This article is a re-publishing from the Bible Versions and Translations article I wrote about a year ago. I added some new information and refined some of my statements, as I have learned a lot about this topic within the past year.
The poll I posted on Bible translations seemed to spark some interest among readers as to what all of the differences are between the most popular Bible translations used in American churches. This is a huge topic that can’t completely be covered in just a short article, so I also would recommend checking out the descriptions of different Bible versions on BibleGateway. It offers short and (mostly) impartial summaries of most of the English Bible translations used today. This chart from mardel.com offers a comparison of the different “reading levels” of popular Bible translations.
I’m writing this from a slightly more opinionated approach, and I believe that Christians need to be very careful and considerate about the translation(s) they choose to utilize. God’s Word needs to be respected, and it’s a Christian’s obligation to recognize which versions of the Bible give Scripture its due respect. True, some translations are far less accurate to the original text and introduce more bias than others, but choosing a version is largely a matter of personal preference and Christian freedom. I would recommend, however, that one would research a potential Bible translation before committing to it.
There are two main philosophies for undertaking a Bible translation. “Formal equivalence” translations seek to retain a more “word-for-word” rendering of the original text, attempting to stay as close as possible to the original language and its phrasing. At times, this can make certain sentences sound awkward or confusing to Christians who aren’t heavily acquainted with Biblical phrases. “Dynamic equivalence” translations attempt to provide a more “thought-for-thought” rendering of the text, taking larger portions of sentences and translating them into phrases that sound more normal to modern English speakers. This helps some understand what they’re reading, but it can also introduce bias and inaccuracies into the text. Certain phrases in the Bible don’t really have a modern equivalent that retains the original meaning, so some of the intention of the original can be lost. In addition, those who are translating the text have to choose what they believe to be the best modern rendering of the text, leading to biases (as seen below.)
It is also important to note that it is often times very helpful for a Christian to make regular use of more than one Bible translation. For instance, one can use a more “dynamic equivalence” translation for personal devotion, as it may be easier to read and understand. In addition, if one comes across a passage that seems strange or out of place during devotion, they can consult a more “formal equivalence” translation that gives a better idea of the phraseology of the original languages. I often look up a single verse or section that I find confusing and compare it across multiple translations. That way, I can see if anyone else has it rendered in a manner that gives more clarity to the meaning.
With these things in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most widely-used Bible translations in America.
The King James Version (and the New King James Version)
This version, the most classic English Bible translation, was completed under the Commission of King James I in 1611. I agree, along with most of Christianity, that the KJV is a faithful rendering of God’s Word. It set the high standard for the Bible translations that would follow, and was used for centuries, even into the present. The KJV offers a very beautiful and poetic rendering of Scripture that is basically unparalleled in modern translations. (For a classic example, see Psalm 23)
Strangely enough, there’s a sizeable number of people in Baptist Christian circles that claim that the KJV is the only true Bible translation, and all others aren’t actually God’s Word. (This has come to be known as the “King James Only” movement.) The idea is that God Himself was personally involved with the translation of the KJV, and that He prevented any errors from developing in the translation. According to this position, all other translations since the KJV have been a purely human undertaking lacking God’s approval. Thus, it is argued, all other translations except the KJV are inaccurate or even “satanic.” I’ve tried very hard to understand the reasoning behind this opinion, but there is really no Scriptural or logical evidence to back up this claim.
Like I said, the King James Version is a useful and significant translation, but no Bible translation itself is “inspired” in the same way that the original manuscripts are. To claim that the KJV is the only true translation places a heavy (and false) restriction on Christians and their options when choosing a translation. The King James also isn’t without its flaws. At the time it was being translated, the scribes were using certain Greek texts (known as the textus receptus or “Received Text”) that have since been regarded as potentially containing textual errors. These inaccuracies don’t undermine significant aspects of Christian doctrine, but they are still thought to be less accurate than other text forms that have since been discovered. The argument about which text type is most reliable and accurate is hotly contested to this day, but it is simply wrong for one to claim that the KJV has no potential to be incorrect in its translation. There were also portions where the translators had no Greek manuscripts at all, and were forced to use more recent copies that were written in Latin, which themselves have been disputed in terms of their accuracy.
