I am working on a Bible buyer’s guide, but today I want to take a moment to discuss the process of discernment for choosing a translation of a Bible.
I am not a translation dogmatist.
I own several Bibles, in several translations and styles. The different Bible offerings available are beyond the scope of this essay, but I will follow this with a guide to publishers’ options for Bibles.
I am anti-app for Bibles, as a matter of preference. I don’t judge those who use apps. Unfortunately, they don’t work well for me. I strongly suggest people try a print Bible if they haven’t (or haven’t in years) because it is a unique experience.
I am a layperson. My background is evangelical, though I have spent time in (more moderate) fundamentalist and charismatic contexts, have exposure to mainline and Catholic churches through my family and work, and have semi-regular conversations with Orthodox Christians (though this is the least familiar branch of Christianity to me).
I am also a Bible salesman in my current day-job, and a happy one at that. While I encourage everyone to support local Christian bookstores, I’m perfectly happy for you to find your perfect Bible on Amazon, via an app or website, or through a chain bookstore so long as you are drawn closer to God.
Selecting a translation of the Bible is a process to be engaged in prayerfully. A Bible can be an expensive purchase, but a good Bible helps your time spent in Scripture edify your walk with God.
Anyone who is familiar with Christianity beyond its basics is familiar with the fact that the Bible did not come to us in English. It came in Hebrew, Greek, and other languages contemporary with its authors, who lived around two thousand or more years ago.
As a result, to read the Bible in English, you need a translation that will take the ancient words and recompose them in the languages spoken today. Reading Greek and Hebrew is good, but learning them to the point of understanding Scripture takes years of study. There are tools like concordances that can help bridge the gap for non-speakers, but for those without the time and money to be trained in ancient languages a translation is the only way.
Although the Jewish tradition is less fond of translations (though the Septuagint is an ancient translation into Greek and informs some modern Bible translations), Christians have shared the Gospel in their native tongues since the time of Christ, and Pentecost serves as an example for us to follow in bringing the word of God to all nations.
Why Not One Translation For All Christians?
It would be easy to presume that the only reason we have multiple translations are doctrinal differences and deliberate attempts to manipulate the text.
However, there are practical reasons for multiple translations to be used across even a single denomination or church.
One of these is the division between formal equivalence (or word-for-word) translations and dynamic equivalence (or thought-for-thought) translations.
The other is modernity and updates. Unfortunately for some of us evangelicals (and fundamentalist-bordering evangelicals), modern English has changed quite a bit. As someone who loves the KJV (I have a facsimile 1611 sitting on my desk) and has the Elizabethan English to grasp it about as well as I grasp any Bible, older dialects may serve as a barrier.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14, a sacred text in a language people can’t read isn’t doing its work. This was something the writers of the KJV acknowledged in their preface, and while I’m more than happy to teach everyone Elizabethan English I’m not going to retreat into solving the translation problem by standing on tradition.
Between differences in philosophy and language, and the decisions that the translation process requires, there is room for more than one translation. A common phrase I’ve heard about English Bibles is that we have “an embarrassment of riches” with the translations on offer.
Most modern translations, rather than being liberal or progressive, are actually conservative in bent, with the examples I’m most familiar with stemming from the evangelical movement. There are valid and grave concerns with a handful of translations, but these are unpopular. I suggest doing research from experts, since the times will change and the availability and prevalence of translations will change with them. I like Mark Ward, who has dedicated a lot of his work to assessing translations of the Bible. Although he comes from a different theological background, I find his explanations of Bible translations’ qualities straightfoward and deep. I consult other sources as well to ensure a broad viewpoint.
Of course, we can always harken back to the translator’s notes in my 1611 KJV as a response to those who would quarrel over translations:
Now to the later we answere; that wee do not deny, nay wee affirme and auow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set foorth by men of our profession (for we haue seene none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) contains the word of God, nay, is the word of God.1611 KJV translator’s Notes,
In modern English, this would read:
“To critics, we would say that the worst translation of the Bible set forth by dedicated scholars contains the word of God and is the word of God.”
There are differences between translations, but there is probably no sole “best” translation. With hundreds of millions of English speakers, each with their own level of proficiency and corpus of vocabulary, Christians ought to jump with joy at the sight of translations that meet different needs. Do some research into who translated your Bible and test unknown translations against known high-quality translations. Find people you trust to be faithfully critical of translations, then seek their advice.
Few differences between translations speak to a flaw in either. We find some passages in manuscripts from certain dates. The trend is to go to the earliest manuscripts in modern translations, which often puts them at odd with the Textus Receptus of the KJV, which is a relatively late manuscript. This is a superior scholarship method. As I repeat frequently there are no issues with any of the major translations that stem from the text they use.
