If we don’t read the original languages in which the books of the Bible were written – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – we need a translation, and not all scholars who can read those languages read all of them, or read all of them well, so ultimately everyone needs or can profit from a good translation.
But there are literally dozens of Bible translations or “versions” available in English – how can you choose the “best” one for your purposes? This article briefly considers some of the most widely used and recommended English translations and gives a number of pointers to help you select a good one for your own needs.
1. No Perfect Translation. First, we need to realize that there is no such thing as a “perfect” translation, although some are certainly much less imperfect than others. We often need to choose a translation based on our specific needs – perhaps an easy reading version for daily study or perhaps a more precise, though not as easy to read version to check scriptures regarding doctrine or important details. Ideally, we might find a single translation that works well for both needs, but often it is a good idea to have two translations (see point 2) if possible, and we should check several translations to decide important questions.
2. Words vs. Thoughts. Next, it’s important to understand that translation can be done in two ways – what we might call a “word-for-word” (technically called the “formal equivalence“) approach, versus a “meaning for meaning” or “phrase for phrase” (“dynamic equivalence”) approach. While an exact word for word translation might seem desirable, we can’t always do that without actually clouding the meaning. For example, the Hebrew Bible uses the expression “God’s nostrils enlarged” and even the King James Version, a “word-for-word” translation, had to use a meaning for meaning approach for this expression which means “God became angry.” On the other hand, while this approach works for translating idioms, if we just translate for “meaning” all the time, we run the risk of the translator’s understanding of the meaning entering into the picture, so that what is translated is not really in the text at all. The New International Version, for example, translates Ephesians 6:6 to say that slaves should “Obey [their masters] not only to win their favor...” But the word “only” is not in the original Greek, and this addition changes the meaning considerably. More extreme “meaning” based versions such as the Living Bible or The Message Bible are really paraphrases – often using different words entirely to try to convey the meaning. While they are easy reading, these are not usually recommended for serious study.
3. Balancing Act. Some English versions try to balance between formal and dynamic equivalence in their translation. The results are not always perfect, but some of these versions do a very creditable job. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004) is one such version, liked by many. But another way to look at this “balancing” aspect is the need to balance readability with literalness. A version that balances well in this regard is the English Standard Version (2001/2007). Although it is a quite literal version, the ESB does a very good job of carefully translating the meaning of a verse in a readable manner.
4.Safety in Numbers. It’s always best to not choose a translation done by a single person or by a religious denomination as a primary study Bible, as the results are almost always going to be affected by the beliefs of the individual or group. Many translations by single individuals, while they may be very readable, are paraphrases which convey only the general meaning of a verse and simply cannot be trusted for accurate understanding. While it is often said that committees can never agree on anything important, the most trustworthy translations are nevertheless produced by large committees of biblical scholars who balance each other and try to arrive at the best understanding of the original meaning of the text. Most of the major translations mentioned in this article were produced by a large team of scholars – several of the teams being in excess of 100 members. Committee translations include the English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, New International Version and others.
5. Newer May be Better. The venerable King James Version, although much loved and still a wonderful version to read, is often hampered as a study Bible by its age. Sometimes it is because the English language has changed a lot since 1611 when the KJV was made. The word translated “conversation” in the KJV, for example, means “conduct” and unless we realize that we can misunderstand what is being said. Also, many ancient manuscripts of the Bible, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been found since 1611 which help clarify some difficult verses. As a result, the New King James Version, which maintains much of the beautiful language of the old KJV, updates the English where needed and includes manuscript evidence now available. On the other hand, some newer versions use gender inclusive language substitution (e.g., “person” for “man” or “they” for “he”). Sometimes this is helpful, but sometimes it changes the intended meaning and is misleading.
6. Older May be Good. The King James Version with its “thee” and “thou” forms is often very precise. “Thee,” “thou,” ”thy,” and “thine” refer to one person. “Ye” and “you” mean more than one person, so when a modern translation dispenses with the older forms of address we can lose meaning. For example, in the NKJV, Exodus 16:28 states: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?’ “ which sounds like God is talking to Moses, whereas the old KJV “… How long refuse ye to keep my commandments…?' ” shows God was actually talking about the Israelites in general. Modern translations must be careful with the lack of precision which is part of modern English.
7. Notes May or May Not Help. Many people like study bibles with lots of articles, notes, etc.; but there is little point in taking great care to choose an accurate translation then bringing in notes with information that may be dated, confusing or inaccurate. It’s certainly not a good idea to choose a Bible on the basis of its notes alone, and sometimes safer to just get a good version without a lot of additional material, especially if the notes are of a doctrinal nature. Important questions can be researched far more thoroughly in multiple commentaries and other more extensive works. Notes which show other translation possibilities are certainly useful, as are cross references to related scriptures, maps, and some other helps, but the quality of the translation itself should always be the main concern.
Putting It All Together. To reiterate what was said at the outset, no translation is perfect. Individual needs and circumstances must guide the selection of the “best” translation for each person and for particular uses, but the points given above should help in making choices. An excellent option, if possible, is to have a good word for word translation such as the English Standard Version or New King James Version and a version such as the New International Version or Holman Christian Standard Bible closer to the thought for thought side of the spectrum. When the wording of a section of scripture needs to be studied in detail, it is still a good idea to consult many translations using resources such as the BibleGateway website (see the Links page on this site). You can also use the BibleGateway site to compare versions to find the right one for you.
If financial, travel. or other considerations mean that only one translation can be used, several of the versions discussed should work fine. The English Standard Version is often a good choice. It isn’t perfect, but it usually maintains a good balance between readability and careful scholarship. The ESV is available in a number of print formats and is free for Kindle and for the Kindle for PC application.
This chart shows the relative positions of some of the English versions discussed in this article across the spectrum of translation - from very literal to not literal at all. Generally speaking, while extreme thought for thought versions may be easy reading, a Bible in the ESV - NIV range is recommended for serious study.