5 Guidelines for Picking the Right Bible Translation

bible translations

An experienced pastor I greatly respect, a truly world-class Bible expositor whose series through Ephesians changed my life, sat in a room with a bunch of skinny, exegetically deficient young preacher wannabes. I was the skinniest. He was trying to mentor our motley crew, providing one piece of wisdom after another, pieces I have always, by God’s grace, followed.

Except one. This pastor told us young men to get one Bible and stick with it. His point was not so much to stick with one translation (he himself checked multiple translations regularly) but to have one edition that you really get to know.

Having just one physical copy of the Bible aids memory, because it’s where you spend all your Bible reading and study time. The very place on the page where certain verses lie becomes coded in your kinesthetic memory and even helps it along, providing visual and tactile aids to the brain. By having just one translation and one edition, you work that Bible as deeply into your thinking as it can go.

And when an entire church, or group of churches, or even an entire nation of Christians, uses basically one Bible translation, genuinely wonderful things happen. An individual Christian’s knowledge of the Bible increases almost by accident, because certain phrases become woven into the language of the community. Christians are constantly reinforcing each other’s knowledge of the Bible every time they mention it in conversation. There is great value in having a common standard.

Quite obviously, the KJV served as that standard in English-speaking lands for a good 300 years.

And this common standard is a value we have lost. It may not be gone forever, but barring some cataclysmic event I can’t foresee, it is gone for your lifetime and mine. English-speaking Christianity is too fractured, too tribalized.

I have been called to serve all Christian tribes with my writing. The lack of an accepted standard means I simply cannot become master of one Bible translation and one Bible edition. I have to check all the good ones all the time, because I write for groups who use them.

I did not follow my mentor’s advice. Even he, for various reasons, had to give up the Bible edition he’d had for decades and use a different translation. Through no fault of his own, he had to start fresh at age 46. This is what happens when the common standard falls away.

We can and should lament what we’ve lost.

An embarrassment of Bible translation riches

But I am perfectly convinced that we should also rejoice in what we have gained. Many, many other cultures do not have this amazingly good problem we have: so many quality Bible translations, available in quality print and digital formats, with notes and study aids and audio Bibles and apps! It has never been easier for English-speaking people who love the Bible to find and use excellent Bible study tools. And the very best tools I know for studying the Bible are good Bible translations.

Here are five ways, drawn directly from my own experience, that I think the proliferation of (good) Bible translations can help you—or help you help others.

1. Use the NIrV for struggling readers

I had the privilege of teaching almost every Sunday morning for six years in an outreach ministry to impoverished, functionally illiterate adults. Which translation is best for teaching the Bible in that setting? These folks listened well to the Bible, but they choked on the KJV, NASB, and even the ESV. They simply got lost in all the verbiage, and I don’t blame them. (I could tell specific stories, some of them quite funny.)

For such an audience, I recommend using the New International Reader’s Version. It was perfect for my adult class. The shorter sentences were a huge aid to the public reading of Scripture I was always doing. The NIrV also restates the subject of a sentence rather than using a pronoun; this alone was fantastically helpful. I preached through Romans, the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire Old Testament (hitting the high points), and all along the NIrV allowed me to explain the Bible rather than being forced to explain the English.

2. Use a more literal translation for close textual analysis

I once taught a small Sunday school class for young parents in which, because we were in a college town, there were eight—count them—PhDs or PhD students. More literal translations were best suited for that group, as well as for the study in which we were engaged. We were parsing some fine distinctions in the text, and I needed ambiguities to remain rather than be decided by an interpretive translation. It’s awkward to have to disagree with the Bible translation from which you’re teaching (though it’s also a good thing to do every so often, just to keep your listeners from assuming that a given translation is perfect).

I am very open to disagreement on this point, but for most truly “expository” Bible teaching of literate adults—the kind of teaching that really digs into Scripture—I think you’ll find that a more literal translation, such as the ESV or NASB, is the best tool.

3. Use whatever is on hand for evangelism/counseling, but turn to a centrist translation if you can

I once sat on the floor of a gym talking to a twelve-year-old camper at a Christian camp late one summer. Because of certain sensitivities on the part of the camp constituency, we counselors were asked to use the KJV. This kid had spiritual questions but no church background, and I’ll never forget the look he gave me when I dutifully read passages to him from the KJV. Utter confusion. So I broke the camp rule. I felt the spirit of the law was more important. I was called to explain the Bible to this kid, not to teach him Jacobean English. I pulled out the pocket NASB I had for my own reading.

