Advice about Bible Translations

(This page should barely be posted here under “My Resources,” since I’m mostly recommending the insights of others. But sometimes people ask me which Bible translations I recommend. So here is my advice, building on others.)

Introductory Points

  • Textual variants: These is a huge topic. I will briefly say that (a) I am content that all common English translations are working from good texts, (b) I think that the Greek text that most modern translations use is probably even more accurate than the text that the KJV uses, and (c) no biblical doctrine hinges on any of the debated variants.
  • Translation philosophies: Another huge topic. My thoughts, briefly: (a) there is no such thing as a translation that does not also interpret–even the most “literal” ones cannot avoid doing so, (b) it is generally recognized that translations can either focus on retaining the grammatical structure of the original language and translating individual words consistently or focus on communicating the thought of original text in modern, ordinary speech, (c) all translations do some of both, with translations ranging on a continuous spectrum between the two goals, (d) there are advantages and disadvantages to both goals, (e) translations towards the “thought-for-thought” end of the spectrum tend to be somewhat more interpretive than those on the “word-for-word” end–but can also smooth out possible misunderstandings caused by an overly-“literal” approach, (f) there are other variables such as how translations handle words that could be understood as either masculine or generic, and (g) the most helpful thing for English readers to do is to compare a variety of translations that use a variety of translation philosophies.
  • [amazon template=thumbnail11&asin=087813719X]Books about The Book: Many good books have been written about Bible translations, dealing in depth with the issues summarized above (and many more). I won’t provide a list of such books here. Now conservative Anabaptists have their own such book: [amazon text=The Story Behind the Versions: A Guide Through the Maze of English Translations&asin=087813719X], by Rodney Yoder (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Christian Light Publications, 2012). I have minor points of disagreement with Yoder, but am impressed that a book of this caliber has been published by “us.” (I’d like to review this book sometime on my blog.)1

A Chart of English Bible Translations

  • This chart was created by Brent MacDonald, and is the best such chart that I have seen. Visit MacDonald’s website to learn more and ensure you see the latest version of his chart.
  • Note: “Word-for-word” is often called “formal equivalence” or, less accurately, “literal.” And “thought-for-thought” is often called “functional equivalence” or “dynamic equivalence.”

bibletranslationcompv7.1440(Click chart to enlarge.)

Basic Advice about Using Bible Translations

  1. Use a word-for-word translation for careful Bible study and teaching. These will follow the vocabulary, sentence structure, and idioms of the Bible writers most closely. My favorites are the NASB and ESV. If you use the KJV, consider comparing it with one of these.
  2. Compare the better thought-for-thought translations with your word-for-word translation; they will help explain what difficult passages might mean. My favorites include the NIV (see note below), HCSB (Southern Baptist publisher), NET (available online, copyright-free, with extensive footnotes), and NLT (very interpretive, but often making good interpretive choices). Be aware that the new NIV (2011, replacing both NIV 1984 and TNIV) is very different from the old NIV. It now uses gender neutral language regarding humans (e.g. where KJV has “brothers,” it may have “brothers and sisters”). This has benefits and drawbacks, but increases its usefulness when comparing translations. In many ways this update is more accurate and even more word-for-word than the familiar 1984 version.
  3. Do not quote a paraphrase as if it is the Bible! It is more like a commentary on the Bible.
  4. If I could pick just one Bible for church and family use, it would probably be the ESV. Why? (1) It is a word-for-word translation, (2) it is highly-accurate, (3) it is probably the word-for-word that is most readable for all ages—the NKJV is similar, but does not make use of the best Greek manuscripts, and (4) it has an active conservative publisher behind it (Crossway) that is producing a good selection of ESV-related study helps. Is it as good as some of its promoters claim? No. But I think it’s at least as good a choice as anything else out there.

That’s my informed opinion. But please read something!

Note: My final four points and MacDonald’s chart are both included in this handout: Which Bible Translations Should I Read?

  1. The main reason I mention this book rather than others here is because I think it is more likely to be “heard,” since it is published by a conservative Anabaptist publisher. That said, this is indeed a good book, with a level of scholarship and balance that is praiseworthy.
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11 thoughts on “Advice about Bible Translations”

  1. I find your conclusion on translations interesting. I have recently come to the same place. I debated intensely between the NASB and the ESV. For public reading and preaching I am using the ESV. I had preached from the NIV (I still enjoy reading it) for perhaps 15 years until just recently I became disenchanted with their translational philosophy especially in regards to the gender issue in the last two revisions. Am I going to put a priority on the reader experience or on the faithfulness to the original text?

