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Why are there so many different Bible versions? What’s the difference between them? How do I know which one to choose? If you’ve ever stood in the Bible section of a bookstore, I’m sure these questions have come to mind. While choosing a Bible is ultimately a matter of personal preference, a little information about the different versions available can go a long way in helping you to make an informed decision. The goal of every English Bible is to accurately convey the meaning of the original languages (Hebrew for the OT, Greek for the NT) into English. Unfortunately, since no two languages share all of the same characteristics, a translation is never exact. There is a continuous need for revision because of gradual changes in the English language, advancements in Greek and Hebrew language studies, new manuscript evidence, and a desire to improve upon the accuracy of an existing translation. Add to this competing translation philosophies and sufficient funds and ‘Voila,’ we have a plethora of English translations at our disposal.

So what’s the difference between them? Are they all essentially the same? One of the best ways to understand how two translations differ is to know the principles that guided the way each was translated. There are three broad styles of translation will help us distinguish the various translations (though 3 categories are presented below, the reality is much more like a sliding scale than neatly fitting categories).

1. Formal (or Direct) Equivalence – This style seeks a literal reproduction of the original text, including sentence structure and word order. This usually involves an attempt to translate each word in the original language with an equivalent word in English whenever possible. Sometimes called “word for word.”

Example translations: KJV (1769), NRSV (1989), NASB (1995), ESV (2001)

Pro: By maintaining the structure of the original, logical connections and subordinate clauses will often come through clearer than in a dynamic translation where the tendency is to shorten sentences for smoother reading. In the example below, we see that v7 is a dependent clause to v6, suggesting that the manner in which we humble ourselves is by casting our anxieties on Him.

  • 1 Peter 5:6-7 (ESV) - Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
  • 1 Peter 5:6-7 (NLT) - So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.

Con: By seeking a “word for word” rendering, certain phrases may not be easily understood by the English reader.

  • Matthew 3:15 (ESV) - But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
  • Matthew 3:15 (NLT) - But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

2. Dynamic (or Functional) Equivalence – This style attempts to translate the meaning of the text as it would have been understood by the original readers in a way that results in the same understanding for the readers of the translation. Sometimes called “though for thought.”

Example translations: NIV (1978), HCSB (2004), NLT (2004), TNIV (2005)

Pro: By seeking an equivalent phrase in English to convey the message of the original, it often reads more smoothly than a formal translation, thereby aiding comprehension.

  • Ephesians 4:20-24 (NASB) - But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit
  • Ephesians 4:20-24 (NLT) - But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception.

Con: In a dynamic translation, the translator is often required to make interpretive decisions that may or may not be the correct one. This decision would be left up to the reader in a formal translation.

  • 1 Corinthians 5:5 (ESV) - you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:5 (NLT) - Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.

3. Free Translation (or Paraphrase) – When translating from the original languages, this style could be considered a stronger form of dynamic equivalence, with an emphasis on conveying the ideas of the original with less concern for the words and the form used. Some versions in this category are not translations from the original, but a paraphrase of an existing English translation.

Example translations: TEV (1976), TLB (1971), NCV (1991), The Message (2002)

Pro: Since the paraphrase is not as tied to the words and form of the original as the other translations, they are capable of producing much more vivid pictures for the reader.

  • Psalm 73:11-14 (ESV) - And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.
  • Psalm 73:11-14 (The Message) - What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch? Nobody’s tending the store. The wicked get by with everything; they have it made, piling up riches. I’ve been stupid to play by the rules; what has it gotten me? A long run of bad luck, that’s what— a slap in the face every time I walk out the door.

Con: Interpretive decisions must be made similar to the dynamic equivalent translations, though more frequent in number (see dynamic example above).

So which do you choose: formal, dynamic, or paraphrase? The best answer is, “Yes!” There are benefits to each type, and it’s a good idea to consult multiple translations during your study of a passage. Oftentimes, the differences between them will give you insight into the different ways a specific verse could be (and probably has been) interpreted.

This discussion has not touched on every area in which translations can differ, but you should be more equipped to wade through the many options the next time you purchase a new Bible. The good news in all this is that most newer translations (such as the TNIV, NLT, ESV, and HCSB) have attempted to incorporate the best features of both the dynamic and formal methods, attempting to achieve optimum accuracy and readability even if they lean more towards one end of the spectrum. Ultimately, the best translation will be the one that you will actually read. Find a translation that you are comfortable with and use it as your primary Bible, then have an alternate translation available to consult during deeper study of a passage.