Which Bible Translation?

April 12, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

From time to time people have written me asking which English Bible translation I feel is the best to use. Others have written about their personal belief that the King James translation of the Bible is the only translation that should be used (known as the “King James Only” position). Since I’ve often written about the need to read, study, and meditate on Scripture, most recently in the More Like Jesus series, I thought it might be helpful to write something about the differences between English Bible translations.

As with many other issues within Christianity, there are differing views regarding which English translation is the best to use. In broad terms, there is a difference of opinion between those who believe that the King James Version (KJV) is the best and most accurate translation, and those who believe that modern translations are both easier to understand and more accurate. Then, among those who favor modern translations, there are various positions on which ones are the best.

I will focus here on the distinctions in the ways translations are done, primarily to explain the differences between the KJV and some of the modern translations.

My goal in covering this topic is to help you get the most out of your Bible reading and application. Therefore, I won’t delve too deeply into all the available explanations regarding the advantages and disadvantages of any given translation of the Bible, nor about the debate as to whether the King James translation is the best English translation. For those who want fuller explanations, I am including some links throughout to articles which give deeper background than I’ve included here.

The main debate regarding Bible translations has to do with which ancient manuscripts were used as the basis of the translations, and which of those manuscripts are most accurate. The New Testament, rather than the Old, is the main focus of the debate, as those who argue that the King James is the best translation do so based on the belief that the Greek texts used by modern translations are corrupt.

The original languages of the Bible were Hebrew (and Aramaic in a few parts) for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. Because there were no printing presses before 1440 AD, all books and documents had to be copied by hand, generally by professional scribes. As the scrolls and later handwritten books (known as codices) wore out, new copies had to be made. In the process of copying the text by hand, sometimes minor mistakes were made—a word left out, a word misspelled, etc. There were systems in place to prevent such mistakes, but sometimes they did occur. Of course, if a mistake was made in one manuscript, over the years that same mistake would be copied from manuscript to manuscript by other scribes, perpetuating the errors. These minor errors (as well as other factors) later helped scholars determine which of the thousands of Greek New Testament manuscripts available today share similarities with others, enabling them to differentiate and group together those which they believe come from the same original source.

Each of these groups is known as a text family or text type. Biblical scholars generally agree that there are four different text families. The family of manuscripts used to produce what is known as the Textus Receptus (which the KJV comes from) was the Byzantine family. The other three text families are known as the Alexandrian, the Caesarean, and the Western. The point of debate between scholars regarding the King James versus modern translation is the issue of which of these families is the most accurate and true to what the original authors wrote.

The Byzantine family was the most dominant Greek text from about the eighth century until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1881, two scholars named Westcott and Hort published a Greek New Testament which relied more on other text families than on the Byzantine family. Their Greek text became the basis for the translation of the New Testament in most modern Bible translations. Based upon their studies, Westcott and Hort argued that the Byzantine text was not the closest to the original writings. They concluded that other text families appeared to have earlier and more original readings and were thus closer to the original texts, which led them to believe that the most accurate Greek text is to be found by drawing from all the Greek text families, and especially from the Alexandrian family. Today most (but not all) modern translations follow the findings of Westcott and Hort. (A few articles which might be helpful to read on this topic can be found here.)

There is an ongoing and heated debate on this topic, with some arguing that the King James Bible is the only true inspired English translation of the Bible, and that translations based on other Greek text families are at best second-rate, and at worst, designed to deceive Christians. Those who believe that the newer translations are at least equal to if not better than the King James translation base their opinion on the Alexandrian text family (and others) being earlier versions and thus closer to the original. While there are good technical arguments on both sides of the debate, I have personally come to the conclusion that most newer translations are useful, helpful, and as true to the original teachings of Scripture as the King James translation.

I don’t believe any translation can be perfect, as translators need to make judgment calls as to what they feel is the best way to express what is written in the original language. All translations have some deficiencies, and that doesn’t detract from their accuracy; but it’s wise to understand the strengths and weaknesses of whatever translation we use.

Bible translation has generally been approached in one of three ways: word for word, meaning for meaning, and paraphrasing.

Word for Word

Word for word translation, also called formal equivalent and literal translation, focuses on rendering (approximately) one word or phrase for every word or phrase in the original language. It generally tries to keep the same word order if possible. It attempts to translate into text which corresponds to or is identical with the words of the original language. Bibles that use word for word translation are King James (KJV), New King James (NKJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and ESV (English Standard Version).

Meaning for Meaning

Meaning for meaning translation, sometimes also called thought for thought, functional equivalent, or dynamic equivalence translation, can make Scripture more understandable. Rather than focusing on moving the individual words into English, it looks for the best way to reproduce the whole thought or sentence in English. The emphasis is on conveying the original thought of the sentence into the receptor language. To do so, the order of the words in the original language may be rearranged so that it makes the most sense to an English speaker today. The focus is on the meaning, rather than exact wording. The scholars who translated Scripture with the meaning for meaning method were committed to translating what God’s Word says in a way that is true to the original meaning, but in a manner that is more easily understood than some of the word for word translations.


