A personal guide through the maze of Bible versions

Years ago, a Nigerian oil engineer called William turned up at our home group Bible study, bringing his Bible with him of course – but it was quite a tome. We used to joke about William’s huge Bible, but he was a great asset to the study, because he would compare passages from a number of versions in parallel.

Without making a religion out of comparison, it is helpful to have more than one version of the Bible to refer to, and to understand where they are coming from in terms of the translation principles and original sources that have been used. So here is my non-comprehensive guide which takes a personal view and is probably typical of someone whose influences are Protestant, evangelical, renewal and missional.

The King James Bible, resonant with the language used by Shakespeare and too reliant on the non-original Latin Vulgate, served generations of Christians and their preachers well for about 300 years before revision was called for, the American Standard Version of 1901. But it was after the Second World War that fresh translation from more reliable, older sources and attention to the language and contemporary understanding was considered necessary. This was the Revised Standard Version or RSV which, like the King James, is an ‘authorised version’ in certain traditions.

It is what is called a formal translation, using a largely word-for-word approach which adheres closely to the original languages, with the drawback of being stilted and religious-sounding in places and with the literal meanings sometimes obscure.

Preachers and people who like studying the ‘words behind the words’ in Hebrew and Greek lean to word-for-word formal translations – and anyway a good expository preacher will always be setting out to ‘expose’ or colour-in the meaning for their hearers.

A re-appraisal of the RSV called the English Standard Version (ESV) came out in the early 1990s; the translators, who included renowned scholars William D. Mounce and Wayne Grudem, introduced some gender-neutral language. About six per cent of the RSV was changed. It is reliable and reads well, there is an excellent ESV Study Bible as part of the stable and this is a go-to text for me.

Another formal translation that has stood the test of time is the New American Standard Bible (NASB) of 1971, revised in 1995. This sets out to be as literally and grammatically correct as possible, understandable, and (an interesting distinction) “giving the Lord Jesus Christ His proper place, the place which the Word gives Him.” This is a reason for the continuing loyalty shown to the NASB, which sets out to offer an alternative to the RSV, considered by some to be theologically liberal (ESV better in this respect I feel). The Amplified Bible, its qualifying parentheses awkward to read but helpful for study, was produced by the same Lockman Foundation.

A parallel track in contemporary translation has been the adoption of the translation philosophy called dynamic equivalence. This relaxes the ‘word for word’ approach to include phrases which give the equivalent meaning, rather than the exact formal translation. This produces a more readable and more understandable text, although original words are important: the best-selling 1978 New International Version (revised 2011) sets out to offer “a balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought” translation. It has sold 450 million worldwide and spawned a range of study and devotional Bibles. However, some have questioned whether robust translation has given way unhelpfully to readability in places. Anglican scholar N. T. Wright said in 2009 that Protestants and Evangelicals who relied on the NIV would never understand what Paul was saying, because it leaned too much to conforming with evangelical tradition. That’s a good argument for keeping a more formal translation to hand.

So keep your trusty RSV or ESV or NASB open, but consider also the more recent and slightly more dynamic New Living Translation (1996 onwards) and now apparently the second-best seller. I have found this excellent for clarity with few drawbacks, and the excellent Study Bible edition is less bland than some.

One which, to be honest, I don’t use is the Good News Bible (1966-1976), which was a pioneer of dynamic translation principles; to me, it reads like a paraphrase in simplified language. However it retains popularity and is easy to read; you will still find it in any WHSmith or Waterstones. An honest and more challenging paraphrase that I do refer to, is The Message (2002) by Bible scholar Eugene Petersen who stepped out into risky territory in attempting a highly readable and contemporary text; the American idioms will date but it has been acclaimed as a fresh contemporary rendering that is both faithful and courageous in its portrayal of difficult passages.

My main familiarity is with the Protestant Bible but the Roman Catholic Bible (the same 66 books with some non-canonical additions) that I have used is the scholarly and literal New Jerusalem Bible, taken from original languages with a bit of a journey via French to English. It’s the most widely used in Catholic circles outside the USA. It is a good comparison text.

  • What is your go-to Bible version, and why?
  • Would you like to see some variation in the Bible versions used on this website?