There are also a few portions where it seems as if the translators inserted certain portions of text to back up certain Christian doctrines which they strongly believed. The KJV translates 1 John 5:7 as “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” It is widely contested that original text of this verse doesn’t mention the three members of the Trinity. Instead it reads: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” While it is admirable and right to have a strong belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, it is simply dishonest to insert portions into Scripture that aren’t found in the original, even if the additions reaffirm the Truth. There are a few other potential “errors” in the translation of the KJV, but none of them are necessarily dangerous or contrary to the rest of Scripture. In 1975, a group of scholars set out to write the New King James Version, an adaption of the KJV into more readable modern English while still retaining the character of the original KJV. A few (not all) of the aforementioned errors were corrected in this new version, and notes were placed in the margin where textual variances exist. These updates make the NKJV a faithful and useful translation of God’s Word.
(For a good review of the Modern English Version, the most recent translation in the King James Version tradition, see this post by Pastor Jordan Cooper at Just and Sinner.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The New American Standard Bible, first published in 1971, is a revision of the American Standard Version published in 1901. I have not used it much personally, but the general consensus I’ve seen is that it is a faithful and accurate literal translation. The most recent edition was published in 1995, and modernized some of the language. Pastor Brian R. Keller (of the Wartburg Project), in his essay Evaluating Bible Translations, says about the NASB:
The NASB stands as an excellent example of literal translation. The NASB is a very faithful, conservative Bible translation… You may decide for yourself if NASB ʼ95 reads well enough or if it is still rather stiff or wooden. Its strength lies in the fact that it closely follows the original text. For this reason, the NASB is recommended as a reference Bible. If someone does not know Hebrew or Greek, and would like to check the translation of a Bible passage, the NASB is helpful… The NASB ʼ95 is a fine conservative Bible translation, which does not introduce false doctrine. I am not aware of any problems with NASB ʼ95, other than whether it reads well enough. That can be decided by more use… Unfortunately, the NASB ’95 lacks confessional Lutheran materials to go along with it (i.e., no hymnals, Catechisms, Bible history materials, to my knowledge, make use of it). Some confessional Lutherans prefer it and quote it. NASB ʼ95 hovers near the bottom of the top ten list, in terms of sales, and can be more difficult than other choices to find for purchase. (p. 16-19) [Full essay can be found here]
I grew up with the NIV 1984 edition, using it both for school and church. It was adopted as the standard Bible translation for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. I still use the Concordia NIV Self-Study Bible in my theology classes today. The study version provides really great reader’s notes, maps, and other useful information.
The NIV is currently the most popular Bible translation in America. Fans of the NIV enjoy it because it strikes a nice balance between formal and dynamic equivalence. It remains faithful to the original meaning without sounding too complicated or formal. Again, with any translation that wants to sound modern, there are verses than don’t quite replicate the original meaning. I attempted to search for some issues with how the NIV 1984 is translated, but I could only find angry “King James only” Christians who were making fairly dishonest claims. (Like I mentioned above, they were attacking the NIV for not including certain parts that are in the KJV, even though these portions aren’t in the original manuscripts.)
However, when the NIV was modified around 2011 to ensure it remained “up-to-date,” there were some changes that many might not find agreeable. Many of these alterations have to with with gender-inclusive language and more politically correct views on the roles of men and women. There is a fair and accurate critique you can read of the NIV 2011 changes done by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and I’ll try to touch on a few of the points it mentions. As one example, the original NIV 1984 rendition of 1 Timothy 2:12 reads – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” However, the NIV 2011 updated this verse as – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” While the new reading seems fairly close to the original at first glance, it also seems to imply that it is only wrong for a woman to have authority over a man if she takes such authority wrongly or forcefully. If a woman is, for instance, appointed to the Pastoral office and not forcefully assuming it, there wouldn’t seem to be any problem. The increase ambiguity of this verse would definitely lead to some confusion, and the NIV 2011 reading would be quite ineffective for arguing against the ordination of women.
