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How to judge a book by its cover

June 10, 2010

Aka: What’s the deal with all of these different Bibles?

If you wander into a Christian bookstore or browse online looking for a Bible, it can be confusing as you are inundated by a storm of different Bibles.  NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NLT… what?

First things first: it is important to understand that the Bible was not originally written in English!  The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the most of the New Testament was written in Greek.  There are a variety of translations from the original languages into English available on the market today – because they are all translations, none of them are exact.  The translators have done their best to give us the most accurate English versions possible, but because there is not always an exact equivalent between the ancient languages and our modern English, and because their methods and purposes vary, the translations will differ from one another.

Used with permission from Brent MacDonald,

Some versions focus on providing the most accurate word-for-word translation from the original languages to English.  These translations are highly respected and very accurate, but can be choppy or more confusing to read.  Commonly used “word for word” translations include NASB (New American Standard Bible), KJV (King James Version), and NKJV (New King James Version).  These versions are reliable and excellent choices for serious Bible study.

Other translators have attempted to look at the original text and translate it “thought for thought.”  Instead of looking at individual words, they look at larger phrases and attempt to translate the thought the original author was communicating in Greek or Hebrew into an equivalent thought in English.  The NIV (New International Version) is a “thought for thought” or “dynamic equivalence” translation.   Many people find the NIV to be easier to understand and smoother to read, making it a very popular choice.  The NIV is largely trustworthy, although there has been debate over portions of the text – it’s a good choice for devotional reading, Scripture memory, or to read aloud, but it would not be my choice for serious Bible study.  If you do use the NIV for daily Bible study, I would recommend that you use it alongside a more precise word-for-word translation.

A third general category for Bible translations would be paraphrases – some Bible students despise them and others love them!  In a paraphrase, the author interprets the passage based on his understanding of the passage, rather than on the original language and its English equivalent.  This makes a paraphrase much more prone to error or the author’s theological bias.  Examples of paraphrases would be The Message and The Living Bible (TLB).  Paraphrases can be useful – I enjoy pulling them out to read passages that are very familiar to me in the NIV or NASB; suddenly reading them in different wording often gives me a fresh perspective.  Some people like to use them for devotional reading.  Just be aware that a paraphrase is more like a devotional than a translation – the person writing the paraphrase is often seeking to explain it in a new way, rather than just present exactly what the text says.  This can limit the text and add a spin or bias from the author.

The issue of translations can be a hotly debated one.  Ask ten solid Christians which translation you should purchase and you will end up with a huge variety of answers.  Keep in mind that no matter what you purchase, each version has strengths and weaknesses. Make an informed decision, use them as tools, lay them out side by side.  You can even look verses up in a wide variety of translations using only your computer and internet access – or the Online Parallel Bible are great places to start comparing translations and noticing the differences between them.

What an amazing privilege we have – not only do we have access to the Scriptures in our own language, but we have access to it in a mind-numbing array of options!  Be thankful, and dig in!

49 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela King permalink
    June 10, 2010 7:48 am

    Thank you for these insights into the differences of the various translations. The illustration of the translations on a spectrum is especially helpful!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 7:50 am

      Glad to hear it, Angie!! 🙂 A picture IS worth 1,000 words sometimes!

  2. June 10, 2010 8:07 am

    Great info! Very helpful. One thing that I appreciate about the “thought for thought” or dynamic equivalent translations is the way they deal with idioms or expressions commonly used and understood in Bible times. For example, two hundred years from now people may not understand our common expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in bush.” A word for word translation of ancient expressions can be confusing. Thought for thought translations relay the meaning of the expression in a way we will understand.

    Love the chart! Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all just read Hebrew and Greek??!!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 8:11 am

      Great point, Kathy! And YES, I do wish we could just all read Greek and Hebrew! 🙂

  3. June 10, 2010 8:15 am

    I counted- I have 10 different translations on our shelf ranging the entire spectrum. Thanks for the helpful explanations!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 8:17 am

      It really is amazing how many Bibles we tend to have – and often we take it for granted. What a gift when some believers around the world will never own their own copy of God’s Word!