Dynamic Equivalence and Gender Inclusion
Dynamic equivalence is a translation method that looks back to the original language and seeks to modernize it. While a formal equivalence translation keeps the metaphors and idioms of ancient languages as they were in all or most cases (“let it sink into your ears”) you might see a dynamic equivalence translation update them (“listen carefully”). This gives formal equivalence a “churchy” style, versus the modernization of dynamic equivalence. Some dynamic equivalence texts will make other changes, like using gender-inclusive language (“Brothers and sisters” as opposed to “Brothers” or “Brethren” in a more literal translation when a speaker is addressing a mixed group of listeners).
As someone who was formerly very averse to gender-inclusive language, I’ve come around, with some of the other more formal equivalent translation supporters, to using more of this gender-inclusive language because English has changed and we’re not getting back our representative generic “he” pronoun.
“A person who goes to the park in cloudy weather should bring his umbrella.”Example with the representative generic masculine pronoun
“A person who goes to the park in cloudy weather should bring their umbrella.”Example with the generic neutral pronoun.
There have been translations of the Bible that removed the masculine pronoun from God, creating needless confusion, and I don’t recommend these. The TNIV is the most notorious of these, introduced more confusion than it resolved. It is hard to find, because it turns out that believers crave the best Scripture.
However, because the ancient languages the Bible came to us in had the representative generic “he” and since many of the words that gender-inclusive translations use reflect the ancient language’s original purpose to have addressed both men and women, I would not discount most translations simply for being gender-inclusive. In fact, it’s not uncommon to have the gender-exclusive interpretation be accompanied by an explanation of this during liturgical reading. While it is dangerous to skip steps and add “missing” meaning that may not have existed in the original, it is also important to bring language in line with modern English. Even those of us who are skeptical of gender-neutral language (I would turn back the clock if I had my way, simply because I like churchisms) often use it without thinking. You can still hold complementarian views (as I do) and read a translation that welcomes women explicitly into salvation.
Another thing you’ll hear about modern translations if you are just exploring translations for the first time is that some Bibles are “paraphrased.”
People like myself who grew up in the church and had a lot of exposure to old-school translations may refer to dynamic equivalence translations as paraphrased. This is technically incorrect. Dynamic equivalence most often means altered word order and best terms (like “illegitimate child” for “bastard,” which has become a generic derogative in common modern English with less emphasis on its literal meaning). There is little reason to render “mighty as strength” the way it is, when “very strong” is how the reader will interpret it if they can wrap their head around it, from the dynamic equivalence philosophy.
Likewise, euphemisms like that in Genesis 4:1 (“Adam knew Eve”) are familiar to the churched believer. While a new believer may figure out the obscured sexual intercourse from context, they might also miss the association and the same euphemism elsewhere in the Bible may cause confusion. Both dynamic equivalence and paraphrased Bibles resolve this by modernizing idiomatic and euphemistic passages, or sometimes skipping euphemisms and speaking bluntly about something less taboo in modern circles. This dynamic equivalence is not a paraphrase, because it is a form of glossing the original language into English.
When someone makes a paraphrase, faithful reproduction of the original language is a secondary goal. Paraphrases are often based on an existing English translation and updated to vernacular language. Not all paraphrases are bad. Many God-fearing individuals have used this method to bring Scripture to those who have limited reading ability or less grasp of English than more formal Bibles would permit. The Living Bible and the Message are two paraphrases I’d suggest as options for people who want a paraphrased Bible, but keep in mind that they are not translations.
Both are well-made, with Kenneth N. Taylor’s Living Bible being a little more faithful to the original structure and style of the text but not involving any original languages. My mother has a well-loved hardcover copy of the Living Bible, although I don’t recommend it over some of the more modern dynamic equivalence translations (including its successor, the NLT).
The Message, produced by Eugene H. Peterson, has some translated elements, but takes more liberty with the structure and style of the text than translations typically do. The Message had a small team of scholars review it, and I have a favorable enough opinion of it to own a copy (admittedly, I got a misprinted one from our distributor for half-price).
If you are uncomfortable approaching Scripture, I suggest a lighter dynamic equivalence translation before a paraphrase. The NIrV is great for being a rigorously simple translation. Though most NIrVs are marketed to children, it isn’t a child’s Bible like the ICB. The NLT is what I use for a very light Bible, and it’s a successor to the Living Bible, which was one of the first very successful paraphrase Bibles. The NLT has had a team of scholars go in and make revisions to ensure that it remains accurate within the dynamic equivalence framing, so it’s more trustworthy than other paraphrase-style Bibles.
Devotional, Study, and Liturgical Use
People’s use of the Bible can be divided in three ways:
Devotional use involves the private reading of the Bible for spiritual edification. This may involve study materials along with the Bible, but is usually solitary or takes place in a family setting.
