For the unenlightened Bible shopper going into a LifeWay Christian Store to select a Bible, it is a bit like going to a Walmart superstore to pick a box of cereal — with the huge selection, where do you even start?
A few years ago, you’d just go to the store, ask for “a Bible,” and they’d hand you a copy of the King James Version (KJV) — for centuries “the Bible” for English-speaking audiences. But the last few decades have produced many Bible translations.
If you are thinking about purchasing a Bible for yourself or as a gift, here is a quick guide to help you understand some of the choices available.
There are three major categories that represent different approaches to expressing the biblical revelation (originally recorded in Hebrew and Greek) into English.
1. Formal Equivalence
A Formal Equivalence translation takes a word-for-word approach — that is, for each Hebrew or Greek word in the biblical text, the translators have sought an equivalent English word that will communicate the same idea.
The beloved King James Version (KJV) is such a translation, as is the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
In more recent years, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) has become a popular study Bible because of its very literal rendering of the original languages. But because of the emphasis on word-for-word accuracy, the NASB (which is at an 11th grade reading level) doesn’t read as smoothly as many other translations. That makes it a great study Bible but not ideal for public or devotional reading.
A recent Bible translation that has grown quickly in popularity is the English Standard Version (ESV), first published in 2001. The ESV seeks to combine word-for-word accuracy with literary beauty and readability. It also retains many classic theological terms that some other modern translations avoid.
2. Dynamic Equivalence
Unlike the word-for-word translation philosophy of the first group, this category seeks to takes a middle road between a literal translation and a thought-for-thought approach to translating the biblical text.
That is, rather than trying to find an equivalent word or words for each word in the original biblical text, the translators have tried to stay close to the literal meaning of the words while also seeking to capture the ideas of the biblical authors with equivalent language to capture those thoughts in the English text.
The best-known Bible in this category is the New International Version (NIV), which for many years has been the top-selling translation among evangelicals. The NIV is a very readable translation (aimed at a 7th grade reading level). This translation approach means that there are points where the English text reflects an interpretation of the biblical text rather than a literal. For example, where the biblical text may specify a specific cost (100 denarii), the NIV might substitute the value in other terms (four months of a worker’s wages) to make the cost more understandable for the reader.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is a bit of a hybrid version, in that it uses a translation philosophy called “Optimal Equivalence.” That means the HCSB switches between word-for-word and thought-for-thought depending on the translation team’s views on a particular passage. The HCSB is also an original translation from Greek and Hebrew texts, as contrasted with those that grew out of KJV tradition, such as RSV.
A paraphrase is a very free rendering of the biblical text in thought-for-thought approach.
In other words, the paraphrase is less concerned with translating the actual words of the text than with capturing the ideas of the biblical author and expressing those in cFor the unenlightened Bible shopper going into a LifeWay Christian Store to select a Bible, it is a bit like going to a Walmart superstore to pick a box of cereal – with the huge selection, where do you even start?
The first well-known paraphrase for many evangelicals was The Living Bible, in which Kenneth Taylor took an English translation and rephrased it into modern American speech so that anyone (even a child) could understand the message. The New Living Translation was developed by a team of scholars and published as a revision of the LB to enhance the accuracy of the text while retaining the readability of the paraphrase.
The most popular paraphrase of recent years is The Message by Eugene Peterson. It uses contemporary American idioms to keep the language of Scripture fresh and understandable. While not designed for serious study, it’s a common choice for devotional reading.
Don’t let the variety of options discourage you from choosing a Bible for yourself or as a gift for someone else. Whichever one you choose, God’s Word will still make a difference in your life.