There are many different versions, called "translations" of English Bibles. So if you want to get a Bible, which translation is best? What different types of Bibles are there, and which one is best for you? There are many factors to consider, which I will discuss in this article, and I hope it will give you some good things to think about when looking for a Bible that suits you best.
What do all the letter acronyms for Bibles mean?
If you walk into the Bible section of a bookstore, you'll see there are all sorts of acronyms on the Bibles, like: KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, NASB, ESV, CEV. What do they mean? These tell what type of a Bible translation it is. Each translation may have slightly different wording, depending on what the committee who published the Bible was looking for. Usually a Bible will have many people working on translating it, and then the draft version will be reviewed by a committee of scholars and pastors who will decide if they have any concerns that need to be addressed. If it's good then they will publish it. The oldest English bible is the King James Version (KJV) which sounds like Old English (lots of "ye" and "thou"). The newer Bible versions such as the NIV, CEV, and ESV were translated in just the last few decades, and have modern language that makes them as easy to read as a novel or newspaper.
Here are some of the most common English Bible translations:
- KJV, NKJV - King James Version, or New King James Version
- NIV, TNIV - New International Version, or The New International Version
- NASB/NASV - New American Standard Bible/Version
- ESV - English Standard Version
- NRSV - New Revised Standard Version
- CEV - Contemporary English Version
- NLT - New Living Translation
What are the differences between Bible translations?
Part of the reason why there are so many different Bible translations is because Bible manuscripts (copies of the original Bible writings) come in Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and Greek (for the New Testament). So these languages must be translated into English in order for us to read them. Few people have time to learn Hebrew or Greek, and so translating the manuscripts to English makes it easiest for many people to read the Bible. But, there are different ways to translate Hebrew and Greek, depending on what you are aiming for. There are three general categories that English Bible translations fall into:
- Formal Equivalent/Essentially Literal
- Dynamic Equivalent
Each version will have some benefits, and some things to take into consideration. So let's look at each type in more detail.
Formal Equivalent/Essentially Literal
For these Bibles, the translator's goal is to translate each word of the original manuscript into an equivalent word (or combination of words) in English. They try to keep the sentence structure as close as possible to the original manuscript, but some rearranging is necessary because Greek and Hebrew have different sentence structure than English. They try to be as close as possible to the original wording, unless for some reason the Greek/Hebrew would make absolutely no sense to an English reader. Their main goal is to let the English reader read the exact words of the original manuscripts, without adding any extra meanings or explanations.
- You can have confidence that the translated words are probably as close to the original words as possible.
- You get to see all the nuances and details that the original author intended, which may be left out or glossed over in other translations.
- The NASB sometimes even shows which small words are added by the translator to make the sentence make more sense, and are not in the original manuscript. This can be useful at times. But if you're going to get this picky, it might be better to take some courses in Biblical Greek or Hebrew from your local seminary or university and then you can read the original for yourself!.
- Useful for in-depth Bible study where you want to see and focus on original individual words.
- If the original manuscript is ambiguous, this translation will try to keep the ambiguity. For example "Love of God" could mean either our love for God, or God's love for us, and sometimes it isn't totally clear which one is meant. The translator leaves it up to you to decide what makes the most sense.
- Translator does not add or delete meaning in the text, and leaves it up to the reader.
- Language is sometimes more complicated than other translations.
- Tone may come across as too formal and stuffy.
- Requires the reader to learn something about ancient Jewish laws, beliefs, and history in order for all metaphors and sayings to make the most sense.
- May contain ambiguous statements that are not as clear as we may like.
- Sayings may be more metaphorical and less straightforward than other translations.
Detailed, in-depth Bible study, or for having confidence that what you are reading is as close as possible to what the originals say. Although it may require you to invest some time in learning or reading Bible commentaries to get the full understanding of some verses.
The goal of these types of translations is to translate the meaning of the original into modern English. So, they will rearrange words a little, and replace original words with other similar words that English readers are more familiar with on a day-to-day basis.
