What Bible translation should I use?
Posted by Bob Rogers
Article copyright by Bob Rogers, Th.D.
English-speaking readers of the Bible have so many different versions to choose from, that it can be hard to know which one to use. As a pastor who has studied nearly every translation over the 34 years of my ministry, many people ask me which translation they should use. Thus I have written this article to give you some guidance.
Please note that I am referring to translations and paraphrases. I am not referring to various kinds of study Bibles and specialty Bibles. For example, you can get the Scofield Reference Bible or the Life Application Bible, etc. in multiple different translations. And there are children’s and youth Bibles, military Bibles, athlete Bibles, etc. with different covers and notes and devotional comments. None of that is discussed here. I am strictly talking about the text of the Bible itself.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and some Aramaic), and the New Testament was written in Greek. The biggest issue for translations is: How literally should we translate it into English? If a translation follows the exact word order and literal idioms of the original language, the result may be technically accurate, but it may be difficult to understand. On the other hand, if a translation or paraphrase strives to put it in modern English, the result may be easy to read, but inaccurate and lacking the precise teaching of God’s Word. As they balance between these two extremes, Bible versions tend to fall into four different categories: literal, dynamic, free and paraphrased.
Literal translations strive as much as possible to follow the original text word for word. This is not entirely possible, because certain words require more than one word in English to translate, and sometimes English words need to be added that are not in the original language for the sentence to make sense in our language. Also, word order can have different meanings in different languages. So no translation is completely literal, but the ones that I list as “literal” try their best to faithfully follow the original, sometimes at the sacrifice of being clear to modern readers.
Here are the best-known literal translations: King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), Legacy Standard Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), Douay Rheims (DR), and the New American Bible (NAB).
The King James Version was first translated in 1611, and the current edition of the KJV was updated in 1769. While the KJV is a literary masterpiece, its archaic language can be difficult to read and can be misunderstood by modern readers. Nevertheless, its familiar words are still preferred by millions of Christians who were brought up with the KJV. The New King James Version preserved most of the traditional wording of the KJV, while making it more readable and more accurate. However, because the NKJV follows the same manuscripts as the KJV as much as possible, it unfortunately does not use some of the more accurate manuscripts available today to translators.
The Revised Standard Version is an accurate, literal translation, but it tends toward a more liberal viewpoint on certain translation issues. This approach is preferred by its sponsors, the National Council of Churches. The New Revised Standard Version updated the RSV and made it gender-neutral when referring to people, much as the NIV did recently (see below). Thus the NRSV is the preferred translation today in liturgical and liberal Protestant churches.
The New American Standard Bible and English Standard Version are the most accurate literal translations and the most popular among evangelical, conservative Bible scholars. The NASB, a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901, is considered more accurate for serious study. The NASB was updated in 1995 and revised in 2020, and the Legacy Standard Bible was published in 2021 as more consistent with the 1995 NASB than the 2020 revision of the NASB. The ESV is considered more literary and readable among literal translations, and tends to be popular among Reformed churches.
Douay Rheims is the traditional Roman Catholic translation published in 1582 and 1610, heavily dependent on the old Catholic Latin Vulgate. It includes the Apocrypha, additional Old Testament books used by Catholics. In recent years, this translation was revised and published for Roman Catholics as the New American Bible, and in 2011 the New American Bible Revised Edition was published. This translation uses gender-neutral language.
Dynamic translations also seek to follow the original text as accurately as possible, but they are more willing to revise word order and phrases and use more contemporary words to translate the original more clearly. The best-known dynamic translations are: New International Version (NIV), Amplified Bible (AB), Christian Standard Bible (CSB), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), Jerusalem Bible (JB), the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and God’s Word Translation (GWT).
The New International Version of 1984 became the bestselling Bible translation in English. It was the first translation since 1611 to outsell the King James Version. However, in 2011 the NIV underwent a major revision, which made it more literal in many places (such as using the literal “flesh” instead of “sin nature”), but also changed thousands of male-focused words to gender-neutral words, a controversial change that makes it less literal to the original language. (The gender-neutral language is only in reference to people, such as changing “brothers” (when the context appears to refer to all Christians) to “brothers and sisters,” “the man who” to “the people who” or changing “fathers” to “parents.” It retains male pronouns when referring to God.)
The Amplified Bible is a unique translation that consistently lists alternate translations in parentheses, making it a useful study Bible, but awkward for reading. One scholar called it “a translation with thesaurus” because of the alternate possible translations listed in parentheses.
