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Unless you happen to be able to read Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, your basic tool for reading and studying the Bible will be a good English translation (or version).  This is not a bad thing, but in a certain sense, you are at the mercy of the translators, in that they often had to make choices as to what the original Hebrew or Greek was intending to say.  While no major doctrines are affected by the translation, to determine the exact meaning of the original text, you might need to check out several translations.  If you are just beginning to read and study the Bible, I would find one good translation for now, but you might want to check out other translations after you’ve been through the Bible a time or two.  In fact, we recommend an experienced reader consult several translations for the reasons discussed below.

There are three basic categories of grammatical translations:

Formal Equivalence (Verbally Accurate or Literal) - attempts to translate the original language word-for-word, retaining the original syntax and sentence structure as close a possible.  The advantage is you get close to the English word-for-word equivalency of the original language.  Metaphors and idioms are generally retained, which can provide insight into cultural backgrounds of the text.  These translations are also less interpretive, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions regarding the text's meaning (this can be both positive and negative depending on the reader's knowledge of the Scriptures).  Disadvantages are an awkward literary style, and encountering expressions that are no longer used, including terms for money, weights and measures etc.

Functional or Dynamic Equivalence (Concept Accurate) - attempts to produce an accurate translation of the concepts or thoughts of the original language.  This is the most common method of the modern translations.  The stress is on the meaning of the text (thought-for-thought) rather than on the exact wording.  Its primary advantage is  delivering a more natural contemporary style without sacrificing the original intent of the author.  Even mostly literal translations must make some use of this method, since a purely formal-equivalence translation would be unintelligible in most modern languages.

Paraphrase (Free Translation) - attempts to translate the ideas with emphasis on modern language and expressions.  They seek to provoke the same emotional responses and experiences as the original readers.  Some of the more loose translations actually come close to being commentaries.  Disadvantages of this type is the risk of distorting the text's meaning from its original context.  When interpreting Scriptures, we must always determine the original intended meaning first, then attempt to discover the meaning for us today.  These translations should never be your only source of Bible study.  We recommend reading them in parallel with at least one other translation from the other two categories.  This can be a great method of experiencing old truths expressed in new stimulating ways, while allowing us an anchor within a version closer in equivalence to the original text.

Most translations range across two categories to various degrees.  In addition, decisions must be made on how to translate ancient weights and measures, currency, dates and times, proper names, metaphors, phrases unique to the culture, and technical terms.  My personal preference is to translate these as close as possible to their modern equivalents, then list the original terms in the footnotes. 

What is the best translation to use?  This is one of our most commonly asked questions, and the answer actually depends on your situation.  For example, the NASB and  ESV are great for serious study due to their conservative nature and accurate translations.  The GNT is a good choice for new readers or children because it contains the simplest language of any version.  For the average person, we recommend choosing a functionally accurate version (such as the NIV) for your primary translation. 

We strongly recommend against choosing a free translation as your primary source of study.  This is particularly true for the Message.  I personally read and enjoy the Message, but be aware that the primary purpose of the author (Eugene Peterson), is to provoke an emotional response similar to that of the original audience or readers.  While he holds true to an accurate paraphrase of the original text in most cases, we find that on occasion, he substitutes his own politically correct interpretation.  For example, in Paul's list of sins in 1Cor 6:9-11, he deletes the sins of adultery and homosexuality, but adds a reference to environmentalism.  This is also a good example of why we should choose a version translated by a team of scholars rather than an individual, so that personal biases can be minimized.

Advanced students should read from several versions, preferable at least one from each category.  A convenient alternative is a parallel Bible, as long as it contains a good range of translation types (I have one with the NKJV, ESV, NLT and the Message).  I find this to be a very effective method of Bible study.  Each type of translation can provide a unique insight into the text.  For instance, we can obtain the word-for-word translation from a literal type, an equivalent contemporary expression from a functional equivalent version, then additional insight from the paraphrase.  Comparing the word-for-word with the thought-for-thought translation can be particularly valuable.  I offer a good example, applying this method to the "love-hate" idiom in our Bible Genre Analysis Section.

I personally use the ESV, NIV, NET, NASB, HCSB, NLT, and AMP as primaries for my studies, but also enjoy reading the KJV, NKJV, NRSV, GNT and even the Message on occasion.  There are so many excellent modern versions that it sometimes becomes a matter of literary preference.

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 Popular Modern Translations Chart

The following chart illustrates how some of the most popular translations fit into the above categories.  This is somewhat arbitrary in that it would be very difficult to rank each exactly in order, but gives a rough idea of where each translation will fall.  The next chart gives a brief description of each translation.


