This is a question I get asked regularly. This is a complex question, and sometimes it is even a loaded question. Since this is a long post I will cut to the chase for those who have other things to do. As of now I usually recommend the English Standard Version (ESV). It is a very literal translation but not so literal that it is hard to read. Prior to the ESV I would recommend the New American Standard Version (NASB), and I also really like the King James Version (KJV).
The only thing I would warn about with the ESV is that it is a newer version so the study tools and Study Bibles that you can get in the ESV are limited compared to other versions. This is getting better and there will be more in the future. This always happens with newer translations, because the market for a newer translation is not established to the point where you can get the same variety of tools as other popular versions that are more established.
I like the ESV because the translation philosophy is one of being ‘essentially literal’. By that is means that the translators are working to make the text as transparent to the underlying text as possible. They are then quite sparing when it comes to interpreting what the author originally meant. There is a fine line between translation and commentary. The more you try to make the text ‘readable’ the bigger the chance you are putting your interpretation of the text into the translation. The ESV puts a very good balance between being readable, but also staying true to the underlying text.
The Best Study Bible
Most people want more than a Bible for reading they want a study Bible. When getting a study Bible always remember that the commentary and the notes are NOT inspired. These Bibles can be helpful but they can also be harmful. Since the notes are not inspired they can be misleading at times and flat-out wrong at other times. They can also be absolutely correct as well. That is why I think that the Thompson Chain Reference Bible is by far the best study Bible out there.
It is not for the lazy student of the Bible though. If you want to know what a verse means you have to study it for yourself. This is made much easier with this Bible because it has developed ‘chains’ of verses based on different subjects. Many of which you would not be able to connect with a concordance or word search alone. It is because these ‘chains’ are connected by linking verses that are similar in thought as well as words. So the commentary in this study Bible is made up of other easy-to-find verses. Not only that there are more study tools included in this Bible than any other Bible out there. If your computer goes down or you need a Bible for the End of the World this is the Bible you want. If I was forced to grab one book out of every book in my library this would be the one. It would be my luxury item on Survivor. It has outlines of every book of the Bible. It has character studies. It has an archaeological supplement, and lots more. By far the best. In fact I wrote up a little help sheet on how to use this Bible to go along with the Basic Bible Study Method. If you shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll send you the PDF for free.
A Note About ‘Literal’ Translation
Some make a big issue out of literal translations. I actually love literal translations. It is because there is virtually no interpretation of the words. When I am translating a verse I always check the most literal translations I can find to see how they translated a word or verse. However this is not a good way to try to read the Bible in English. It is because you are not really reading English. You are reading a direct English translation from the Hebrew or Greek text. That means that the word order remains intact and all of the idioms and figures of speech are there as well. In other words the Bible starts to sound like Yoda wrote it in many cases. Here is what I mean:
Here is Genesis 1:1 in just about every English version of the Bible:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Literally this verse is much different.
Here is Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Hebrew reads from right to left so here is an English transliteration of the above Hebrew Script (So you can read it):
B’ray-sheet barah Elohim et ha-shamayim v’et ha-aretz.
Here is a word by word literal breakdown of the verse.
בְּרֵאשִׁית (B’ray-sheet): In the heads. בָּרָא (barah): cut out. אֱלֹהִים (Elohim): Gods. אֵת (et): untranslated in English but it is important in Hebrew it is a definite direct object marker meaning ‘essence’ or ‘being’. הַשָּׁמַיִם (ha-shamayim): the heavens. וְאֵת (v’et): and essence. הָאָֽרֶץ (ha-aretz): the earth.
So a very literal translation of this verse would read:
In the heads cut out Gods essence the heavens and essence the earth.
Obviously, this does not make any sense in English. So translation, interpretation, and some explanation are needed to see what this is saying. An English translation of this verse is necessary to put the meaning of Gods word into the minds of people who do not know Hebrew.
What a Translation Misses
All translations fall short of God’s word. As good as they can be they are not the original. That is why it is important to not only read and study the Bible in English but to work on reading and studying the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. If that is not attainable than to read books by and listen to teachings from those who have studied the Hebrew and Greek. While translations are good there are keys in Scripture that must be explained directly from the original and from within the original context. The study of how to study the Bible is key.
If you want to read further on this subject one book I would highly recommend for further reading is Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. It is not a long book and it gives and excellent primer on translation methods and what a translation is and should be.