A Brief Understanding of Bible Translations

You’ve decided that you are ready to purchase your first Bible or maybe you want one as a gift for a friend of family member. So there you stand in the Bible section of your local bookstore.  You immediately reach for a classic looking one. It has a nice black or brown leather cover, it smells nice. You take it out of the box an flip through the pages and it is exactly what you would think a good Bible would be.  Neat and pretty. This is the Bible for you! You put it back in the box and notice in the bottom right hand corner the letters KJV. You’ve seen that before, you know it means King James Version. You know your pastor uses that version.  Then you think about how much trouble you have understanding the verses he puts up on the screen at church. So you look back at the bookshelf Down the shelf you see NIV, ESV, NLT. Then way on the end you see The Message and a number of picture Bibles for kids. So what do you do?

The intent of this article is to give you the basics of understanding Bible translations.  If you are looking for more in depth details or comparisons, at the bottom of this article are some resources you can use.

What will this article cover?

  1. What is the difference between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations?
  2. Brief explanations of some of the most common or popular translations.
  3. A note on picking the best one for you.
  4. Resources

What is the difference between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations?

Bible translations usually fall into two categories, word-for-word and thought-for-thought.  Every translation falls somewhere in between these two categories.

Word-for-word translations are direct translations from the original Greek or Hebrew text.  The intention of these translations is to be as close to the original material. This includes sticking as close as possible to word choices, grammar and syntax. These translations attempt to do a word to word comparison from the original Greek or Hebrew to the language it is being translated into.

Popular word-for-word translations are the King James Version (KJV), English Standard Version (ESV), New  American Standard Bible (NASB), and Revised Standard Version (RSV).

Thought-for-thought translations are often referred to as paraphrases.  The intention of these translations is not to accurately translate the exact wording of the original source, but instead to convey the theme or idea of scripture in a language style that is more contemporary or familiar to today’s readers.  Paraphrase translation are often used for younger readers as a way to get them comfortable with a Bible.

Popular thought-for-thought translations are The Message and the The Living Bible.

Author Note/Opinion:  There is nothing wrong with using a paraphrase Bible for the reasons it was written; however, a paraphrase Bible is not to be your only source of information.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV  says

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Hebrews 4:12 ESV  says

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Proverbs 30:5 ESV  says

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

It is critical that you know and understand God’s actual words in as closely a accurate translation as you can get.   If you are going to use a paraphrase translation, it is imperative that you also have a good word-for-word translation by which you can filter other material through.

There are also translations that fall in between these two.  Their goal is to be as close to a strict translation, yet still be readable for the average reader.

Examples of translations that try to straddle this line are the New International Version (NIV) and New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).

So how do I pick the best Bible for me?

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question, because to do so assumes how familiar you currently are with the Bible, what your intention is with choosing a Bible, who you are choosing a Bible for, and how quickly you want to get to the point.

Over at the Bible Society, they have a page dedicated to trying you into the correct Bible based the above questions and more.

At the Christian Books page, they have a graph that places many translations on a scale between word-for-word and thought-for-thought.

The Calvin Institute of Christian Learning has a small article with a brief history of Bible translations. It also has many additional resources at the bottom.

The Bible Study Tools site, has a really nice area that you can compare how all verses in all books of the Bible appear in many translations.

The final word is this: It is mission critical for you to have a good Bible that you can read and understand. It is not uncommon for people to have more than one.  

Author’s note: Personally, I have two I use.  I have a basic NIV Bible. I use this as it is the version the my church quotes from most and it is useful in a small group setting as its ease of use gets you to the discussion quicker.  I also have an ESV study Bible. I like having a fairly strict translation and good study notes close at hand to help clear any questions I may have. Soon, I’ll be adding a nice wide margin KJV version.  

Hopefully, this helped put you on the right track. Selecting a Bible for yourself is a wholly personal decision.  You have to do your research and put in some time. In the end if you are not sure what you need or want, it is always a good decision to go with the version that your local church uses.

As always, we’d love to hear from you.  Anything to add? Any questions we can help to get you on the right track with?  Let us know in the comments below.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. I would add that picking the “best” is picking one that will be read. No translation, regardless of how well done it is, will be of use if it is not read and read often. I would encourage someone thinking about purchasing a Bible to first check out the free app YouVersion. I will assume that if the seeker has found this blog, then downloading and using an app is not something that needs further explanation.
    After downloading the app, they can quickly discover the different translations that are available free of charge. (Free is good)
    I would also say there are three types of translations. One is the “word for word” or what is referred to as a formal equivalence. It is where each word of the original language is translated into English as best as possible. The second type is the “thought for thought” or dynamic equivalence. Here two or three words may be translated to maintain the thought conveyed in context. The third is a paraphrase. Generally, paraphrases are not considered “accurate” translations because they are often the work of one person and reflect his position and understanding. Paraphrases often re-word sayings and figures of speech into something more contemporary that the reader will more easily understand.
    As a matter of personal choice, I tend towards using several different versions. For simple reading I enjoy the Message Version, it is easy to read paraphrase. The Message puts a different twist on many of the passages I am familiar with in other versions and thus I see them in a new light. When I read for devotional purposes I enjoy the English Standard Version (ESV) When I get down to a deeper study (fyi – I’ve been a Christian for a number of years and several of those were spent in a pastoral position, so I studied the scriptures a lot.) but for study I will use both the New American Standard and the King James. I do this for concordance and Strong’s numbers, but that may be too advanced for this discussion at this time.

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