They may also try to explain or translate metaphors. For example, a formal equivalent translation of 1 Kings 2:10 says: "So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David" (KJV). This sounds a little strange to modern readers, who may think "What! David slept with his Fathers! That's horrible! And he had more than one?!", because modern readers may not understand that the Jews referred to dead people as "asleep". So, a dynamic equivalent like the NLT would say "Then David died and was buried in the city of David" [1, p.21]. This would make more sense without any chance for confusion. But, the negative side of this is that in the Dynamic Equivalent version you don't get to see this metaphor of sleep = death, which is used elsewhere in the Bible. For example, when Jesus says that Lazarus is "asleep" in John 11:11, when really Lazarus is dead. But, a casual Bible reader probably doesn't care so much about subtle things like this.
- Easy to read in modern English.
- Difficult verses are explained as clearly as possible, without complicated wording or sentence structure.
- Ancient metaphors are updated to modern language.
- Tone is modern and so it is like Jesus, Paul, and other Biblical authors are really speaking directly to you in modern English.
- You don't necessarily know if this is exactly what the originals say. If there is ever a question of wording, it may be better to use a formal equivalent translation instead.
- Translators translate meaning, not words. So there is more chance of leaving out some details or aspects of the original writing.
- Translators may try to add "commentary" by adding more words of explanation, or by choosing an interpretation of ambiguous wording to make it not ambiguous, but this may risk reducing the original meaning.
Ideal for people who don't do super-detailed Bible study and want to be able to just open the Bible anywhere and start reading and understand it right away. I use the CEV Dynamic Equivalent version when doing most of the articles on this site because it is easily understandable to a large range of people. I want my site to be accessible to people of all ages and education levels, and not scare them away with stuffy, complicated-sounding text.
In these "versions" of the Bible, the translator will paraphrase most of the original text. They will not even bother trying to stay close to the original, but will try to find another way of saying something similar, sometimes by adding more commentary, different metaphors, or interesting ideas of what the parts of the Bible may be saying. Some examples of these are the Amplified Bible and The Message.
- Can give new insight or fresh meaning to verses in the Bible.
- Useful as a commentary of what the original author may be saying or trying to say and make us think about it in a different way.
- Does not care at all about preserving actual words of the original. You are not reading Jesus' actual words, but instead just an approximation or someone else's idea of what Jesus was saying. Do you really trust this author to tell you what Jesus said, when you could read it for yourself in a different translation?
- Does not use chapter:verse references, so it is not good for memorizing or for comparing word-for-word with other Bibles.
- Much less authoritative than Formal Equivalent or Dynamic Equivalent translations.
In combination with a Formal Equivalent or Dynamic Equivalent Bible to perhaps encourage new thoughts or ideas about portions of the Bible. May be attractive to students or artsy-types. But please do not use only a paraphrased Bible - it may give wrong impressions or have skewed interpretations depending on the author's biases or views. For example, some problems with the biases of the author of The Message are pointed out here  and you should be aware of this when you are reading it. For this reason, I have never used a paraphrase, as I think it's somewhat unnecessary and possibly dangerous if the author's view is skewed. Usually you get lots of commentary and insight just by attending church and listening to the pastors speak on various verses, or through listening to discussions at Bible studies.
A Spectrum of Translations
It's important to note that not all versions fit nicely into one of the three categories above. Instead, it's more of a spectrum, with each translation fitting somewhere between Formal Equivalent and Paraphrase. An approximate summary of some of the major versions is below:
When looking to buy a Bible, you might want to consider if you want a Study Bible or a non-Study Bible. Generally, all Bibles have some small footnotes explaining alternate meanings of verses, historical details, comments, or references to similar verses in different books of the Bible. However, a Study Bible usually comes with a lot of extra notes, maps, introductions to books of the Bible, timelines, commentaries, and lots of other interesting information that is not included in non-Study Bibles. They may add more footnotes about specific verses that give new insight or explanations that help you understand each verse better, and compare with other portions of the Bible.
- Lots of interesting information that can help you get a better picture of what the authors meant, what their lives were like, and the culture they were living in.
- Timelines can be useful to get a good overview of how the Bible fits together - what books were written when, by who, and why.
