and are not the primary reasons for authority. In my opinion, the most important factor to what determines the authority of a translation is how often it is quoted.

You may disagree with my order of rankings and my reasons for them. Note that this ranking has nothing to do with which translation I think should be authoritative; rather, they are what I think are authoritative at this current moment in time.

Why did I pick the NIV as the most authoritative? Because it is still the most widely read and quoted translation today. Being the most read and quoted translation gives the NIV that authority.
Note that my rankings are unrelated to the CBA sales ranking because sales is only an indication of how popular a translation is at the current moment in time; however, it does not indicate how often it is quoted by authoritative figures and publications.

Which translations do you think are the most authoritative today? Share you order of translation ranking and state your reasons.

Update: ElShaddai at He is Sufficient has also posted on this topic of authority of bible translations.

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Author: Kevin S.

A follower of Jesus, a husband and a father. Hobbies include biking, keeping fish if they don't die on me, blogging when I can, theologizing and ministry, and pondering about world affairs.

16 thoughts on “What are the most authoritative translations?”

  1. Interesting. But I find your analysis lacking.

    First, I don’t think the TNIV has been sufficiently widely quoted to be “authoritative.” There are a couple of books that use it, but surely far less than a tenth of a percent of all Biblical studies books around.

    Second, I don’t think the adjective “authoritative” applies to the Message or the NLT. The case is stronger for the ESV and NASB, but I still think these (especially the ESV) are viewed as sectarian translations — the ESV is viewed as the Calvinist Bible, much like the HCSB is viewed as the Baptist Bible.

    Third, I think you need to distinguish between the notion of “authoritative” in a particular group, or “authoritative” to a broad group.

    From the perspective of Catholicism, one can simply look at the major versions that have received an imprimatur: RSV-CE, NRSV, NAB, DRC, GNT, JB, NJB, CCB, and Knox.

    From the perspective of Episcopalian Church USA, there is also an official list in canon law (II:2): KJV, RV, ASV, JB, NEB, GNT, NAB, RSV, NIV, NJB, REB.

    Clearly, among Evangelical Churches there is no such centralization, although the NIV continues to hold pride of place. Among conservative Bible churches, the KJV holds pride of place.

    In both Christian Orthodox and Jewish settings, original texts are regarded as more authoritative than translations, which are regarded with sketpicism, although perhaps the NKJV and NJPS translations are the most widely used.

    In secular and ecumenical studies, I think that the KJV, the RSV, the NRSV, and the NJPS are the most widely cited, although I have also seen quite a few citations to the NEB (a favorite of some scholars), the NIV, and the NAB.

    However, I do not regard any translation as authoritative. Give me the original text! (Now, we can fight over which version of the LXX and Christian Scriptures are authoritative — something that is not at all clear.)

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  2. I just might point out that for the Catholic Church, at least in the Latin Rite, the Nova Vulgata is the authoritative text. However, it is not translated into any other languages, like has been done in the past. Although that limits its application in various sectors of Catholic life, it is the basis for liturgical translations in the Latin Rite.

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  3. Iyov, for once I agree with you. I don’t like translations to be regarded as “authoritative”, although to an extent it depends on what you mean by the word. For me, what is authoritative is the original text, and anyone who attempts to speak authoritatively about the Bible (i.e. every expository preacher) needs to at least be aware of what that original text says.

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  4. Kevin, good take on the issues from your neck of the woods.

    Iyov, I tend to agree that the list needs a bit of refining to fill in the blanks.

    But I think he’s safe on the NRSV.

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  5. Iyov, yes, the NLT and The Message are authoritative by evangelicals but not necessarily to the broader church. You’d be surprised by how often pastors quote from the NLT, NASB and the Message from evangelical pulpits. And no they aren’t widely quoted in academic journals but they are widely read and quoted. That’s why they’re in my top 10.

    If the list included the top 15, I think the RSV, NJB, GNT, and perhaps NEB deserve to be in there. Mind you, this is a very subjective. The only objective way to assess this would be to take a survey with a large sample across all denominations.

    Tim and Peter, I’d agree that translations should not be regarded as authoritative in light of the original Greek-Hebrew. I bet you’d be happier if I said that my definition of “authoritative” is used in a loose sense. But I think translations can carry some sort of authority.

    TC, thanks. I’m bound to be right on something at least 1 out of 1000 times. 😉

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  6. There is no doubt in my mind that the NIV should be #1 on this list, especially in the Evangelical world. I have been to many churches in different denominations (Vineyard, Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, Bible Church, even United Methodist) and the NIV is still the most used translation from the pulpit.

    Also, I have a habit of looking at the copyright page in books to see the translation used, and 9 out of 10 times it is still the NIV (these books are usually Christian Living books found in Evangelical stores).

    Personally, I don’t even own a copy of the NIV anymore. I REALLY hope the NLTse continues to gain momentum over the next few years.

    I still don’t think our pastor (Southern Baptist) will ever switch from using the NIV and NASB. What a shame. . . .

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  7. Nothingman, thanks for your confirmation of my thoughts about the NIV. 9 out of 10 books quote the NIV. It’s still the most predominant translation because most Christians still trust it for the translation of God’s word.

    If we just keep telling others about the better translations available like the TNIV, NLT, NRSV, etc, pastors like yours will eventually see the light.

