What Bible Translation Should I Use?

 In Influence, Teachings, The Bible, Worship Elements

Eeek! Which is the right translation to use?

A couple of years ago, I taught a “How to Read Your Bible” class at my church. The first week, I intended to cover the various Bible translations briefly. But when I brought up the differences between KJV and NIV and the Message, the class spent nearly an hour asking questions and sharing their frustration at not being able to connect to the impenetrable language of some of the more popular Bible translations.

When I gave the class permission not to use the King James Version, a spontaneous revival nearly broke out.

That night was a big reminder for me that most of us find the Bible to be as intimidating as it is important. We want to read it, to engage, to be formed by it. But the Bible is a collection of stories, poems, law code, history, letters and more written 2,000+ years ago by foreign cultures in other languages.

Unfortunately, the English translations we use can be an additional barrier, particularly for Evangelicals. The generation above me was probably raised on the King James Version (or, in an especially liberal denomination, the New King James). Translated into the King’s English in 1611, anyone who’s ever read the KJV knows the language is as beautiful as it is confusing and archaic (nonetheless, I still have the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 and a few other passages memorized in King James English).

Many in my generation were raised reading the New International Version (NIV) – so far as I know, this is still the most popular version in Evangelical churches today. But the English Standard Version (ESV) is growing in popularity, particularly among New Calvinist congregations, the Southern Baptist Convention created their own translation (the Holman Christian Standard Bible), the NIV is now the new NIV and then there’re the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Message, the mere mention of which is enough to get some preachers spewing venom.

With all the options, which is the best bible translation to use?

Click to see the Bible text (top) and study notes (bottom)

Click to see the Bible text (top) and study notes (bottom)

I have a specific recommendation, but first I want to clarify the difference between the translation and the study notes. For instance: You can purchase a Life Application Study Bible. The study notes for this bible focus on practical, everyday application of biblical passages. Every Life Application bible has the same study notes. But you can buy a Life Application bible in several translations (including NIV and NLT). So if you compared a Life Application (NLT) and a Life Application (NIV), the translation of the actual biblical text be different, but the notes below the text will be the exact same.

(If you’re considering purchasing a study bible, take time to compare a few to decide which notes will best fit your needs. That’s a whole different post from translations, though.)

So what is the best translation to use?

The best bible translation is the one you understand the best. Period.

This is the best one (in my opinion, of course).

This is the best one (in my opinion, of course).

The reality is that no bible translation is actually a bad translation (okay, except for this one). What matters most is that you choose a translation you can really understand. If the language in your translation is a barrier to you actually reading the Bible, you need to try something else.

This is why people argue over translations so much. Of course every translation has a particular bias that can get in the way (I prefer the New Revised Standard Version in part because it’s so committed to more gender-inclusive language). But no translation is perfect and the reality is that any modern translation is sufficient to guide you as you read to be formed by God.

If you’re that worried about the theology of your particular translation, you should probably learn Greek and Hebrew.

As I’ve already mentioned, I personally prefer the NRSV. I rarely recommend it, however. My best friend Tom – a pastor and scholar I highly respect – doesn’t particularly care for it and the general consensus seems to be that it’s not very readable.

I regularly recommend people who are looking for a highly readable, fresh-feeling Bible try out the new Voice translation or The Message. While they’re both great translations (fine, The Message is a paraphrase not a translation. Whatever. Shut up.) for personal reading, you will find they don’t lend themselves to group study well. They’re different enough you’ll struggle to follow along in a group where not everyone is using the same translation.

In our worship gatherings, we teach and preach out of the New Living Translation.

Life Application Study Bible Page

If you don’t know where to start, start here!

There’s nothing magical about this: the NLT is the most readable translation that lends itself readily to group study. And we’re particularly concerned to be welcoming to non-churched persons in our gatherings, so we use the NLT. I run across translation issues fairly regularly, and it’s not a big deal to address them during the message.

What’s most important for us is that the Scriptures feel accessible and understandable to those who are far from God. So we use a translation that sounds familiar. Whenever I buy a Bible for a new Christian or someone who’s exploring what it means to follow Jesus, I buy them a Life Application NLT study bible. We give the same to every adult we baptize.