I’m not sure the NASB was much better in this case, but it at least had the advantage of sounding like PBS instead of like Shakespeare. If I had had my druthers (I left them at home by accident), I would have pulled out the NIV or the HCSB. Perhaps you have found, as I have, that one of the best things you can do in evangelism or counseling is to ask people to read the Bible in your hand for themselves. This way they can see that you’re not making up what you’re saying. You can focus instead on what God says. Such a conversation—on the bus, on a plane, in a park, at a store—is not the place for expository-level textual analysis. You want simple, clear English and a minimum of interpretive difficulty. You want the NIV or HCSB.

4. Use a reader’s edition and a centrist or dynamic translation for reading big chunks of Scripture

I took several classes in college in which I was required to do a fair bit of Bible reading. For reading big chunks of Bible text at a time, I like the smoother path provided by the centrist and dynamic translations. (I also like to read Bible editions stripped of their chapter and verse numbers—this facilitates reading big chunks. This can be done with visual filters in Logos.) The NIV or NLT may be good here.

5. Use whatever (good) translation someone hands you

Sometimes the justifications for the use of a particular translation are not spiritual at all but financial or prudential. And that’s okay too. The SBC produced the HCSB, an excellent translation, in part because they print millions of pages of Sunday school material and they wanted to have their own Bible translation. Officially, “Broadman & Holman favored having our own translation in order to make the publication of Bibles simpler and more practical” (Loc. 124). I have also heard, though I have failed to substantiate this, that they wanted to avoid paying royalties on other Bible translations. What’s wrong with wanting to be a better steward of funds entrusted to you by the Lord?

If someone you trust hands you a translation and says, “This is what we’re using,” then use it. (If you’re truly fearful that the translation you were handed is not good, talk to your pastor.) You may not have a choice if you’re a children’s ministry leader or a copy editor at a Christian publishing house or the mother of a child in Christian school. Someone else will be choosing a Bible translation for you. Don’t despair. Don’t lament. Make the best of a great situation.

Conclusion

There is general agreement in the evangelical biblical studies community about the character and value of the respective major Bible translations. It isn’t hard to learn what that value is, and years of using the translations will tend to confirm and deepen your understanding of their unique characters. Once you do, you can see the existence of multiple Bible translations as an aid rather than a threat. You can stop asking, “What’s the best Bible translation?” and start asking, “What’s the most useful Bible translation for this particular circumstance?” No tribalism necessary.

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. This is really great, Mark, thanks!

    One way I’ve been making a similar point with my students lately has been to say that “What’s the best translation?” is the wrong question. Instead, I’ve been telling them to ask “What’s the best translation for my purpose?”

    But I think “useful… for this particular circumstance” might be a more useful phrase to say the same thing.

  2. Far from all translations are suitable for parsing fine distinctions in close study. But I would not limit myself to 2-3 versions, but instead first create a “reading list” which tells me which versions I want to use for which parts or sections of Scripture. I have created such a list and am going to continue to refine it. I don’t use the ESV at all and have hidden it from start, but I do use for example the NASB77 and the 1971 RSV 2nd Edition. Also, sometimes I find good translations included in commentaries, for example of Gn in “Torah: A Modern Commentary”.
    My point is that when I’ve used some amount of time refining the reading list, I can thereafter while studying feel comfortable about which English Bible versions I open for which sections of Scripture, I probably don’t stray too far off of a translation close to the original language grammar. As I use several versions, while reading English I may miss many parallels where the same underlying Hebrew or Greek word has been used, on the other hand seeing those parallels would perhaps require that I recognize the particular English words used from another passage. Perhaps there will be or are some tools available for finding the important parallels while reading one passage. I far from always memorise the exact English words used, anyway.

    Mark, perhaps Your blog post is more about spontaneous close study, spontaneous evangelizing, and adapting to the people You serve.

    I would add that for reading large chunks of Scripture, to use versions that utilize some distinct wording (vocabulary, less ambiguous phrases) in order for You to not to too quickly skim over what You should grasp from the English text, as You are setting a (somewhat) quick pace anyway and are seldom going to stop several seconds on one expression. The choice of Bible versions is here a bit limited.

