Which Bible Translation Should I Read?


With so many translations to choose from, which one should I choose?

Did you know that there are currently over 450 English translations of the Bible? 

Ranging from the Middle English translation called "the Ormulum" to the Geneva Bible, King James Version, right through to "The Message", finding the right Bible for your devotional time can become overwhelming. While you may be able to force yourself to read a difficult translation you may find it difficult to understand which may cause you to abandon reading the Bible all together! On the other side, choosing too "liberal" of a translation could cause you to misunderstand key areas of Scripture, which is not something that you want to do.

The Five Most Popular English Translations:

According to the Christian Booksellers Association, the five best-selling Bible translations in June 2013 were as follows:

  1.  New International Version (NIV)
  2. King James Version (KJV)
  3. English Standard Version (ESV)
  4. New Living Translation (NLT)
  5. New King James Version (NKJV) [ref]July 2013 CBA Best Sellers, Christian Booksellers Association, http://www.cbaonline.org/nm/documents/bsls/bible_translations.pdf[/ref]

This post will focus largely on these "Big Five" translations and their merits and shortcomings.

The Kinds of Translations

Before we move on to look at the individual Bible translations, it is beneficial to have a grasp on what categories of Bible translations exist. In general terms there are three: Literal, paraphrase, and dynamic. We will examine these in brief below.

Literal (Word-For-Word) Translations

Literal translations of the Bible can be a very good thing. They excel when it comes to accurately bringing the words of the original documents to the English language and are usually the translations preferred by biblical scholars (when they are not reading in the original languages themselves). However, most translations we consider "literal" do have some deviance taken from the original wording to allow for the differences in linguistic structure and allow us to comprehend what has been written. An example of a completely literal versus and a normal literal translation are below:

"We now not to the things beyond measure will boast, but according to the measure of the rule which divided to us the God of measure to reach to also you." (2 Corinthians 10:13 The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament)

"But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you." (2 Corinthians 10:13 New American Standard Bible)

The disadvantage of a literal translation is often comprehensibility and ease of reading. Concepts do not always transfer across easily from the Hebrew or Greek languages into English, which can cause some passages to be difficult to read and understand.

Paraphrased Translations

On the other side of the spectrum are paraphrased translations. The idea of a paraphrase is not to take the Biblical text and translate it word for word. Rather, it is to take entire thoughts and translate them in such a way as to get the idea across. Paraphrases can be great for those new to the Bible or who just want something a little more natural to read. However, they can struggle with inaccuracies and should be recognized for what they are: an interpretation.

Some paraphrases are just fine--being careful not to stray far from the original text. However, there are some paraphrases that many would struggle to call much more than a commentary. Below are two paraphrases (the New Living Translation and The Message "commentary") alongside a literal translation (the English Standard Version):

"Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us." (Romans 8:35-37 The Message)

"Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”*) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us." (Romans 8:35-37 NLT)

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." (Romans 8:35-37 ESV)

Notice how similar the NLT and ESV translations are, with the NLT being a little more fluid and understandable than the ESV. However, I have to point out the issue with paraphrases like The Message. No where in this passage does Paul say that "not even the worst sins listed in Scripture" can separate us from Christ. In fact, our sins are not even what Paul is describing here! He is saying that nothing external happening to us can ever separate us from Christ's love. So please, whatever translation you choose--if you go for a paraphrase please avoid ones like The Message.

Dynamic Translations

Dynamic translations try to find a middle ground between though-for-thought and word-for-word. Often they are very good for most individuals, as they are generally quite accurate while also quite readable. Below is a comparison between a literal (ESV) and dynamic (NIV) translation:

"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority." (Colossians 2:9-10, NIV)

"For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority." (Colossians 2:9-10, ESV)

Both of these passages have the same meaning, and are almost the same. However, the NIV tries to make the verse's wording clearer by replacing "him" with "Christ" where appropriate and making certain phrases clearer.

What are the disadvantages of a dynamic translation? For most people there may not be any notable downsides. Like anything striving to reach a middle ground, there will be plenty of people for whom a dynamic translation is too literal or too loose. Those who want to know for sure what they are reading is the closest readable form of the original text may not be happy with a dynamic translation in the same way that those who want something written in the most modern language possible would not be happy with how comparatively rigid a dynamic translation can be.


The New International Version

There was a time when the only translation most believers held to be valid was the King James Version. The New International Version (or, NIV) was one of the first translations which managed to show Christians there were "better" translations available which were just as valid. The NIV was translated directly from the original languages by more than 100 biblical scholars of various denominations. A self-governing body of fifteen biblical scholars, the Committee on Bible Translation, was developed to oversee the translation work with various teams working on the translation and submitting it for review by intermediate editorial committees and then to a general committee of 8-12 members before being sent to selected individuals before a final review. Samples of the translation were tested for clarity and ease of reading with pastors, students, scholars, and many others. The NIV charter made provision to update the NIV as new biblical scholarship and changes to the English language took place. While most NIV readers use the 1984 revision the latest one was released in 2011.

The NIV is considered a dynamic translation--seeking to balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation styles. There is a reason the New International Version is this year's #1 selling Bible. The NIV gets a score of 7.80 for reading difficulty.


The King James Version

For a long time the King James Version (or, KJV) has reigned supreme among English-speaking Christians. It was originally completed in 1611 having been commissioned by King James I of England in response to perceived problems in earlier English translations detected by the Puritans. [ref] Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence., 435. [/ref] The translators had guidelines intended to ensure that the KJV would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. 