  4. Jonathan Snow permalink
    June 10, 2010 8:51 am


    The biggest point of contention when people get into fights over the English translations we have today do have some to do with how they were translated, etc., but the biggest point of contention is where they were translated from. A great point of research is to go back to where each version was translated from – they’re not all from the same source.

    There’s Westcott & Hort, Textus Receptus, and I believe a few others that are lesser known that all claim to be the originals.

    Something to think about.. 🙂

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 8:56 am

      Yes, Jonathan – thank you for adding that. I’d encourage our readers to do further research on their own if this piques their interest. For now it is really outside our scope of discussion for this particular post – I just wanted to give a basic overall understanding of purposes of various translations. 🙂

  5. June 10, 2010 8:59 am

    I do believe since I live in the U.S. I do take for granted the access I have to God’s Word! We have missionary friends who have served in places where entire congregations share ONE copy of God’s Word! They tear it apart and divide it among their group every time they meet! A pastor of ours shared this story with us because some members of his congregations were upset when he wanted to start preaching from the NASB instead of the KJV. It makes you think! Is God’s Word precious to us or do we take it for granted?

    Ladies, this site is wonderful! You all are doing a great job! As a nation, I believe our Biblical literacy is declining at a rapid rate, and a site like this can equip people and bring glory to God! Keep writing for His name’s sake!


    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 9:03 am

      So true, Nikki. I was so convicted of that a while back when I read Nancy Leigh DeMoss’s A Place of Quiet Rest. She discussed in a portion of that book how believers were doing exactly as you said, splitting up one copy and sharing it among hundreds of people – often they would memorize most of the Bible one page at a time and then trade it with each other! I was so saddened to think of the number of Bibles sitting on my shelf just for my own personal use (plus access to any translation I want on the computer!) and how often I fail to treasure it, read it, memorize it like I should.

      • June 10, 2010 7:52 pm

        When you mentioned the word “treasure” it made met think of how the NASB translates Psalm 119:11: “Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.” There’s a big difference between hiding and treasuring God’s Word. I’ve been thinking about this post a lot today and asking myself, “Do I TREASURE God’s Word? Have I taken His Word so for granted that I simply do not treasure it like I should?

      • Kristi Stephens permalink*
        June 10, 2010 7:54 pm

        GREAT question… we should all ponder that for a while!

  6. June 10, 2010 9:05 am has a little button you can click and (pop) suddenly the verse shows up on the screen in about 15 different translations. It’s my favorite study tool.

    Anyway, I use NIV and KJV as my hard copy bibles. My husband used to tease me because I always had both versions opened up and compared them. I WANTED to read through KJV but it confused me so much I had to have NIV there to help me along.

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 9:09 am

      Oh, thank you for the link, Sheri! Blueletterbible is one I haven’t tried before!

      I used to teach H.S. Bible at a school that used almost exclusively the KJV. My students never understood what it said so I was always pulling out the NIV to explain it – seemed humorous to me that we didn’t just use a different translation – we might as well have handed them a Greek text sometimes! 😉

  7. June 10, 2010 9:17 am

    Thank you so much for this. I was just looking at purchasing a new Bible with wide-margins for some note taking. I had an ESV in my cart online and wasn’t sure about it. Now I know that it would be perfect.

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 9:18 am

      That’s great, Amy!! Glad it was timely and helpful – happy studying! [I’ve been eying those wide-margin Bibles myself!] 🙂

  8. June 10, 2010 9:34 am

    Excellent article and information. I use the ESV for study and the NLT or NIV for devotional reading and memorization. I love to listen to the NKJV (which is what is presented in such audio/dramatized bibles as Word of Promise).

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 9:58 am

      You really have me interested in those Word of Promise cd’s!! That would be so nice to have.

      • June 10, 2010 10:26 am

        They are so cool! James Caviezal is the voice of Jesus and the Angel of the Lord (which makes sense since many scholars believe the Angel of the Lord is in fact the pre-incarnate Son of God). I don’t know why but hearing this connection really draws together who Jesus is as God in both Old and New Testaments (at least for me).

