In the 25+ years I’ve led and participated in Bible studies, the most-asked question by far—by both new Bible readers and longtime students of the Bible—is what the best Bible translation is. And every time I’m asked, I always wish I had a simple answer!
Perhaps the better question is: What is the best Bible translation for me right now?
Before I try to offer an answer (and hopefully, equip you to help answer that for others too), let’s explore the basics of Bible translations.
What is Bible translation? And why it’s important
Bible translation involves rendering the Bible into languages other than what it was originally written in with the goal of making the Bible not only readable but understandable to everyone in their own language.
But there are thousands of languages!
In fact, according to Wycliffe Bible Translators—a mission agency focused on training local people to translate the Bible into the language that speaks to them best—there are over 7,000 languages spoken (or signed) around the world.
Wycliffe says the entire Bible has been translated into 704 languages, the New Testament into an additional 1,551 languages, and portions of the Bible or individual stories into 1,160 other languages.1 This means some portion of the Bible has been translated into 3,415 languages.
But approximately 3,945 languages still need Scripture—which means the people who speak these languages are not able to read God’s Word in their native tongue.2
Because the Bible is more than a book of antiquated stories about wars and relationships—it’s the living, breathing Word of God with the power to transform hearts and minds—translating the original language manuscripts into these 3,945 languages is critical.
The history of Bible translation
Bible translations aren’t new. They’ve been around since before Christ. In fact, in the fifth century BC, after the priest Hilkiah rediscovered the book of the law of Moses in the temple (see 2 Kings 22:8), the Levites stood before God’s people and read the Scriptures aloud. Nehemiah 8:8 says:
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Emphasis mine)
The New International Version (NIV) says the priests “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read,” and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) says they read the book of the law of God “translating and giving the meaning.” Thus, they were explaining the first five books of the Bible for the people in a way they could comprehend.
They were translating.
In the third century BC, Jews produced what’s known as the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament for the Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt. Ron Rhodes writes that this translation “solved a big problem” because “many of the Jews who grew up in these cities could no longer speak Hebrew, but only Greek.”3
Bible translation took off in the first century, Rhodes writes, as early followers of Jesus obeyed his words to “make disciples of all nations”:
Early in biblical history, Syriac or Aramaic translations of the Bible became increasingly important as Christianity spread throughout Central Asia, India, and China. As Christianity continued to spread even further, the need developed for Egyptian (Coptic), Ethiopic, Gothic (Germanic), Armenian, and Arabic translations.
Because Latin emerged as the common language in many parts of the Roman Empire, a man by the name of Jerome was commissioned by the Bishop of Rome to translate the Scriptures into Latin in AD 382. This translation continued to be an unofficial standard text of the Bible throughout the Middle Ages.4
Latin, however, slowly became the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, etc.) and ceased to be the common language of the European people. Latin hung on as a scholarly and ecclesiastical (the two things were not distinguished at the time) language, which meant the Church depended on clergy to communicate biblical truth. The Latin translation was called the “Vulgate,” the “common” Bible. But it was not until the fifteenth-century rise of vernacular languages and the invention of the printing press that most “common folk” could again read Scripture for themselves. (More on this below.)
John Wycliffe—an English philosopher, theologian, reformer, priest, seminary professor at the University of Oxford and an advocate for translating the Bible into common language—finished his English translation in 1382. Unfortunately, he worked from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate instead of the original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek texts, which led to translation shortcomings.
William Tyndale would be the first to translate the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek (though technically, Myles Coverdale was the one who completed the full translation of that Bible after Tyndale’s death) in 1535. For his work, Tyndale was burned at the stake. His crime? Heresy. But his efforts were not in vain. Ryken says just over 80 percent of the King James Bible is essentially Tyndale’s work.5
Other translations followed, like Matthew’s Bible (1537) and the Great Bible (1539).6 The Geneva Bible (1557), translated from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, would become the official Bible of the Church of Scotland. Leyland Ryken writes that this Bible “quickly became the household Bible of English-speaking Protestants, and it was the Bible used by Shakespeare and carried to America on the Mayflower.”7 It would undergo no less than 140 editions over the next 100 years until “dethroned” by the King James Bible translation.
And from there? Fast forward to modern-day, where Bible readers can choose among about 10 major English translation options. (More on the most-read and popular of these below.)
How do manuscript differences affect Bible translation?
