The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek.
When you read it in English, you naturally want it to be the best possible translation. Who wouldn’t?
It’s important to know that your English Bible translation is accurate. But how can you know for sure?
Fortunately, English speakers have a huge variety of excellent translations to choose from.
It’s really interesting to learn what the translators were doing and how they decided to write various translations.
We can learn a lot from that.
But there are so many English translations of the Bible. How do you decide which one is best?
Here’s one good way to start:
The KJV and NIV are both fine translations, but it’s good to understand where each may have its place.
You can gain a lot by watching Allen Parr discuss the source material for all of today’s English translations of the Bible.
After watching, read on. There’s more great information after this.
I’ve had the same questions Allen raised, so when I researched it (quite a few times, because I have a number of Bibles) I wrote everything down along with the answers I found.
Almost all scholars agree that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) gets the crown for being the most accurate English Bible translation.
But does it matter? And why?
There’s so much more to the story. Let’s dive in and unpack all of this.
Not every Bible translation is good. Be sure and check out this post on the Worst Translations of the Bible.
Accurate Bible Translations Compared
There are 3 main approaches for Bible translations. Here is a list:
-Word-for-Word (Formal Equivalence)
-Thought-for-Thought (Dynamic Equivalence)
Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses.
Bible scholars have to study the original languages for a long period of time in order to develop a high proficiency in the original language.
And these same scholars must be top experts in the target language as well.
Anybody who has learned a foreign language knows there are certain idioms in each language.
These idioms do not always translate accurately from a source language to the target language, so translators must be very careful to make sure the meaning is accurately transmitted.
And the translators do a very good job of it.
We can tell, because after hundreds of years of Bible translating, all the major translations are in agreement about the major meanings they are conveying in English.
Related Content: How Many Versions of the Bible are There?
They differ very slightly in the exact expression of the meanings and the translators take great care to make sure the core meanings are conserved.
This makes the translations very useful in side-by-side comparisons.
Word-for-Word Translations of the Bible
Word-for-Word (also called “Literal Translation”) is regarded as the most accurate. It leaves the least wiggle room for error or misunderstanding.
Many of the best-known Bible translations are word-for-word.
Besides the NASB, the King James Version (KJV), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the New English Translation (NET) are all examples of Word-for-Word translations.
It’s generally great to read a word-for-word translation.
How could you possibly go wrong reading a word-for-word text that translates the original language into your own language?
Maybe all translations should be word-for-word!
But as we study deeper, we learn that translation from one language to another isn’t always so simple.
For example, the Old Testament is written in Hebrew – a language with relatively few words.
Since Hebrew has so few words, many Hebrew words have multiple meanings.
Translators only know the correct meaning when considering the context of the verse or whole passage.
That can create extra work for the translator when translating certain passages.
The New Testament –written in Greek- presents its own translation challenges. (see this thorough post about each book of the New Testament with many faith-building details)
The Greek language has a lot of fascinating features with verb tenses and other grammatical structures.
These features present some issues for translating into a language like English, which lacks many grammatical features of Biblical Greek.
But translators have had a lot of practice over the last two millennia. It’s safe to say they’ve worked out the details.
Thought-for-Thought Translations of the Bible
Thought-for-thought just takes the perspective up a level from word-for-word.
The translator evaluates a series of words in the original language that comprise a thought, and then expresses that thought in the target language –which in this case is English.
Thought-for-thought translation is also known as Dynamic Equivalence.
It’s easier to read this kind of translation than the typical word-for-word translation.
Depending on the reading ability of the reader -and other style factors- a Bible translation based on Dynamic Equivalence could be a great choice.
Paraphrase Translations of the Bible
A paraphrase translation of the Bible seeks to make the Bible more understandable to the reader.
It may elaborate more on the context in a way designed to help the reader understand the passage better.
To paraphrase (dictionary definition) means a restatement of a text or passage giving the meaning in another form, as for clearness; rewording.
A paraphrase often uses a lot more words in an effort to more fully describe the meaning of the words coming from the original language.
This helps readers to easily perceive additional shades of meaning they might otherwise struggle to see in a standard translation.
A good comparison can be made by comparing a well-known passage like John 1:1 in the King James Version (KJV) and the Phillips version:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. –KJV
At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. –Phillips
A paraphrase translation like the Phillips translation uses more words –and it’s easy to see that it is still very accurate and does not add or subtract from the original.
It just helps make it more understandable.
Bible Comparison Chart
This comparison chart is here to help visualize the differences between various Bible translations.
All Bible translations can be found on the spectrum from “Word-for-Word” thru “Thought-for-Thought” and all the way to Paraphrase.
The left side is the more literal translations –formal equivalence- and the right side –the paraphrase- is fully into the dynamic equivalence realm.
List of the Best Translations of the Bible
The best translations of the Bible are mostly well-known, but there are also a few that are not so well-known.
Scholars regard Word-for-Word as most accurate translation method that leaves the least room for error.
Thought-by-Thought and Paraphrase are much more readable.
