Everyone has a version of the Bible they prefer reading. Some were given a Bible during childhood and never thought about finding a different translation, while others have spent hundreds of hours considering what feels right to them.
If you are trying to discern why a Bible might be right (or wrong) for you, it could be worth asking why there are so many translations in the first place. After all, the original words do not change, so it seems like there would only be one correct way to translate them. But it’s not that simple.
The complexity of translating
When translating any text between languages, there are many factors to consider, such as culture, time, author’s purpose, audience and more. Also, there aren’t always direct or easily understandable translations of every word, especially when working between ancient and modern languages.
If a translator is trying to convey a word or phrase ancient readers would have understood as a cultural reference, modern readers may require an explanation of the cultural or timely context in which it was written; so the translator may have to add or change a few words to make the meaning of the text accessible.
For example, a teen in 2023 might describe their outfit as “athleisure” on their personal blog, and readers today would know what that means. However, someone translating the blog 300 years from now may have to add a few words into the sentence for future readers who never will have heard that word and may not know it refers to comfortable athletic wear worn outside the gym.
That was a novice example, but it gets to the point: Translation is not always word-for-word because those translating are attempting to create a text their audience can understand, while still retaining the meaning of the original language.
This presents different challenges with Old Testament texts, which are mainly written in Hebrew, and New Testament texts, which are mainly written in Greek.
Translators also have different reasons for translating a text. Some Bible translators may be creating a text that is easily understandable for children, so they intentionally exclude confusing or complex language and simplify difficult concepts. Others may be creating a text Bible scholars can use in their professional work, so they use sophisticated language their audience already knows.
“Each time you read an English translation of the Bible, the text is influenced — some more than others — by the translator’s assumptions, opinions and beliefs.”
And because every translator has a different audience and different reasons for translating the text, there are many different Bibles out there. But this is not to say all Bible translations are equally reliable.
Translators also have bias, as do all writers. This means each time you read an English translation of the Bible, the text is influenced — some more than others — by the translator’s assumptions, opinions and beliefs.
For example, a complementarian translator is likely to use words like “brothers” when a character in the original text addresses a crowd because, in their opinion, the character is only speaking to the adult men in the crowd. In contrast, a feminist translator might use the phrase “sisters and brothers” or “everyone” because they think the character is speaking to the women, children and men in the crowd.
But Bibles do not typically have a “how-to” guide on the back cover telling readers these things that went into the translation you’re holding. How, then, do you decide which English translation is right for you?
There are far too many Bible translations to go through in one article, but there are a few popular ones that might crop up in your search for a biblical text.
The King James Version is one of the most famous Bibles out there. Commissioned by King James I of England and published in 1611, this Bible was created for use in public worship in the Church of England. It originally was translated with a Catholic audience in mind, so it included various texts (or “books”) Protestants refer to as “apocryphal.” Although the original version is still used today by some, the KJV has been revised several times and newer versions that appeal to Protestants do not include the Apocrypha.
The New King James Version, published in 1982, is a revision of the KJV that modernized spellings and is easier to read for English speakers and readers today. The KJV and the NKJV are most preferred among fundamentalist Christians, as well as some Southern and independent Baptists. Those who prefer the King James Version are usually theologically conservative.
There have been errors among multiple revisions of the KJV, such as the exclusion of the word “not” in one verse, creating the commandment, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Still, those who feel strongly about their adherence to the KJV are part of the King James Only movement, which asserts that the original 1611 Authorized Version of the King James Bible is the closest English translation of the Scriptures that has ever, and will ever, exist.
They believe the KJV is as divinely inspired as Scripture itself.
Members of this movement argue that modern translations have changed or excluded essential Scriptures found in the Authorized Version — despite no evidence to support this belief. Moreover, they use the KJV as the standard biblical text despite its inconsistencies with more reliable modern manuscripts that reflect the original Hebrew and Greek texts.
The English Standard Version was published in 2001 and is an “essentially literal” translation of the Bible. This means ESV translators, as much as possible, attempted to translate every verse of the original Hebrew and Greek “word-for-word,” as opposed to a “thought-for-thought” translation that is more interpretive and subjective to the translator’s opinions.
The ESV is intended for a public audience, so its readership contains a broad range of people. It aims to be accessible for personal, ministerial and academic scenarios, so it can be used as a personal Bible for Scripture reading, by clergy for ministry work or by Bible scholars and academics in professional scenarios, such as teaching. This Bible is preferred among many conservative Christians and complementarians and is endorsed by people like John Piper, Francis Chan, Matt Chandler and Al Mohler.
There are pros and cons to a word-for-word translation, though. While readers are getting the most literal English copy of the text as possible, they may also miss out on cultural or timely nuances that cannot be expressed with a direct translation, so readers may need to reference other translations to supplement their understanding of the passage they are studying.
There also are some instances in which a word-for-word translation creates a strange sentence in English, which could be easily rewritten while retaining its original meaning.