It’s a great place to start. Eventually, they may want to move on to an NIV or a KJV. I might even be able to get them to check out my personal favorite bible, The New Oxford Annotated NRSV. But if not, no big deal.

As long as you’re reading a Bible you can understand, that’s good enough for me!

YOUR TURN: What’s your favorite translation? Why?

Recent Posts
  • Obviously the most readable is The Brick Testament. http://www.bricktestament.com/home.html

  • Oh my gosh. How did I not even mention Brick Testament?! Thanks Ron, for saving this post!!

    That really is the best translation 😀

  • You’re welcome. It’s what Internet friends do. Lol

  • JR-Thanks for writing this post. I sold Bibles in an independent Christian bookstore in college and got really into the difference between translation. I field several questions a week from people regarding this issue. I will file away this post to be part of the conversation from know on.

    I read/study out of the NRSV and teach out of the NLT as well. I really don’t understand why some call the NRSV unreadable, I think it is fine, but then again I grew up in church and understand the langauge. I enjoy and recommend the NLT mainly because it was translated by a wide group of people, something many contemporary translations can’t say. It is super readable but doesn’t make the reader realize they are reading a 4th grade reading level Bible.

  • henrythomasimler

    I really like the NET for its in-depth notes that go beyond mere “practical application” but explain why a verse is translated the way it is. The NET is online for free. I also like N. T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament in the same way a person might like The Message. It’s very readable and accessible, as well as bringing a fresh sense to certain jargon.

  • Galadhatan

    Every Sunday I carry my NASB and UBS (that is, the Greek New Testament), because, well, that’s me. But I have a new absolute favorite for reading and group study. It’s a hard-to-find New Testament that I for the life of me can’t remember the publisher right now (I believe the translation is the NIV): basically they’ve reorganized the order of the New Testament to fit thematic elements and authorial style, and they’re removed verse and chapter annotations (except the bottom of each page in microscopic print lists the chapter-verses included in that page). I’ve spilt much ink on how the verse annotations of our Bibles have radically altered our perception of the text from their original formats (as letters and scriptures). This is a nice correction, or that is, as a meaningful new encounter with the text (even for me, and I’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of texts). I’ll grab it at home later and get the publisher.

  • I’ve never read the NET. I’ll definitely check it out based on your recommendation!

  • Thanks Chad! I agree with you… Tom must be crazy about the NRSV 😀

    I think Erwin McManus was the first to point out (to me) the NLT started as a kids bible. That’s so funny. And so awesome. Because it really is so understandable!

  • Ooo! I can’t wait. I love Bibles that push hard on those sorts of non-inspired structural changes. Have you read The Voice translation? I think you’d enjoy it.

  • John B.

    Appreciate the article! The Message is indeed a translation, not a paraphrase. The difference as I understand it is the editor of a paraphrase worked only off of other English translations to create their version (instead of working from the original languages). Eugene Peterson worked off the original Greek and Hebrew to create the Message instead of using other English translations. So even though The Message is so unlike many of the other versions and sounds so loose and free in its language, it’s still a translation and not a paraphrase.

    Thanks for the article!

  • I used to be a KJ girl, but now I’m more NIV. In my Bible study, when we come across differences in translation, we’ll compare and talk that out too. And that’s led to some cool little side streets and discussions. When I was younger, I could be very bothered by translations that didn’t quite match up. For example, being “set free” means something very different to me than being “made free”. I could get really hung up on stuff like that.

    But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more relaxed about it and take in what I think God is telling me to learn. Maybe next time I read it I’ll take something different from it, I don’t know, but He reaches me as He needs to wherever I am at the moment. I do prefer a more concise text. So some of the new-fangled Bibles I’ve come across that I think are written with more words in an effort to make it more understandable – they just muddle me up. I’ll say 10 words where 1 would suffice myself, but I find that irritating in my Bible. Great post JR!