Mark Ward offers an answer in his article “How to Choose a Bible Translation That’s Right for You”:
The Bibles we read today are based on thousands of ancient manuscripts written in Hebrew and Greek. But no two manuscripts of the Greek New Testament of any length are precisely the same. The story is rather complicated, but the result is this: all modern translations of the New Testament are based on two slightly different editions of the Greek New Testament. The King James Version, New King James Version, and Modern English Version use one edition of the Greek New Testament; the other major English versions (such as the English Standard Version, New International Version, and New Living Translation) all use another. The three passages where the most significant differences occur are Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11; and 1 John 5:7.8
Types of Bible translations
According to BibleProject, every translation balances two goals: faithfulness to the wording of the original language and readability in everyday English. Those two priorities have led to translations that lean more toward one or the other—or fall somewhere in the middle.
Note: As you read the descriptions below, remember that no Bible translation is 100 percent formal or 100 percent functional. It’s more helpful to think of these translation types as points along a line rather than a simple yes or no answer.
Those that prioritize, as much as English allows, mimicking the forms of the original Hebrew and Greek are known as formal translations; they use an approach to translation called “formal equivalence.”
However, because they generally attempt to choose one English word for each original-language word, and because they try to keep the order of words as close to the original as possible, these translations tend to be more “wooden.” The reading can be a bit . . . bumpy.
For every new translation, a gap of thousands of years exists between now and the time when the authors penned the original manuscripts. Our modern-day culture is dramatically different. Idioms and cultural artifacts and religious practices existed back then that make us scratch our heads. Language, also, has evolved. So naturally, some words or phrasing in formal translations can be awkward to read or nearly impossible to understand in our context. We never say, “Behold!” or “Lo!”
The Lexham English Bible (free with Logos Basic), New American Standard Bible (NASB), King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), and English Standard Version (ESV) are some popular formal translations.
Moderate translations try to find an optimal blend of formal and functional translation choices.
Sometimes referred to as “meaning-for-meaning translations” or “functionally equivalent” versions, functional translations prioritize readability. They attempt to discover the meaning of a text from its form and then translate it to impact modern readers in the same way the ancient text would have affected original readers.
However, though they provide an easy-to-read version of Scripture (and thus tend to be easier to understand), they do this by occasionally being a bit freer to interpret than formal translations are. Meaning and form are not entirely separable; sometimes the original author may have intended more than one meaning. More functionally equivalent versions can sometimes erase inspired ambiguities in the originals.
Some translations are not true translations but rather paraphrases intended to make language even easier to understand than functional Bibles. Mark Ward writes that these versions include “transculturations” of Scripture—replacing ancient metaphors and literary structures with concepts and terminology familiar today. They, therefore, go beyond the formal and functional spectrum. This means they “put Scripture in highly interpretive and very contemporary language.”9
The most famous paraphrase is The Message, by Eugene Peterson. He has the apostle Peter and Moses and even Jesus talking like modern English speakers. Readers who regard this as sacrilegious are misunderstanding Peterson’s intent—and missing a useful and stimulating Bible study and devotional tool. No, a paraphrase is not “a Bible.” It’s not intended to be. But you still ought to have one on your Bible shelf. Pick it up once you have a pretty good understanding.10
As Ward says, paraphrases are particularly helpful for those who know the Bible well and could benefit from reading Scripture in a fresh way.
Is one translation strategy better than the other?
Dave Brunn, author of One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? says no, that neither is mutually exclusive or mutually contradictory but are instead “mutually complementary—even mutually dependent.”11
Brunn writes, “When a translator tries to be more precise on one level, such as the word level, it tends to make the translation less precise on other levels.”12 Thus, according to Brunn, each translation has its strengths and limitations”—but also balance each other out.
To illustrate what he means, Brunn references a telescope, a microscope, and a wide-angle lens:
Which of these three ocular instruments gives the best and truest perspective? . . . Obviously, each one is valuable in its own way, and each makes a distinct contribution toward helping us understand the world around us. A microscope does not eliminate the need for having a telescope. And a telescope does not eliminate the need for a wide-angle lens. These three instruments are not in competition with one another—vying for the position of greatest significance. Instead, they complement and balance one another. Each one increases the value of the others.13
So, too, are the many versions of the Bible. “If we understand the translation goals of the various English versions and how they complement each other,” Brunn says, “that can help us glean the full richness of meaning God intended.”14
How to choose the best Bible translation for you
Dear Bible student, keep in mind, you aren’t limited to just one translation—so take the pressure of finding the best Bible translation off your shoulders. Ultimately, the “best” Bible translation for you is the one(s) you’ll read.
