Let me say this right off the bat: there is a lot I could write on the subject of Bible translations. I’m serious — you would be surprised at the huge volume of information that’s available regarding the theories of translation, the history of different Bible versions, the theological ramifications of having separate versions of God’s Word available for public consumption, and much more.
If you’re into that kind of thing, I can recommend an excellent eBook called Bible Translation Differences. It was written by one of my former college professors named Leland Ryken, who is a genius and just happens to have been part of the translation team for the English Standard Version. So, you can have fun with that if you want to.
On the other hand, if you want a brief, basic look at some of the major Bible translations today — and if you want something written by a non-genius type like me — then keep reading.
One of the mistakes people make when they shop for a Bible translation is to say, “I want a literal translation.” The truth is that every version of the Bible is marketed as a literal translation. There are no Bibles currently on the market that are promoted as “not literal.”
What we need to understand is that different Bible translations have different ideas of what should be considered “literal.” Fortunately, there are just two major approaches on which we need to focus: word-for-word translations and thought-for-thought translations.
Word-for-Word translations are pretty self-explanatory — the translators focused on each individual word in the ancient texts, deciphered what those words meant, and then combined them together to form thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, and so on. The advantage of these translations is that they pay painstaking attention to the meaning of each word, which does help preserve the integrity of the original texts. The disadvantage is that these translations can sometimes be more difficult to read and comprehend.
Thought-for-thought translations focus more on the complete meaning of the different phrases in the original texts. Rather than isolate individual words, these versions attempt to capture the meaning of the original text within their original languages, and then translate that meaning into modern prose. As an advantage, these versions are typically easier to comprehend and feel more modern. As a disadvantage, people aren’t always certain about the exact meaning of a phrase or thought in the original languages, which can lead to different translations today.
Here is a helpful chart for identifying where different translations fall on the scale between word-for-word and thought-for-thought.
Now that you understand the different types of translations, let’s quickly highlight five of the major Bible versions available today.
- King James Version (KJV). This translation represents the gold-standard for many people, and it certainly is the oldest of the major versions available today — the original KJV debuted in 1611, although it has undergone major revisions since that time. The KJV falls on the word-for-word end of the translation spectrum and is considered by many to be a more “literal” version of God’s Word than more modern translations.
My personal opinion is that the King James Version helped revolutionize the English language and paved the way for many people to experience God’s Word for themselves — but it’s out of date. The wording of the KJV rings as archaic in today’s world, and at times it can be almost impossible to decipher the meaning of the text given the major changes our language has experienced in 400 years.
Here is John 1 in the King James Version.
- New King James Version (NKJV). The New King James Version was published in 1982 by Thomas Nelson, and was intended to be a more modern expression of the original KJV. The goal was to create a translation that kept the word-for-word integrity of the KJV, but was easier to read and understand. This translation was largely a success. The NKJV is a truly modern translation that does a good job of highlighting the best parts of its predecessor.
Here is John 1 in the New King James Version.
- New International Version (NIV). The NIV is far and away the best-selling Bible translation in recent decades, and for good reason. The translators chose to focus on clarity and readability with the NIV, and by and large they did a masterful job of communicating the thought-for-thought meaning of the original languages in a way that is understandable today.
Many people have been critical of recent revisions to the NIV, including an alternate version called the TNIV, which included gender-neutral language and became highly controversial. Published by Zondervan, the NIV seems to have struck a better balance in a 2011 revision, which includes a shade of gender neutrality for human beings (as in, “humankind” instead of “mankind”), but does not alter the masculine language typically applied to God in Scripture.
Here is John 1 in the New International Version.
- New Living Translation (NLT). Originally published in 1966 by Tyndale House (named after translator William Tyndale), the NLT is a thought-for-thought translation that feels decidedly different from the NIV. The NLT translation feels very informal when I read it — almost like I’m reading someone’s summary of the biblical text. For this reason, I typically look to the NLT when I feel confused about the meaning of a text, but I don’t use it for everyday study.
Here is John 1 in the New Living Translation.
- Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). The HCSB is a relatively new translation, published in 1999. It’s a bit revolutionary because it attempts to bridge the gap between word-for-word translation and thought-for-thought. Basically, the translators mostly used word-for-word translations, but when the meaning of specific words wasn’t immediately clear, they switched to a thought-for-thought philosophy.
The result is a Bible version that remains true to the integrity of the text, but also compares well with the NIV and NLT in terms of readability.
(Disclosure: during my day-job I work for LifeWay Christian Resources, which publishes the HCSB. This has not influenced my appreciation for the version, but I wanted to get that on the table.)
Here is John 1 in the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
- English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV is the newest major translation, published in 2001. It leans more toward the word-for-word spectrum and has quickly become popular with pastors and theologians who value the idea of remaining true to the ancient texts in their original languages. The ESV also has a literary quality that many other translations lack — it often helps the Bible feel more like a work of great literature rather than a manual for daily life.
Here is John 1 in the English Standard Version.
That’s my brief overview. If one of the above translations stands out as interesting or appealing, I recommend you give it a try. Go to BibleGateway.com and switch between translations on some of your favorite verses to get a feel for the differences between them.
Editors Note: We received several comments from our readers about their concern for publishing several one-sided stories on “Today’s Bible Versions.” Here is an attempt to provide an objective view. The readers may decide which versions they prefer from the summary of the major Bible translation available to us today, BibleGateway.com. Whichever version you choose, we encourage you to read your Bible Daily. According to Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College), “Reading Scripture is like eating food. We have to do it regularly, it tastes good to taste buds that are alive, and it nourishes us for the day. Bible reading is stored energy, stockpiled emotional and psychological capital. We stay afloat throughout the day by making moment-by-moment withdrawals from that vast reservoir.
Reading the Bible is a personal experience—“person-al,” one person to another. What other book do we read, conscious of the author interacting with us as we do so? Daily Bible reading requires routine and structure, but it is not mechanical—just as a body requires a bony skeleton, but it is not the skeleton that gives it life. We do with the Bible what the Psalms guide us in doing—adore God, thank him, complain to Him, wrestle with Him, express perplexity to Him, and all the rest.”
Author: Sam O’Neal
Sam O’Neal is a professional writer and editor for LifeWay and Bible Studies for Life. Sam is a former editor for Christianity Today and LifeWay Christian Resources. Currently, Sam works as a senior editor at Thomas Nelson Publisher. Sam has authored four books on Bible studies, including The Bible Answer Book, Field Guide for Small-Group Leaders, Bible Stories You May Have Forgotten (co-authored with James Bell), and The Spiritual World of The Hobbit (co-authored with James Bell). He is also the content expert on the Bible for https://www.learnreligions.com/.