- Introductions or commentaries can help you get a good overall feel for the theme of each book of the Bible, which is useful to keep in mind while reading the specific verses.
- Can be very useful in Bible studies or for personal research.
- May be large or heavy and difficult to carry around or handle.
- Large amount of space dedicated to commentary on each page means actual Bible text on each page may be quite small. This makes it sometimes difficult to see the overall flow of a paragraph, story, or argument in the Bible.
- Comments and notes somewhat get in the way if you just want to sit and read the Bible casually or for devotions.
- Must always remember that the notes and commentaries are "secondary" to the Biblical text itself. The commentators can be wrong, have errors, or have a particular bias or viewpoint that affects their interpretations. So while the extra information is often useful, it is not to be taken as 100% true like the actual words of the Bible are.
- Tip: To avoid having a particular bias all the way through the Bible, get a Study Bible that is done by multiple authors and editors. This way, hopefully one commentator's view will complement the others, and you will get a generally less biased view. If only one author does all the comments and notes, you may end up becoming biased in the same ways as the author is.
For in-depth personal or group Bible study, or to learn more about the culture and world of the original people and authors of the Bible. But not so good for just casual reading, where all the extra information can get in the way and interrupt the flow of the text.
The Best Version: Two Versions!
One of the best ideas is to use two (or more) versions of the Bible if you are doing detailed Bible study, or if you have a question and want more insight on a specific verse. For example, I have found that I like to use a Formal Equivalent ESV Study Bible along with the Dynamic Equivalent Contemporary English Version non-study Bible. This way, I get a very accurate translation with good study notes, to compare with an easier-to-read version in case the very accurate version is hard to understand at some points.
Or, just get a Bible in your favourite translation, and then use an internet site like Bible Gateway to read sections of the Bible in other translations. This site even has translations in many other languages, which may be useful for people who have English is a second language. Bible Gateway can also be useful to try out a few different translations before you find one you like the best. Try reading a few chapters of your favourite book in different versions and see which one feels best to you.
Stuff to Watch Out For
Generally, all Bibles are correct about the main important issues of Christianity - they will all teach right things about God, Jesus, how to get to heaven, and how we should live. So you can feel free to pick whatever one you want, but I suggest staying away from the paraphrase versions unless they are used only as a secondary commentary source. Also, I'd recommend using one of the more popular Bible versions, such as the ones listed in at the top of this article. If you really want you can probably safely go with a Catholic Bible (New Jerusalem Bible) where most of it is the same as other Bibles, but they may have a few extra books that other Bibles don't include (the Apocrypha). There is disagreement over if these extra books should be part of the Bible or not.
Don't use a Jehovah's Witness bible (New World Translation) because it has been slightly twisted to favour Jehovah's Witness theology, which is considered a cult by mainstream Christianity [3, p.34-39].
Other Things to Consider
Some Bibles are made for a target audience - like children, teenagers, or women. These will sometimes have illustrations for kids, or extra comment sections on what the Bible may say about difficult every-day situations for teens. I've even seen a Manga Bible, for comic book fans!
You might also care about the "look" of your Bible. Some Bibles are traditional with a leather cover, thin gold-edged pages, and a ribbon marker. Others are sofcover with normal paper like a regular novel. Some are hardcover with tabbed indents to easily find where each book of the Bible starts. Some are travel-size and are easy to fit in a backpack or purse. Once you've found a Bible version you like, you can see if you can find one with these various features to fit your preferences.
I hope this gives you some guidance on what version and type of Bible is best for you. It can be a lot to consider, so the easiest thing is to either try reading some different versions through Bible Gateway and see what one you like. Or go to your local bookstore or Christian book store and flip through a few in person.
If it's your very first Bible, I would suggest an NIV Bible, because it's one of the most popular versions, it's easy to read, and is used by a wide variety of churches.
 Grudem, Ryken, Collins, Poythress, Winter (2005) Translating Truth: the Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Crossway Books.
 "What kind of message is The Message?" - www.crossroad.to
 James W. Sire (1980) Scripture Twisting. IVP Books.