Which is the best English translation of the Bible?

Photo of Bible by Dottorpeni. CC-BY.

Photo of Bible by Dottorpeni. CC-BY.

The Christian Bible has not only been translated to more languages than any other book, and it also has been translated to English more times than any other. Since very few people could understand the Bible in its original languages — Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic — portions of it have been translated to English ever since there was an English language, and if you visit any large bookstore today, you probably can find more than a dozen versions of the Bible.

Since translation from one language to another is art as well as science, it is impossible to given an objective answer as to which translation is best. However, not all translations are created equal, and some translations are more suitable for some purposes than others. Below are listed some of the noteworthy English translations:

Although the King James Version of the Bible wasn’t the first English translation of the Bible, it is the earliest one that is still in everyday use today. First published in 1611 by the Church of England (although the spelling has been updated since then), the KJV has influenced the English language and eventually became the Bible used in nearly all English-speaking Protestant churches worldwide. (Catholics used the Douay-Rheims Bible, produced around the same time.) Its majesty and literary value are unmatched, and select portions — namely the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm — are familiar even to many non-Christians. No collection of English literature is complete without it. Because the English language has changed so much in the last four centuries, portions of this fairly literal translation can be difficult to understand, and the KJV has largely been replaced by modern translations in most churches other than the Mormon church and some conservative Protestant sects.

The American Standard Version and its British counterpart, the Revised Version, were developed by teams of scholars near the end of the 19th century in an attempt to take advantage of the latest scholarship. The translations never achieved widespread popularity, although the ASV was often used in American seminaries during much of the 20th century. The World English Bible is a modern translation based on the ASV and is undoubtedly the best modern translation that is in the public domain — in other words, it can be used freely without copyright restrictions, unlike the remainder of the translations listed here.

The Revised Standard Version, first published in 1952 (with a Catholic version coming a few years later) was the first major attempt to develop a new standard English Bible translation. Although it became widely used by mainline Protestant denominations, it never caught on with evangelicals. The RSV was replaced by the New Revised Standard Version in 1989. Among the major changes in the NRSV was the replacement of the old pronouns “thee” and “thou” with “you” when referring to the deity. The NRSV is standard in many mainline Protestant churches today.

The Living Bible, produced in 1971, isn’t really a translation, but a paraphrase developed by one man, Kenneth Taylor, rather than a group of scholars. He first developed the Bible for his children, and it shows — the language is simplistic, it was loosely based on the ASV rather than original scholarship, and the TLB takes considerable liberties with the text. Even so, it became incredibly popular in evangelical Protestant churches in the U.S. and showed that evangelicals were ready to jettison the increasingly archaic KJV. The TLB was eventually replaced by the New Living Translation, which corrected many of the original’s deficiencies but did not achieve its predecessor’s popularity.

The Good News Bible was developed in the 1960s by the American Bible Society, partly in an effort to develop a translation that could more easily be read by non-native English speakers. Its New Testament, “Good News for Modern Man,” was popular in the United States, where it could be purchased cheaply. Unlike most of the modern translations, it has been used extensively by both liberal and conservative Protestants.

The New Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation based on scholarship done for a French translation, is my favorite. Unlike the more popular modern translations, which often use simplistic language, the NJB offers the majesty of the KJV while being a fresh translation.

The New International Version, first published in its entirely in 1978, has been by far the most popular of the modern translations, selling more than 200 million copies. In part because it was developed by evangelical scholars and tended to translate some controversial passages consistently with evangelical theology, by the end of the 20th century it was almost the standard translation in American evangelical congregations. Its language tends to be mildly colloquial and somewhat simplistic.

Attempts to replace the NIV with the Today’s New International Version have not been entirely successful. Particularly controversial in some circles is its use of gender-neutral language, such as replacing “Blessed is the man who perseveres” with “Blessed are those who persevere.” Although the TNIV has been adopted by many evangelical churches, some who feel it distorts the intent of the Biblical writers have stuck with the NIV.

To see get a quick feel for some of these translations, see how they translate a well-known passage, Psalm 23:1:

  • KJV: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • ASV: Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • WEB: Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing.
  • NRSV: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
  • NJB: Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
  • NIV: The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
  • NLT: The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need.
  • TNIV: The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

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  • Jim Swindle says:

    You have summarized the subject very well. I’d mention a few other Bibles:

    The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is a new translation made by evangelical schlars. It aims to be quite literal while also being standard (American) English. It has a few quirks, but is a truly excellent translation over-all. It’s not very well-known outside of Southern Baptist churches, since many people are suspicious of the fact that the Southern Baptists own the copyright (though the translation wasn’t started by them).

