Bible Memorization and the Problem of Changing Bible Translations

This post will address two sets of questions: 1) What translation should I use when I memorize the Bible? and 2) What if I have already memorized a passage? Should I try to update what I have already memorized to a new or updated translation?

My family of birth began attending church when I was six years old. Many members of that church read and taught out of the King James Version. Consequently, during those years I memorized Psalm 23 and John 14, among other passages, in the KJV. When I first started memorizing larger sections of Scripture during high school, the New American Standard Bible was the translation that my parents and most of the people at church used, so I memorized out of the NASB. After completing my undergraduate education and getting married, my wife and I decided to start reading out of the New International Version, and I memorized one New Testament letter in that translation. My current church uses the English Standard Version (ESV), as do other members of my family. Whenever a major new translation comes out (that is, a serious committee translation), I read through the entire Bible in the new translation, just to familiarize myself with it in case I get asked questions about the quality of the translation. Years ago, I decided to return to the NASB as my classroom-teaching Bible; it keeps me more closely connected to the Hebrew and Greek, which helps me as I teach. But when I preach, I usually preach out of the ESV.

How can someone like me keep up what he has already memorized?

There are currently many good translations available in English. However, when it comes to Bible memorization, I think that the overabundance of new translations—not to mention the constant updating of current translations—is one of the reasons so few of us are memorizing the Bible.[1] During the period when the King James Bible was read in almost every English-speaking church, entire churches could memorize sections of Scripture together—and did!—because they corporately read the same translation aloud during their services.

But how does this affect the question of memorization? What should we do about Scripture memorization in light of this dizzying array of Bible translations?

If you have not yet started memorizing, I recommend approaching your pastor and ask what translation your church is likely to use for preaching and teaching in the foreseeable future, and then memorize out of that translation. In theologically conservative churches, your pastor will normally point you toward the ESV, NIV, NASB, CSB, or NKJV.[2] All these are good translations.

But what if you have already memorized a lot? If you have already done a lot of memorization in the past (especially of whole books or individual chapters), I recommend maintaining what you have already memorized by using exactly the same version and page layout you used when you first memorized a passage. Memorization is most easily maintained when everything remains the same. If you now read out of a different physical Bible than you did in the past, go dig out the original Bible you used for memorizing and photocopy or electronically scan the page layout and use those images to review. (C’mon! Most of you still have those old Bibles sitting around on a shelf somewhere, don’t you?) Use your previous page layout to review what you memorized in the past.

But what if a translation committee has updated the version you’re using? Keep employing your original version and page layout—at least for the passages you have already memorized. Otherwise, you may struggle to retain what you have already learned. (For general reading, go ahead and get the updated version.) Let me put your mind at rest. The version you originally used to memorize was probably a really good translation (unless you were memorizing out of The Message, or The Passion, or some other such purported “translation”). Translational updates tend to be slight, anyway, so you will normally discover that an updated version of your translation is extremely close to the one you originally used to memorize a passage. Nevertheless, for the sake of retaining what you worked so hard to learn, stay with what you originally used the first time through.

Whatever you do, don’t allow a concern about changing translations to keep you from memorizing the Bible! Scripture memorization has been life-changing for me, as it has been for Christians over the past two millennia. I am confident that it will be for you as well.

———-

For a short post about the easiest way to memorize the Bible, click HERE. To understand the spiritual issues underlying our current disengagement with Scripture, read THIS BOOK.


[1] This post should not be taken as a criticism of updating Bible translations. In light of changing English conventions and occasional advances in understanding Hebrew or Greek word meanings, revisions need to take place.

[2] ESV = English Standard Version. NIV = New International Version. NASB = New American Standard Bible. CSB = Christian Standard Bible. NKJV = New King James Version. Of course, there are still many King James Version only churches out there. I also recognize the problem with the text-base of the KJV and the NKJV, but that is not the point of this post.

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