Walking into the Bible section at a Christian bookstore is like alphabet soup: ESV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, MSG. What’s with that? Why do we need all those different translations of the Bible?

Bible stack
top to bottom: NLT, ESV, NIV, NASB (c) Carole Sparks

Or maybe your pastor recently switched translations and you’re trying to keep up in the Bible you’ve carried to church for the last twenty years. Hey, I’m not judging. I love an old, well-worn Bible: so much history, so much love, so much spiritual discipline and fruit represented by those weathered pages. What is more, I purposefully take a different version to church so I can compare as we move through the text. But I’m a Bible nerd; y’all know that.

Updated translations help us
understand God’s word better.

Bibles are printed and distributed by publishers who, with the exception of American Bible Society and a few others, are trying to make money (e.g. NIV by Zondervan and CSB by Holman). However, updated translations help us understand God’s word better, so we’ll invest the money…or use BibleGateway!

If you’re looking for a new Bible or just curious about translations, consider these key points first.

3 Factors of Bible Translation

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.  –Deuteronomy 4:2

  1. Scholarly research improves our ability to understand the unchanging ancient texts.
Thanks, Campbell’s vegetable soup!  (c) Carole Sparks

For example, advancements in archaeology help us better understand the background and/or social context presented. We may learn something about ancient Hebrew culture that tells us why a biblical author used a certain example. Studies in ancient linguistics help us improve our grammar, definitions, and/or usage of words and phrases. We may discover a word we thought meant only one thing actually has a range of meanings.  The translators call this accuracy.

Like progress in medicine, God gives us greater understanding for our good, not to destroy or deceive us.

  1. While the Word of God never changes, English changes constantly.

Do you remember trying to read Beowolf in high school? Yargh! We don’t speak or write like we did three hundred years ago. We need the Bible in the language we speak today so we can understand it today. Psalm 23 sounds beautiful in King James English, but in other places all those verbs that end in –th make it more difficult to understand the text, especially if you didn’t grow up with it. The translators call this clarity.

  1. Translation IS interpretation.

Take a look at Colossians 3:1-2 here. I snipped this from BibleGateway.

translation exampleThe translators have to make many decisions regarding just the single word I’ve highlighted (mind/minds/affection). What English word best conveys Paul’s intention when he wrote it? Is it about what we love and pay attention to? Or is it what we think about?

Then there’s English style. Modern convention says we make it plural but perhaps the Greek is singular. And perhaps “affections” didn’t mean the same thing in 1611 that it does now.

Translators must make many
interpretive decisions.

And while we’re at it, Greek word order is crazy to English readers! I remember Greek classes in seminary where we debated which noun a particular adjective modified. (Some of you don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s okay.) Translators have to make that interpretive decision based on their knowledge of the language, on church tradition, on comparative texts (some Biblical, some not), and other factors.

How to Choose the Translation for You

You could dip your spoon into a bowl of alphabet soup and pick the translation having the letters you pull out, but better to do some research.

  1. Read the translator’s preface.
  • Was the translation work done by a committee? Any one person makes mistakes and will undoubtedly translate from his/her point-of-view. A group of translators correct both of those issues. For example, my NASB says, “Decisions about English renderings were made by consensus of a team composed of educators and pastors. Subsequently, review and evaluation by other Hebrew and Greek scholars outside the Editorial Board were sought and carefully considered.”*
  • Does the translation come directly from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts? This isn’t often an issue with English translations, but some Bibles were translated from an English version (for example) into another language. And sometimes the “new” at the front of a translation title means they simply updated the language of an existing translation without additional research.20171204_161008
  • What was the translators’ methodology? There are two translation methods: “formal-equivalence” (word-for-word) and “dynamic-equivalence” (thought-for-thought). There are also paraphrases such as The Living Bible and The Message. If you plan to do in-depth Bible study, you may need a different translation than if you want to read the Bible aloud to kids.
    • The New Living Translation is a good example of a predominantly thought-for-thought translation. Their goal was to convey the meaning of phrases or thoughts rather than individual words, making a very readable version.
    • The Message is a well-known example of a paraphrase. Eugene Peterson translated this himself, trying to captivate and engage modern readers.
    • Because languages and cultures differ so profoundly, it is not possible to make a literal, word-for-word translation. Hebrew doesn’t have articles (a, an, the). No one wants to try to read the Old Testament without these important little helpers. Even in the NASB, the most literal English translation available, the translators accommodated modern readers: “When it was felt that the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom.” (They include the literal rendering in the notes.) The NIV strikes a middle ground on this. Their goal is “blending transparency to the original text with accessibility for the millions of English speakers around the world.” Find a translation that fits your needs and current understanding.

