Explaining the differences been Bible translations (and some suggestions)

If you pull up an online bookseller or walk into a bookstore looking for a Bible, you might get confused. Quickly.

It seems like there are a bazillion translations and versions. As a result, I’m often asked what the difference is, and what I would recommend.

Let me give some background, and then I’ll tell you.

First, our modern day English Bibles are translations of ancient manuscripts. Generally speaking, most of the early Old Testament manuscripts are in Hebrew (with some parts in Aramaic), and most of the early New Testament manuscripts are in Greek. Teams of language scholars get together to translate them into English.

Second, the reason they do this is because of a belief that these manuscripts are eternally important. Most of the credible theories about the “inspiration” of the Bible say that the original authors and editors of those manuscripts were inspired by God when they did their work. In other words, God directed their writing so that others would have access to that same wisdom through the ages.

Related post: Why trust the Bible?

Therefore, translators do their best to capture—in modern English—what those original authors and editors wrote. Today, we want to keep learning from that eternal wisdom. As I’ve often said to my congregation and readers:

The Bible is the primary place where we learn about God’s will and wisdom.

Third, there are four main kinds of translations. Let’s go through them one by one.

1. Formal Equivalence

The first is called “formal equivalence.” This kind of translation tries to be “word for word” in its translation of the original text. The historic King James Version (KJV) and the more recent English Standard Version (ESV) are like this.

This seems very noble, and it is. A benefit is that, as a reader, you get a sense that you are tracking along with the words of the text with a high amount of precision.

A slight detriment to this approach is that ancient languages do not always work the same as modern languages do. As a result, the translation can sometimes seem a bit wooden, and the original intent of a passage may get a bit lost because of a commitment to the word-for-word philosophy.

In the past year I’ve actually switched to the ESV for my personal devotional reading and also for my preaching. There are other good translations, of course, but I have found it helpful to follow along very closely with the text as I try to explain it to the congregation and listeners.

2. Dynamic Equivalence

The second kind of translation is “dynamic equivalence.” Where the previous kind of translation was word-for-word, this is a thought-for-thought approach. Examples would be the Good News Bible (sometimes listed as Today’s English Version) or the New Living Translation (NLT).

A benefit is that, as a reader, the “flow” of the text is a bit smoother. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that translations like the NLT seem to have a particular concern with being understandable to those who are unfamiliar with technical, theological language.

For example, the ESV translation (which I mentioned under section number one and which takes the word-for-word approach), translates Ephesians 2:8-9 like this:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

But the NLT translation (which takes a thought-for-thought approach, and which seems to have a sensitivity to a reader unfamiliar with technical language or concepts), translates the same passage like this:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.

Notice how in these two translations the same idea is being communicated, albeit a big differently.

3. Mixed Translation

The third kind of translation is a “mixed translation.” This essentially combines these first two approaches to translation. When a word-for-word approach can be used effectively, it is used; and when a thought-for-thought approach seems more appropriate, the translators switch to that.

Examples of this third kind of translation are the New International Version (NIV) and the Christian Standard Bible (CSB).

As a side note, the New International Version is the most widely used translation in the English-speaking world. So I’m assuming that this is the version that most people use. I should also say that some people who like the ESV translation but who find it a bit “wooden,” have started to enjoy the CSB. To them, it’s a compromise between Formal Equivalence Translation and a Mixed Translation.

4. Paraphrase

The last kind of translation is a “paraphrase.” This approach takes, in my view, wider latitude with the text to communicate the idea behind it in contemporary language, even employing slang in certain situations.

One example might be Eugene Peterson’s “The Message.” Some might classify this as a paraphrase, but I prefer to describe it as a “rendering” more than a translation. If someone is only reading a rendering like The Message then I would be concerned that they are missing important information from the inspired words of Scripture.

Having said that, a benefit to a paraphrase is that it brings a certain newness to ancient texts. Because of that, it can be useful for devotional reading, especially for those who need a kick-start. But I wouldn’t suggest it for serious Bible study or memorization. Accuracy is sometimes lost, difficult textual issues can be glossed over, or the one doing the rendering can insert his or her own interpretation into the text itself.