Study use involves experts’ personal study or expert-led delving into the text of the Bible. While devotional reading still focuses on the meaning of the text, it is more focused on learning lessons where Bible study is focused on the meaning and connections within the text. For laypeople and non-academics, study often takes place in fellowship.
Liturgical use involves the Bible in a collective church context. This is when the Bible is read at the pulpit during a sermon or as part of the order of service for a church. This might also extend to other materials used in fellowship at a church, such as bulletins and musical arrangements. As an individual, you probably don’t get to choose your liturgical Bible, and I’d be hesitant to change churches just because I want one that uses my preferred translation.
While some people will use the same translation for devotional, study, and liturgical use, others prefer a variety. There are translations “designed” for some uses (like the NASB, whose strict adherence to original language forms suggests it for study use), but a translation might also function less well in other contexts. The church I attended in college specialized in outreach to new believers and nominal Christians leaving their home churches for the first time (I was something of an odd one out), so the King James Version would’ve gotten a lot of blank stares from college freshmen who had never heard a “thou” in their life.
The most important thing is that pretty much every expert agrees that a Bible for study use should belong to the formal equivalence school of thought. Now, it’s worth noting that a study Bible is a special Bible custom-built to help students, scholars, and believers delve deeper into the text. I have study Bibles in dynamic equivalence translations (the NLT and CSB, the latter of which is my favorite Bible for devotional reading). For a layperson, having a study Bible can help overcome uncertainty with the language of harder formal equivalent translations. This means one of two things:
A study Bible in a translation that’s difficult for the reader can open up the text with explanations and support (just be sure that’s the intent of study material authors), and a study Bible in a simpler dynamic equivalence translation can add expert context drawn from familiarity with the more formal equivalent texts.
One Translation or More?
As a Bible salesman, it’s tempting for me to say that everyone should use multiple translations. I do, but I get an employee discount (though you can often find great deals on Bibles even if you don’t have this option).
I would certainly encourage people to know whether they have a formal or dynamic equivalence Bible. A lot of us more conservative Christians swear by formal equivalence, and sometimes consider them the “best,” but this is probably more true if you’re a church kid like I am.
However, I would not use a dynamic equivalence Bible alone if you want to do serious independent reading. There isn’t anything wrong with them. I use an NLT as back-up when I attend my weekly Bible study, which is about as far down the dynamic equivalence spectrum as you get before going into paraphrasing. But I combine it with a very strong formal equivalence Bible whenever I read it.
I would also not suggest a formal equivalence Bible if it is too difficult for the reader. You may need to work on skills to develop to use a translation, but the strongest formal equivalence Bible you can work through may be a good companion to a lighter dynamic equivalence.
In short, I suggest always getting a dynamic equivalence Bible and a formal equivalence Bible. Some mid-range Bibles, like the CSB or NIV, may be suitable for use without another translation on the side, but they’re not my personal favorites.
The downside of using multiple Bibles is that it makes it harder to memorize Scripture. While having a conversant familiarity with the text is ideal, you also want to preserve important passages in memory. This will be easier when you are comfortable with your translation. If you dart between translations like a hummingbird, you may need to invest more effort to memorize Scripture.
Keep this in mind as you move on through the selection process. If you are going to get one Bible, it may pay to get the hardest one you can read and understand.
An important consideration is that the books of the Bible come from different writers. While they are all divinely inspired, they are not all written in the same human hand.
That means that the styles differ, especially in the New Testament. Some books have sloppy Greek. Others have elegant Greek. A common complaint, however, is that some of the Greek resembles my own verbose and indulgent writing. Modern English readers get it easy–the Bible records Paul giving a sermon so boring that an audience member fell asleep and plummeted from a third-story window. He got better (the story can be found in Acts 20:9-10). Fortunately for us, the Bible doesn’t spare Paul and Eutychus’s dignity the same way many modern translators do.
The Hebrew is also different in certain books, such as the poetry of Psalms and the Song of Solomon or the books that delve into the history of Israel.
Personally, I might read certain books in a particular translation because they are more comprehensible to me or because I like the style more. Churchy formal equivalence translations have a lot of beauty in the Psalms (not that any translation doesn’t), but a dynamic equivalence Bible’s liberty with sentence structure can help smooth the bumps in rocky passages (and also match the less formal Greek that many of these passages were originally written in).
Just remember that when you are picking a translation you are likely to encounter difficult passages. Some of these passages are just difficult for everyone in every faithful translation, while others are going to be more difficult than others in the translation of your choice.
Factor 1: The Translator’s Expertise and Respect for Scripture
You want to look for people who affirm the value of Scripture. Talking abut Scriptural inerrancy is a place where language gets complicated and tempers heated.