To the credit of the NIV 2011, it does make some honest changes to gender usage. When the original context implies both men and women being mentioned, it’s translated as “people” (or similar words) instead of just “men.” Even though “men” is usually used to refer to humanity, some people see it as an attempt to exclude women.
Unfortunately, the bad changes found in the NIV 2011 outweigh the good ones. The 2011 isn’t a terrible translation, but neither is it exceptional. I would still have to recommend the 1984 version, even though it is being fazed out by the 2011. However, it can still be found online and in certain stores if you look for it. The NIV 1984 is overall an accurate and readable translation, and I would recommend it for personal Bible study or for those who might find more formal versions difficult to understand.
The English Standard Version
The English Standard Version, first published in 2001, is generally a highly regarded translation because of its commitment to rendering the Bible in its literal sense. The ESV is essentially a revision of the Revised Standard Version published in 50 years earlier. There were many apparent problems in the RSV, at least from a conservative Christian standpoint. The translators of the RSV did not believe in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, and attempted to downplay any apparent Messianic prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament. For instance, Isaiah 7:14 normally talks about the virgin conceiving and bearing a son. The RSV, however, renders “virgin” as “young woman” in an apparent attempt to downplay is Messianic and miraculous significance. Lucky, the ESV corrected many of these errors that were in the RSV.
A team of over 100 pastors and scholars collaborated to produce the ESV, giving it a high degree of credibility. I commonly use the ESV for my personal Bible reading and study because of its formal and precise rendering of the original languages. It uses a more extensive vocabulary than versions like the NIV, which can pose challenges to younger readers. However, the increased vocabulary makes it easier to replicate the intention of the original Greek and Hebrew.
The ESV was adopted for use in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, as it was found to be more desirable than the NIV or the NKJV. More “liberal” Christians might not embrace the ESV because it’s regarded as a more “conservative” translation, not taking many liberties to conceal parts of the Bible that are frowned upon by modern society (traditional roles of men and women, etc.) I would highly recommend the ESV to any Christian who has a fairly firm grasp on the concepts of Scripture, and would suggest the Lutheran ESV Study Bible because of its useful notes and commentary.
Various Paraphrases (New Living Translation, The Message, etc.)
I’m grouping the various paraphrased versions of the Bible together because they largely share the same strengths and weaknesses. Some of them are more accurate translations than others, so it’s good to do research before buying. Paraphrased Bibles seek to translate the thoughts and concepts of the original text into modern English equivalents. This is intended to lead to a clearer understanding for Bible passages that sound confusing in a word-for-word translation like the NASB. One major danger of paraphrased Bibles is the potential for bias on part of the translators. When a group of sentences is taken as a whole and paraphrased into modern language, sometimes the translator will have to look to their own theology for help. For this reason, paraphrased versions are more likely to introduce doctrinal errors than formal equivalence translations.
For instance, the Living Bible (TLB) paraphrase exhibits a number of errors in places where false doctrine was used in attempt to clarify certain passages. Mark 1:4 is (correctly) rendered in the ESV as, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Sadly, the Living Bible handles this verse poorly, paraphrasing it as, “This messenger was John the Baptist. He lived in the wilderness and taught that all should be baptized as a public announcement of their decision to turn their backs on sin, so that God could forgive them.“
The amount of error in this paraphrased verse is fairly alarming. There is nothing in the verse’s context (or the rest of Scripture) to suggest that baptism here is meant to simply be something a believer does for God. Additionally, the verse makes God’s forgiveness dependent on the works of man. The traditional understanding of “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” has been that baptism is actually efficacious for forgiving sins. It is not man’s work, but solely God’s act of grace. TLB here unfortunately interprets this verse as the exact opposite.
