If you’re a medievalist, that is. This post is about Bible translations for research purposes, not for personal devotion. When using Bibles for research, as one will definitely need to do when studying English-language literature, it’s important to have a Bible translation as a linguistic baseline and as a relevant reference for the period.
The Latin Vulgate was the primary Bible translation used during the Middle Ages, though one will find sections of vernacular translation and occasional scholars who can read the Greek or Hebrew. Ideally, a medievalist should be able to read Latin and should be using the Vulgate. However, if your research is not in-depth enough to make it worth your time to learn Latin, use the Douay-Rheims version, which is the English translation of the Vulgate. Since the D-R is translated from Latin and not Hebrew and Greek, it is not the best translation for a base reference, but it can make the Vulgate accessible.
Both of these versions are in public domain, so they are easy to find online. Other translations of the Vulgate also exist, so make good use of them if you can find them. However, be careful when selecting your version of the Vulgate in Latin. Be certain to get the Vulgate used through the Middle Ages and not the Nova Vulgata/Neo-Vulgate, which is the Vulgate revised for increased linguistic accuracy and currently in use by the Vatican.
When one needs to critique the Biblical translations used in the Middle Ages, one needs a baseline for comparison. Ideally, one should be able to read Hebrew and Greek in order to engage with the oldest texts possible, but this is not feasible for many scholars. Interlinear translations are the next best thing. The Anchor Bible is an excellent source. The Anchor Bible is a scholarly project combining the efforts of over 1000 scholars—Abrahamic and otherwise—to translate and provide commentary on the Bible. The Anchor Bible itself is like an OED for the Bible—it gives a complete translation and commentary on every word in the text. This makes it the ideal source for concentrating on the linguistics. The Anchor Bible is also the size of most encyclopedias, so don’t try to add this one to your personal collection since university libraries usually have copies.
If the Anchor Bible is unavailable or you want something else for quick reference, look for a Bible translation that aims for linguistic accuracy rather than idiomatic translation. Idiomatic translations are usually intended for ease of reading rather than study, and a good linguistic translation will have footnotes with translation details or idiomatic translations. The New Revised Standard Versions is a revised KJV that aims for linguistic accuracy. It also uses gender-neutral language in places where others have used gender-specific language, so it may be helpful to have access to a RSV to see the difference, but a good printing will have footnotes. Many other good translations are available. Do some research to see if your favored translation has some biased translations that might make them inappropriate for medieval studies or if certain passages are widely debated in scholarly communities.
I highly recommend purchasing a student edition/study edition of the Bible since it contains extensive footnotes to explain cultural or translation details. Also, remember to use a version that contains the deuterocanonical books. Regardless of how you may feel about them, medieval Christians saw them as important and would have been familiar with their content.
The King James Version
Many people automatically reach for the King James Version of the Bible when doing any kind of research, either because they are accustomed to using it for personal devotion or because it’s one of the most popular translations, so it’s easy to find. The King James Version is not useful for medievalists because it was translated well after the Middle Ages. While the KJV has many merits, linguistic accuracy is not among them. The KJV is also may not be likely to include the deuterocanonical books in a modern printing, but they are necessary for study of the Middle Ages. There are many revisions of the KJV, and some of them are much better as baseline texts since they aim for linguistic accuracy.
However, if you are researching Victorian literature, then the KJV is a must since that is what most people in the Church of England would read. In this case, it would be helpful to have the KJV and a baseline text. Do not use a revised KJV if you need the original KJV.
To be a good scholar, you will need detailed knowledge of what translations were being read at what time period. When I wrote my master’s thesis, I compared medieval and Victorian literature, so I used 6 different Bibles for research and ended up citing 2 or 3 of them. This may sound overwhelming, but one usually only looks at a few lines for such work, so comparison is not a daunting task.