I look for translators who believe that Scripture is the divinely inspired word of God, inerrant in its inspiration (though not necessarily in its transmission), and who take that responsibility seriously. While there are great single-author translations, especially dating from the times when translating a Bible was a capital offense, I stray away from these unless they have God-fearing believers have put them to the test.
I don’t go to the point of personally interrogating each individual translator, but I look for statements from the team that put the Bible together that they are interested in preserving Scripture as they pass it along in their translation. Merely making it accessible alone is not enough.
I also look at the use of scholarship and sources surrounding the translation process by the translation team. Including translator’s notes that point back to particular manuscripts is a sign of trustworthiness, as is transparency and openness (beware those who put notes but can’t back them up!).
There are legitimate reasons to choose one text over another, like the Textus Receptus used by the KJV, NKJV, and MEV (which is based off the work of Erasmus and other medieval scholars) or the critical texts (based on older texts from archaeological finds) favored by most modern translators regardless of affiliation. The source texts of the Bible chosen by any major translation on the market (to my knowledge) are all trustworthy and highly reliable, and will not lead one into false doctrine or away from the saving grace of Christ if translated properly.
Factor 2: Tested by Believers
Mark Ward has a series of YouTube videos titled “Why [Translation] is the best translation!”
In each of them, he points out that a good reason to use a translation is, “because your church uses it.”
Fellowship is not a substitute to Scripture, but being in a community of believers gives us more opportunities to use and understand scripture, and recognizing the wisdom of elders of the church lets us find truth.
When you are looking at translations, there is no harm in asking people what they believe about translations. My own denomination does not endorse any given Bible translation, but people have their preferences (and I’ll go over this later).
Translation wars are unfortunately common in the church, a testament to our Godly love of Scripture and less Godly love of being right at all costs. There are many who insist that one translation is better than another for reasonable reasons, and others who make up dogmatic reasons for a translation.
However, if controversy or doubts surrounding a translation put you off of it, you don’t need to use it. We are spoiled for choice in English translations, and if your spiritual leaders and brethren have serious concerns, find a different translation.
While many of us are quick to distrust mainstream academia, remember that the experts chosen to prepare a translation have dedicated their lives to Scripture. While there are some secular language scholars who translate texts, including some Bibles, most translators consider themselves part of a chain of stewardship of God’s word going back to the days of hidden missives smuggled to the faithful. They continue a tradition dating back to the days of Tyndale, the early Christians martyred by the Roman Empire, or the modern church in countries which persecute Christians. Just as you’re looking for good scholars to translate the work, you can also trust Christian scholars to give constructive feedback on the quality of a translation.
With this knowledge, you can feel confident that any errors in translation among most modern versions of the Bible stem from ignorance, not malice. This does not mean that one should presume that a modern translation, standing alone, is perfect, but between the multiple presentations of sound doctrine found in the seven hundred thousand words (somewhere between 720,000 and 785,000 depending on translators’ choices) that make up Scripture and the dedication of translators, we can be confident that our devotional and study delves into the solid foundation of God’s word. Many people nit-pick translations over particular features, which is fine as a matter of preference but is not the same as or a substitute for discernment.
Factor 3: Comprehension
You’ve already checked out the translation you’re interested in. You know the translators did their job in a God-fearing manner, and you know the community of believers has tested the translation to ensure that it is good.
Now it’s important to think about yourself.
Do you understand the translation?
Are you comfortable reading it in large blocks?
I’m using the NKJV right now for my night-time reading of Psalms. I love the language. It is not easy, especially if I put off my reading for right before bed. This means that I read earlier in the evening while I’m still sharp, but also that I’m not going to bed with the Psalms on my mind like I originally intended.
If the language of men is keeping you from the word of God, you might need a different translation. As much as I love my NKJV (it’s a fantastic printing as well!), I’m going to switch to something else for my next night-time reading, especially since it’s devotional and not study reading.
One consideration I’ve already mentioned is the difficulty of each individual book of the Bible. If you are reading for devotional purposes, you might want an easier translation for books that have obscure or difficult structures, while a formal and elegant translation can bring more weight to Scripture.
You might also think about reading with family members or in a small group. You should be comfortable explaining the language in your translation of choice when doing this.
If you are selecting a translation for ministerial purposes, it’s important to consider whether it is accessible to your mission field. A college ministry in America may find students who have no familiarity with religious terms, even if the students it is reaching out to are nominal Christians. Ministries assisting victims of abuse, prison ministries, and missionaries may find that a translation in clear modern English helps answer questions and reduce barriers.
The opposite is also true. A formal equivalence Bible gives more details and insight to the original author’s text for those who really want to delve deeply into Scripture. What you pay in deciphering the text for yourself you gain in the nuances and associations that have to be left out from dynamic equivalence texts.
Factor 4: Personal Fit
Do you love the way the translators responsible for your translation render the text?