  • Haydn Ross

    To come in having not read the previous comments and having limited knowledge on this topic I want to make a comment not mentioned (not due to ignorance) in the text above but for the Hebrew text I would say the Tanakh. Here is why: one I used it in my Hebrew bible class this past semester and it was pretty readable and came with trusted footnotes. There were very few times that the translation had to be corrected by my professor. Secondly, I would say this is the text that would reference and read most close to the Hebrew text without having to learn the language. At least according to my professor (who has a PhD from the University of North Carolina and has worked closely with Bart Ehrman), whom I deeply respect. Also, I know that JR mentioned that any translations work if they work for you but from the scholarly standpoint the KJ has numerous textual errors. Particularly in Genesis 1:1. Not just from a translation standpoint that “In the beginning” should actually not be before everything but rather in the midst of the process but furthermore that the poem starts post the Enuma Elish. That would be my immediate comment. Again, I do not have extension knowledge on this but just wanted to comment where I could. Two final things: One, I am open to any critiques to this response. Two, I know that the NOAB is also well accepted by those who do scholarly work, as it was mentioned both by my TA and professor multiple times this semester. Otherwise, extremely helpful and delightful piece friend!

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Haydn Ross!

    The Tanakh isn’t really a translation – that’s just how Jewish people refer to the Bible (It’s actually an acronym: Ta is Torah (Law), Na is Naviim (Prophets) and Kh is Ketuvim (Writings). You can find plenty of translations of the Tanakh just like you can a Christian bible. I own a Jewish Publication Society Tanakh study bible with the JPS translation, which is my go-to Hebrew Bible translation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same translation of the Tanahk your professor uses.

    As for the scholarship issues, I agree with you of course – that’s why I personally use the NRSV translation and the NOAB study notes. But if someone really understands the NIV or NLT or whatever best and will read it more than they’ll read an NRSV, I’m not going to get in the way of that. For personal formation, any translation will do just fine.

  • Thanks John!

    That’s the way I’ve always understood it too. But frankly, I think it’s a discussion not worth having. The only people who argue about it are those who don’t like The Message (in my experience) and I’m not going to convince them, anyway 😀

  • Thanks, Michelle! I wonder what you’d make of the NLT or the Voice translations. They’re very good and very accessible.

  • You know, one of the things that bothered me about having various translations is I thought that God put down this one original version and that was His word. Any variation on that was man messing it up. It even bothered me that scribes had copied the text for so many years, and errors or changes could easily occur that way.

    You mentioning these others I might like made me think again of how, when you translate something and then add a whole bunch of extra description and all, then it’s more of an interpretation. And that old idea came back to me: is it still God’s word or has it been man-handled into what we want?

    But like I said, now that I’m older, I realize that God is in control. If He can do all the amazing things that I believe He can do, then certainly He can control what is a direct message from him to us. Why wouldn’t he put it out there in ways that people can understand? I had a friend who needed to use a very, very descriptive Bible, that explained things in what was to me a really confusing and long-winded way. But she had a reading disability that made it hard for her to grasp concepts from print. But that particular Bible allowed God to speak to her. He knows what he’s doing. 🙂

    Sorry to glom up more of the comments, but this is an interesting topic.

  • John Hadfield

    The Jerusalem Bible is the one I prefer. It sticks closely to the original Hebrew and Greek, but nevertheless is very readable by people of our generation. Or course, evangelicals probably don’t like it, because it is approved by the Catholic Church.
    Otherwise, there is a good Bible with a word-for-word translation of the Greek by Alfred Marshall in the middle of the page and the NRSV on the left and the NIV on the right I find that the NIV contains some passages which do not seem to conform to the original Greek and I wonder if the NIV translators did not choose whichever of the available Greek texts happened to accord with their personal preferences.
    There is another, very important point about the New Testament. The 27 book version of the New Testament that we know today was chosen in 367 AD by Bishop Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. There are many other books, some of which are accepted by some Christians and rejected by others. It would appear that the basic 27 books are accepted by most of the Western churches, be they Protestant or Catholic. Presumably everyone in the West has faith in the selection made by Athanasius.
    The other books not chosen by Athanasius can be very interesting to read, some of them rather magical in their interpretations, but who can say that Athanasius chose the right books?

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The Calvinist by NOT John Piper