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Sam. I know these discussions can sometimes generate as much heat as light, but I enjoy hearing where others come out. I, too enjoy reading from the NIV. I chose that translation for my 2014 through-the-Bible reading. Sometimes I like it better than ESV, sometimes less. Overall I still prefer the ESV and that’s what we read and memorize from as a family. But nothing beats comparing translations for getting a better sense of the original. (See my post Oct. 1 post on “If Anyone Does Not Provide…” for a recent translation comparison experience.) And yes, I like the NASB too and got mine leather-bound just before transitioning to ESV. But ESV has rapidly surpassed NASB in usage and resources, which is important, too.

  2. I am surprised that you aren’t including any translations of the LXX in your table. I think studying the LXX is very important since the NT quotes from it almost exclusively, and evidence from the Dead Sea scrolls show it may be based on older manuscripts.
    The Greek Orthodox Study Bible has a modern translation of the LXX that’s very readable, but have no idea how it would fit in your table of translations.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Barbara. You are right that the LXX texts are very important. From what I’ve read, I think it is more correct to say that the NT quotes from the LXX more often than from extant Hebrew texts, but not exclusively. In fact, there are some times when the NT authors seem to be providing approximate quotations (thought-for-thought translations!) that don’t exactly match any text available to us.

      The short answer as to why I don’t have a translation of the LXX on the chart is because (a) I didn’t make the chart and (b) the person who did included only versions that include both OT and NT.

      Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Still no review on Yoder’s book? I’ve long wanted to write a book like this and/or see it written. The question of English Bible translations is one that I am asked about time and time and time again by my Mennonite friends. A voice from the “inside” could be really helpful. Many other resources are too anti-KJV, too pro-non-Anabaptist-theological-camp, or simply too scholarly sounding for my coworkers and friends to seriously consider.

    I’d probably buy it sight unseen, but it’s not available in a Kindle edition, and bytes are much easier to carry across the ocean to where we live than tree fibers.

    On a related note, what’s your take on the HCSB? Though not perfect, it’s my first choice for my own study and family reading. The ESV is too often intentionally obscure in their effort to “sound” like the Bible, and opaque in their translation and textual decisions. However, I still use the ESV heavily because 1.) It smells more like the KJV, so it’s more easily accepted; 2.) It seems to handle different genres better than the somewhat tin-eared HCSB; 3.) It’s so ubiquitious, with countless printed formats and digital platforms.

    1. Dru, thanks for stopping by! Yes, I regret I have still not reviewed Yoder’s book. Can you tell I scarcely have time these days to respond to comments, let alone post book reviews? You may pray this season will change soon, so I can return to more writing.

      Meanwhile, maybe you can write a review of Yoder’s book?

      On the HCSB: The short answer is that I haven’t used it much. I have liked much of what I’ve seen and have other friends who enjoy it, though (a) I remain a little puzzled by the inconsistent use of “Messiah” and “Christ” in the NT and (b) I have heard some people complain that it is a little too narrowly Southern Baptist, though I haven’t evaluated that complaint.

      I agree with your mix of merit-based and pragmatic reasons for affirming the ESV. It is not perfect, but remains my regular Bible.

  4. Just for my own curiosity, I was wondering, when I look at the English Translation Bible Chart above it has the ESV closer to the thought for thought than the KJV but other charts I have seen on the internet show the opposite to be true. Why do you think this chart differs from so many of the other bible translation comparison charts ?

    1. Hi Michelle. Sorry for the slow response!

      I don’t know the answer to your question without digging deeper. (Do you have links to share?) Perhaps some other charts you’ve seen were created using data compiled by ESV supporters who want the ESV to be more “literal” and emphasized evidence that supports that claim? Or perhaps different charts weigh different factors more heavily than others (how the translation handles gender, number, well-known theological passages, colloquialisms, etc.). Some translations can emphasize formal equivalence on one factor (such as gender) while accepting functional equivalence on other factors (such as colloquialisms), and priorities vary. Comparing translation is tricky business and probably the most important observation is just to note that all charts put both ESV and KJV near one end of the spectrum.

      1. I know life can be busy, thank you for responding. Here are a few links: (This is not an endorsement of these websites)

        I understand both the ESV and KJV are closer to the word for word end of the charts. I was just curious as to why the charts differ. I believe you answered my question.

        1. Thanks for the links, Michelle, and for sharing your interesting observation about different opinions regarding KJV and ESV.

          Here are a few more links that address your question. This one question whether the KJV is a “literal” translation:

          And this booklet from Leland Ryken, a prominent shaper and promoter of the ESV, includes a chart on the last page that shows the ESV as more word-for-word than the KJV. Maybe that’s where that idea comes from?

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