For example, in Matthew 5:11-12 in the ESV (word-for-word) version, Jesus says:

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

That is very exacting when it comes to the original Greek manuscripts. The same passage in The Message rendering says:

Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

As you can see, significant latitude is taken. Some of the same ideas are there, but different ideas are also inserted, as if to give the text an added modern zip. But this, we should note, is not what Jesus said. And yet it’s credited to Jesus.

I was in a small group a few years ago where we were reading through a psalm. A person on my left had The Message, and a person on my right had the NIV, and they didn’t think they were reading the same passage!

Related to the issue of “paraphrasing” or “rendering” the biblical text, it should be noted that there are a number of modern translations by a single person instead of a team. Examples are works by N.T. Wright, David Bentley Hart, and Robert Alter. Individuals can have wonderful insights and consistency; at the same time, a translation team can lean on each other for wisdom and provide a safeguard against problems or personal hobby-horses.

My Own Preference

I use a variety of translations. In my devotional reading I have started to use the ESV, but still consult a variety of translations. In my experience, all of the major Bible translations say essentially the same thing, but with a different approach and nuance. You are going to hear the same message and teaching about creation, the prophets, Israel, redemption in Christ, what it is to live by faith, the church, and the end of the age.

A side note: I said that the major Bible translations say essentially the same thing. You need to keep in mind that there are some translations, such as the New World Translation (used and distributed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), which clearly mis-translate certain passages. Why? Some have suggested that this is to further a certain agenda. This teaches us that it is important to research your translation before buying it.

My Advice

If you struggle with the translations you’ve used up to this point, or if you are new to reading the Bible, I suggest the New Living Translation (NLT). I often suggest this (or the New International Version) to new Christians or young people who are reading through the Bible for the first time.

As you continue to grow, the New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), or Christian Standard Bible (CSB) can also be very helpful.

Study Bibles

I would also advise that you invest in a “Study Bible” edition of one of these translations. This means that your Bible will help you study by including:

  • (a) comprehensive footnotes which tell you more about the selection of specific words and cross-references to other similar passages
  • (b) study notes which explain difficult passages or concepts and which provide further clarifying information; these also include introduction to each book so you know where it is located historically and within the wider narrative of the Bible
  • (c) articles, maps and diagrams to help you broaden your understanding of ancient cultures, themes and textual meanings.


Here are a few recommendations for solid Study Bibles. These are general in nature. I’ll highlight some specialized Study Bibles as well.


  • The NIV Zondervan Study Bible, General Editor, D.A. Carson
  • The Crossway ESV Study Bible
  • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible by Tyndale House Publishers
  • The Reformation Study Bible by Ligionier
  • The Life Application Study Bible by Zondervan


There are also some study Bibles which focus on a certain aspect of Bible Study.

  • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible specifically highlights social and cultural customs and norms which would have been present during the time of the biblical stories, helping the reader understand the context and ancient background to passages.
  • The ESV Archaeology Study Bible focuses on just that — archaeological discoveries and insights which shed light on the background or meaning of texts. Reference is also made to findings from other cultures or ancient documents which provide context to what we read in the Bible.
  • The ESV Church History Study Bible includes footnotes with commentary on key passages from notable figures in church history. These range from early church fathers to Reformers, Puritans and modern Protestant theologians.
  • The CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible is similar to what was just described, but it focuses exclusively on the church fathers.
  • The NET Bible (Full Notes Edition) focuses on textual and translation issues and has extensive notes and commentary in this regard.
  • The Reformation Heritage King James Version Study Bible is technically a general Study Bible; it includes the older King James translation, but also has a number of short, helpful articles about living the Christian life.

Closing word: Neglected treasure?

There was a time when people did not have access to the Bible in their own language. In the English-speaking world people like William Tyndale gave their lives to the dangerous work of translation the Bible into English (which was illegal) and even lost his life for it.

