Which Bible to Read: How to Choose a Translation

Which is the best version of the Bible?  That’s a seemingly simple question with a not-so-simple answer.  There’s one very simple principle involved in choosing which Bible to read, but putting it into practice requires a little bit of background.  So let’s talk about how to choose a translation.

The Bible Wasn’t Written in English

The most fundamental bit of background is that the Bible wasn’t originally written in English.  Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and most of the New Testament was written in Greek, with a little bit of Aramaic in places.  That means anything we read in English has been translated — which means all the normal difficulties of conveying ideas from one language in another language come into play.  And that brings us to the one simple principle:

The best version of the Bible is the one that best balances readability in English* with accuracy in conveying the ideas originally written in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic.

*I’m assuming you’re an English reader since this site is written in English.  If your native tongue is something else, then the same is true for whatever language you normally read in.

There isn’t necessarily a single best version; there are a handful of good ones.

More Literal or Less Literal?

There are two basic approaches to translation: formal equivalency and dynamic equivalency, which can be explained as “word for word”  and ” thought for thought,” respectively.  Various translations exist along a spectrum, with some being more formal and others being more dynamic.

No translation uses perfect formal equivalency — at least not the kind designed for normal reading.  (Certain interlinear Bibles made for pastoral study can be.)  Not only are things like word order different from one language to another; certain phrases simply aren’t meant to translate that way.

Imagine, for instance, if someone translated “it cost an arm and a leg” literally into a language where that idiom is not used!  It would probably be both less confusing and more accurate to translate this as something like “it was very expensive.”

Dynamic equivalencies, then, tend to make a text more reader-friendly.  In exchange, though, you lose some precision of language, which can trip you up when you’re studying if the translation leans too heavily that direction.

If you go too far down the scale into dynamic equivalency, you start to get into versions that are really paraphrases, not translations, because they’ve diverged so far from the original — often inserting new idioms, etc.  Consider, for instance, Galatians 5:26 in three different versions:

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (NKJV)

Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.  (NIV)

That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.  (The Message)

NKJV is primarily a formal equivalency translation; NIV is a dynamic equivalency translation; The Message is a paraphrase.  As you can see, the content of the NIV is essentially the same as that of the NKJV, but you’ve lost the parallel sentence structure.  For reading, that’s no big deal; for studying, there might be something to be gained from seeing parallels like this.

But The Message is…not very close.  It’s two or three times as long and, although you can find the “conceit” and “envying” idea in there if you look closely enough, the idea of “provoking” one another is missing, and “each of us is an original” is entirely added.

My Recommendations

I don’t recommend paraphrases at all, except perhaps as supplemental reading for someone who’s already very familiar with the text in a more accurate translation.  It’s just too hard to separate what God originally said from ideas imported by the paraphraser, which can be spiritually dangerous.

The New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT) are about as dynamic-leaning as you can get before, in my estimation, you’re not really dealing with translations anymore.  Some people might prefer these for everyday Bible reading.  (The NLT is right on the line between a translation and a paraphrase.  It would probably be my last choice, even for reading — something I’d only recommend for someone whose reading skills don’t allow for comprehending anything more literal.)

For study, you’ll likely want something more literal — a pretty heavily formal equivalency-leaning version.  A few good ones include:

  • New King James Version (NKJV – my personal favorite)
  • Modern King James Version (MKJV – not a very common one, but I mention it because you might find it in some Bible apps that don’t have some of the others for copyright reasons)
  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)

The publishers of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB — the recent Southern Baptist-originating translation) say that it’s about midway between those four and the NIV.

So my recommendation would be to use NKJV, MKJV, ESV, or NASB for study and, if you’re more comfortable with something more dynamic for everyday reading, the CSB or maybe NIV — or the NLT for poor readers.  Essentially, I’d aim for the most literal translation your reading skills will allow you to read with reasonable comprehension.

Why Don’t I Recommend the KJV?

There’s a reason we have newer translations like the NKJV and MKJV — the original King James Version is dated.  It’s a solid translation…for its day.  But many of the words no longer mean the same thing today, which has the potential for causing confusion or, worse, causing the reader to think he understands what he just read when, in fact, the words mean something different to the 17th-century reader.

For example, you know what “prevent” means, right?  It means to keep something from happening; to hinder.  Look it up here, though.  Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Pretty different, right?

What about “incontinent”?  The primary — virtually only — usage of this word today wasn’t always the primary usage.  You’ll be relieved (no pun intended) to know that Paul was not telling Timothy that the last days would bring mass lack of bladder control.

By now I’m sure you get the idea.  The KJV is sound as a translation, and if your church or family already uses it, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you abandon it.  But if you’re looking for a translation, it isn’t among my top picks.

For Further Reading

If you’d like to dive into this (and other translation factors) deeply — but without getting too academic — there’s a great series which is, unfortunately, defunct online but which is available through The Internet Archive.  Propadeutic’s Comparing Bible Translations offers a list of suggested questions to ask about a given translation and then provides some analysis of some of the major translations for each one.  (Note that this is too old to include the CSB.)

If you’re a total newbie to the Bible, this analysis is likely to be like drinking from a fire hose (unless you just happen to personally enjoy that type of analysis), so if that’s you, you might want to just stick with my simpler explanation & assessment here.

Which Bible to Read: How to Choose a Translation
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