    I would not use just one version either for reading through the entire Bible or on paper, some versions are good for some parts whereas others are good for other parts and I’ve been using certain versions for certain parts of Scripture all this time I’ve been Christian a 2nd time, for now 4 years. (Was Christian as a child, teenager and at first as young adult.) Slowly I’ve altered most things in my reading list but it’s much more mature now than previously. For some parts of Scripture I even start from a commentary (usually Oxford Bible Commentary) and hover over a reference to read the actual Bible verse; or start from the Gk verse-by-verse explanatory compilation (Max Zerwick verbum.com/product/4229/a-grammatical-analysis-of-the-greek-new-testament ) and then hover over a verse (for example 2 Pt); or the Gk on which a particular commentary is commenting (f.e. Cambridge Greek Testament Mark 2nd Edition from the early 20th century, or ICC original series on GJn particularly for Jn 1).

    Lastly, I WOULD use tools that enable me to compare English Bible versions in a very effective manner and find out about their distinctions for any given verse in the Bible, but if You spot a sale on such a resource the sale is ending now. Tools cost a few hundred $. Usually if You read a hint about a tool and see a price it’s typical that it’s the last day that it’s valid. I don’t comment every Day and usually not even every Week on the internet about Bible versions. For the same money You could of course get several English Bible versions, but You can perhaps not buy the time needed (both) to read and compare them in parallel.

  3. Steve Shelton says:

    I have always used the KJV. There was a time when I would not haveeven consider looking at another translation. This is not the case anymore. I preach and teach from the KJV and have no plans to change. I am thankful though I have the ability with Logos to examine the Hebrew and Greek, and the different translations in my study and preparation for preaching and teaching.

    • I’m glad to hear from readers who use Logos, Steve. Thanks for writing in.

    • Gregorio Billikopf says:

      Mark, I enjoyed this article very much although I don’t think tribalism will end any time soon. Steve, like you, I love the KJV. I am not sure I understand why people find it difficult to read. And I am a native Spanish speaker. The KJV is and has always been my favorite English version by far. I don’t have a second favorite, as there are other translations (never the same one, that is why I don’t have a second best) that take turns rendering a more literal translation. I like YLT and LITV, but even they are not so literal. I wonder what would be the absolutely most literal translation. One of my recent versions that I love is Leeser’s translation of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I keep finding myself checking it. I loved what Mark had to say about not liking the translator to interpret for me. Of course even the KJV does that all the time. Take for instance, the translation of GOYIM as either nations or gentiles. It makes a huge difference and I often disagree (probably because of my Jewish heritage). Although I prefer the more literal Bible translations for sure, I have found, as was mentioned by someone in Mark’s original article, that when we read a different translation and we are shocked by what we read, we can then truly have fun and go on a discovery trip to the Hebrew and to other translations. This is very uplifting and fulfilling to me. And then I see that the KJV may have not been correct from my understanding, or alternatively, was correct. The KJV does not always preserve the most literal rendering. Once in a while another edition does that. I find the KJV more consistently preserves Christ’s divinity and Messiahship, however. Zechariah 13:6, is an example of a Scripture that I believe was best preserved in the KJV. I have over forty Bibles, and some seem to contribute to my study more than others.

  4. Mark,

    I think that this is an excellent writeup. I have thoroughly enjoyed using Logos to be able to look at the various translations in parallel. I find looking at multiple translations helps gain a much deeper understanding of what is being said in a particular passage. I have found it quite odd though that of the various postings about the various translations that the Lexham English Bible (LEB) is not mentioned. I have come to really like this translation and I now use it as my primary translation. (I look forward to the day that Lexham is able to have a print version :)). The LEB version is a literal translation incorporating modern English. I really like using it with the “inline” feature of Logos to be able to view the original Greek/Hebrew with links to the meanings of the original words and have found this to be quite powerful when it comes to reviewing a passage.

    As an aside, I have found the NCV translation a very good starter translation to give to kids. My dad gave me a Bible of this translation when I was a kid and it was very easy to read and understand. I have found that other kids agree with this and like reading the NCV. As I have grown, I have moved to the NIV and ESV along with KJV and really like them and now I am thankful for Logos introducing me to the LEB. Thanks again for this excellent post.

    • An excellent comment, Daniel. I really appreciate you writing in.

      The LEB is used by a lot of Logos users, but I have to admit that I don’t have deep familiarity with it. I’m working on that, however.