“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.
The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.
For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible. It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.
Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION. The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator. If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation. Here are some of the most common ones:
New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.
The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.
Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.
Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.
There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible) and a few more books:
Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.
Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.
Richard Elliot Friedman – published his translation of the Torah in the volume Commentary on the Torah, 2001.
If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages. My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.