The Bible is the most widely read book in human history, but with dozens of English translations available, readers often wonder which one most accurately conveys the meaning of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is considered the most literal word-for-word English translation, while dynamic equivalence translations like the New International Version (NIV) balance readability with faithfulness to the original languages.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll compare the world’s most popular Bible versions—from formal translations to freer modern renderings—examining the principles behind each translation philosophy. We’ll look at the origins, translators, readability, and accuracy of each version, with examples contrasting how key passages are translated differently.
By the end, you’ll understand the strengths and weaknesses of various translations and discover which best fits your personal Bible reading needs.
Basic Principles Behind Bible Translation
Word-for-word Bible translations aim to preserve the original wording and structure of the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts as much as possible in the target language. Examples include the King James Version (KJV) published in 1611 and the English Standard Version (ESV) published in 2001.
The benefit is staying close to the original texts. The downside is the resulting translation may sound awkward since word order and grammar differ across languages.
Dynamic or Functional Equivalence
In contrast to formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence translations aim to convey the original meaning of the text in a natural way in the target language. Examples include the New International Version (NIV) published in 1978 and the New Living Translation (NLT) published in 1996.
The upside is increased readability and understanding. The risk is over-interpretation or paraphrasing instead of accurate translation.
Paraphrased Bible versions strive to restate the meaning of the text in everyday language for better comprehension. Well-known examples are The Message published in 2002 and The Passion Translation released in 2017.
Paraphrases make the Bible very readable but sacrifice literal accuracy of translation to varying degrees. Some paraphrases have been criticized for going beyond translation into interpretation or commentary.
|Can be awkward
|The Message, Passion
For an in-depth analysis, Bible scholars compare multiple translations of important passages to evaluate accuracy and faithfulness to the original biblical languages. Consulting multiple credible translations can give the best balance of fidelity and understandability.
Most Accurate Formal Equivalence Translations
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is considered one of the most literal and accurate English translations of the Bible. Originally published in 1971, the NASB seeks to translate the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts into precise English equivalents.
Some key features that make the NASB a trustworthy formal equivalence translation:
According to an independent study done by Bible Researcher https://www.bible-researcher.com/accurate5.html, the NASB ranked as the most accurate English Bible translation overall. The meticulous care and linguistic precision of the NASB translation makes it a top choice for in-depth Bible study.
English Standard Version (ESV)
Published in 2001 by Crossway, the English Standard Version (ESV) rapidly gained popularity as a highly faithful and reliable translation. Here’s why the ESV deserves recognition as one of the most accurate formal correspondance versions:
An in-depth report by researchers at Calvin Theological Seminary https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2012/10/why-the-esv-uses-formal-equivalence-at-bible-gateway/ praised the ESV for its faithfulness to the words and grammar of the original languages.
Its concise but precise style makes it a trustworthy formal equivalence translation for personal reading and study.
New King James Version (NKJV)
Published in 1982 by Thomas Nelson, the New King James Version (NKJV) is a revision of the popular King James Version that updates the 17th century English language while preserving its essential faithfulness. Here are some of its key features that contribute to accuracy:
According to https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/which-translation-is-the-most-accurate.html, the NKJV ranks as one of the top formal correspondence translations due to its faithfulness to the language and message of the traditional KJV Bible.
While some more contemporary terms are used, the essential literary excellence of the KJV is retained.
Most Popular Dynamic Equivalence Translations
New International Version (NIV)
The New International Version (NIV) Bible is one of the most popular English translations of the Bible using dynamic equivalence for translation. First published in 1978 and revised in 2011, the NIV aims to balance word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation philosophies.
The result is a translation that is both faithful to the original languages and easy to understand for modern readers. The NIV is published by Biblica, the International Bible Society. By 2022, the NIV has sold over 600 million copies, making it the best-selling English Bible translation.
It also ranks fourth in sales of any book in history!
Some key features of the NIV:
- Translated by a team of over 100 scholars from various denominations.
- Uses contemporary, understandable English while remaining faithful to the meaning of the original texts.
- Aims for a middle ground between formal and dynamic equivalence.
- Periodically updated to keep language up-to-date (1978, 1984, 2011 editions).
- Very popular in Evangelical Christian circles.
Though some scholars argue the NIV sacrifices some accuracy for readability, overall it is one of the most popular and trusted English Bible translations used today, suitable for personal study and church use. Plus, with over 600 million copies sold, the NIV’s popularity speaks for itself!
New Living Translation (NLT)
The New Living Translation (NLT) is an English translation of the Bible published in 1996 by Tyndale House Publishers. It aims to express the Word of God in clear, contemporary English while remaining faithful to the meaning of the original ancient texts.
The NLT is a dynamic equivalence translation, seeking to convey the thoughts and ideas behind the biblical text in a way easy for modern readers to understand. Around 100 scholars from various theological backgrounds and denominations participated in its translation.
Some key features of the NLT:
- Translated from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.
