This is a question I’m often asked (referring to the title). My simple answer is: “Whichever you can best understand.” My most significant concern is with making sure that the reader of the Bible can understand what they’re reading and be transformed by it. For many Christians, reading the Bible is somewhat tricky. We all learn differently, and putting things one way versus another can be the main difference in encouraging or discouraging the reader. One of my goals as a minister is to help Christians to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, and that means meeting them where they are. Some Christians are on the level of The Message, others are back in Elizabethan times with King James. Wherever they are is where I want to meet them, and wherever they are is where I want them to encounter God.
Now, if pressed further on the question as to which is my favorite English translation, I have a multitude of answers because I favor no one over another. I love the King James Version for its poetic flow. I enjoy the literalness of the NASB. I enjoy the readability of the ESV and its attempt to remain faithful to the original text. I even, and this may be heretical to some, appreciate the NIV for putting into words the very thoughts behind the text. I preach and teach from the NKJV, however, because that’s the version to which the Glendale Road congregation is most accustomed. If you were to ask any member at Glendale Road, they would admit to hearing me comment on the Hebrew and Greek syntax. I don’t do this to sound smart, but to explain the text and its nuances in what I hope is a simplistic way.
There are different translation philosophies, and the reason for so many translations has precisely to do with this. There’s the philosophy of translating the Scriptures word-for-word; what’s called “formal equivalence.” The NASB, KJV, NKJV, ESV and such others are of this persuasion. Then you have optimal-equivalence which takes the tension between readability and textual accuracy and gives a translation such as the NET and HCSB do. Then we have the thought-for-thought philosophy, often referred to as functional-equivalence, which is what the NLT and NIV strive to do. This philosophy seeks to give the same effect on the current reader that it would have on the ancient reader (hearer).
Each philosophy has its strengths and weaknesses. A word-for-word translation might lend to a literal interpretation method when figurative or allegorical might best suit the context, for example. Nevertheless, I do not particularly favor one over the other, though I’m accustomed to using word-for-word translations if only for textual studies, which I do a lot of as a minister and Bible teacher. Here’s an example of a translation tension using 1 Thessalonians 4:4.
That each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor. (ESV)
That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour. (KJV)
Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it. (Message)
I would translate the passage, “To know each one of you his own vessel how to acquire/possess in holiness and honor.” The term “vessel” was often used about a wife in antiquity because she received the seed of her male counterpart in sexual intercourse (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). Since the vessel was utilized as a receptacle, we see it elsewhere in Scripture: Paul was God’s chosen vessel (Acts 9:15), and indeed he received the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17). Believers too were vessels meant for honorable use while unbelievers were for dishonorable use (Rom. 9:21; cf. 2 Tim. 2:20-21). The noble was receptors of the Holy Spirit like Paul (Rom. 8:9–11) while the dishonorable were recipients of wrath (9:23). Since her husband ruled the wife in ancient Rome, she was considered his possession. Therefore, the proper acquisition of a wife demanded the husband avoid passion. Is Paul instructing the Thessalonians, who had converted from paganism to Christianity, to take wives to themselves with honor, or to regard their bodies with reverence and, therefore, avoid such acts as masturbation per se?
Passion was the dishonorable loss of self-control according to the ancients. As one scholar put it, “Vices of excess disgrace those who commit them [1 Cor. 7:35–36; cf. 6:18].” The active form of decorum referred to an elegant appearance obtained through control of elimination of all the passions; particularly those passions relevant to drinking alcohol, overeating, and sex. Pleasures that were overindulged in were seen as filled with passion and, therefore, ugly practices. What was Paul advocating? Paul likely encourages that men regard women as value. Perhaps even Christian equality, friendship, and mutual openness.
For this is what living with a woman as one’s wife means—to have children by her and to introduce the sons to the members of the clan and of the deme, and to betroth the daughters to husbands as one’s own. Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households. (Demosthenes 59.122; ca. 382–22 BC)
Avoid impurity to the utmost of your power before marriage, and if you indulge your passion, let it be done lawfully. But do not be offensive or censorious to those who indulge it, and do not be always bringing up your own chastity. (Epic. Ench. 33.8; ca. AD 55–135)
While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because of their refusal to engage in these practices.
One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives. (Tertullian Apol. 39)
[Christians] share their meals, but not their sexual partners. (Diogn. 5.7)
Christians “do not commit adultery nor fornication” and “their men keep themselves from every unlawful union.” (Aristides Apol. 15)
In his defense to Octavius, he contrasts the sexual ethic of the pagan world with that of Christians:
Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in Athens. Your records and your tragedies, which you both read and hear with pleasure, glory in incests: thus also you worship incestuous gods, who have intercourse with mothers, with daughters, with sisters. With reason, therefore, is incest frequently detected among you, and is continually permitted. Miserable men, you may even, without knowing it, rush into what is unlawful: since you scatter your lusts promiscuously, since you everywhere beget children, since you frequently expose even those who are born at home to the mercy of others, it is inevitable that you must come back to your own children, and stray to your own offspring. Thus you continue the story of incest, even although you have no consciousness of your crime. But we maintain our modesty not in appearance, but in our heart we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all. (31)
Most English Bibles will usually have a footnote about a passage that presents difficult translation possibilities. 1 Thessalonians 4:4 is typically one such passage. A word-for-word translation can be misleading, and depending on the other two philosophies, they can also be misleading. As to either of the two possibilities of taking a wife in holiness and not using one’s own body for sexual gratification, neither of these contradict clear Christian teaching. However, which did Paul actually mean? Because the case could be argued either way, we may not know. The Thessalonians knew, but all we can offer is our best, and sometimes this is all a translation is—a committee’s or person’s best.