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How to Find a Good Bible Translation


I grew up in a day when there just weren’t a lot of options. My home of origin had three television stations, two grocery stores, and one Bible translation, the KJV. So naturally I cut my Bible reading teeth on a text written on the twelfth grade level. As time marched on, other translations began to emerge. The New KJV came along, smoothing out some of the archaic language while still honoring the spirit of the KJV. Then came the NASB (New American Standard), followed by the all time best selling NIV (New International Version) and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Currently I’m reading the New Living Translation and am enjoying it very much.

As you know, today we have multiple versions of the Bible that are readily available. Even secular book store chain will carry a dozen or more options for those in the market for a new Bible. I’ve read each of the above mentioned versions cover to cover, and as I’ve read them have carried them into the pulpit and have used each of them in worship and preaching. I’m honored to share a few comments about how to select a Bible translation for you, the faithful reader of this blog.

The first thing you’ll want to know about Bible translations is the philosophical difference in how the version is interpreted. All authentic translations are taken from the Hebrew and Greek texts. (The difference between a translation and a paraphrase is that a translation comes from the ancient text while a paraphrase is a reiteration of the English text.) Some translations interpret the text “word for word.” In this approach, the goal is to convey the most precise interpretation of each individual word in the manuscript. Examples of word for word translations are the KJV, NKJV, and the NASB.

The other approach is to interpret the text “thought for thought.” The idea here is to value to concept to make sure that the main idea of the passage is conveyed clearly. Obviously one can get each individual word correct yet still fail to communicate the broader point being made by the verse(s). Examples of this would be the NIV, TNIV, and the NLT.

Think of the difference this way: word for word sees and values the individual trees while the thought for thought sees and values the forest. I don’t know that there is really a right or wrong in this. It’s simply a matter of preference and what the reader is really wanting out of the study experience.

The second tip I would offer is to remember that every translation is an interpretation. Valid translations are conducted by a committee of scholars who are well versed in biblical languages, theology, church history, and pastoral ministry. Each committee brings their education and their experience to the table. Take, for example one of the more popular new translations, the ESV. It is unapologetically reformed in its theology. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you know it going to check out. On the other hand you have the NLT, which is distinctly evangelical in its theology. Again, its not about right or wrong. I’m simply trying to make the point that you need to be aware that Bible translations are not neutral. Each possesses a theological bent. In fact, you can discern a lot about the theology of a church simply based on the translation that the pastor uses for preaching.

So how do you determine the theological bent of a translation? The easiest way is to thumb through the introductory pages of the translation and see who served on the translation team. Who are they? Where do they teach? A little cyphering at this point will tell you much about how certain passages will be handled, especially in the Pauline epistles.

Third, don’t rely on familiar passages to help you make a decision. Even the most contemporary translations will refrain from tampering greatly with commonly known sections such as Psalm 23, John 3:16, or the Lord’s Prayer. If you want to see how the translation really works, you’ll need to select a passage that is important to you and do the direct comparison accordingly. Visiting a free site such as www.bibletab.com will allow you to do direct parallel comparisons to get a feel for how the translation team handled important passages.

Finally, follow the money. At the end of the day, it’s about cash. The most popular translations may not be the best translations. They may simply have invested the most marketing dollars. Translations live and die based on sales, not scholarship. So whatever you do, don’t make your decision based on what the sales statistics report. Pick what speaks to you.


  1. Matt Manos says:

    I’m a fan of the 2011 NIV and the ESV. Both translations present the Scripture in ways I can readily understand while maintaining its immediacy and impact.

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