      • Kristi Stephens permalink*
        June 10, 2010 11:03 am

        Oh – that’s awesome!! I love seeing those glimpses of Jesus in the OT – that would be really neat to also “hear” it!

  9. June 10, 2010 10:05 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I always wondered what the differences were. Our house is blessed enough to have many versions. I grew up with KJV and RSV.

    My children have “The Adventure Bible” from Zondervan Press and it’s an NIV version. I really like all the side notes and information it gives. It makes having Bible Study time fun.

    For myself, I prefer my NKJV and so does my husband.

    I also picked up a copy of The Message to help us understand really complex verses from a different view but I don’t like using it as a main source, to me it over uses the modern language.

    This post really helped settle my mind to the differences and wondering if we had the “right” version to study. It appears we have access to enough versions to really “dig in.” Thank you! 🙂

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 10:08 am

      You’re so welcome, Linda – I’m glad it was helpful! Sounds like you have a great assortment to compare with one another!

  10. June 10, 2010 10:35 am

    It is amazing to think that as little as even 50 years ago there would have been only a few- now I have translations for study, parallel (2 in 1 side by side to compare) and different ones for reading. Gods Word is so accessible now I even have a Bible on my iPhone – the challenge to me is with all this do i open & appreciate the word as much? I am glad I’m digging , thanks for today

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 11:03 am

      You’re welcome, Carolyn! Glad we’re digging together, too!

  11. June 10, 2010 11:05 am

    Kristi – EXCELLENT post – so helpful! I love this site girl – it’s been a great refresher for me…I learned this stuff in college but who can remember all we learned in 4 years right?lol!!

    The NASB was the required Bible for Moody Bible. It was hard for me because I had always used King James growing up and had to re-memorize a lot of passages. THEN after graduating from Moody I went to my church where the Pastor preaches out of NIV and I started memorizing in that version! It trips me up all these versions when it comes to memory work!

    But I love the living well of scriptures and can’t drink enough from it – so no matter what version I’m gulping it down everyday!!

    Thanks for this post – excellent!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 1:24 pm

      Thank you, Courtney! I think we all need to brush up on this info now and then!! 🙂 I’m the same way with Scripture memory – the KJV from my childhood sneaks in and confuses me when I’m teaching AG from the NIV! 😉

  12. June 10, 2010 11:14 am

    I also like the NLT for devotional reading.

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 11:18 am

      Yay! Your gravatar pic showed up this time!! 🙂

    • June 10, 2010 1:32 pm

      Me too, Kathy! It’s my favorite at this point for that. But I love the NASB & ESV for study.

    • June 10, 2010 7:56 pm

      I am not very familiar with the NLT, but I will be soon b/c my children and I just received a One Year Bible for Kids and it is NLT and we plan on starting to read through it very soon:)

  13. Becky permalink
    June 10, 2010 1:37 pm

    Good post Kristi! I just got a free ESV study Bible at the T4G conference and am so excited about it…but it’s hard to make the switch from my NIV that has all my notes in it. I do love both. I remember some good debates back at my church growing up about the KJV vs. NIV. I think you did a good job explaining that each version is good for different reasons. 🙂

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 1:39 pm

      Thanks, Becky! I hear you – I love getting a new study Bible but I hate not having all my old notes in it (and being able to picture which side of the page things are on!) 🙂

  14. June 10, 2010 1:41 pm

    Thanks for this great overview! I use the NIV with my kids and The Message and NIV when teaching a Bible study. The NASB and NLT are my favorites for serious Bible study, but I also utilize software that helps with context and literal translation. God’s Word has something new every time I open it- that is why I love digging =)

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 1:43 pm

      You’re welcome! Bible software is such a gift – we can research original languages and do word studies SO MUCH EASIER than working without a computer!

  15. stephanieshott permalink
    June 10, 2010 2:31 pm

    Great post, Kristi!

    I have to say, my personal favorite “study” Bible is the Amplified. But it’s so exciting to look at one verse in so many different versions and see the extent of what God is saying to us through His Word…especially when you trace each word back to the original language!