For example, 2 Samuel 18:25 in the ESV says, “There is news in his mouth.” Other translations simply say, “He must have good news,” which retains the meaning of the original text without sounding awkward in English, making the sentence easier for readers (especially younger readers) to understand.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible, recently revised in 2017 as the Christian Standard Bible, was published by Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, although its many translators come from diverse evangelical traditions.
The Christian Standard Bible follows a method called “optimal equivalence,” meaning translators tried to convey both language and grammar present in the original text, as well as the original message that would have been understood by ancient readers. CSB translators believe even if a translation is literal, it is not accurate if it is “difficult to understand or even misleading to modern readers.” This makes for a Bible translation that attempts to account for all aspects of the original language present in the text while remaining easily readable in English.
Due to the Southern Baptist sponsorship of this translation, it is influenced by the SBC’s belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. This means that, although the CSB is not as literal as complete word-for-word translations (such as the ESV), this text is more literal than other Bibles that aim for a similar balance between “word-for-word” and “thought-for-thought” translations, like the NIV. Thus, there is less room for cultural or timely nuance to be interpreted or assumed by translators.
The New International Version was published in 1978 and in 1986 and became the best-selling Bible in modern English. The NIV translation philosophy was to find a middle ground between “word-for-word” and “thought-for-thought” translation, maintaining the specific wording and grammar when necessary while also retaining cultural and timely nuance where present in the text.
This is the Bible most likely to be found in your church pews, as it is still the most popular translation among evangelicals. This translation also is ideal for public reading, as it has a balance between accessible, easy-to-read language and literary flow.
However, since its revision in 2011 — which used more gender inclusive language as indicated by the text — many conservative and complementarian Christians have replaced this version with the ESV.
For example, one pastor ditched the NIV because he believed it was not true to the original text and he thought translators made interpretive decisions for readers such as translating Romans 16:1 to call Pheobe a “deacon” instead of a “servant.” While the original Greek word can hold both meanings, he thinks choices like this are progressive and should not be placed into translations, whereas the ESV translators are “staying in their lane” by maintaining a conservative verbiage.
Still, the NIV is not necessarily known for being the most progressive version of the Bible. This is because it was translated in an intentionally evangelical setting and is thus influenced by church doctrine and theological positions. Due to this bias, progressive Christians and mainline Protestants tend not to prefer this version, and if used in academic settings, it may need to be cross-referenced with both a “word-for-word” and “thought-for-thought” translation.
The New Revised Standard Version, which was recently updated in May 2022 for the first time in 30 years after its publication in 1989, was a commission of the Society of Biblical Literature by the National Council of Churches. According to SBL Executive Director John Kutsko, the NRSVue is “both ecumenical and interfaith” as it can be used in many different contexts, not limited to Christianity.
The NRSVue takes into account academic discoveries of ancient texts as well as new insights made relating to biblical translation since the NRSV last was revised. It aims to use “unambiguous and unbiased language” to be accurate, readable and inclusive.
Translators used the maxim “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” while creating this text, meaning they used a “word-for-word” approach, while also relying heavily on the contexts of individual passages to ensure their translations conveyed the appropriate meanings. Thus, the NRSVue has some notable differences from other translations, such as the replacement of the phrase “wise men” with the word “magi” in Matthew 2 to reflect the accurate meaning of the original word in its historical context.
The target audience of this translation includes church leaders, academic teachers and Bible researchers. This is the preferred translation of more progressive Christians, and mainline Protestants are more likely to read this version compared to evangelicals.
The New Living Translation was published in 1996 and was an effort to carry the Scripture into “contemporary English.” The intended audience of this translation is the general church population, and it is meant to be an accessible text for readers of all ages. While inspired by The Living Bible, a paraphrase of the text more than a literal translation, the NLT is an entirely new translation.
NLT translators used word-for-word translation methods, then clarified the literal translation in areas where it was “hard to understand, misleading, or yielded archaic or foreign wording.” This type of translation is literal yet meaning-based, so readers do not receive a text that is directly reflective of the wording and grammar of the original text (like the ESV), but they do receive a meaning-based interpretation of the actual words of the original text.
This translation is the second most popular Bible currently used by American Christians and is particularly popular among teens and young adults. The NLT also has a conservative and evangelical bias, so its readership reflects that.
The Message Bible
The Message Bible was published in 2002 and is also an attempt to render Scripture into language that is more modern, but from a much different approach than the NLT.
This Bible was written by the late Eugene Peterson and is not a direct translation, but a paraphrase of the Bible. Unlike the NLT, The Message does not attempt to convert verses “word-for-word” into English. In fact, The Message sometimes connects verses together, indicating a phrase, section or paragraph as verses 1-2 or 6-8.
The purpose of this rendering is to create a Bible that keeps up with modern language. Its intended audience is ordinary Christians since it is written in plain language and is easy to read. However, since The Message is an interpretive rendering of the biblical text, not a translation, it is subject to the opinions and beliefs of the writer, so while this version may be a good starting point for new Bible readers, it should not be the only version you have on your bookshelf.
Mallory Challis is a senior at Wingate University and currently serves as BNG’s Clemons Fellow.
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