Which Translation of the Bible Should You Buy?

When you go buy a Bible, the assumption is that the process should be pretty easy. If you want a John Grisham book, the most complicated question you might be faced with is do you want it in a hardcover or paperback? That’s the easiest question when it comes to buying a Bible. You can get a few paperback versions (though they tend to ware more quickly when transported in backpacks and suitcases), there are several hardbacks, and lots of leather (even with choices of bonded leather or genuine leather). Now, you can get electronic versions for your kindle as well.

The bigger question becomes when the salesperson asks you what version you want. There are different versions? How can there be more than one version of the Bible? So, you think the salesperson must be asking you if you want a Spanish or English version of the Bible. So, you say that you want an English version. The salesperson pauses and gives you a bless your heart look then proceeds to explain that there are multiple english versions: the TNIV, the ESV, the NLT, the Message, the NASB, the NRSV, the NKJV, KJV. Why do we have so many different versions of the Bible in English? What are the differences?

Well, the Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and a few passages in Aramaic. In Christianity, Hebrew and Greek are not thought to be holier or more sacred languages which differs from Islam’s approach to the Koran. In light of its mission to go to different people groups, Christianity has emphasized translation of the Bible into vernacular languages on the basis that Jesus was the great translator who came and spoke divine truths to us in human words.

Good translation, however, should try to accurately communicate the sense of the original language. So, the original language versions of the Bible are not more holy, but they are the standard for translation into other languages. Translators are not free to make their translation say what they want it to say but instead must communicate well what the source text intended.

When you get into the different modern English translations (excluding the King James Version with all of its glorious thee’s and thou’s), you have about four major theories of translation.

First, you have the paraphrase translation which would include Eugene Peterson’s, The Message. This is a very loose translation style that tries to find the most fresh and contemporary way of communicating what the text says. Take for instance his translation of John 3:16

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Reading “The Message” can make fresh again verses that you have read over previously. A translation like this is good for getting a sense of the original text. However, it’s the translation we notice the translator the most. More of his style of communicating is involved in the translation. What these versions aren’t the most suited for is any sort of Bible study that is getting into the smaller details of the text whether it be why specific words are used or why words are in a certain order. If you had to own one Bible, this would not be my suggestion. It’s better as a second or third version.

While paraphrase versions give us a sense of the original text, the next type of english translations give us what they call a thought for thought version of the originals. The standout in this category is the New Living Translation (NLT). The NLT isn’t as loose or fresh as TheMessage, but it does try to give a contemporary reading of the original.  Look at what the NLT does with Romans 5:2:

“Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.”

And, now compare that with the NIV:

“through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”

The NLT expands on words to explain them better to a contemporary audience. Grace becomes “a place of undeserved privilege.” True, particularly as its used here. But, grace means more than the direction that the NLT slanted it. The New Living can be great for public reading, because it’s a little bit easier to understand on the first listen than other versions. But, again, it might not be the best version for detailed study of the Bible, but is good for reading long sections of the Bible in one setting or for public reading.

The third category of english translations is called the dynamic equivalent. This is the New International Version and Today’s New International Version (NIV and TNIV). These versions are tied much more to the text, but does feel free to move word order or adapt an idiom from the original languages to a rough equivalent in English. For instance, they translate the word “flesh” to “sinful nature” in Galatians 6:8. They adapt the word image in the greek to a more specific phrase in English. This version is great for study, teaching, and reading. It is important to note that there arose a controversy about the TNIV because they translated many of the gender specific passages (man, father) to gender neutral language (person, parent.

Lastly, there are the more literal translations of the Bible that put a lot of emphasis on word order and the specific words of the original text. The English Standard Version (ESV) and the New American Standard (NAS) are the most prominent translations of this style. These versions are fantastic for more specific studies of the Bible and preaching that requires drawing attention to specific details of the text. On the negative, it is more wooden and difficult to understand when reading large sections of scripture and when reading publicly than other versions.

But, if you were going to buy one version of the Bible for personal study, my recommendation would be either the ESV or NIV. There is a study edition of the ESV that has commentary and various articles that is the most wonderful study bible I have ever seen. It is called the ESV Study Bible. If you had to own only one version, this is my recommendation.

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About Ryan Wampler

Much of my thinking is trying to connect the dots between the Bible, the lens through which I see the world, and the way I actually live my life. I’m a Mizzou grad, and got a theological education at a post-grad school in St. Louis. My particular areas of interest are: reflecting on books and films and connecting theology and culture.
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