    I love how this is stirring up an excitement about the Word of God!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 10, 2010 3:13 pm

      Thanks, Stephanie! The Amplified is one that I haven’t used much (if at all) personally, but I’ve known several people who LOVE to use it. I’ll have to check it out. 🙂

  16. June 11, 2010 7:32 am

    Awesome post! I prefer the NKJV, but we also have the KJV and NIV here at our house. We are looking at getting an ESV bible also. Another website we use a lot is You can download it and also down load different versions, as well as commentaries, devotionals and maps!

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 11, 2010 9:06 am

      Thank you, Joy – I love learning about all these online resources!!

  17. June 11, 2010 1:30 pm

    love that illustration. I’ve heard good things about the ESV yet I’m used to my NIV. this is the nudge I need to make the switch to an ESV study bible

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 11, 2010 1:35 pm

      That’s great, Monica! I hope you find one that you enjoy. I used the NIV primarily for years and now I just love my NASB. 🙂

  18. June 12, 2010 12:31 pm

    Great way to break down the options for us, Kristi. I read today that the best version is the one we take down and read every day and that we shouldn’t buy a new one until we’ve read all of the ones we have. Wow! That’s challenging. The graphic is so helpful. Another proof that God doesn’t not want to be unknown to us, but He wants us to know Him and His truth.

    • Kristi Stephens permalink*
      June 12, 2010 4:35 pm

      Wow – that is convicting and true!!!

  19. Julianne permalink
    June 19, 2010 10:29 pm

    I like how you put the translation comparison for all of us to see. I’ve never had the opportunity to see the translations all lined up that way- very neat!
    I grew up using the NIV, the church I grew up in used that version. The one thing that always popped out at me was when I saw different verses removed, just skipped over (Matthew 18:11, Luke 9:56- those verses speak of our Lord’s coming to save men). So, that was something I found odd. Also in Colossians 1:14 the words “through his Blood” are removed from the end of the verse in the NIV, as I child I knew that it was through Christ’s shed blood that we are saved. And then there’s the passage in Mark 16:19-20 that are removed, that are speaking of Christ’s bodily resurrection.
    I guess for me I like now using the KJV because it is word for word, being that we humans have a sin nature, I don’t want to read what others thoughts are. I want to know what God said word for word, because the Bible was inspired by God- not men.
    These were just things that I noticed even as a child, this was not meant to start a debate, just things that I always found odd as a child and teen.

    Thanks for the great post!

  20. July 9, 2010 6:59 pm

    Hmmm. I have to disagree greatly with the approval this post gives to using other versions than the KJV. And here’s why…

    First, God’s word is not to be “added to” or “taken away from”. This is a very serious offense.

    I’ve been reading “New Age Bible Versions” by G.A. Riplinger and the author shares word for word the changes made between newer versions compared to the KJV. Its incredibly eye opening. Not only are the changes “called out” but the author shows how the changes actually are in line with known pagan or satanic writings/propagation. Every bible believer in our day and age should read it.

    Second, Satan has a known track record (if you study history and bible) of counterfeiting God’s plan by deceiving mankind. This has been going on ever since Satan subtly twisted God’s word when he convinced Eve to disobey God (Genesis 3:1…”yea, hath God said?…”). Are we so naive to think he wouldn’t continue to do this today?

    I plan to share a review of this book by Riplinger during one of my 13 Saturday’s post (summer series) if you care to check it out.

    If you don’t believe me, get the book yourself and check out the list of changes and how they match up with those of Satan’s followers… including the New Age Movement. You’ll be amazed.

    • July 17, 2010 12:28 pm

      Tracy, as I wrote to you in an email, we all have dear friends who believe as you do that the KJV is the only accurate translation. This post was not intended to spark debate or division among those who are using other translations … merely to offer explanation about translation methodologies and styles. As the chart clearly illustrates, the KJV is a very accurate translation and we certainly would not discourage anyone from using it. However, we also do not want those who choose other translations to feel as though they are violating any Scriptural command. Certainly, we can all agree that God’s Word is able to communicate and change lives simply because it is HIS Word … regardless of what method of translation has been used.

      Thank you for sharing what you have learned and how God is teaching you. We always love to find new friends who are passionate about seeking God and growing in His Word!


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