    The English Standard Version (ESV) is a revision of the RSV by evangelical scholars. It’s gaining increasing popularity, especially among Reformed churches. It’s more traditional and less gender-neutral than the NRSV.

    The Message is a paraphrase, more colloquial and less literal than The Living Bible. It has a hard-hitting style, but paraphrases so extensively that it says lots of things that the original Bible didn’t say. I would not recommend it except maybe for comparing with other versions.

    The New World Translation (NWT) was created by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It carefully avoids translating things in ways that would challenge their views–views which have been marked as wrong by the vast majority of churches for nearly 1700 years. Stay away from it.

    Finally, I’d comment that among all those you mentioned, plus the HCSB and the ESV, the best Bible for any particular person is the one that he or she will read and study and believe and meditate on and memorize.

  • mvguy says:

    Thanks for your comments! We always appreciate thoughtful responses that help make our answers more complete.

  • Jake says:

    A few more translations you may want to include, although it is impossible to include all of them it seems.

    English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible are too Bibles that focus on being more literal than other Bibles. The ESV is newer and is gaining in popularity while the NASB isn’t as much partly due to it’s awkward wording. The ESV is a revision of the RSV.

    Young’s Literal Translation is about 100 years old. It is a very literal translation (more so than the KJV, ESV, and NASB probably) to the point where it is sometimes hard to understand, but it is great for study and comparison if you don’t know the original languages.

    NIrV is a version similar to the NIV made for children’s audiences. It has very simple vocabulary and sentence structure.

    New Century Version is a revision of the International Children’s Bible. It uses a limited vocabulary set and tries to be good for ESL and children. I read it in my youth and still use it for comparisons occasionally. The Contemporary English Version and the Bible in Basic English are supposed to be similar, but I do not read them.

    God’s Word Translation is a thought-for-thought translation that sometimes takes liberties with the text to make it easier to understand. GWT is enjoyable to read as it flows much more like regular English, but I wouldn’t recommend it for study.

    New King James Version is an updated version of the KJV that removes much of the archaic version. It is probably the only modern Bible still based on the Textus Receptus and other older manuscripts of the Bible. It is widely used in the Orthodox church.

    International Standard Version is a new version with a similar translation translation philosophy to the NIV but it tries to be in modern English as much as possible. It is available as a free download on their website. I really like the translation, but it is not yet complete and I prefer reading on paper to on the computer.

    The Voice is a paraphrase translation similar to the Message. It is great to read and it really makes the text come alive (based on the free download of John from their website), but unfortunately they add a lot of words to the text (noted in italics) that can really change the meaning of the text. Approach with caution.

    I personally use ESV, NIV, and NCV the most. The best bible of course is the one that you read!

  • Dion says:

    Well, that must be a strongly biased opinion…:

    “(NWT) was created by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It carefully avoids translating things in ways that would challenge their views–views which have been marked as wrong by the vast majority of churches for nearly 1700 years. Stay away from it.”

    I have heard from my brother (I don’t know his recourses.) it is a very accurate translation. As for your comment I don’t know your recourses also. And the addition of “stay away form it” implies you have some very good reasons to actually warn people for the translation. How come if I may ask?



  • dim says:

    Please help me find some list(s) of the top five or ten most *popular* English Bible translations, no matter how tentative, estimative, or inaccurate.

  • eiffel says:

    According to CBA, the trade association for Christian retail, these are the best-selling translations for April 2010. That’s quite miraculous, considering that it’s only March 2010 as I post this. Anyway, here’s the list:
    1. New International Version
    2. King James Version
    3. New King James Version
    4. New Living Translation
    5. Holman Christian Standard Bible
    6. English Standard Version
    7. Reina Valera 1960 (Spanish)
    8. New American Standard Bible update
    9. The Message
    10. New International Readers Version
    Source: cbaonline.org/nm/documents/BSLs/Bible_Translations.pdf

  • dim says:

    Oh, I wasn’t expecting such a quick answer. :)

    Thanks a lot!

  • myoarin says:

    Perhaps the author would like to add this link to the end of article to facilitate comparison of the translations of the 23rd Psalm. [done –admin]

    Some of the above comments indicate differing opinions about the translations. Each to his own, I would say.
    It is a never ending discussion:

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