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Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

by Brian Flewelling on September 05, 2023

If you’re just getting familiar with the Bible, knowing which translation to use can be confusing. In response to the question, “What is the best translation?,” I’ve heard one person respond, “Whichever one you read!” I like that. Finding a translation that you can read and want to read is almost just as important as the translation’s accuracy.

Just scrolling through BibleGateway, you’ll find over 60 translations into the English language to choose from. That’s a blessing. Some people around the world still don’t have any translations of the Bible in their language. Yet having 60 versions can leave you feeling a bit overwhelmed. Here is a quick guide to our top four. 


Translation #1. The New International Version [NIV]

The Petra Church pastors generally read from the New International Version [NIV] on Sunday mornings. It is a solid and readable translation. There are a few copyrighted versions now. The [NIV] continues to remain the highest annual volume-of-sales translation, eclipsing the traditional King James Version [KJV] and New Living Translation [NLT]. The 1984 Copyrighted version was a beloved landmark in Bible translations. In 2011, they updated the copyright. The translation committee decided to use more gender-neutral language, which created controversy among certain church denominations, who then produced their own translations in response.

Unfortunately, you can only purchase a 2011 Copyright NIV Bible. All of the online search engines only show you the 2011 Copyright version as well. Gender language aside, it is still a very readable, reliable, and up-to-date translation of the original manuscripts into the English language.

[Here are three other English translation options most people love to read.] 

Translation #2. New Living Translation [NLT]

The [NLT] is slightly more focused on “dynamic equivalence.” In other words, they translate the meaning of the words instead of the literal words. Therefore, they are doing some of the interpretation of meaning before you even have a chance to read the text, and those interpretations may or may not always be accurate. This is a very readable translation, and I’ve enjoyed how contemporary it feels to our speaking voice.

Translation #3. Christian Standard Bible [CSB]

When you read the [CSB] it is very similar sounding to the NIV. It, too, is a very readable and reliable translation right in the center of word-for-word versus thought-for-thought. For those who care about such details, it was shaped by a more conservative Reformed and Baptist approach to the text and can reflect their theology in some of the choices the translators make. 

Translation #4. English Standard Version [ESV]

The (ESV) is slightly more literal; they translate the original language closer to word-for-word. That can be good, but it is can also be slightly harder to read. At times, some of the modern language they use can still feel a little older sounding, like “thou” instead of “you.” 


I think any of these translations would be great for your personal use. You can read any of them for free at www.BibleGateway.com and get a sense of which one might be best for you. If you want to stick around for more information, I answer a few more questions below. Otherwise, I hope you read and enjoy your Bible. God is still breathing his Spirit-life across his timeless Word to lead people to Himself and transform us into his beautiful image. 




What is word-for-word versus thought-for-thought? 

Imagine traveling to a foreign country and having an interpreter translate your words for you into another language. If you use an idiom like, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” what should the interpreter do? Should they translate your words literally and risk the people in the foreign country will not know what you are trying to say? Or should they interpret the meaning of the idiom–the truth underneath the actual words? This is the dilemma.


One translation website summarized it nicely, “Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between ‘formal equivalence’ in expression and ‘functional equivalence’ in communication.” 


Word-for-word is a literal transmission of the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic languages and their sentence structure. The strength is in its accuracy. The weakness is that, at times, it can be almost unreadable because of the original language usage that makes no sense to the modern listener.


A thought-for-thought translation tilts in the opposite direction. It is an attempt to really capture the spirit of what is being said to the modern listener. The weakness is that the thought-for-thought translator can depart from the original language. The strength is that it leans into the modern listener’s expressions and use of language that fills our daily lives. Thus, it feels contemporary and fresh. There’s no better example than The Message.


When I want to perform a more literal or accurate study on specific passages and words, I’ll often do studies from a highly literal translation like the New American Standard Bible [NASB]. Or if at times, I just want a fresh, worshipful reading that sounds like God is talking to the 21st century, I might read from The Message. But for daily readings and regular usage, we generally recommend using a translation in the middle of the chart below.


A diagram of the bibleDescription automatically generated 


What’s so important about a committee?

There are strengths to the modern committee translations. Here are a few.


1. In a committee, different experts can focus on their field of expertise.


2. Ten minds are always better than one. You have more access to information and dialogue in a committee.


3. There have been so many advances in scholarship, archaeology, up-to-date manuscript discoveries, and translations of ancient sources outside of the Bible that have enhanced our understanding of what certain words mean or certain hard-to-understand details in the biblical text. The more we know, the more accurately we can translate the message to the modern reader.


4. Interpreters are not perfect and bring their own theological biases or viewpoints to the text. Committee translations can help to counterbalance personal persuasions by adhering to the broadest attested and accepted truths.    


Why don’t we use the King James Version?

The King James Version was a necessary and beloved translation that shaped history and culture for literally four hundred years. It was known for its majestic style and is still used by many churches and families. But languages and cultures have shifted significantly over the period of 400 years. No one would deny that the English language captured in the [KJV] sounds nothing like our daily conversations today. The [KJV] is an artifact of history more than a living text for the modern reader.  


Additionally, as mentioned above, modern scholarship, archaeology, original manuscripts, and other original language texts have enhanced our understanding of words used, their change in meaning over time, and the manuscripts we translate from. The modern committee translations are simply more accurate than the historical King James Version.


If you really want to geek out, here is an interesting article on the history of Bible translations into English on Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations_into_English.




Tags: truth, bible, scripture, reading, language, meaning, devotions, thought, translation, accuracy

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