It seems there are about 4,345,368 English translations of the Bible available today. It’s hard to know which to choose. Many would agree that there’s no real wrong answer, but some argue that one is the only legitimate translation or that one is better than the rest. What should we use?
I’m of the opinion that the translation you read honestly depends on your needs as a Christian, your reading level, your ability/desire to read between the lines, etc. So I’ll lay out all the pros and cons of some of the major Bible translations in use, so we can all figure out together which Bible we should use.
King James Version (KJV)
Most of the time, when Christians are dead-set on a version of the Bible, it’s the King James Version. The idea is that because it’s the oldest, it must be the closest to the original text. Let’s break it down.
The King James Version was created in 1611 when King James wanted to create a new standard English translation of the Bible. He wanted to remove the issues in Puritan translations of the Bible and limit the Puritan influence in the text. Sounds good so far, right?
The issue is the English translations that the translators used as a reference point. While a variety of translations was used, the primary text was the Bishop’s Bible, which was deliberately created to go against the Calvinists, because Calvinists wanted to replace the government of bishops over the church. Basically, they wanted to keep their power, so they made a new Bible translation. Now, this doesn’t affect the text too much, but it’s worth noting.
Another issue is King James’ beliefs on grace and justice. For example, in Exodus 1, King James found it offensive that the midwives disobeyed the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh’s orders, of course, were to kill all male children born from the Hebrews. This is a problem: King James was against something that the scripture was clearly for, and for something that the scripture was clearly against.
Another issue comes from 2 Chronicles 15, when King Asa did not execute Maacah for her idolatry and instead just removed her power and her idols from the land. King James thought Asa should not have been commended for failing to execute Maacah, because he wouldn’t have, and he’s the king, so he’s perfect, right? Because of these beliefs, these passages in the King James Bible have a different tone from the one originally intended.
Again, rarely does this actually affect the text.
What does affect the text is its inaccuracies in translation, which the New King James Version had to correct (we’ll get to that).
Verdict: Decent enough, but the updated version is closer to the original text.
New King James Version (NKJV)
Can’t do one without the other, can I? The New King James version was created to be a modern translation of the King James Version, and therefore it has many of the same pros and cons as the original. The main additional issue with the New King James Version is their simplification of the language causes some deep deep sugar-coating of passages as translated in the King James. For example, in Titus 3:10, “heretic” is changed to “divisive man.”
Those are the issues I found when researching the issues King James followers have with the NKJV. But the Greek word Hairetikos does mean a “divisive” man, so we’ll give them that one, and when researching other problematic passages, I found that NKJV was often closer to the original Greek than the KJV.
Verdict: A more accurate translation than the KJV, but it has its sugar-coating moments.
English Standard Version (ESV) & Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The English Standard Version was created in the early 90’s to provide an “essentially literal” translation of the biblical Hebrew and Greek. As Christians, we should of course be all for the idea of Biblical Hebrew and Greek being translated literally.
The ESV also uses the Revised Standard Version (RSV) as an English textual basis for translation: a version often called the “finest translation of the 20th century.” The RSV was also intended to be a literal and accurate translation of the Bible into English, and it was the first English translation to challenge the KJV in terms of popularity.
I’ve included the ESV and RSV together because they’re just so similar. They use the same Hebrew and Greek sources and translate them in similar ways.
They key difference between the two stirred some controversy when the ESV was first released. Some members of the Christian community were not happy with the ESV’s use of gender-neutral pronouns. However, these pronoun changes were mostly due to Greek and Hebrew’s defaulting to the male pronouns when being gender-neutral. For example, the Hebrew word anthropoi was commonly translated as men (which is also an accepted gender-neutral pronoun in English if you aren’t a feminists). The RSV kept the word “men” in cases in which that particular word was used. The ESV changed these instances to others or people when it is abundantly clear that a gender-neutral form is intended. However, some felt that this was an alteration of the original text, and not a translation into a language that allows for gender-neutral pronouns.
Verdict: Both are accurate translations of the original texts. Which of the two you use depends entirely on preference.
New International Version (NIV)
The New International Version was created in the 1970s to create a biblical translation into the common language of the American people, and was later translated into many different languages, including Spanish and Portuguese. It is currently the most popular translation of the Bible.
The New International Version is another translation taken directly from Hebrew and Greek sources, and therefore, where the translation is actually taken literally, which it does in most places, it can serve as a useful tool.
However, changes in the language, especially in the changes made after publication, seem to have been to sugar-coat or make the language fit a Protestant faith only rather than Christianity as a whole.
An example includes the addition of the word “just” in Jeremiah 7:22-23, changing it from “For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command:Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.” to “For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command:Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.” That completely alters the meaning of this passage.
Also, some scholars believe that due to paraphrasing, the true intentions of Paul’s epistles are lost in the NIV.
Verdict: Not terrible, but not super accurate. Take it with a grain of salt.
The Message (MSG)
Lord help me. The Message was created to be a Bible that used contemporary language, so young people could feel the “vitality and directness” of the Bible.
I want to be objective about this one, I really do, but this Bible is a joke.
The poetic nature of his writing (which turns prose into poems and poems into, I don’t know, super poems?) means so much of the Bible gets an inaccurate translation.
For example, in Genesis 2, most Bibles say that God said if Adam and Eve eat of the fruit “they will surely die.” This makes God not a liar, because the intention was for them to live forever in the garden in the presence of God, and now they have the ability to die after eating the fruit.
The Message just makes God a liar: “The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.” That explicitly states that as soon as Eve ate the fruit, she’d have died before she could have even gotten it to Adam, which makes God a liar. Now you can argue that they died a spiritual death, which is true, but it’s clear that’s not what God was saying. That doesn’t fly.
Another example: here’s the ESV’s translation of Isaiah 1:13-17
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
And now, The Message:
Quit your worship charades.
I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless.
The ESV paints a picture of a God who hates when people do one thing at religious meetings and another thing at home. The Message paints a picture of a God who hates religious meetings, and says they’re just a waste of time and we should do other things instead.
Verdict: The Message contradicts itself and standard biblical teaching in so many places that I have to discourage anyone reading this from ever using it, even for just a small illustration as some people do. It’s not accurate, it’s not scripture, it’s not helpful and it’s not worth you wasting your time on it.
New Living Translation (NLT)
This is the second most popular English translation (behind the NIV), and was created to combine a literal translation with some slight adjustments for the believed intentions of the authors.
In translating this information to English, they attempted to use the simplest language possible, often with footnotes detailing a more literal translation.
The negative side is that this was translated in a “thought-for-thought” style, which at times does change the language significantly in order to attempt to fit the intention’s behind the words rather than the words themselves. This creates problems if people disagree on a passage’s intentions, but it does make things easier to read.
Verdict: Great for new believers, but not so good for a detailed biblical study.
So why am I doing this? To be honest, it’s because so many Christians don’t know how to shop for Bibles. Either they’re confused about which version to get because everyone has an opinion on what version is best or they just grab the first thing they see. I want to encourage you, if you need to pick up a Bible, to do your own research and draw your own conclusion about which Bible you want. I’m not here to see that the ESV is the best version. I’m not here to say any of the other versions are awful (well, except for the Message). I just want to encourage you to do some research before you decide what to read, and then accept what others are reading. Every version has its pros and cons, and if it’s not specifically in the Bible to read one version or another, then there isn’t one that’s somehow holier than all the rest. Just something to think about.