This is the last point, and I would caution that it’s the least point. I’m a book nerd. I own books because they’re cool, and I have a strong appreciation for the written language.
If the language of your Bible translation is underwhelming and you don’t love it, consider switching.
For me, when I do very modern language translations, like the NLT or CSB, I find certain passages lack a certain oomph they have in the “churchier” language of some more formal translations. Likewise, if you like the more modern style, you might find that a perfectly comprehensible formal equivalence style is still dry for your tastes. I’ll pick a translation for unguided reading (e.g. not my Bible study) based on what makes me pay the most attention to the text, and aesthetics help.
This level of preference is personal. Mark Ward, who I respect as an expert on Bible translations, loves the NIV as a “smooth reading” Bible. I find it less appealing because I don’t struggle with the language of dynamic equivalence Bibles and I think other translations are more elegant. The ESV Old Testament moves me to tears in its glory. The CSB lets me focus on what the text of the New Testament reveals, not funny sentence structure hang-ups and Greekisms.
I would never suggest choosing a translation solely for preference. But you want at least one Bible you can drink, one Bible you can fall into like a cozy bed at the end of long days.
Without knowing you, I cannot give a single recommendation. There are a few translations I recommend most often based on a customer’s needs and what I can learn about a person.
I can tell you what I use. Since I am a layperson and neither an ancient language scholar or minister, I cannot speak to the ancient text. I have tried to gather wisdom from experts, and I know what my pastors, Bible study teachers, family, church group attendees, and customers use. I’ve also dabbled in textual criticism, though I’m not an expert.
This doesn’t mean that any translation I don’t mention is bad. There are many I’m not familiar with, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox spaces. My background is evangelical, where there has been a golden age unfolding for the last fifty years where we are spoiled for choice.
Sometimes I just haven’t been able to get a Bible, or get a Bible in a way that fits into my use. For instance, while I have Logos, I cannot focus on reading on a computer so the Lexham English Bible is not my choice. The NET full-notes edition isn’t offered in large print, which isn’t a deal-breaker for me but has put me off buying one sight-unseen.
With that said, here are my preferred translations, roughly in order of where I’d recommend them to people (but not my own personal preference).
I like the ESV (English Standard Version) for several reasons. I grew up with the NIV, which was always viewed as a sort of “starter Bible” and then transitioned to the NASB as an adult.
The NASB is an incredibly literal Bible. It retains the original word order in many places, as do some early translations and interlinear Bibles.
The ESV offers a step back from the NASB’s rigidity while losing only a little of the formal equivalence. It is highly accurate, strictly conservative (in the sense of keeping the text as-is), and has beauty in the quality of its translations. It also has easy cross-references and embeds on my blog, as you may have noticed with my mention of 1 Corinthians 14: simply put your cursor over the passage and it will open up an embedded window. If any other translation does this, they haven’t advertised it as hard.
Ironically, I never saw an ESV before I started working at a Christian bookstore. I am a newcomer to it. But people I respect have turned me on to it. While the general denominational affiliation of the ESV is Calvinist and I am Wesleyan, I have found nothing to dislike about the ESV.
The ESV is definitely a “churchy” translation. My only reservation is that it is difficult for absolute newcomers and people who might struggle with complex English. Mark Ward describes it as the translation the King James translators would have made in the modern day, and I agree. I find the ESV easier than the KJV and NKJV, but similarly poetic and faithful. I have cried tears of joy while reading the ESV, because it keeps the beauty of the language without the obscurity.
There are also people who say that the ESV has a lot of good options for people looking to buy a Bible. It definitely has options, but none of the study options have clicked to me (at least, not at first glance). I use an ESV text Bible for my travel Bible (and occasional reading), and I’m getting an illuminated ESV for my night-time unguided readings.
ESV Bibles are fantastic in their printing as well. Many use the sublime Lexicon font (if I could use it for this blog, I would), and generally the typesetting is sublime. The real issue is that there is a lack of midline options. Basic text ESV is fine, but the studies are a little pricey. I have a $20 ESV to travel with, and there are some great value hardcovers, like the ESV Literary Study Bible. I haven’t encountered an ESV that doesn’t make sense to me as a good value for its price, though Crossway definitely offers configurations that are too rich for my blood.
NASB & Amplified
I have a love-dread relationship with the NASB (New American Standard Version, sometimes pronounced nas-B). It is probably the translation I am most familiar with, yet I’ve struggled to memorize pretty much any of it after years of use.
The NASB is a scholar’s Bible. It’s painstakingly literal, and probably the closest we’ll get to the original languages (barring the Amplified Bible, which is very similar to the NASB) in contemporary English. The Amplified Bible is very similar. Despite its name, which might evoke a sense of New Agey reinterpretations, the Amplified Bible gets its name from its method of in-line “amplifications” to help “open up” the ancient texts. While the Amplified is literal, it takes some potential liberties in its amplifications, which makes some people leery of it. However, these are always marked out so that there is no chance to confuse interpretation with Scripture.
