How to Choose a Bible Translation: Your Ultimate Guide

Which Bible translation is most accurate? Which translation of the Bible is best for you to read?

These are questions that many Christians have when they dive into reading the Bible. It’s the most basic thing we need to know: what Bible translation should I read? Which Bible should I buy?

With so many options and so much misinformation about Bible translations out there, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Most of us want to be sure we are picking the most accurate bible translation while also being able to read and understand it.

That’s a tall order even for seasoned Christians.

Choosing a reliable, accurate translation that you can actually read is a vital component of your faith journey. The first step in being able to know God through His Word is being able to read and understand it.

I hope that this in-depth post will help you to feel confident in your choice of Bible translation.

We will cover everything from the history of the Bible, to how it is translated and I also include my personal recommendation for choosing a Bible translation.

The History of Bible Translation

The Bible has been around for centuries and has been translated many times into hundreds of languages, including the English Bibles we have today.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Not only that but ancient iterations of those languages.

Along with originally being written in ancient languages, parts of our modern Bible were written hundreds of years apart. While we have a cohesive Bible today, it did not always exist in that format.

The Bible was also was not nearly as accessible as it is today. In ancient times, only those who spoke those languages could read Scripture. For most of history, literacy was a luxury.

Eventually, those Scriptures were translated into Latin to allow more accessibility. In those times, specially trained men called scribes translated the Scriptures entirely by hand.

This process was laborious and expensive, so Bibles were only in churches and handled by appointed priests.

There was no access to Scripture by the general public outside of the church such as we have today.

The First English Translations

John Wycliffe was the first to translate those Latin texts into Middle English, at a great cost. At that time, translating the Scriptures was illegal and he was executed for this “crime.”

His contemporary, Jon Huss, was also put to death for his work on translating the Bible into English.

The reformation saw an explosion of Bible translations all over the world, including modern English. This was a turning point in history that lead to the access to Scripture we have today. (Thank you, Jesus!)

If you want to dig deeper into the history of Bible translation, here is a wonderful essay by Daniel B. Wallace. You can also find a detailed timeline of the history of the Bible here.

How is the Bible translated?

The purpose of translating the Bible is so that the multitudes can read God’s Word. It is generally done by a group of people, rather than a single person and begins with a deep study of the original language being translated.

There are 2 major kinds of translation theory:

  1. Word For Word
  2. Thought for Thought

The translations we have today exist on a continuum, ranging from strictly from word-for-word to strictly thought-for-thought.

Word-For-Word translation, also known as “formal equivalence” translation, seeks to retain the syntax and structure of the original language.

Because Hebrew and Greek follow very different sentence structures than modern English, this can lead to a more “clunky” translation. However, there is less interpretation that occurs in translations that follow this philosophy.

For example, a direct translation of Phillipians 4:13 from the original Greek would be, “All things I have strength in the strengthening me.”

This direct Greek to English is clunky and does not communicate the point of the verse. Greek sentences are structured differently than English sentences, making direct translation difficult.

Word-for-word translations attempt to keep the original wording as closely as possible while also translating it into understandable English.

Many consider these translations to be the most “accurate” to the original language. The interlinear Bible, KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, RSV, and the NRSV are all examples of word-for-word translations.

Thought-For-Thought translation, or dynamic equivalence translation, seeks to communicate the intended thought from one language to another.

Its primary aim is to deliver the meaning of the Scriptures to the reader. “Functional equivalence” is another name for this type of translation.

Many consider these translations to be the easiest for modern English speakers to read. The NLT, CEV, NCB, and NJB are examples of thought-for-thought translations.

Translations such as the NIV, HCSB, and the CSB exist in the middle and utilize both translation philosophies to stay true to the original text while also prioritizing ease of understanding.

A Word on Bible Paraphrases

There are also paraphrases of the Bible that are often referred to as translations, but these are not technically “translations.”

They operate on what is known as “free translation” theory, meaning they prioritize readability and translating ideas from one language to another. You might think this doesn’t sound like an issue, as who wouldn’t want the most readable option. However, free translation theory deviates so far from the original text that the intended meaning of the passage or verse can get lost or muddled.

These “translations” often add a lot of extra, unnecessary wording to the text.

Let’s compare a few verses.

Matthew 5:14-16 in the NIV reads,

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. “

In the Message version, it reads,

Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

There is quite a bit of difference in these two passages, and in my opinion, the Message version is actually a lot less clear. With all the added wording, the intended meaning of the passage (to let your faith shine to bring glory to God) is muddled.

These types of translations are more meaning-for-meaning commentaries than translations, as they over-prioritize ease of reading rather than accuracy to the original language.

Bible paraphrases utilize modern idioms and topical wording that are not actually in the original texts to attempt to communicate the meaning of Scripture to the reader in the most modern way possible.

When it comes to paraphrases, be cautious.

These should not be your primary source of Scripture, as they are not as reliable as direct translations. It is very easy for opinion and bias to creep into paraphrases, as they are the “in the own words” of the paraphraser.

A lot of interpretation goes into creating a meaning-for-meaning paraphrase.

I personally do not read or utilize any paraphrases in my Bible study.

Why do some Bible translations seem to”omit” verses?

You may have noticed that in some Bibles, there will be notes that say “some manuscripts include…”

You may have seen social media posts, articles, or fanatics in the comments talking about how certain Bible translations are “evil” because they have removed verses from the Bible.

In reality, those translations have made revisions based on new manuscripts that have come to light over the years.

This means older, more accurate versions of the original texts have been discovered (like in the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery), and Bible translators are basing their translations off of what is in the earliest texts.

These Earlier versions of these manuscripts allow scholars to correct errors and create more accurate translations of the Bible.

In an effort to clarify as they copied, some scribes added more wording or detail to what they were copying.

As older manuscripts have surfaced, translators can see where these additions were made. Many translations have been updated to remove those additions in an effort to stay true to what was actually in Scripture instead of what was added at a later date. 

Why is there such variation from one Bible translation to another?

When we dig into all of the different translations, it can get overwhelming and spur more questions than answers.

Why are there so many? How did they get to be so different?

This is the difficulty with translating ancient languages into modern English. Translators run into issues of syntax, sentence structure, the changing meaning of words over time, gender bias, and a whole host of other hurdles that they must overcome to do that task of translating.

Essentially, every translation is an interpretation of the original language.

Do Your Research

Before you decide on a translation (or 2) do a little background research.

Get recommendations from trusted sources, but then dig a little deeper before committing to that translation.

Some questions you might ask when researching a translation are:

  • When was it translated?
  • Has it been revised? Is this the older or newer version?
  • Is it a thought-for-thought or word-for-word translation? Does it land somewhere in the middle?
  • Who translated it? A group or a single person?
  • Who reviewed it? Scholars or committees?
  • What was the goal of the translation? Accuracy? Or understanding?

The most important thing to remember is that our English Bible is a translation. Unless you take the time to learn Biblical Hebrew and Greek, you will not be able to read it 100 percent accurately.

But that is okay.

The people God has entrusted to translate our Bibles do understand Hebrew and Greek and have studied those original languages. And we have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us discern and have wisdom when it comes to reading those translations.

So, which Bible translation is best?

My personal recommendation is to utilize multiple translations.

At the very least, choose one word for word and one from thought for thought. For example, I personally study from the ESV and also read the NIV as a secondary translation.

The translation you choose to read is vitally important to your overall Biblical literacy. Take the time to find the best fit for you!

Your Sister In Christ,

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