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How to Choose the Right Version of the Bible

    There are so many versions of the Bible! Most Christians are probably overwhelmed with the number of versions available. What makes a version? Why are there so many versions? What are their differences? How do I choose the right version for my needs?

    This article aims to explain why there are so many versions, and the principles of choosing the right version for your own need, with recommendations.


    Isn’t there Just One Bible? Why are there Different Versions?

    The very original Holy Scripture wasn’t called the “Bible”. It was referred to as “scripture” in the Bible. The term “Bible” comes from the Greek term “biblia to hagia”, which means “the holy books”. The 66 books of the Bible were later referred to as the Bible. The “Bible” is really a book of books!

    The Bible has ancient roots – the oldest book of the Bible is from around 3,500 years ago, and the last book of the Bible is from nearly 2,000 years ago. There were around 40 writers for the 66 books of the Bible who lived in different eras and different backgrounds. The books of the Bible were written in languages that could be understand by the people of the time.

    The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (also a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew). The New Testament was written in Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic takes a rather small proportion of the Holy Scriptures, so Hebrew and Greek are usually referred to.

    As a result, all the English Bibles are translations of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Each “version” of the Bible is a different translation. Being different translations done by different groups of people, the versions differ from one another.


    Versions Exist for Different Purposes / Market Needs

    Each Bible version has its aim of what it wants to deliver. For example, The Living Version (TLV) is highly inaccurate but very easy to read. New International Version (NIV) is fairly accurate and reads smoothly. NASB is highly accurate but difficult to read. Inaccurate but easy-to-read versions are considered suitable for casual reading (like reading a newspaper), or be read as bedtime stories to children. Highly accurate versions are designed for in-depth Bible study.

    There are also versions for specific needs. For example, the Apostolic Bible (AB) uses the Septuagint to translate the Old Testament. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Bible in the apostle’s era. Also, Catholic Public Domain Version (CPDV) is translated from the Latin Vulgate (which is a Latin translation of the entire Bible compiled in the 4th Century). These are special versions for more scholarly purposes.


     How Do You Choose the Right Version for Your Needs?

    1. Define Your Need

    Do you need a Bible just for casual reading? Do you simply want to get more familiar with the stories in the Bible? Or do you want to actually understand the Bible more accurately? Perhaps you want to study the Bible more deeply? Are you buying it for your children? Or for others who are just acquainted with the faith?

    Once you have your needs defined, we’ll get to the translation philosophies applied to different versions of the Bible.


    2. Textual Basis

    Many people do not take notice of the importance of the textual basis of the translations. To make it easier, the short answer is that these two texts of the Bible in its original languages are the best and most reliable references:

    Old Testament: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
    New Testament: Novum Testamentum Graece
    (Or more specifically, Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies Greek New Testament / Westcott & Hort New Testament.)

    Please, for those taking faith seriously, please avoid Textus Receptus (or Received Text) by all means. I have written another article on why it is. There are many KJV-onlyism websites giving out wrong information about the Byzantine Text Type, the Majority Text, and the Received Text. Please find peer-reviewed scholarly literature or books on New Testament textual criticism written by actual scholars. You’ll see how false and terribly wrong those KJV-only websites are.


    3. Translation Philosophy

    There are three main translation philosophies:

    Literal translation / formal equivalence

    This type of translation translates word-for-word and is highly accurate in preserving the original Scripture faithfully. The extreme example would be Interlinear Bible, which usually disregards any English grammar and simply translates the original language word-for-word as if looking up the dictionary for each word.

    Most literally translated Bibles today such as ESV (English Standard Version), RSV (Revised Standard Version), etc. are highly accurate but put English literary quality in consideration, and are therefore easy to read. Bibles like NASB (New American Standard Bible) is an extreme example of literal translation that is highly accurate and sacrifices literary quality, but is nonetheless readable. Lexham English Bible (LEB) is very interesting in that it is actually an interlinear Bible, but is translated in a way that is readable in English.

    Although considered literal translations, the versions may vary in accuracy amongst themselves. Here is a generally accepted order of accuracy for the major versions (most accurate to least accurate):

    • Interlinear Bible (e.g. LEB, LITV, YLT, etc.)
      • Extremely accurate, some maintain readability
    • New American Standard Version (NASB)
      • Highly accurate and readable (although unnatural). Uses italic text to show the words that are not found in the original Scripture but are added for clarity in English.
    • Amplified Version (AMP)
      • Accurate. Evaluates on different possible translations for each word, so each key word is given more than one possible translation. Hard to read, but is highly valuable for in-depth study.
    • English Standard Version (ESV)
      • Highly accurate. Not far from NASB in accuracy, but highly readable with good literary quality.
      • A modern revision of RSV.
    • Revised Standard Version (RSV)
      • Highly accurate, but semi-archaic English (uses thee, thou, thy for God, ass for donkey, etc.). Old translation of over 50 years ago.
      • A revision of RV (English Revised Version), which is a revised version of KJV.
    • King James Version (KJV)
      • Accurate. Employs the italic font tradition. The italic words mean that they do not exist in the original Scripture, but are added for clarity in the English language.
      • Middle English, which means what you read may not mean what you think. For example, meat (KJV) = food (modern English), take no thought = do not worry, etc.
      • Not recommended. Its New Testament uses the Received Text (or in Latin, Textus Receptus), which is the worst compilation of Greek New Testament ever existed, and is now completely discredited of its value by all mainstream scholars.
    • New King James Version (NKJV)
      • Accurate. Employs italic words as well.
      • A revision of KJV. Attempts to reproduce the literary quality of KJV in modern English. A bit unnatural for modern English readers.
      • Not recommended, since the New Testament is translated from the Received Text.
    • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
      • Accurate, but less so compared to others.
      • A revision of RSV (unrelated to ESV).
      • Employs gender-neutral translation (he or she replaced with they; brother in Greek translated as brothers and sisters, etc.). This philosophy in itself makes NRSV less accurate / faithful than other literal translations.
      • Uses less familiar theological jargons / use of words.
      • Lower market reception.