Functionally Accurate


KJV - King James Version Translated in 1611 using the Byzantine family of manuscripts, Textus Receptus, an older and debatably slightly less accurate manuscript than those used by more modern versions.  Elizabethan style Old English is majestic but difficult for modern readers, especially youth.
NKJV - New King James Version produced from the Byzantine family (Textus Receptus) in 1982. This is a revision of the King James version, updated to modern English with only minor translation corrections
NASB - New American Standard Bible translated from Kittle’s Biblia Hebraica and Nestle’s Greek New Testament 23rd ed; updated in 1995 with smoother language.  produced by conservative scholars and considered by many to be the most accurate modern English translation
ESV - English Standard Version a more conservative revision of the 1971 edition of the Revised Standard Version; attempts to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer, while taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages.  more literal than the popular NIV, but more figurative than the NASB; the new 2008 version "essentially literal" translation makes for a great study Bible.  Crossway ESV Study Bible
AMP - The Amplified Bible a unique Bible which seeks to be true to the original Hebrew and Greek texts, as well as capturing the full meaning behind them.  It contains translations of the original words, but also adds addition phrases of meanings included in the original language, and clarifying comments not actually expressed in the original text.  These are marked by being enclosed in parentheses () and brackets [] respectively.  In effect, this provides both a literal and a functional equivalent translation for much of the text.
NRSV - New Revised Standard Version update of Revised Stand Version (which was an update of the KJV from more reliable manuscripts) to take advantage of Dead Sea Scroll discoveries and other modern techniques; widely accepted by most Catholics and Protestants (dissatisfaction by conservative evangelicals led to ESV and NIV); contains Jewish influence; comes in three editions - Standard (Protestant), the  Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books addition and the Catholic Edition containing the OT books in the order of the Vulgate
HCSB - Holman Christian Standard Bible first published in 2004; translated by an international, interdenominational team of 100 scholars and proofreaders committed to biblical inerrancy; strikes a balance between the literal and dynamic philosophies.  The translators worked from the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition, and the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th corrected edition (for the New Testament), and the 5th edition of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (for the Old Testament).
NIV - New International Version the most popular modern English translation of the Bible, translated from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts by over 100 scholars from multiple nations and over 20 denominations.  The NIV, an explicitly Protestant translation, preserves the traditional conservative Evangelical theology on most contested points such as the virginity of Mary, and the Messianic passages of the OT.
NAB - New American Bible produced by Roman Catholic scholars in cooperation with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; the most popular Bible for modern Catholics and the American Catholic Church; portions have been rejected by Rome due to "inclusive language" (gender-neutral) and "liberal" translations
NJB - New Jerusalem Bible translated from Hebrew and Greek by French Scholars; the most widely used Catholic translation in English speaking countries outside of the United States
GNT - Good News Translation aka Good News Bible (GNB); formerly Today’s English Version (TEV); renamed the GNT because of misconceptions that it was merely a paraphrase and not a genuine translation. Hebrew and Greek translated "thought for thought" rather than "word for word".  It has been endorsed by Billy Graham, the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is one of the authorized versions to be used in the Episcopal Church.  It is written in simple, everyday language, and so is often considered particularly suitable for children and for those learning English; also contains line drawings of Biblical events
REB - Revised English Bible more literal1989 update of the NEB; also added gender-neutrality; similar method of translation as NIV, but lacks the evangelical interpretation of the NIV 
JB - Jerusalem Bible the first widely accepted Catholic English translation of the Bible since the Douay-Rheims Version of the 17th century. Translators take a less literal (liberal) approach to increase understanding of tricky passages. This results in the introductions, footnotes, and even the translation itself, reflecting the conclusion of modern historical-critical method "scholars"  For example, the introduction and notes reject Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch.
NLT - New Living Translation started out as a revision to The Living Bible, but evolved into a new English translation from available texts in the original languages; follows the dynamic equivalence or "thought for thought" method of translation rather than a more literal method; a bit more literary in style and flow than many other versions; new 2008 Study Bible has great features.  NLT Study Bible
NEB - New English Bible produced primarily by British and European scholars but influenced by foreign idiom, especially that of the Americans, so could be understood by a large body of English speaking individuals; thought-for thought translation method.  Due to its official status and scholarly translators, the NEB has been considered one of the more important translations of the Bible to be produced following WW2.
The Message contemporary translation from the original languages; an attempt to capture the emotional response to the original writings in the "street language" of today.  The author, Eugene Peterson, considers this version to be a full translation, but we recommend treating it as a paraphrase or commentary. 

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