Either option is great for serious study, if you can handle the fact that both of these are grade level 11 Bibles, and that’s taken from a survey of everything (e.g. not the hardest passages, where their affinity for the original text can make them outright byzantine). The NASB is more of a “scholar’s” Bible, while the Amplified is more of a layperson’s Bible given its in-line content. An NASB study Bible can help greatly, though it still won’t make the text easier the way the Amplified does.
When it was my main Bible, I read the NASB pretty much exclusively from an app. NASB printings are pretty good in quality, though the generic text and reference kind I see most often have rather colorful covers. This strikes me as a little odd given the translation’s philosophy, and the study Bibles and preacher’s Bibles have very hidebound (pun somewhat intended) design philosophies. When I see Amplified Bibles, they’re usually hardcovers, which are much more affordable. Hardcover is the best price-per-value option in Bible buying, since good hardcovers will lay flat, but the downside is that they make less than ideal carry Bibles because they’re unwieldy. I think some of this might be my exposure to a certain section of the market.
The Lockman Foundation, an interdenominational non-profit, handles both the NASB and Amplified translations with a strict dedication to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Ironically, while the NASB and Amplified Bibles could be my “desert island” Bible if I knew I could never touch another translation, I also can’t stand the thought of going back to using them alone. My church often uses NASB, and we use it as the primary translation in my Bible study class, but I carry a different Bible and follow along with print-outs of the NASB text since I find the NASB hard to focus on.
The CSB (Christian Standard Bible, formerly Holman Christian Standard Bible) is very middle-of-the-road. While technically a dynamic equivalence Bible, it is the closest to literal of the options in that category, to the point where it’s probably the only dynamic equivalence Bible I’d feel comfortable with as a sole Bible.
The term the CSB team uses is “optimal equivalence” rather than dynamic equivalence, because they make more concessions to the formal equivalency approach than other dynamic equivalence teams, and it strikes a good balance between readability and accuracy. You’ll see people who point to a mathematical study to support this point. I’m skeptical of numbers-driven Biblical analysis but my personal experience (as someone who got a CSB study Bible on a lark and now uses it as a daily reading Bible) suggests this.
One thing about the CSB compared to the ESV is that its average reading level is a 7th grade level compared to the ESV’s 8th-10th (depending on who you ask) grade level. Although American schools are failing badly, both should be comprehensible to most adults.
The problem is that some books are plain difficult and there’s no way around that. The CSB is a strong candidate for new believers or believers who want a Bible they can read without having to work through the language. Because the CSB sacrifices some form for dynamic equivalency, hard passages are easier in the CSB while simpler passages seem to retain their elegance and form.
I read a CSB study Bible daily for my morning devotional reading and have a carry Bible in the CSB translation. There are many options for devotional and study Bibles alongside good printings of text and reference Bibles in various formats. I find CSB printings inexpensive and high-quality, though I’ve had problems tracking down specific configurations.
As with the ESV, I haven’t encountered the CSB often in my church community.
The New Living Translation is a very fluid dynamic equivalence Bible that modernizes the style and language. It’s streamlined and fast while still holding Scripture in reverence.
I would not recommend the NLT as one’s only Bible (consider the CSB), but I would be more comfortable with it as a primary Bible than I would any of the paraphrases or looser dynamic equivalent Bibles, or even the NRSV. The NIrV may be a better option for someone who finds other Bibles too difficult at all, but the NLT is a capable Bible for devotional reading.
I strongly suggest NLT study Bibles, and the “generic” NLT is the Filament Bible, which includes extra resources through a partner app. I don’t use apps while reading the Bible, so I read a study NLT. The particular one I have is a The Way NLT, which I bought because it is basically the opposite of me in many ways: modern, hip, and unchurched-friendly.
While I may roll my eyes at the modern youth pastor stylings of many of the study materials, which aim for a 16-30 demographic that I’m on the upper edge of, sometimes it pays to look back at these beginner questions that we may have assumed we knew the answers to and assume the humility of a child (though I wouldn’t recommend a child’s Bible to an adult).
One reason I prefer the NLT to loose dynamic equivalent translations like the NIV is that it flows tremendously well with the added rigor of a team of experts to give it a little more oomph than the readability-first Message.
Consider Corinthians 14:16-17 in the NLT:
16 For if you praise God only in the spirit, how can those who don’t understand you praise God along with you? How can they join you in giving thanks when they don’t understand what you are saying? 17 You will be giving thanks very well, but it won’t strengthen the people who hear you.View the full text of 1 Corinthians 14 on Bible Gateway
There’s a future-perfect concession to Greekism and accuracy in verse 17, but it’s much more straightfoward than the CSB’s optimal equivalence (if you click the link above, you can select a wider variety of translations to compare with).