A paraphrase doesn’t technically qualify as a translation, but rather is retelling something in one’s own words. In regard to Scripture, a paraphrased version takes the meaning of a passage and expresses it in the words of the author of the paraphrased Bible. In essence, it is the author’s interpretation of what God’s Word is saying. The general concept behind paraphrased Bibles is to put the words of Scripture into everyday English which will be understandable to all.

While there are three general types of translating text from the original language into the receptor language, the lines between them aren’t always definite, but are on a graduated scale. For example, some word for word translations keep closer to the original order of the words than others, which sometimes makes the English version a little stiff so that it doesn’t flow well.

The following are the most widely used word for word translations, listed in order of how closely they follow the word order of the original language (according to a variety of charts I’ve seen—there is a link to one such chart below):

  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)
  • Amplified Bible (AMP)
  • English Standard Version (ESV)
  • King James Version (KJV)
  • New King James Version (NKJV)

The Bibles which use the thought for thought method also have a range, with some adhering more closely to the original word order than others. Following are some of the most popular thought for thought translations, in order of how close they are to the original word order:

  • Revised Standard Version (RSV)
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
  • New American Bible (NAB)
  • New International Version (NIV)

Then, closer on the scale toward the paraphrased Bibles, while still in the thought for thought category, is the NLT, the New Living Translation. While this translation uses modern language, it is significantly different from the paraphrased Bibles in that a pool of 90 scholars worked on the translation. The two main paraphrased Bibles, listed below, are the work of single authors:

  • The Living Bible (TLB)
  • The Message (TM)

Overall, the New International Version is in the center of the scale between the word for word and paraphrased Bibles. (You can get an idea of how each Bible version falls into the range of translation in chart form here.)

In my personal Bible reading, I generally use the English Standard Version (ESV), as it is considered an accurate translation and the language is easier to follow and understand than the King James Version (KJV). However, I also regularly read from the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation, in order to hear it in a way I am not used to, so as to help remove the familiarity of the passages. While the New Living Translation is close to a paraphrase, it is still a thought for thought translation, which I prefer over paraphrased Bibles.

For my writing and research, I use a variety of translations in order to help me understand the meaning of what verses say. The Bible program which I use allows me to simultaneously look at each verse in a variety of different translations. I have it set to show me six different versions: KJV, NKJV, ESV, NAS (word for word), as well as NIV and NLT (thought for thought).

My goal in both my personal reading and in my writing is to understand what God has revealed to us through His Word. I find that seeing different ways translators have rendered some verses helps bring about a deeper understanding.

Having spiritually grown up reading the King James Version, it was for many years the version I was most familiar with. For decades it guided me, spoke to my heart, and changed me. It’s a beautiful translation, full of rich and descriptive language, and it has been a good friend to me. Seven years ago, I began to explore other translations, and I found that when reading them I was able to better understand what was said without being distracted by the “thees and thous” and other words which are no longer contemporary. Some of the KJV language which was once contemporary is now four hundred years old and, while beautiful, is not so easily understood today. Because of my decades-long attachment to the KJV, it was a little difficult to decide to make the ESV my primary reading Bible, but I'm glad I did, as doing so has helped me to better understand what the Bible teaches. Because both versions are word for word translations, the difference in wording isn’t drastic, but it’s enough of a difference to make it easier for me to understand.

Some Christians feel that the King James Version is the only truly inspired and correctly translated English Bible. Those who feel that way should stick with reading it, as it is a good translation. Unfortunately, there are some folks who believe so strongly that it is the only English Bible that should be read that they claim all other translations are false and even designed to lead believers away from faith. Many of the newer translations, both word for word and meaning for meaning, have had over a hundred scholars involved in the translating. This would mean that these hundreds of Christians, who have spent years of their lives laboriously translating the Scriptures, along with their Christian publishing companies, would have had to conspire together to put great effort into meticulous translation from Greek and Hebrew into English for the express purpose of leading people away from God. This is highly unlikely.

I’m sure people who believe that only the King James Version is the true English Bible are sincere in their belief; however, it is simply not true that modern translations are designed to teach false doctrine or to lead others away from Christ. There are undoubtedly English-speaking Christians today who love Jesus, are saved and filled with the Holy Spirit, live and preach the gospel, who have never read the King James Bible. All English Bibles are translations; none of them perfectly renders every word from the original Hebrew or Greek. Yet all of them have spoken to individuals, have brought them to Jesus, and have transformed their lives.

In your reading and study, I would recommend that you access more than one translation so that you can compare the texts, as this can help bring clarity to the meaning. There are good, free Bible programs which allow you to compare the texts from different translations. One of the best I’ve found is Biblegateway.com. If you log on and go to Bible/Passage Lookup, you will see the option to look up passages in multiple versions.

No matter what translation you decide to use, the most important thing is that you regularly read and study your Bible. It’s God’s Word and the way His message and His nature is revealed to us. Find a translation that speaks to you. If you are unsure what translation to use, try different versions to see which best helps you to understand what the Lord is saying, and which most motivates you to both believe and do what it says.