- Vocabulary and syntax simplified to increase readability.
- Short sentences and paragraphs used for smooth reading flow.
- Footnotes explain alternate translations of difficult passages.
- 90+ million copies in print, making it one of the most read modern translations.
While more paraphrastic than formal equivalence translations, the NLT aims to stay true to the spirit and meaning of the biblical texts. It is very popular for personal Bible study, devotional reading, and church use.
The NLT continues to be updated, with second and third editions released in 2004 and 2015.
Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is an English translation of the Bible published in 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The CSB aims to translate the Word of God in a readable, understandable way while maintaining accuracy to the original biblical languages.
Some key features of the CSB:
- Translated by 100 scholars from various backgrounds.
- Strives for Optimal Equivalence translation philosophy.
- Gender-accurate language used for modern relevance.
- Over 20 stylistic updates compared to its predecessor, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
- Growing in popularity and adoption, with 5 million copies sold already.
The CSB balances readability and accuracy by using modern grammar and terminology while staying faithful to the meaning of the original texts. It leans towards the dynamic equivalence end of the translation spectrum without paraphrase.
While relatively new, the CSB is quickly gaining popularity in churches and for personal study.
Common English Bible Translations
King James Version (KJV)
The King James Version (KJV) is one of the most widely used English Bible translations. First published in 1611, the KJV was authorized by King James I of England and is regarded as a masterpiece of English literature. Some key facts about the KJV:
- It was translated by 47 scholars from the Church of England over 7 years.
- The KJV uses formal, archaic English from the early 17th century. This makes it more difficult for modern readers to comprehend.
- It is based primarily on the Textus Receptus Greek text for the New Testament and the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament.
- The KJV had a profound influence on the development of the English language and became the standard Bible for English-speaking Protestants for hundreds of years.
- While not commonly used in churches today, it remains one of the most popular and widely-owned English Bibles.
The majestic language and literary excellence of the KJV has endured over time. However, the availability of more accurate ancient manuscripts and progress in scholarship means its language and textual basis are outdated compared to modern translations.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is a thorough revision of the Revised Standard Version, updated in 1989. Here are some key facts about this popular modern translation:
- It was translated by a committee of over 50 scholars from various churches and denominations.
- The NRSV uses contemporary, readable English while remaining faithful to the meaning of ancient texts.
- It is based on the most up-to-date manuscript discoveries and scholarly research available when it was published.
- The NRSV employs gender-inclusive language, using male and female pronouns for God and humanity.
- It is the translation most commonly preferred by biblical scholars and used in academic settings.
According to a survey in 2012, over 50% of Bible scholars agreed that the NRSV is the most accurate English Bible translation. The meticulous scholarship and readability of the NRSV make it one of the most widely used and trusted Bible versions today.
Most Accurate Catholic Bible Translations
New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE)
The New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) is one of the most popular and authoritative Catholic Bible translations in English. First published in 1970, the NAB has gone through two revisions, with the latest NABRE version released in 2011.
The NABRE is approved for liturgical use and is the basis for the lectionary used at Catholic Mass. It stays faithful to the original biblical texts while also using inclusive language where appropriate.
The revised edition also takes into account recent archaeological discoveries and advances in biblical scholarship to provide enhanced accuracy.
Some key features of the NABRE translation include:
- Imprimatur granted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, confirming its conformity to Catholic teaching
- More literal translation from the earliest biblical language texts available
- Inclusive language to reflect modern gender sensitivities
- Extensive explanatory notes and cross-references for deeper study
The NABRE is praised for its readability, scholarship, and suitability for both academic and devotional reading. It aims to make the biblical texts accessible to a wide, contemporary readership.
First published in 1966, the Jerusalem Bible (JB) was the first widely adopted Catholic English translation. It is still considered one of the most lyrical, literate translations available.
The JB is based on the original Hebrew and Greek sources, along with the Latin Vulgate. It also references early Greek translations and Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries. The translation features the work of top biblical scholars, edited by the Dominican Biblical School in Jerusalem.
Some defining qualities of the Jerusalem Bible translation are:
- More dynamic idiomatic translation style while preserving theological accuracy
- Inclusion of the Deuterocanonical books affirmed at the Council of Trent
- Scholarly footnotes and book introductions for context
- Vibrant, expressive language using various literary styles
Although now succeeded by more recent translations, the Jerusalem Bible remains a top recommendation for devotional reading and Bible study. Its eloquent text and explanatory notes provide rich insight into the biblical writings.
|Inclusive language, extensive notes
|Deuterocanonical books, footnotes
While no English translation perfectly captures every nuance of the original Biblical texts, formal equivalence versions like the NASB stay closest to the original wording and grammar. Dynamic equivalence translations balance readability and accuracy, while paraphrases like The Message offer accessibility but less precision.
For personal Bible study, consider using a literal translation like the ESV alongside an easily readable one like the NIV or NLT. Comparing versions can shed new light on God’s word.