James gave the translators instructions to limit Puritan influence on the translation: intending to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy .[8] The translation was done by 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England. 

The King James Version differs slightly from other versions of the Bible due to its use of the late Byzantine text-type and Textus Receptus manuscripts. Modern scholars have the advantage of having found many earlier manuscripts which they see as better witnesses to the original text of the biblical authors. However, most modern translators compare all manuscripts when translating.  No matter what the case, the King James Version is still considered quite accurate and the differences have no impact on any major points of the Christian faith.

The King James Version is considered a literal translation. However, it does suffer from outdated (albeit, beautiful) English consisting of thees and thous as well as many archaic terms. The KJV gets a score of 12.00 for reading difficulty. [ref] http://www.apbrown2.net/web/TranslationComparisonChart.htm [/ref]


English Standard Version

The English Standard Version (or, ESV) is an easy to read literal translation of the Bible. It is a revision of the 1971 edition of the Revised Standard Version, referring back to the original languages while trying to keep the phrasing of the Tyndale-King James legacy for familiarity. The ESV team has "sought to be 'as literal as possible' while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence." 

A brief overview from ESV.org:

The ESV Bible carries forward the trusted legacy of the Bible in English—the legacy established first in the Tyndale New Testament (1526) and the KJV Bible (1611). With this legacy as the foundation, the ESV Bible (2001) reflects the beauty and majesty of the original languages, first captured centuries ago by these early Bible translations.

But the ESV also provides the most recent evangelical Christian Bible scholarship and enduring readability for today. The ESV translation process itself was based on the trusted principles of essentially literal translation, which combines word-for-word accuracy with readability and literary excellence.

Likewise, the ESV translation team was built on the trusted foundation of over 100 evangelical Christian scholars and pastors worldwide, committed to the truth, authority, and application of the Bible to all of life.

The ESV Bible—for the church today and for generations to come.

And from their preface:

The ESV publishing team includes more than a hundred people. The fourteen-member Translation Oversight Committee has benefited from the work of fifty biblical experts serving as Translation Review Scholars and from the comments of the more than fifty members of the Advisory Council, all of which has been carried out under the auspices of the Good News Publishers Board of Directors. This hundred-member team, which shares a common commitment to the truth of God's Word and to historic Christian orthodoxy, is international in scope and includes leaders in many denominations.

As a essentially literal translation the ESV is the author's preferred translation, but this does not mean that it is right for everyone. The ESV gets a score of 8.0 for reading difficulty.


New Living Translation

"The New Living Translation (NLT) is a translation of the Bible into modern English. Originally starting out as an effort to revise The Living Bible, the project evolved into a new English translation from Hebrew and Greek texts. Some stylistic influences of The Living Bible remained in the first edition (1996), but these are less evident in the second edition (2004, 2007). As of March 2013, the NLT is the third most popular English version of the Bible based on unit sales according to the Christian Booksellers Association." 

The NLT translation team was made up of 90 translators form a variety of denominations. They tried to translate the original texts simply and literally while using a "dynamic equivalence synergy approach" to convey the thoughts behind passages when a literal translation may have been difficult to understand or even misleading to modern readers. 

The New Living Translation is considered a paraphrase, but  does not vary wildly like The Message and its mother, The Living Bible. It is recommended for those looking for a fairly accurate translation in the most modern English possible. The NLT gets a score of 6.3 for reading difficulty.


New King James Version

The New King James Version is great for those who loved the original King James Version, but want something a little easier to read. Here is an excerpt from it's History in Wikipedia:


The NKJV translation project was conceived by Arthur Farstad. It was inaugurated in 1975 with two meetings (Nashville and Chicago) of 130 biblical scholars, pastors, and theologians. The men who were invited prepared the guidelines for the NKJV.
The aim of its translators was to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James Version, while preserving the classic style and literary beauty of the original 1611 KJV version. The 130 translators believed in unyielding faithfulness to the original Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also agreed upon for most New King James Bibles were easier event descriptions, a history of each book, and added dictionary and updated concordance. 

The New King James Version is a literal translation which is easier to read than its original version, but it is still somewhat choppy due to it maintaining the 17th century sentence structure of the original. The NKJV gets a 9.0 for reading difficulty.

In Summary

All five of these versions are good to read. Once again they are, in order of popularity (reading difficulty scores are included beside them): NIV (7.8), KJV (12.0), ESV (8.0), NLT (6.3), and NKJV (9.0).  I would not recommend venturing far beyond these five translations, but overall the choice is yours. I would also recommend finding a good study Bible to go along with whatever translation you choose. The NIV is available in the NIV Study Bible, the NIV Life Application Bible, and the NIV Fire Bible. The ESV is available in the ESV Study Bible. The NLT is available in the NLT Life Application Bible. The NKJV is available in the NKJV Study Bible, the NKJV Fire Bible, and the NKJV Life Application Bible.

I'll end with a visual aid showing the various English Bible translations on a chart from literal to paraphrase:



(NASB) New American Standard Bible; (ESV) English Standard Version; (RSV) Revised Standard Version; (KJV) King James Version; (NKJV) New King James Version; (NRSV) New Revised Standard Version; (HCSB) Holman Christian Standard Bible; (NET) New English Translation; (NIV) New International Version; (NLT) New Living Translation; (CEV) Contemporary English Version; (NCV) New Century Version; (GNT) Good News Translation; (Message) Eugene Peterson's The Message; (LB) Living Bible.


--Pastor Stephen Valcourt