The Christian Standard Bible (CSB), published in 2017, is a major revision of the Holman Christian Standard Bible. It is one of the most accurate of the dynamic translations. It eliminated some of the unique and quirky characteristics of the older HCSB, following more traditional renderings of the text. It is more accurate than the NIV, and while having some gender-neutral translations such as “brothers and sisters” for the “brothers” Paul addresses in his letters, it does not go as far with gender-neutral translation as the NIV, continuing to refer to “fathers” rather than “parents.” The CSB was translated by conservative scholars and its copyright is owned by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Jerusalem Bible is a dynamic and literary translation for Roman Catholics that includes the Apocrypha. It was based on a French translation. The Jerusalem Bible was later revised as the New Jerusalem Bible, which includes gender-neutral language.
God’s Word Translation is perhaps the most readable among the dynamic translations. It uses gender-neutral language, and tends to use shorter sentences and words like “kindness” instead of theological words like “grace.” It was hard to decide whether to list GWT as a dynamic or a free translation, but since it tries to follow more closely the original text than other free translations, I will list it here.
Free translations seek to translate thought for thought more than word for word. Free translations use very contemporary language, shorter sentences, and they freely add phrases that are not in the text in order to communicate the idea to our culture and language. These translations are very easy to read, but are less accurate for serious study. All of these translations use gender-neutral language to some degree. Some of the best-known free translations are: New Living Translation (NLT), Good News Bible (GNB), New Century Version (NCV), Common English Bible (CEB), Contemporary English Version (CEV) and New International Reader’s Version (NIrV). Some of free translations target a child’s reading level by using very short sentences, especially the CEV and NIrV. The Common English Bible tends to follow a more liberal viewpoint in translation, and is thus more popular among liberal Protestant churches.
Among free translations, the New Living Translation is one of the more accurate, and has become the most popular.
Paraphrases radically alter the original text, putting the emphasis on communicating the thoughts and ideas in very contemporary language. Two of the best-known paraphrases are: The Living Bible (TLB) and The Message (TM). The Living Bible, paraphrased by Ken Taylor, sold millions of copies a generation ago, and at one time was nearly as popular as the KJV, yet it was strongly opposed by those who preferred literal translations. The publishers of the Living Bible responded to this criticism with the New Living Translation.
The Message is a vivid, newer paraphrase written by Presbyterian pastor and Bible scholar Eugene H. Peterson. It tends to capture the emotion of scripture. The Message is more literary and sophisticated than the Living Bible. The Message has been very popular in the past decade.
The Voice Bible was first published in 2012. The Voice is a translation that is amplified with paraphrase. That is, the text has a fairly accurate translation, but then it inserts additional words into the text in italics for clarity and explanation. It emphasizes the hearing the word (thus the name The Voice), and is written in a literary style. It is displayed in screenplay format, to highlight spoken words.
Paraphrases can be useful in getting new insights into scripture, but they should not be used for serious Bible study. Even Eugene Peterson himself says that his paraphrase is intended to make Bible reading fresh, but it is not intended to be read in church or Bible studies as if it was the Word of God.
There are other paraphrases that are interesting novelties, such as the Cotton Patch Version written by Clarence Jordan, which sets the events of the New Testament in Georgia; the Clear Word Bible written by Seventh-day Adventist Jack Blanco for devotionals; and The Word on the Street written in urban lingo by Rob Lacey.
CAUTION: There is one other widely distributed “translation” that I should mention. The New World Translation is distributed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which is the publishing arm of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Beware of this perversion of the Bible that twists scripture to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ.
So we have come full circle back to the original question of this article: What Bible translation should I use? The answer: compare several of them! For serious study, it is wise to refer to a literal translation. I myself prefer the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and English Standard Version (ESV) for this purpose. For daily Bible reading, a dynamic or free translation may be useful to get a clear understanding of the meaning. For daily reading, I prefer the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) and New Living Translation (NLT), and I still like to read my old Holman Christian Standard (HCSB) and refer to my old 1984 edition of the New International Version (NIV84), which are both no longer in print. Occasionally, I also like to read The Message to get a feel for the passion of scripture, especially the Psalms. And I still quote familiar passages like Psalm 23 from the King James Version.
My prayer for you, as you read this guide, is not that you will choose a translation that makes you feel good, but that you will choose a translation that best helps you understand and obey God’s Word. To God be the glory!
