What is the best Bible translation?

BibleThis is a common question. If I’ve been asked it once, I’ve been asked it a thousand times. A hundred years ago it wouldn’t have been much of a question. The King James Version was then about three hundred years old and held absolute sway in the English speaking world. That ship has sailed, however. Today we have hundreds of English language translations of the Bible to choose from.

How do you go about selecting a translation? Do you just pick the one you like the best? The one that is in the pews of your local church? The one that your friends use? Based on price? How pretty the cover is?

There really should be two concerns that any serious Christian has in selecting a bible translation: accuracy and readability.

  1. Accuracy. The first thing that you want from a translation is accuracy. Translators must work with the Greek (for the New Testament) and Hebrew or Aramaic (for the Old Testament) languages in which the original biblical texts were written. They must understand what these texts meant in the original languages. But they must also know the receptor language well (in this case English) and be able to accurately convey the meaning of the original into the receptor language. Some translations are more accurate than others. For instance, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is extremely accurate, far more so than, say, The Message. The King James Version (KJV) is very accurate as well, far more so than the Good News Bible (GNB). The English Standard Version (ESV) is more accurate than the New International Version (NIV).


  1. Readability. The second thing you want from your bible translations is readability. You don’t just want accuracy, you want to be able to understand the thing. You need it to be in contemporary language, the way people actually speak today. You need it to be in good English word order, following English language syntax (which is not the same as Greek or Hebrew). In this regard the Message and the New Living Translation (NLT) are far superior to the New American Standard or the King James Version. Likewise the New International Version is better than the English Standard Version.

Some translations are great on Accuracy but crummy on Readability. They will follow the original language closely, going word for word. This doesn’t give us a smooth English translation. Some are great on Readability, but crummy on Accuracy. They will seek to go thought for thought and paraphrase the original idea into contemporary English. Some translations try to thread the needle between the two. The NIV, for instance, is what is called a dynamic equivalent translation – seeking to be as accurate as possible while still demonstrating good English usage.

So which Bible translation should you use? Well…it depends. It depends on who you are and what you are using the translation for. For instance:

  • Reading the Bible for the first time as an adult? A child’s first Bible? Teaching the Bible to children? I would recommend a very readable paraphrase like the NLT (New Living Translation) or the GNB (Good News Bible). It is easy to understand, easy to follow – very readable. But…be warned – It’s not always very accurate! A paraphrase like The Message can also be useful for someone who has read the Bible many times, but wants to see the familiar text with fresh eyes. The modern language can be quite striking.


  • Interested in intense bible study? Determined to get as close as possible to the original author’s meaning? Using this Bible to check your Greek translation in seminary class? I would recommend a very literal word for word translation like the NASB (New American Standard) or the ESV (English Standard Version). These translations are extremely accurate, but they are not the least bit readable. The NASB often doesn’t even make good English sense! But accurate it is.


  • Looking for a pew Bible? Want to stay as close to the meaning as possible while still having a reasonably understandable flow? I think it is really difficult to beat the NIV (New International Version). I still prefer the 1984 version to the 2011 (probably because this is where I memorized most of my scripture) but it is no longer in print!

So which is the best translation? It depends on what you are using the Bible for. Thanks be to God we live in an age when we have so many wonderful resources available to us!  We don’t have just one good option, but scores of wonderful options. Choices between good, better, and best lie before us. The only warnings I would issue:

  • Danger lies in a translation like the NWT (New World Translation). This is the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible and isn’t a translation at all. It corrupts the text of the Bible in order to promote the erroneous views of this heretical group. Likewise vis a vis the Mormon Bible, the Joseph Smith Translation, etc.
  • Watch out for the Amplified Bible. I know folks like this Bible, but it is frankly a dangerous thing. The problem is that people see all these potential meanings in a word’s range of meaning and then they think they can just pick whatever meaning strikes them as most interesting or helpful. This isn’t the way words work – this Bible does more harm than good.