But they have been criticized because these translations can begin to interpret the Bible rather than only translating it.
Literal Translations of the Bible
Based on Functional Equivalence or Literal (Word-for-Word) here are the 5 most accurate translations of the Bible:
1. New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The NASB holds the title of Most Accurate Translation due to its strict adherence to Literal (Word-for-Word) translation methods.
It was originally published in 1963 and was revised in 1995.
Another thing that makes it so accurate is the NASB’s use of the text from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum critical text.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the oldest of Old Testament texts. They are regarded by scholars as among the best original texts.
The NASB is not too easy to read, due to the strict adherence to literalism.
The translators wanted to stick to the structure of the source language as closely as possible.
This gives the NASB the title for “most accurate English translation” at the expense of readability and comprehension.
There are quite a few people who love reading such an accurate translation, so the NASB has a strong following.
But there are other translations that are easier to read than the NASB. You can buy the NASB on Amazon.
2. English Standard Version (ESV)
The ESV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
It is also very close to the NASB. It was originally published in 2001.
A new edition was published in 2009 including the deuterocanonical –or apocryphal- books.
This makes it suitable for reading for Catholic believers.
It is written in very modern English, yet readers still find that it reminds them of the KJV and RSV.
Though modern, it remains pure and faithful to the gendered language found in original texts and older translations.
This keeps it close to the original meaning.
This way, it doesn’t get tangled up with gender neutral ideas that detract from the original meaning.
For a more in-depth analysis, see my post on How to Choose the Best Study Bible.
3. New English Translation (NET)
The NET was first published in 2005, and it is a completely new version.
It is a free online Bible and it can be accessed at this link.
It was designed as a free online version of the Bible for worldwide ministry so that people who do not have access to the Bible could have a high-quality resource for Bible study.
The NET is an original translation, with over 60,000 translator’s notes that describe how the English translation relates to the original languages.
Even though it is free, it is regarded by scholars as a first-rate translation. In fact, over 20 scholars joined forces to prepare it.
4. King James Version (KJV)
That venerable old standard –the King James Version (KJV) also shows up very high on the list of most accurate Bibles.
But what holds it back from being higher on the list?
The English is 400 years old, dating to the original publishing date of 1611.
Our language has changed greatly since the KJV was published 4 centuries ago so it doesn’t get to the top of the list when measured by today’s standards.
But this old English version is still just as beautiful as it always was, and it’s very memorable.
Many of the Bible verses you remember best are still from the KJV.
The KJV was made before some of the best texts were found –like the Textus Siniaticus.
But –in spite of the outdated language- the KJV remains the most popular Bible in the English-speaking world.
It’s because of its amazing literary qualities, its memorability, and the fact that many of the Study Bible cross references originated with the KJV.
5. New King James Version (NKJV)
The NKJV –the New King James Version- is a beautifully updated version of the KJV.
It retains the beautiful structure and literary qualities of the KJV.
But just enough of the antiquated words are changed into modern English words that the reader’s understanding is greatly improved.
Since the NKJV was completed in 1975, the translators had access to the most accurate texts –texts that weren’t available to the translators of the original KJV.
This makes the NKJV a treasure in its own right.
My pastor –and quite a few other pastors- use the NKJV as the official version at church for Sunday services.
And why not?
It’s the perfect blend of the beautiful KJV verses that stream almost like music to the ear –but with greatly improved readability.
Another thing the KJV does well is it makes a good study Bible because almost all the references are the same as the original KJV.
You can take a look at this very popular and highly-rated NKJV Study Bible on Amazon.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to check out my new post where I go into detail about Study Bibles.
The Interlinear Bible
The Interlinear is a literal word-for-word translation.
It shows words from the original text in the source language along with the exact word from the target language that corresponds to it.
The grammar of the source language is conserved, so it is awkward to read in the target language.
Still, the Interlinear is valuable to really serious Bible students who want to gain a deeper understanding.
I’m including the Interlinear as a bonus version of the literal translations of the Bible.
Technically, it’s the most accurate translation of all, but since it ignores the grammar of the target language, readability suffers greatly.
If you are interested in deep study, you can get this highly-recommended Interlinear on Amazon.
Thought-for Thought Translations of the Bible
Thought-for-thought translations don’t get the title as the most accurate, yet some of them are still amazingly accurate.
They are almost as accurate as word-for-word, but they are generally more readable and easier to understand.
These Bibles are not quite important for serious study as Word-for-Word Bibles, but they have developed an excellent following among many Bible students as secondary sources.
God’s Word Translation (GWT)
GWT uses the concept of “closest natural equivalence” to translate the original texts into modern English.
The GWT seeks to translate as if it is the first-ever translation of the Bible into English –using fresh, original language.
GWT fans love it for its unique readability, while traditionalists worry if it has strayed too far from the real meaning.
The GWT was first published in 1995.