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About Bob RogersHospital chaplain in Mississippi. Adjunct history professor (online). Formerly a pastor for 33 years in Mississippi and Georgia. Avid cyclist.
Posted on February 21, 2013, in Books, Books and tagged Amplified Bible, Bible, Christian Standard Bible, Common English Bible, CSB, Douay-Rheims, ESV, faith, God's Word Translation, GWT, HCSB, Jerusalem Bible, KJV, NASB, New American Bible, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, religion, RSV, The Living Bible, The Message, The Voice, TNIV. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.
The NAB is the official translation of the Catholic Church used for Sunday and weekday liturgies. It’s a good translation but sometimes uses wordings that are difficult for those used to other “traditional” translations (KJV, RSV, NIV, etc.) In my opinion the RSV is very literal and is an excellent translation for study. Having studied Greek and Hebrew in college and seminary the RSV is the one I recommend to people. I usually tell people to avoid paraphrases and “gender neutral” translations as they can be very inaccurate. Remember studying the scriptures is hard work.
Thanks for the helpful comments, Joe!
Is the HCSB not an formal equivalent translation?
Scholar, yes, many people would classify the HCSB as “formal equivalent.” I have chosen to use more general classifications that are easier for the average person to understand. The HCSB is more literally accurate than most dynamic translations. Yet I chose to list it as a “dynamic” translation instead of a “literal” translation, because it will often use a phrase to translate a word, rather than a formally equivalent word as more literal translations like the NASB of ESV. I have noticed that the HCSB closely follows the NASB, but when the NASB is difficult to understand, the HCSB will use a clearer phrase or a more contemporary word.
Thanks for your response
I disagree with one statement about the NIV, that the change of “thousands of male-focused words to gender-neutral words,…. makes it less accurate to the original language.”
How so? If the original Biblical words were truly only about men, the NIV left them as such, e.g Acts 23:1,5.
But when the original was open to either gender, the NIV11 made it open to either gender, e.g.
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (NIV11) 2 Timothy 2:2
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (NIV84) 2 Timothy 2:2
Which is more accurate? Regardless of your thoughts about women in ministry, does the Greek of 2 Tim 2:2 actually restrict the meaning of that passage to men only? I don’t think it does. The NIV 11 is more accurate there.
By “less accurate,” I meant less literal. If the original language uses a male pronoun, translating it with a gender neutral pronoun is making an interpretation that the context is gender neutral. In many places, this is warranted by clear indication in this context, but in some places it is not.
I don’t think so. The word in question is not “aner” – the word for males, but “anthropos”- man as a class, as in mankind. (From whence we derive our word anthropology)
The BDAG gives “human being” as the first definition of this word. And in the plural especially, as it is here in 2 Tim 2:2, the BDAG says it means, “people”, and gives several Bible verses as an example, e.g. Mat 7:12.
Yes, the context can help us determine whether the meaning is “people” or “men”, but there is nothing in the Greek grammatical context of 2 Tim 2:2 that indicates the passage refers only to males, as both the ESV and CSB admit in their footnotes.
Translating it “people” allows the English reader the opportunity to determine from the context whether those people were exclusively male or not. That is the same interpretive decision available to the Greek reader.
It isn’t more accurate to hide from the English reader an option that is obvious to the reader in Greek, it is less so.
Greg, I agree with you about words like anthropos, referring to humanity. I was referring to the use of male pronouns, not nouns.
So then we agree that the NIV11 “reliable people” is more accurate in 2 Tim 2:2 than “reliable men”or “faithful men”? Wonderful!
But I’m trying to understand the thousands of male focused words that you do see as a problem. Are you speaking of places where a male pronoun was used and it was substituted with a generic “they”?
We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what THEY say is perfect, able to keep THEIR whole body in check. (NIV) James 3:2
Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what THEY have will be taken from them.” (NIV) Mark 4:25
Is that the issue you’re speaking about?
Yes, we agree about 2 Timothy 2:2, and I also see your point about the pronouns in James 3:2 and Mark 4:25 that are using what once was called a “generic male” pronoun, and I also agree with you about that. But there are other places where the male pronoun is not clearly generic, and I only advocate for the use of a male pronoun on those places, especially in references to God.
I agree with you about pronouns that aren’t clearly generic, especially in references to God. But I’ve read the NIV2011 cover to cover a few times now and can’t think of a place that it goes wrong in that regard, especially when it comes to references to God. Do you know of any specific verses in the NIV2011 that miss the mark that way?
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