The NLT also makes some interesting decisions regarding its sources. Although dynamic equivalence is the name of the NLT game, it feels more conservative in how it fills in meanings of obscure passages, keeping idioms and euphemisms as-is.
Plus, Tyndale makes good Bibles. I’ve seen some people online complain about particular printings of the NLT, but I’ve never seen an issue with one in person. Their price-to-value is good and they offer best-selling studies, including the Life Application Study Bible. This helps add meat to the dynamic equivalence style of the NLT and covers many of the misgivings I’d have with it.
Just be forewarned that a joke at the expense of the NLT is that skaters consider it too informal. You won’t get elegance here, but you will get a humble modernization of Scripture.
The New King James Version is a modernization of the KJV. It adds translator notes that draw on the modern Alexandrian texts preferred by other Protestant Bibles, but it still uses the Textus Receptus form of the Byzantine text as its primary source.
The NKJV focuses on linguistic elegance and formal equivalence, making it a very well-polished Bible for people like myself who enjoy the churchiness of that style. It’s also redesigned to avoid the pitfalls that come when trying to use the Elizabethan English dialect.
The irony is that while we may think of the KJV as archaic, it is based on more recent sources (i.e. sources that are copies of copies) and modern scholars think it has some extra additions that were originally marginalia. These aren’t significant for most doctrinal purposes (except for some theologically dubious fundamentalist sects who can be refuted despite these passages), but the KJV-only sorts who complain that other translations remove things from the Bible can rest assured that the NKJV has them.
There’s a similar translation, the Modern English Version, which I am unfortunately unfamiliar with. The MEV feels more fluid from what I’ve looked at in comparisons, but it’s still a formal equivalence translation. Like the NKJV, it uses the Textus Receptus.
I like the King James Version, but rarely recommend it. It is a difficult text for a modern reader. Its language is beautiful, but its beauty obscures its substance.
If you have extensive familiarity with the Bible, the KJV is great.
If you are used to interpreting the KJV, the KJV is great.
If you have an edition of the KJV with extra marginalia to help explain it, the KJV is great.
But I won’t recommend a KJV unless I know the person I’m talking to will be fully equipped to tackle the task. If your church uses the KJV and you are in fellowship and feel comfortable engaging with Scripture in it, go ahead.
There are strict KJV-onlyists. I know a few through online acquaintance, and I have respect for some of them. There is nothing wrong with an earnest preference for the KJV, and most of the people I know have an understandable skepticism of modern translation efforts.
However, some KJV-only arguments involve claims to divine revelation or delving into numerology that are in line with cult behavior. Avoid worshipping the translation rather than the word of God it reveals. I’ve seen people who argue that if you can’t understand the KJV you don’t have the Holy Spirit. As someone who understands the KJV, I disagree vehemently.
Finding a good print KJV is easy. The text itself is in the public domain, so you’re not hooked into any idiosyncracies. I like Tyndale’s Filament KJV for people who want a basic Bible, and there are so many options in print style, size, format, in-text supports, and study content that anyone can find a KJV custom-tailored to them.
The KJVER is a moderately obscure variant of the KJV, which I own a copy of. They’re cheap and don’t seem to have gotten much traction, but combine linguistic updates with in-line definitions of terms left in archaic Elizabethan English. I almost wish it had left some thees, thous, and -th endings in, but it’s worth checking out if you want the closest thing to a KJV that’s easy to read.
Alright, I guess I should point out that the NIV is actually a fine translation. Although there are controversies with its gender-inclusive language (and the ill-fated TNIV, which definitely went a step too far), gender-inclusion is a much better fit for contemporary English speakers. There are a few other regrettable interpretations in certain passages, but if you read your Bible enough to avoid proof-reading gotchas you won’t have problems with it.
I don’t encourage anyone to switch to the NIV, though the NIrV is superior to the other options at its reading level (certainly for adults, though perhaps also for children). I’d go CSB, NLT, or ESB first, depending on my audience. It is a popular teen/advanced children Bible, and while I’d go for the NLT for kids I could see the NIV as a step up for teens who want a little more but can’t handle something like an ESB (though the CSB also suggests itself in this occasion).
However, as someone who was briefly anti-NIV because of the controversy surrounding it, I think I owe it something of an apology. I have a lot of NIVs from when I was a boy and a teenager. They mostly gather dust because it’s not my favorite translation, but they played a formative role in my early walk with Christ.
I have a theory that the NIV is popular because it’s the first really big Bible to appeal to the dynamic equivalence crowd. The Living Bible paved the road to a more accessible text of Scripture, but as a paraphrase it would never see mass adoption for most applications and needed the extra rigor that went into the NLT to make it suitable for wider adoption.