If you have difficulty following the phrasing of the NASB, you might enjoy the NIV instead. (Most modern translations are actually really good, especially when you read a few of them.) “English speakers are looking for the wrong thing when we look for best,” writes Ward, who says we should instead be looking for useful: Which English Bible translation is most useful for preaching? For evangelism? For reading through in a year? Which is conducive to close study? How about for reading to kids? For memorization?15 Dear Bible student, keep in mind, you aren't limited to just one translation—so take the pressure of finding the best Bible translation off your shoulders. Ultimately, the “best” Bible translation for you is the one(s) you’ll read. Click To Tweet
To help you visualize and better grasp different types of translations, explore the graphic below that shows where some of the more popular translations fall on the “translation spectrum”:
It’s good to have a primary version (some people choose to use the version their church uses), but using many translations while you study will give you a well-rounded understanding of the text at hand.
And with modern technology, this doesn’t mean bouncing back and forth between a tableful of thick Bibles open to your passage (super time-consuming—and that’s if you own multiple print Bibles in different translations!). With Logos Bible Software’s Text Comparison Tool, you can instantly compare any passage in any version of the Bible in your Logos library. It’s fantastic (I glory over how it gives me a different perspective on the passage I’m studying with just a few clicks).
See how it works:
Choosing a translation can be a bit of a process (and many people find it takes time to pull the trigger!). Here’s a few tips:
- Learn the differences between various Bible translations.
- Consider how you will be using the Bible. Will it be your primary Bible or a supplemental Bible?
- Ask a trusted mentor. This likely means your pastor. And that likely means you start with whatever your pastor uses. There’s nothing wrong with this. Your pastor is not perfect, but your pastor is your God-given shepherd.
- New to Bible study? Consider a translation focused on meaning, one that is easy to read.
- Looking for a supplemental Bible to go deeper with your study? Consider one that is the opposite of your primary Bible. (For example, if your primary version is formal, choose a functional Bible.)
So what is the best Bible translation for you right now?
As Mark Ward says, the best Bible translation is “all the good ones.” (There’s only benefit to using multiple translations.) But if you are trying to decide on one, whichever Bible translation you choose, make sure you pick one that you will actually use, read, and study.
With Logos Fundamentals (it’s less than $50), not only do you get the Text Comparison Tool (you’ll be able to instantly compare multiple texts and quickly spot similarities and differences), but you get four Bible translations to help you do it, including the Lexham English Bible.
Buying individual hard copies of these Bibles could run you a few hundred dollars. But having them all in Logos gives you a much lower price AND makes them portable, so you don’t have to pack a trunk full of Bibles to explore different translations when you’re traveling or running errands or studying at a coffee shop.
(Plus you get the Faithlife Study Bible, audio Bibles, commentaries, Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, devotionals, and theological works.)
- How to Choose a Good Bible Translation: 5 Guidelines
- Why Is This Passage Omitted from Some Translations and not Others?
- Compare Bible Translations as You Study (Logos training article)
- What Is Textual Criticism? And How Is It Different Than Translation?
- One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? by Dave Brunn (Pre-order)
- Introducing Bible Translations Bundle (3 hour course)
- God’s Word as Translation (2 hour course)
- The Complete Guide to Bible Translation: Bible Translation Choices and Translation Principles [Second Edition] by Edward D. Andrews
- The Complete Guide to Bible Translation by Ron Rhodes
- Top 10 Free Resources
- As of September 2020. “Latest Bible translation statistics.” Wycliffe. Retrieved 21 July 2021. See also https://www.wycliffe.net/resources/statistics/
- Ron Rhodes, The Complete Guide to Bible Translation (Harvest House Publishers), 2009.
- Rhodes, The Complete Guide, 2009.
- Ryken, The Word of God in English, 48.
- The Great Bible was large—it’s pages measured 15 X 10 inches, making it the biggest Bible printed to date.
- Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English (Crossway Books, 2002), 48.
- Mark Ward, “How to Choose a Bible Translation That’s Right for You.” Bible Study Magazine (Lexham Press, Sept/Oct 2019), 39.
- Ward, “How to Choose,” 39.
- Ward, “How to Choose,” 36.
- Dave Brunn, One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (InterVarsity Press Academic, 2012), Ch. 9.
- Brunn, One Bible, Ch. 9.
- Brunn, One Bible, Ch. 9.
- Brunn, One Bible, Ch. 9.
- Ward, “How to Choose,” 39.