What is the difference between the Bible Translations?
Contrary to what some people may think, the Bible was not originally written in King James English; it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic between two and three thousand years ago. Today there are dozens of translations in English. Each translation has a specific purpose and is written to a specific audience. The individuals that translate each have slightly different biblical worldviews. As a result, translations can vary widely. The differences in translation can actually help us understand nuances in scripture – almost like a 3D image. In cases where a translation seems to differ from the majority, it is likely evidence of the theological lens of the translator. I recommend disregarding those translated passages and stick with the common rendering.
Below is my understanding of the perspective, pros and cons of some of the more common translations today. If you search the internet long enough you will find some well-meaning Christian who will say that any one of these Bibles is improperly translated and even heretical. They will encourage you only to read their pet translation. I suggest you use the mind God gave you, study the scriptures and let Him direct you. Weigh the evidence and decide for yourself. What are your thoughts? Help me make this post more objective and accurate.
Word-for-Word Translations (formal equivalence)
New American Standard Bible (NASB) – was first published in 1971, updated in 1995. The NASB is written at an 11th grade reading level and is probably the most literal word for word translation of the scriptures in English. However, as a result it is often accused of “wooden translations” that don’t flow. One benefit is that the NASB tries to consistently translate verbs in the tense implied by the text. This helps give a better understanding of the text when doing detailed study; but does make the text read awkward at times. It was THE bible for many conservative pastors prior to the release of the ESV. Endorsed by John MacArthur, Charles Stanley, Albert Mohler, Kay Arthur, and RC Sproul.
English Standard Version (ESV)– was first published in 2001, and slightly revised in 2007 and 2011. It is a conservative reworking of the more liberal RSV and NRSV translations. It was translated by over 100 scholars with J.I. Packer as the general editor. It is aimed at a 7th grade reading level. It is easy to understand, flows naturally, and is good for study. It is endorsed by James McDonald, David Platt, Francis Chan, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Mark Driscoll, Erwin Lutzer, John Piper, Ravi Zacharias and many others.
Lexham English Bible (LEB) - was first published in 2010 by Logos Bible Software. It is intended as a “second” bible, to supplement your primary bible, being primarily based upon a word-for-word, almost Interlinear bible translation approach. It is available in many software packages.
Amplified Bible (AMP) was first published in 1965 and updated in 1987. (11th grade reading level). It seeks to take the ASV (1901) and update it based on original manuscripts and subtle shades of meaning implied by the text that are put into brackets. The result is a translation that is 3-4 times the length of others. It can be useful for word study, but must be used carefully. We must not simply pick and choose from the words presented to come up with our own idea of the meaning of the text. Popular in charismatic circles, the AMP is endorsed by Billy Graham, Joyce Meyer, and others.
King James Version (KJV) - was first published in 1611 (written in the common language of the day, but at a 12th grade reading level today). It is a word for word translation but basically in Shakespearean English. Consequently, many of the words used don’t have the same meaning today and are confusing to the modern reader. There are some who are KJV only and insist that this is the only Bible to read. I understand their passion for the scripture, but in most cases their zeal for the KJV is based on limited knowledge of the original language. For nearly 400 years the KJV was THE English translation.
New King James Version (NKJV) – (first published in 1982) It is based upon the King James Version from 1611. It is written for a 7th grade reading level, yet preserves much of the poetic style of the original KJV. The 130 scholars used the Textus Receptus as the basis of the translation. The Textus Receptus isn’t as old as some of the ancient manuscripts that we now have and as a result, isn’t considered as reliable. The TR includes verses and phrases that don’t appear in the earlier manuscripts leading many to believe that they were added later and not authentic. Some, however, argue that the earlier manuscripts (most of which are from Alexandria) were edited by gnostic writers who removed those verses. They also argue that it would have been strange for Mark to end his gospel without the resurrection (which is only in the TR). Either way, I believe the extra verses and phrases add greater clarity to the scriptures, but do not change any doctrines either way. The NKJV is endorsed by Dennis Rainey, Max Lucado, Greg Laurie (and most Calvary Chapel pastors), John MacArthur and others.
New English Translation (NET Bible) – was first published in 1998 by 20 anonymous scholars. I have only done a cursory reading of the text but it seems to be good. It includes extensive footnotes to aid in translation that everyone, including Wayne Grudem (part of the ESV oversight committee) appreciates. It is endorsed by Chuck Swindoll, Tony Evans, Howard Hendricks, and John Walvoord.
Revised Standard Version (RSV) - was first published in 1952 and revised in 1971. It is a revision of the 1901 version of the ASV and written at a 12th grade level. It follows a literal, word for word method of translation, although it has a liberal bent that comes through in numerous passages.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – was first published in 1989. It is a major revision of the RSV. It is written at an 11th grade level. It is gender-inclusive (translating passages that are masculine in the original into gender neutral or inclusive in the text can be applied to both genders). The NRSV takes the liberalness of the RSV another step further. It is popular in academic classes (colleges) and endorsed by John Ortberg, Brian McClaren, Richard Foster, and many others.
