Choosing A Bible Translation

Toddler Studying The Bible

Our Bible has been written over a span of 1500 years in three different languages.  It’s separated into two testaments, has 66 books, and dozens of authors.  What a privilege that we have multiple translations of the original text into the English language.

Translation can be more complicated than you imagine.  Language has structure and you can’t just translate word for word and still preserve meaning.  Worse, you also have to be careful of taking a word from one language and then trying to use that same word in another language.  Take for instance the classic story of GM’s trials marketing the Chevy Nova in Spanish speaking countries.  The model was well accepted in English speaking areas of the globe but sales were dismal in Latin America.  Why?  Because in Spanish “Nova” is “no va” which translates as “it doesn’t go” in Spanish. 

The Bible is no different.  The original authors used Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.  If we simply translate word-for-word we get something like this version of John 3:16:

“for God did so love the world, that His Son — the only begotten — He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.”

John 3:16  (Young’s Literal Translation)

Difficult to read isn’t it? 

This is exactly where our dilemma lies:  we desire to read and learn about God and His redemptive plan for all of us.  We desire to get as close as possible to the original text so that we can understand what he inspired, yet the closer we get to the original, the greater our risk of misunderstanding or becoming bored with what we read because the language structure doesn’t lend itself to a word for word translation style that we can still understand.

So what’s a translator to do?

Well actually our Bibles are translated by teams of scholars.  You can usually find a description of the translation style and team members at the front of your Bible.  It actually makes for interesting reading.

In recent years the “translation” you hold results from one of three translation approaches. 

  1. Essentially Literal:  this approach attempts to stay as close as possible to the original language while still keeping the text understandable.  Sometimes you will hear this approach referred to as “wooden” which seems a bit unfair.  “Wooden” speaks of no thought in the translation but this is far from true.  Some characteristics of the Essentially Literal approach:

    • They try to keep some of the original “style” especially in the Wisdom and Poetry books
    • Will tend to use larger English words rich in meaning but it may cause you to need to grab a dictionary.
    • Units of measure and time are original (Ephah of grain, third watch of the night, etc.)
    • Idioms come straight through.  “The time of women was upon her…” (I’ll let you guess what this is saying.)
    • Will focus more on what the Bible says over what the Bible means.  (This is why the Essentially Literal translations are the standard for establishing and supporting doctrine in the church.)
    • Classically these have been more difficult for readers to understand.
    • Examples of Essentially Literal Translations:

                                          i.    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
                                         ii.    English Standard Version (ESV)
                                        iii.    New King James Version (NKJV)


  1. Dynamic Equivalent:  this approach is known as “thought for thought” translation.  The translators do more work for the reader but it moves you further from the original.  The translators begin to shift more towards what the Bible means especially with text that they feel may be unclear to the English reader.  Some characteristics you find when reading a Bible translated using this approach:

    • You’ll tend to have more words and more sentences than the Essentially Literal translations.  For instance, Paul may have a long thought in one of his letters that extends clause by clause across several verses.  In a dynamic equivalent translation you’ll often find that Paul’s massive (run-on sentence in English) has been broken into several sentences to make it more readable.
    • Units of measure are recognizable:  i.e. “denarii” becomes “a day’s wage”
    • Idioms get reworded into something we will understand.
    • More complex thoughts which may have been translated into a single English word full meaning (for instance “propitiation”) are instead translated into a phrase which is more descriptive.
    • These translations are typically easier to understand and have gained in popularity – especially the NIV (which still leans towards the literal side of things.)
    • Examples of Dynamic Equivalent Translations:

                                          i.    New International Version (NIV)
                                         ii.    New Living Translation (NLT)
                                        iii.    Contemporary English Version (CEV)


  1. Paraphrase:  This really isn’t a translation per se.  The main goal is to capture overall thought and emotion and somehow take the more difficult to understand word structure and make it “readable” to as many people as possible.

    • Eugene Peterson, in the preface to The Message puts it this way:  “The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here is simply to get people reading it who don’t know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again.”
    • Examples of Paraphrased Bibles:

                                          i.    The Message (TM)
                                         ii.    The Living Bible (TLB)
                                        iii.    Phillips 

So, what does this look like in real life?

A pretty quick and easy way to tell whether you are dealing with an Essentially Literal or Dynamic Equivalent translation is to examine some of the verses that have to do with Sanctification, Justification and Propitiation.  These are deep concepts in the scripture and you can get a feel for the translation concept used by seeing if the verse expects you to know the meaning or does a little work for you.

Here are some examples.

Justification – Strong’s #1347 dikaiosis which means “…the act of pronouncing acquittal…the establishment of a person as just by acquittal from guilt.”  You may have heard the common definition:  “just as if I’d never done anything wrong.”

This word appears in Romans 4:25

Let’s see what it looks like across some common translations.  Look at how each approach either does or does not attempt to define “justification” for the reader.

  • He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. (NASB)
  • who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification. (NKJV)
  • who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (ESV)
  • He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)
  • He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God. (NLT)
  • The same thing gets said about us when we embrace and believe the One who brought Jesus to life when the conditions were equally hopeless. The sacrificed Jesus made us fit for God, set us right with God. (TM)


Propitiation – Strong’s #2434 hilasmos which means “…paying for, paying retribution for an injury or wrong.”  In the New Testament Christ Himself is The Propitiation or The Payment for our crime.

This word appears in 1 John 2:2:

  • and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.  (NASB)
  • And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.  (NKJV)
  • He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  (ESV)
  • He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.  (NIV)
  • He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.  (NLT)
  • When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.  (TM)


Sanctification – Strong’s # 38 which means:  “separation to God…this is an individual possession of the believer and it is built up, little by little, as the result of obedience to the Word of God, and following the example of Christ.”

This word appears in 2 Thessalonians 2:13

  • But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.  (NASB)
  • But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth,  (NKJV)
  • But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  (ESV)
  • But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as first fruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.  (NIV)
  • As for us, we can’t help but thank God for you, dear brothers and sisters loved by the Lord. We are always thankful that God chose you to be among the first to experience salvation—a salvation that came through the Spirit who makes you holy and through your belief in the truth.  (NLT)
  • Meanwhile, we’ve got our hands full continually thanking God for you, our good friends—so loved by God! God picked you out as his from the very start. Think of it: included in God’s original plan of salvation by the bond of faith in the living truth. This is the life of the Spirit he invited you to through the Message we delivered, in which you get in on the glory of our Master, Jesus Christ.  (TM)

So what do I recommend?

  1. Own a good study Bible that is an essentially literal translation.  Many like the New King James Version.  I currently prefer the English Standard Version.
  2. Own one or two dynamic equivalent study Bible’s.  I like the New International Version because it leans towards the literal.  I also like The New Living Translation because it uses phrases to help the reader understand some of the most “high powered religious sounding” words that sometimes get in the way of understanding. Note:  I really like using the NLT when talking to someone who doesn’t really understand God or who Jesus is.  For someone who has honest questions, this translation is so clear!
  3. As for the paraphrases, I’ll leave that up to you.  They really aren’t my preference but if getting into a paraphrase will reignite your passion to know what’s in the Bible, go for it!

Last tip – I learned this from my Dad several years back.

When things start to repeat or you’ve marked up your Bible enough that you are affecting your understanding with preconceived thoughts;  buy a good new translation and make that your reading Bible for the next 12 months.  It will be fresh and rewarding because you won’t click into “I’ve read this before” mode and then gloss over what you have been reading.

I sure hope this helps answer some of your questions about How to Choose a Bible Translation.

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