    Yes, I also hope the NLT’s gains continues because it’s a wonderful translation. I just love it.

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  8. Kevin, earlier you asked me for my thoughts on this, specifically on what translations I would consider “authoritative”. I apologize for not getting a comment up until now.

    From my viewpoint, I would view the following as “authoritative English translations” for the Christian Church:

    1. KJV
    2. NIV
    3. N/RSV

    That’s it. There are many other translations that are popular and/or used by niche groups for specific purposes, but only the three or four that I’ve listed have attained anything close to “common Bible” status with ubiquitous acceptance in a majority of settings. Even then you have to hedge a bit on the NIV given that it is not acceptable to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

    As for those that did not make it on this list:

    ESV – it will be very interesting to me to see what the reaction to Oxford’s upcoming edition with the Apocrypha books will be.

    NLT – despite its recent chart-topping performance, I think it’s still too early to tell. I’d love to see a version of the CBA charts that only includes full-price units and not the promotional versions that publishers use to pad their totals. And again, the lack of Apocrypha limits its use to moderate evangelicals

    TNIV – not going to happen even if Zondervan pulls a Tyndale and puts the NIV on the curb (which you don’t do to one of the three most authoritative translations available).

    NASB – used for a niche purpose (“the most literal..”) by many pastors, but not really accessible for the majority of readers.

    The debate about English translations in general being “authoritative” vs. the Hebrew or Greek is yet another issue and should be the topic of another post.

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  9. Here is my list of top four authoritative translations, with brief comments:

    1)NIV- (I don’t use it, mostly because it doesn’t include the Deuterocanonicals, but I certainly recognize its widespread use in the Christian Church. I also notice that it is the translation of choice for many devotional, as well as scholarly works from Protestants. From my experiences with doing on-campus ecumenical Bible studies, most college students use the NIV.)

    2)RSV- (I decided to place the RSV just ahead of the NRSV because it is used more widely in the Catholic Church. It is often the translation of choice for conservative Catholics, as well as academics. It is also the base text for the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as Pope Benedict’s works in English.)

    3) NRSV- (Probably the most ecumenical of all translations, with members of almost every denomination on the translation committee. It is also the standard translation in academia.)

    4)KJV- (A lot of people still use it and most people still highly respect it.)

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  10. ElShaddai and Tim, thanks for your responses.

    ES, interesting you put the good old KJV as your #1. In taking into consideration the last 300 years, the KJV has been well respected. And you make a good point about the NLT…it’s still new and will eventually earn its place of authority. I like your reasoning for the ESV, TNIV and NASB. I don’t see Zondervan pulling the NIV (or as you say, “pulling a Tyndale”) maybe for another 10 years. It still has life left. And ES you should do a post about translations being “authoritative” vs. the Hebrew or Greek.

    Tim, you make a very good point about the RSV. The RSV, like the KJV, has earned its place of authority in translations so it seems fitting for it to be up there on your list. These days, I see most mainline protestants using the NRSV but the older generation still uses it, but nevertheless, it’s still referred to in commentaries too. I bet if Zondervan added the Deuterocanonicals, it would be even more popular.

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  11. I’d probably guess that the three most authoritative translations are:

    1. NIV
    2. KJV
    3. NRSV

    After that you get into all of the denominational influence. I put the NRSV third because of it’s acceptance in academia and usage in many churches (though not any that I have attended).

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  12. I find it interesting in my situation as a United Methodist with a relatively evangelical pastor, (who grew up with the NIV but was “forced” to change to NRSV when he went to UM seminary)that the NRSV is still #1 in my local church. He preaches from the NRSV and encourages the members to own and use the NRSV. I myself have two but rarely use it. I have seen the ESV, the KJV, the RSV, the GNT, and the Message in my church. Most of those whom I would consider my “students” carry the NIV. As far as I know I’m the only one who ever brings a NLT, NASB, or TNIV.

    Most authoritative in my church? NRSV hands down. But not for me.

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  13. There doesn’t seem to be any dispute with the NIV, N/KJV, and N/RSV being authoritative in our churches—with NIV being #1 overall.

    Nathan, I’m surprised there aren’t more commentaries based on the NIV—well, atleast the ones I use.

    Gary, my trust in both the NIV and NRSV has increased since I learned some basic biblical Greek. Being a former NKJV-reader, I’ve gained a lot of respect for theTNIV and NRSV. I’ve come a long ways.

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  14. I have the Expositor’s Bible Commentary and it uses the NIV as a base; I think it is a good collection of commentaries. To be honest though, I prefer it when the author of the commentary provides his own translation instead of using a pre-existing one.

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  15. Nathan, I also have the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. I just order the Word Biblical Commentary, which I think does provide the author’s own translation.

    Just wondering why you prefer the author’s own translation? I’ve just ordered

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  16. I also have the WBC as well, and it is partly why I like author’s translations. The reason I prefer them is because I own nearly all of the major translations so I can always look them up. Commentary writers generally have enough authority to offer a new valid translation of their own; something that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

    To be honest, I don’t use my EBC nearly as much as the WBC because they just aren’t as thorough. I also use several other commentaries that I have on Logos whenever I have the time to dig around a bit. It is just interesting to read the Bible in someone’s personal translation alongside their explanation for each Greek or Hebrew word that underlies their decision.

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