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) – was first published in 2004, written at a 7-8th grade reading level. It tries to strike a balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought. One of the unique aspects is that it uses the name Yahweh instead of the traditional LORD for the tetragrammaton. It is published by Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. It seems to be a solid translation and popular in Baptist circles, endorsed by Beth Moore, Gary Chapman, Chuck Colson and Charles Stanley.
Thought-for-thought (Dynamic Equivalent Translations)
New International Version (NIV) – is a very popular dynamic equivalent translation. The original 1984 edition was basically good (although I would often joke that it was the “Nearly Inspired Version (NIV)” or asked if people who read it were NIV+ (read that NIV positive). In 2011, Zondervan released an updated version pushing through a more liberal and gender inclusive version. Many people who were proponents of the NIV have now switched to other translations (many going to the ESV). Zondervan was considering updating the text years earlier, but due to public outcry from many people, they backed off and called it the TNIV. In 2011 they merged the two translations and consequently lost many readers.
Today’s New International Version (TNIV) – was published in 2005. It was an update to the NIV that was not well received. It includes much gender-neutral language. This version (along with the NIV ’84) was discontinued with the release of the NIV 2011.
Good News Bible (GNB) also called the Good News Translation (GNT) – was first published in 1976 and revised with gender inclusive language in 1992, written at a 6th grade reading level. It is good for people for whom English is a second language. Fairly simple language. Major drawback is that one of the main scholars who translated it renounced biblical inerrancy after it was published, casting a shadow on this translation and its reliability.
New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) – is a Catholic translation of the scriptures first published in 1985 and includes the Apocrypha. It uses dynamic equivalent, 10th grade reading level.
New Century Version (NCV) – was first published in 1986 and updated in 1991. It is written at a 3-5th grade level and uses dynamic equivalent. It was initially a product of the Church of Christ and used by Billy Graham in his crusades.
New Living Translation (NLT) – first published in 1996 and updated in 2004 and 2007 (the most recent edition being more accurate). It is very readable, written at a 6th grade reading level. Unlike the original Living Bible, the NLT is an actual translation by over 90 scholars. Using a dynamic equivalent (thought for thought translation), the NLT is very clear and great for devotional reading, or to get an overview of a book or passage. Not great for detailed word study. Many people in the bible are known by more than one name; the NLT uses a single name for clarity and footnotes the others. It is endorsed by John Ortberg, Bill Hybels, Max Lucado, Jerry Jenkins and others.
Contemporary English Version (CEV) – was first published in 1995 and is a dynamic equivalent translation that is similar to the NLT but different in several ways. The translators were focused on how the text “sounded” (“faith comes by hearing”), so it is intended to be read aloud. This tends to make it a bit easier for people for whom English is a second language. I have some real problems with the translation as I feel it waters the text down to the point that certain passages create direct contradictions with other passages. Our youth ministry was considering this translation and I decided to read the entire New Testament in this translation before endorsing it. Although I did finish the NT, I didn’t get through Matthew before I had enough red flags to tell me to consider something else for the youth.
The Living Bible (TLB) – was published in 1971. It is a true paraphrase, expressing the meaning of the biblical text in the words of the Baptist author, Kenneth N. Taylor. It is written at a 4th grade reading level. Taylor basically wrote it so his kids could understand the scriptures. Good for devotional reading, but not for study. The NLT is a better and more accurate translation in this vein.
The Message (MES) – completed in 1993, is NOT a translation of the bible; it is a paraphrase. Eugene Peterson, the author, has an extensive background in biblical languages and felt the need to produce a bible that communicated the “earthiness of the original language.” The earthiness comes through to such an extent that it really is more like a commentary on the Bible – rephrasing the Bible in his own words. I do like how he paraphrases some passages; however, there are many times where in an effort to be earthy and edgy, he goes too far and some would even argue becomes unbiblical. Definitely NOT a study bible. Endorsed by Warren Wiersbe, Jack Hayford and others.
Translations to AVOID
New World Translation (NWT)– First published in 1961, this is the translation by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (aka., the Jehovah’s Witnesses). This translation has many problems and distorts the scriptures at several points to reinforce the JW’s theology. Notable cases are John 1:1, Colossians 1 (the word “other” is added multiple times) and others. This translation is only useful when speaking with a JW.
I have read the entire bible in KJV, NASB, ESV, NLT, and NIV (’84). I have read the New Testament in CEV and The Message. I am currently reading through the entire bible in the NKJV. Everyone should read through the entire Bible in different translations. By reading 4 chapters a day, you can finish the entire Bible in a year. If you read 10 chapters a day, you can finish the New Testament in a month. Which translation are you reading? Which do you find most helpful? Most inspirational?