There’s a well-known story about Tyndale which tells us something about his passion for the people to understand God’s word. A learned man was speaking about how he would rather have the pope’s teaching than God’s law. Incensed, Tyndale replied, “if God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of scripture than thou dost.”

God gave Tyndale the grace to do just that.

Since that time, the translation of the Bible into English has been non-stop. It is the world’s number one best-seller. It is also the most frequently shop-lifted. You can buy numerous versions. You can read it (or listen to it) for free on smart phone apps.

In addition, there are Study Bibles (as discussed) which help explain the text and provide incredible amounts of background information and context. The average Joe or Jill has more access to scholarly biblical research about the Bible than trained professionals in previous eras.

Let’s not neglect the world-changing, life-changing, God-ordained treasure that is right under our noses. Find a good translation, and begin (or continue) your journey. The reward is beyond measure.

The more you get into God’s word, the more God’s word gets into you.

When church Father Augustine was being summoned to the Christian life he heard a voice saying “Take it and read, take it and read… arm yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ.” Years later, Reformer Martin Luther reminded his generation that there is a direct relationship between hearing from God and reading the Bible. “Let the man who would hear God speak,” he said, “read Holy Scripture.”

In this post and podcast I have explained four kinds of translations: formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, mixed translation, and paraphrase. I have also provided some advice and given some suggestions for general and specialized Study Bibles.

I truly feel that the more you get into God’s word, the more God’s word gets into you.

Brothers and sisters, I hope this has been helpful as you seek to grow as disciples to the glory of Almighty God. The Lord be with you!

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  1. Good post. A couple of quick thoughts:
    1 – Is there any reason you avoid the NET Bible? It’s one of my personal favorites for study and I find the translators notes and study notes particularly useful on many occasions.
    2 – I disagree with you somewhat on your definition of a paraphrase translation. I feel like what you’re talking about is extremely loose dynamic equivalence. A true paraphrase is a re-rendering of an established translation like The Living Bible is to the ASV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Aaron, thanks for the note! I didn’t intentionally exclude the NET Bible; it’s just not one on my shelf. But I’ll look it up based on what you said! In terms of point #2, I’m not sure there’s a widely agreed definition of paraphrase — and perhaps I should have used an example other than The Message because as I mention in the post it is, in my opinion, beyond a paraphrase — it’s more a ‘rendering’ of sorts. I like how Peterson is very familiar with the languages of the manuscripts; what I don’t like is when Bibles base a ‘translation’ on another translation. I think it’s incumbent upon translator(s) to be working with the oldest and most reliable manuscript traditions.


  2. Enjoyed your article and found it helpful. Here is an observation I have from reading multiple translations over the years (in my personal study): I used to be able to memorize scripture fairly easily. Now, however, I find myself mixing the translations and not being able to recall correctly. (Or…maybe I’m just getting old!🙂)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne, thanks for the note. That’s an interesting observation and I totally hear you! I also commit Bible passages to memory and have found the same thing. For example, I memorized a passage from Revelation 19 years ago from the NRSV. It had slipped from memory, so I tried to re-learn it from the NIV… but I found that my mind started to revert back to the NRSV! Curious; I guess that means it was stuck in there somewhere still. I guess the good news is that, with whatever translation we’re using, the memorization is the important thing. Keep it up!


  3. This document is really informative. Thanks! I read the New King James Version along with The Message with These Days and feel like I get a good cross section. It’s hard to do better, though, than the original King James Version for the poetry books of the Bible like the Psalms.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kevin, I haven’t had much experience with the NKJV but know some people who have it and like it. And yes, it’s well known, as you say, for the prose, especially in the psalms. The one thing to be mindful of is that, in a few situations, since the KJV came out in 1611, the manuscript tradition that modern translations are based upon is now more broad which will impact the wording and translation choice. Side note: I’ve done a bit of reading about Lancelot Andrewes, the general editor of the KJV, a very interesting and devout person. The KJV has had a dramatic influence on modern English. Thanks for posting!


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