“A purely formal-equivalence translation would be unintelligible in English, and a purely dynamic-equivalence translation would risk being unfaithful to the original.” -NLT translators’ introduction

  1. Read a couple of familiar passages and one that’s typically difficult. John 3:16 isn’t much help here. Go for a psalm, 1 John 1:1-14, Philippians 2:1-11 and/or one of the birth narratives in the gospels. For a difficult passage, try Revelation 4 or 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. (I’ve linked to NIV, as usual.)
  • Are you comfortable with the English? Different translations have different reading levels. Find one in which you understand at least ninety percent of the words. If you’re planning to read aloud, try that as well. The sentences should flow and the thoughts be easy to follow.
  • Is the printed text easy to see? (If you’re looking at electronic versions, skip this point.) If the pages are too thin, sometimes illustrations bleed through. If the font is too small, you’ll find yourself squinting, especially in the dim light of most church worship centers. If there are too many footnotes or if the annotations are too big, they might distract you.
  1. Consider a study Bible.
  • Once you’ve found a set of translators you trust, take advantage of all their 20171204_160919knowledge and all the work they did. Study Bibles have longer notes about alternate readings and explanations of why the translators made the choice they did. They often include cultural insights and connecting references as well.
  • Study Bibles can also help you with difficult passages in the middle of your reading. You don’t need to consult a separate book before you continue.
  • **Word of warning** The notes on the bottom half of your study Bible are NOT inspired. Only the Biblical text was inspired by the Holy Spirit through the original authors. If the notes “strike you funny,” dig into the topic and see what the rest of Scripture says.

Whatever mainline translation you choose, it’s okay. As translators work, they aren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit like the original authors, but God wants His true Word to be known and to be useful. He wants you to be equipped for whatever lies before you. I believe God guards the translation of Scripture just like He guarded the transmission of Scripture through the centuries. And remember,

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.  –2 Timothy 3:16-17

3 notes on Bible translation and 3 suggestions to help you choose the right Bible for you. B/c my #Bible is #NotAboutMe. #bgbg2 via @Carole_Sparks (click to tweet)

How have you chosen Bibles in the past? What point here will stick with you? I’d love to hear your responses in the comments below!

20171204_160831Awesome resource: Go to https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/. Put “English” in the search bar that says Enter version or language. A long list of translations will appear. Click on any one that interests you. Then, under the name of the translation, you will see four tabs. The default is Book List. Click on “About the [name of translation].” There, you can read a short description of the translation goals and methodology. Here’s the link for the ESV, just to get you started. On that page, there’s a drop-down menu so you can shift to other translations quickly. I won’t buy another Bible without using this BibleGateway feature! (And they’re not paying me to say that.)

*All quotes are taken from the prefaces and introductions of the specified translation.

8 thoughts on “The Alphabet Soup of Bible Translations

  1. I love my NASB. I got hooked on it in college and have used it ever since. It’s somewhat modern but still reads much like the King James, which I happen to like. My current Bible is about 30 years old and the tattered leather has long since been covered with pretty fabric! I can’t part with it…. all my notes are in there!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally get that! There’s something beautiful about a well-worn Bible. Have you thought about saving your annotated Bible for your kids? I heard about someone doing that, and it made the most precious gift of spiritual legacy.
      The NASB publisher maintains an editorial board, and they occasionally publish updated versions. Mine is from 1995. So you could shift to a new Bible–all new blank spaces for new notes–without loosing the familiar language.


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