It is also important to note that many popular paraphrases of the Bible were not actually taken from the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, but were only paraphrased from existing English versions. Unfortunately, this means there might be errors in places where an English translation is hard to understand. Additionally, if the referenced English translation was wrong in its translation of certain verses, the error would potentially be even larger in the paraphrase.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find modern equivalents for the original Greek or Hebrew meaning, causing the paraphrase to ironically sound awkward or unclear. Paraphrased Bibles also don’t make as much use of “theological” words like propitiation and reconciliation in an attempt to be more readable, but this sacrifices the specific meaning that these words hold. It is important for a translation to be accessible and readable, but theology is often very precise and relies on these kinds of words to get the proper point across.
The Message Bible, a paraphrase that has gained popularity in certain Evangelical circles, should generally be avoided. The Message was essentially developed by a single person, pastor Eugene Peterson, which immediately would suggest low credibility. In an attempt to sound modern and relevant, The Message often ends up sounding comical and confusing. 2 Corinthians 2:17 is translated as “These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times…“ On other occasions, Peterson seems to insert a certain personal/political agenda into the text, as is the case in The Message‘s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.” The original text makes no condemnation whatsoever of those who “use and abuse the earth.” The paraphrase also removes the explicit reference to homosexuality as a sin, replacing it with the phrase “those who… use and abuse sex.” The translator’s bias seeps into the text on more than a few occasions.
Although paraphrases are generally more prone to error than the more “formal” translations, they can still be used well by Christians who wish to have a “more readable” version for personal devotions. However, they shouldn’t be used as a Christians “main source” of Biblical doctrine, one should look up controversial or difficult texts in more than one translation in order to avoid falling into the translator’s bias. Paraphrases can also be useful for teaching children, as they make use of simpler terms that are understood by a younger audience. The most widely used paraphrase in America is the New Living Translation, but I can’t personally attest to it’s reliability. You might consider reading this article that examines the NLT.
Dishonorable Mention – New World Translation
If there is a single Bible version that Christians should stay away from, it’s the New World Translation. The NWT isn’t really considered as a Bible translation in Christian circles. However, it’s worth putting it out there because it should be avoided. The NWT is a project undertaken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses church body, a group that usually presents itself as Christian yet denies things such as the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity. The main issues with the New World Translation lies in the fact that it holds an extreme non-trinitarian bias. There are countless examples of passages that are mistranslated to fit their beliefs, but their translation of John 1:1 pretty much tops them all. As I said, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe that Jesus is truly God, rather than just a divine being. Let’s see if you can detect their doctrine in the NWT rendering of John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”
That’s right, Jesus (the Word) isn’t described as being God. He’s portrayed as a god. Jehovah’s witnesses believe that there are multiple other deities apart from God, but they seem to have an issue with Jesus being a member of the Godhead (the one True God). They will argue that this translation is accurate, because the Greek word for God (theos) can be used to refer to either the true God, but it can also be used to refer to “gods” (any type of supernatural/divine deity.) There are Greek grammar rules that refute their mistranslation, but it’s plain to Christians how the word should be translated in this case. (For a thorough refutation of this translation, check out this article.) I doubt many Christian will ever encounter the NWT, but it’s worth warning against.
Whichever Bible translation you use, I pray that you would “read it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in all believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
I also encourage you to check out the Wartburg Project, a group of Lutheran Pastors and professors who are working to produce a versatile translation that corrects many of the issues contained in other modern translations. Their translation is called the Evangelical Heritage Version (EHV), and their translation of the New Testament is planned to be released in Fall of 2017.
 For more discussion on the good and bad updates to the NIV 2011, as well as a general discussion on different modern translations, see the following essay by Brian R. Keller: http://wartburgproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Essay-Keller.pdf
The following resources were used in research for this article: