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Dan's Thoughts on Bible Versions

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" Matthew 24:35 (NIV)
"God is continuously supervising a process whereby Divine truths will always be available, because it is a Divine principle - not a human innovation." Ronald J. Gordon

These are my (Dan's) thoughts on what I've learned about the relative merits of various Bible translations. I've been rethinking which ones to use in my own studying, to better understand the Word of God. (Note that this is by no means an exhaustive discussion of all available Bible translations.)

As English speakers, we have the luxury of many Bible translations to choose from. Just in our house, we have at least eight. On the Internet there are at least twelve downloadable or searchable versions I know of.

O.K., so how do I choose?

If you're interested in my take on this, here we go:

  • By far the most significant thing I've learned -- it jumps out at me -- is that ALL translations clearly convey the same essential truth: God loves us, and though we are all sinners, Jesus Christ came in the flesh, died for our sins, and by faith in him alone we can be saved and have eternal life. The few small differences in meaning pale in comparison to the astounding degree of agreement, so in all the important truths of our relationship to God, they're all true and all usable.

  • The Bible as we know it today is accurately preserved. I believe it's the true Word of God, infallible and inerrant, divinely preserved by God, but even for those who are not yet so convinced, the degree of manuscript support is nothing short of amazing. The Bible has more manuscript support, with fewer variations, than Shakespeare's works! There are some 500 extant manuscripts of the New Testament alone.

  • The newer translations take advantage of more recently discovered ancient manuscripts, but it turns out all extant manuscripts are in nearly total agreement anyway. Rather than being translations of translations of translations, recent versions go back to the originals to assure accuracy.

O.K., so how do I choose?

Well, here's what I know about the major techniques of translation:

Formal Equivalence is an attempt to give word for word translation; though not perfectly attainable, it uses words that most closely match with each manuscript word. It's useful for knowing closely what was said in the original, but there are problems: sometimes, there is no exactly equivalent word or equivalent tense. Following original word order instead of converting to English grammar can be confusing. Also, to fully grasp the original idioms and cultural references, one must have a good understanding of the writer's culture and language. Examples: King James Version (1611), American Standard Version (1901), New King James Version (1982).

Dynamic Equivalence is thought for thought translation; it tries to capture the meaning intended by the writer, without strict word-for-word equivalence. It can help make more sense to an English reader, by using more familiar words and grammar. It can often express the intended meaning more clearly, but runs the risk of losing some important nuances. Examples: New International Version (1973), New Living Translation (1996).

Paraphrases openly give up accuracy to the original texts (and are thus not really "translations" per se), and try to express the meaning and impact of the text using the idioms of modern culture. Examples: Living Bible (1971), The Message (2002)

Each has its pros and cons...

Here's an example of how the different techniques deal with things:

In Mark 6:37, Jesus is about to miraculously feed 5,000 people, but first tells his disciples to give them something to eat. Astonished, they reply that it would take a great deal of money. In the original Greek, the amount is 200 denarii.

  • In the 1611 KJV, it's translated as "two hundred pennyworth." Today that sounds like two dollars.

  • In the 1952 Revised Standard Version it's "two hundred denarii," with a footnote that the denarius was worth about twenty cents.

  • In the 1973 New International Version, it's "eight months of a man's wages," which gives a sense of the enormity of the amount, but it's not a literal translation. The NIV then gives a footnote that the Greek original is two hundred denarii.

Another example, that shows something lost in dynamic equivalence, from the famous John 3:16:

  • The New King James Version says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

  • The New International Version says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

It's a central Christian doctrine that Jesus is God, eternally existing with the Father. The concept of Jesus as begotten, not created, is too valuable to lose in translation. "One and only," while true, is only partially equivalent to the original. (The NIV, however, does have a footnote that says "or his only begotten Son.")

O.K., so how do I choose?

Each translation emphasizes some manuscripts more than others. The KJV and many other older versions are based on a large number of manuscripts dating back to the 5th century A.D. These manuscripts are in very close agreement. Some newer translations, though, emphasize a few even older manuscripts found in recent years, but these have more differences from the 5th century manuscripts, and from each other. The differences, though, only show up in minor areas, and do not at all change the central messages of the Bible.

O.K., so how do I choose?

All right, all right, here's how I made up my mind:

First of all, I prefer not to use a version with "thee" and "thou." The books of the Bible were originally written in the current language of the day; both God and people were referred to with conventional pronouns, not archaic or especially pious-sounding words. In 1611, people spoke to each other in that style, but not today. God reveals himself to us as a loving Father with whom we can have an intimate relationship. Do you call your dad "thou?" Thus, I use KJV, NASB, ASV, and RSV for reference, but not for daily reading.

Also, some older versions such as the KJV have terms and words that are not meaningful to us today, because the language changes over time. When I use the older versions, I have to mentally translate from their word usage to understand the meaning.

I prefer the Dynamic Equivalence (thought-for-thought) translations more for daily reading. In essence, a thought-for-thought translation does what a good Bible teacher does: it makes the Scripture meaningful to me, bringing it into my language. However, I still find Formal Equivalence translations valuable for study purposes, to compare more closely with the original.


  • I've settled on the New International Version for my main daily Bible reading: it's based on original texts, reads easily, and in most cases where there could be misunderstanding, provides a footnote with the more literal rendering.
  • I keep other translations at hand for more serious study, of which my favorite Formal Equivalence translation is the New King James Version, which has fully updated language (no "thee" or "thou.").

"The chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrector of all that is evil, in human society; the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men, and the only book that can serve as an infallible guide to Future felicity." - Noah Webster
  • Many of the translations mentioned are available on-line at the Bible Gateway