    Dynamic equivalence / functional equivalence

    This type of translation translates sentence-for-sentence, or thought-for-thought, and is more flexible in its faithfulness to the original Scripture. Some versions can be fairly accurate (NIV) or rather inaccurate (GNT). They deliver the idea and are not necessarily keen on retaining the words found in the original scriptures. NIV retains most of the keywords in their sentences, while GNT doesn’t necessarily do so.

    This form of translation is not well-regarded by those who study the Scripture. Reading and sharing is adequate but no more. It is okay for those who are just beginning to read the Bible. Bedtime reading or merely reading for encouragement is adequate.

    Here are some of the major dynamic equivalence translations:

    • More accurate:
      • New American Bible (NAB)
      • New International Version (NIV)
      • New English Translation (NET)
      • etc.
    • Less accurate:
      • New Century Version (NCV)
      • International Children’s Bible (ICB)
      • New Living Translation (NLT)
      • New International Reader’s Version (NIrV)
      • Good New Translation / Today’s English Version (GNT / TEV)
      • etc.


    Paraphrase is the least accurate way of translating the Bible, or any literature. It is usually undesirable, and is only meant for those who merely want to know a little about what the Bible is roughly about, or perhaps is reading the Bible as a novel or a mere storybook. At least you can have the motivation of finding unimaginable profanity in the translation, or simply have a laugh with paraphrase versions:

    Profanity (1972 version of The Living Bible (TLB):

    (1 Samuel 20:30) Saul boiled with rage. “You son of a bitch!”* he yelled at him. “Do you think I don’t know that you want this son of a nobody to be king in your place, shaming yourself and your mother?

    *Literally, “son of a perverse, rebellious woman.” This paraphrase is the modern equivalent.

    Or a laugh:

    (Serious translation; ESV:)

    (Matthew 7:7-11)  “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

    (Laughable translation; The Message:)

    (Matthew 7:7-11) “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?

    Fortunately, there aren’t many paraphrase translations of the Bible. The two above are the main examples of paraphrase: The Living Bible (TLB), and The Message (MSG). For those who take faith seriously, let’s just avoid using them. Or else, just have a laugh and then put them aside.


    4. Translation team and background

    The most desirable scenario:

    • Translators that are widely respected biblical scholars
      • Preferably from different denominations with different doctrines
        • So that the translated text would be as neutral / unbiased as possible
      • Preferably from different countries and cultures
        • So that biased views caused by culture may be reduced by as much as possible.
    • A multi-level review system with experts reviewing every translated word. If not satisfactory, the translation is returned to the translators for revision.
    • Examples of such translations are: ESV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, etc.

    The least desirable scenario:

    • Translated by one man / one denomination without peer-review
      • Examples of this include: New World Translation (NWT) by Jehovah’s Witness, etc.
    • Poor translation philosophy employed
      • E.g. The Message – translated by one man with very poor translation quality.
        • many regard this translation as not being a translation, but personal interpretation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson.
        • No, I personally wouldn’t regard it as a Bible, either.


    My Most Recommended Bible Version

    There are many considerations to go through to pick the right Bible for you. I have a version that I recommend the most: English Standard Version, or ESV. Here are my reasons:

    • Highly accurate
      • It is, from most sources, considered to be more accurate than NKJV, KJV, RSV, NRSV, etc., basically being only behind NASB in accuracy. However, NASB sacrifices natural flow of English text for its accuracy.
      • Every nuance of the original text is sought to be presented in the translation.
    • Most reliable textual basis
      • Old Testament: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd ed., 1983)
      • New Testament: United Bible Societies Greek New Testament 4th Corrected Edition (also called Westcott & Hort) & Novum Testamentum Graece 27th Edition (Nestle-Aland).
    • Excellent translation philosophy
      • ESV basically applies the same “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” translation philosophy found in NRSV. However, it practices the concept in a more faithful way, making it more accurate.
        • Translations that are too literal may pose problems for the readers, because the message of idioms in the original language usually can’t be delivered through a purely literal translation. This is when freedom of translation is important.
    • Excellent translation background
      • A team of well-respected experts / scholars translated the ESV.
      • ESV also has multi-level review system for the most diligent practices of translation.
      • Cross-denominational, international translation team.
    • Highly readable
      • Uses natural modern English with excellent literary quality.
      • The literary style and differences of the original text is also sought to be faithfully transmitted into the translation.
    • Highly versatile
      • As a result of its excellent translation philosophy and practices, ESV is suitable for:
        • Personal reading
        • Personal study
        • Group Bible study
        • In-depth Bible study
        • Sermons on the pulpit
        • Memorization of verses
        • etc.

    Having considered all things to be considered in a translation, ESV is the most well-balanced version for all purposes with great accuracy. I cannot recommend this version more.

    Written on April 22, 2015 at 5:29 pm