One thing that is interesting about the NIV is that it’s an entirely original translation. Every other Bible I recommend is part of a lineage going back to the KJV. The 1901 ASV is the common ancestor for most of them (barring the NKJV and MEV, which just go to the KJV directly), but the NIV is a from-scratch translation.
This gives it some peculiarities and quirks, which might also explain why I like it less than my ASV-derived favorites. If you’ll read the NIV, it’s a good option for you. If you know someone who needs the NIrV, or you want experience with a Bible translated into very simple language, the NIrV is a great choice and I don’t have the same hesitancy about it since it is the best in that sphere.
Translations to Avoid
I can warn you that some translations are not suitable for most believers:
The New World Translation is a modified Bible distributed by the Jehova’s Witnesses.
The Passion Translation has questionable methodology (to say the least) and cannot account for many of its unusual passages.
The Joseph Smith Translation, a modified KJV used by the LDS Church, has deliberate errors in Christology and theology to support doctrine at odds with orthodox believers.
I avoid secular translations. The closest I’d come is the NRSV (which is translated by believers who are much more mainline and liberal than I am), which is used in contemporary academic scholarship. I own one, but use it rarely. With that said, I prefer it to the NIV in some ways, since it is more conservative (in a translation sense) in some of its extrapolation in obscure passages and similar in its approach to gender language throughout the Bible.
Secular translations can be well-done as far as the content of the text, but I would be concerned that the creators view it as a mere job and not a sacred duty. They are experts, but not as respectful.
I also would avoid translations that include non-canonical books. The Apocrypha and Deuterocanon are not warning signs: many good translations feature them, but there are historical reasons for this. The Catholic editions of some Bibles are going to have minor changes to the Protestant canon as well, but I’m not anti-Catholic and don’t think it would hurt you (but you are getting more text at what will likely be a higher price).
If you see translations including gnostic texts or other texts traditionally excluded from Christian canon and mainstream extracanonical texts, this is a red flag that the translators may come from a tradition with a history of distorting the text. Christians usually avoid these documents outside an academic context because they are heretical, forgeries, or both.
For instance, there were early efforts to combine the Gospels into one. While useful as a study tool (chronological Bibles do this without removing the distinctions between the sources), we would not consider these Scripture because they do not have a verifiable connection to an apostle or prophet (compared to the writings of Paul, who had an attested epiphany from Christ, or the writings of the Minor Prophets).
Remember that I am a layperson. While I believe that reading and studying the Bible is important, my goal with this is to get people reading Bibles. A translation is a tool that lets you do that. The right tool makes the job better, and knowing how to pick that tool is important.
Being pragmatic with translations makes sense. If your church uses a translation, it’s probably the best translation for you if you feel comfortable in your church. Your church might not have an official preferred translation, but you can still usually ask a pastor or respected fellow congregant for guidance. If you are reading a translation other than the one your church uses for services, do a little due diligence, but the popular translations right now are all excellent translations.
There isn’t a single best translation. It depends on the needs of the reader. If your church uses a translation you don’t like, they may have a good reason for doing this. Some places that don’t have KJV-only philosophical bents still find the KJV the best translation for their purposes. Others may use a dynamic equivalent translation that’s “weaker” than some people might like (for instance, preaching from the NLT), but have a mission field that makes this easier and more accessible translation appropriate.
Don’t stir up trouble because of others’ choices of translation. Unless they are false teachers, they have likely prayerfully considered their use of a translation or simply inherited the translation they use. The greatest heretics follow in the footsteps of Marcion and Arius, and many have had Scripture deemed incontrovertibly authoritative which they apply to their fraudulent ends through deception.
You should choose a translation with some seriousness. However, you do not need to commit to a single translation. You can and should compare translations, even if you only do so when tackling difficult passages. Many translations have something to recommend them.
Remember that God has chosen us to steward Scripture through our faithful service. We live in unprecedented times, where technology and archaeology offer the best opportunity to prepare translations that reflect the closest manuscripts to what the prophets, apostles, and their followers originally wrote. This should not lead us to discard older translations. Every finding shows that the Holy Spirit shepherded Scripture through the generation, and no accepted textual variants throw proper doctrine into doubt.
When skeptics scoff at the need for a variety of translations, the reality is simple.
Each translation serves a purpose, and now we have the luxury of producing translations that speak to the poorest among us in vernacular English and raise Scripture to the greatest heights in the written English language. We have translations that preserve the original form and the original meaning, and those that carry the meaning onward into modern English. There are thousands of people consumed in prayerful and scholarly work to ensure that everyone can access the salvation given to us through faith in Christ by the grace of God.
The variation is not reason to be ashamed, or to feel that some have gone astray. Rather, it is a testament to the glory God invites to partake in.