GWT’s roots are in two translations of the New Testament:
The New Testament in the Language of Today: An American Translation, published in 1963 by Lutheran pastor and seminary professor William F. Beck (1904–1966) (Source)
-and the later New Testament: God’s Word to the Nations (GWN) (IBID.)
Here’s how GWT renders John 3:16: “God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.”
Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
Originally published in 2004 as the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the CSB is a major revision of the Holman.
Its translation method is partly Word-for-Word and partly Thought-for-Thought, making it similar in concept to the GWT, NIV and some other translations.
Scholars regard it as resting somewhere to the left of the NIV on the spectrum above, and call it “Optimal Equivalence.”
The CSB scholars undertook an exhaustive analysis of the source texts and produced a great translation.
The translators of almost every translation take their work very seriously, and it’s great to have so many translations to choose from.
New International Version (NIV)
I’ve had an NIV (Thompson Chain Reference Study Bible) for decades. The NIV is very readable.
It was designed to be easy-to-read-and-understand for the international reader of English who might have learned English in a different country than the US or UK.
It could also be great for those who have learned English as a second language.
Translators worked extra hard to make it easy for all to read, but that doesn’t take away from its value as a translation for serious students of the Bible.
The NIV is also sort of hybrid between word-for-word and thought-for-thought approaches to translation (something like GWT).
This makes it very readable, but the combination of these two different methods creates a unique literary style.
Some like it and others don’t.
I have the old 1978 version. When the 2011 version came out, they made it gender neutral, which some like, because it’s more modern.
Others don’t like it, because it’s not the way it’s expressed in the source texts.
But the 2011 version is a reflection of how the English language is changing.
You can get this highly-rated NIV Study Bible on Amazon.
New Living Translation (NLT)
The NLT was introduced for similar reasons as the Living Bible.
It was meant to be more readable.
This makes it more accessible to a wider audience that wouldn’t relate to all the thee’s and thou’s of the KJV and RSV.
But it also has some colloquialisms that other readers find quaint and not keeping with their expectations of what a Bible should read like.
The Message (MSG)
MSG was published in 2002. It’s regarded as a very fresh, easy-to-read Bible, suitable for younger readers.
It’s regarded as somewhat colloquial, and It has been highly criticized for straying too far from the original text.
It’s included here because there has been so much interest in it.
But it’s not a recommended translation.
In fact, it really belongs on the list of the Worst Translations of the Bible, where you can read a lot more about it.
Good News Translation (GNT)
GNT was designed specifically for native- and non-native English speakers in Africa.
It was published in 1976.
The GNT is a looser, more colloquial version made to be accessible to the greatest number of readers.
As a result, it opens up God’s Word to many younger native English speakers who might be intimidated by the deep, rich content of the original KJV.
Sometimes the GNT gets criticized for taking too many liberties in making it accessible.
But remember this: we need to keep in mind that GNT was designed with a purpose and it is very good at fulfilling that purpose.
The Phillips Translation of the New Testament
The Phillips translation is an extended paraphrase by Anglican Clergyman J.B. Phillips.
He prepared it originally for his church youth group, but it has become a favorite of Bible students and scholars for decades since it was first published in 1958.
This translation has been lauded by many as “lively” “a treasure” and “dynamic” –superlatives you don’t always hear when describing a Bible translation!
Phillips had a gift for bringing God’s living word to a new generation. Phillips was a scholar of Biblical Greek who worked directly from Greek manuscripts.
I’ve owned a copy of Phillips for decades and I highly recommend it.
It’s available at Amazon and other places.
Which Bible Version is best for You?
We could have a very long conversation about the many different translations and all the technical reasons to read one or another version of the Bible.
And different people may have different reasons for selecting the version they read every day.
There are many good translations. And many people have their preferences.
Here are some things to think about and questions to ask yourself when deciding which translation to get:
Will I enjoy the translation?
Will it be easy to read?
Will I understand it?
Will I be motivated to read it?
For many folks, just one translation will never do.
If you are like me, you will have multiple translations around the house, on your computer and all your electronic devices.
It’s a wonderful blessing that we have so many options for enjoying the Word of the Living God.
Top-Selling English Bible Translations
It’s really interesting to see what the top-selling Bible versions are –and what Bibles people actually use.
People might purchase a number of different Bibles, but which one do they actually read?
According to the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, these are the top English translations used in America in 2014:
King James Version -55%
New International Version -19%
New Revised Standard Version -7%
New American Bible -6%
The Living Bible -5%
All other translations -8%
Another thing I should mention is that it’s a great idea to get a Study Bible.
A Study Bible has cross references, parallel passages, maps and other helps designed to enrich your experience as you read the greatest stories ever told in human history.
I just posted this detailed article on how to choose a study Bible.
The important thing is that you find a translation that you like. You may like a translation that challenges you to learn.
Or you may prefer a translation that is easy to read.
You may like a translation because it is more memorable because you like to memorize verses or even whole chapters of text.
You might even –as I do- draw from multiple translations to seek deeper meaning than you can get out of a single translation.
Whatever the reason, you now know the top Bible translations to choose from.