How did the Bible go from word of mouth among families and friends in Israel to a nice, neatly organized bound book printed across the world? How is this holy, God breathed book available to us in so many different versions and formats? Which is the most accurate Bible translation?
Have you ever wondered about the accuracy or history of the Bible you’re reading? During my time working at Family Christian Bookstores we learned so much about the different translations and their histories in order to help our customers.
I encourage you to dig into the Bible’s history. One, because it is soo cool and exciting to see the progress of its writing. Two, I promise there are people in this world with questions and doubts. God might bring them into your path. And the Bible itself tells us to be able to graciously and lovingly defend our faith using His word.
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…1 Peter 3:15
Take a look at the history of the Bible’s writings and translations below. I’ll also compare some of the most popular English translations so that you’ll be able to make an educated choice for which of these is the best for you to use to grow a strong faith and deepen your relationship with God.
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Beginning Bible Translation
The first manuscripts (or writings) of scripture are written in the languages of Hebrew and Greek. The Old Testament in Hebrew because this is the language that was spoken by God’s chosen people, the Israelites. Moses specifically started the first writings. God told him to because they actually audibly talked to each other. Moses was cool like that. Can you imagine God’s voice just starting conversation in the middle of Starbucks while you’re sipping your latte?! 😉
The New Testament is written in Koine Greek (a bit different from modern Greek that most speak today). This is because in around 280 BC the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek. One reason being that many Jews lost their ability to read Hebrew. They mostly spoke Aramaic or Greek after the Babylonian era since they were surrounded by so many different cultures in the Mediterranean. It is also said (as another reason) that the king of Egypt had it translated to include it in the library of Alexandria. Now you have the Bible in its entirety in Greek.
In 381 AD a Latin priest named Jerome (Saint Jerome) translated the Greek text to Latin. This is known as the Latin Vulgate and was the basis for most of the translations into different languages from there.
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Accurate Translation into English
The first major translation to English came in the 1380s when John Wycliffe translated St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate word for word into Middle English.
We’ll get to the differences between word for word translation and thought for thought later, but the biggest is pretty straightforward. This word for word translation was not easy for the commonwealth to comprehend even though it was in their native language.
It’s also interesting to know that at this time the only people who had immediate access to the Bible were the clergy in the church. Let’s think through this for a minute. Everyday people did not have access to God’s word. They relied on the institution to teach them. Needless to say, Wycliffe was not popular with the Catholic Church for providing Bibles to the common people. After a natural death, Wycliffe’s remains were dug up, burned, and thrown away as a heretic’s were. In 1408 official law was passed forbidding English Bible translations. Insert major eye roll.
Unfortunately for suppressors, the moveable type printing press was invented by Gutenberg in 1450.
Isn’t that one of those funny moments where God is obvious?! 1408 – NO English translations. It’s the law!! 1450 – revolutionary invention that makes it possible to print books rather than hand write. I friggin’ LOVE it when He does that!!! And He still does it today!! Ok…
It doesn’t take long for a man named William Tyndale to take advantage of the press. In 1525 he translates the original Greek and Hebrew into an English that the commonwealth can actually understand. This is life altering for society because we no longer have to solely rely on the priests to teach us about God. Tyndale is caught smuggling Bibles to people and burned at the stake for breaking the law.
In this same century the Geneva Bible is published, still during an era when its prohibited due to Queen “Bloody” Mary’s persecution of protestants. Its considered the first study Bible. Martin Luther also provides common people with a translation (as well as publicly condemning some of the church’s practices), and the Protestant Reformation is started in Europe.
BAM! Now God’s word is in English (along with someother languages) and accessible to everyone to read and study on their own. So why are there so many?!
The New Testament has been translated into 1,521 different languages!
Why so many Bible translations?!
Here’s the issue. Translating documents from one language to another is not an easy task. Let’s take translating Spanish to English for example. If you take a sentence and translate it word for word it can be really confusing. This is because the words aren’t in the exact same order in the two languages.
No hablo espanol. No equals no. Hablo equals I speak. Espanol equals Spanish. See what I mean? It’s not “No I speak Spanish” its “I don’t speak Spanish”. Except if I say that then I do, but that’s beside the point. 😉
Also, the Hebrew language has less words than the English language. We’re talking around 75,000 versus 141,000. Many words in the Hebrew language can mean multiple English words. So one translation might use a different English word than another, even though they are translating from the same Hebrew word.
If you’re trying to figure out which translation is best for you, its beneficial to know the difference between the types of translations.
A literal translation is also known as a formal equivalence. More commonly termed “word for word”, a literal translation prioritizes translating the words into the new language as exact as possible from the original language. The texts are meant to be equivalent in a more formal, word for word manner. Hence the term, formal equivalence
Much like the Latin Vulgate, there are English translations that translate the Bible word for word from the original texts. The most widely known literal translation is the Kings James Version (KJV). King James authorized the Bible to be translated into English and obtained by the everyday people. For this reason it is also known as the Authorized Version. It is one of the most printed books ever!
If you’re interested in the poetic language of KJV, I recommend this one. I’m a fan of the thumb index plus it has the words of Christ in red letters.
The Revised Version (RV) is a literal Bible translation published in 1885. It took the base of the KJV and made updates based on new manuscripts that had been discovered since 1611. You can look more into the RV Bible here.
The American Standard Version (ASV) was published in 1901 and is a update of the RV. The Amplified Bible is an update of the ASV.
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) used the ASV as its base and was originally published in 1901. It was updated to more modern English in 1995. Most scholars agree that the NASB is the most accurate literal translation.
This NASB MacArthur Study Bible is not only a great in depth resource but gorgeous as well in this gray hardcover edition.
The New Kings James Version (NKJV) is an updated translation of the KJV published in 1982. It is of course also a literal translation that aimed to use updated English vocabulary in comparison to its original. The evangelist Billy Graham preached using the NKJV.
Here is a New King James Version Study Bible option. I started my personal bible study with a Life Application Study Bible and highly recommend it! The notes, maps, book introductions, and cross reference verses are all super helpful.
The English Standard Version (ESV) is a more recent literal translation, published in 2001. This is the version that I personally use because it is the version that our pastor preaches from.
I absolutely love my ESV journaling Bible from Crossway. It’s a beautiful fabric over board that feels amazing and it has plenty of room for notes! Check it out!
Thought for thought translations are also known as phrase by phrase, dynamic, or functional equivalence translations. These translations take the original manuscripts, seek to understand the message (within the context of course) and translate that concept into the destination language. These translations are more functional, hence the term functional equivalence.
These translations are more easily readable to many. While the KJV is written on a twelfth grade reading level, akin to Shakespeare’s works, popular thought for thought translations range from a fifth to eighth grade reading level. Critics say that they risk losing the original grammatical structure.
Since these translations are easier to understand, most children’s bibles are thought for thought translations. Examples of these include the International Children’s Bible (ICB) and the New International Readers Version (NIrV/NIV for early readers).
The New Century Version (NCV) is a revision of the International Children’s Bible that is a bit more advanced. It moves from third grade English to fifth grade English. It was first published in 1987.
The New International Version (NIV) is an advanced step from the NIrV. A group of fifteen scholars took tenth century AD manuscripts and translated what some call an accurate word for word translation. However some say it lands closer to a thought for thought translation on the spectrum. So it’s usually accepted as a balanced, middle of the road translation.
Here is a popular red letter NIV study bible in a simple hardback.
I personally started growing in my faith with the New Living Translation (NLT) study Bible, first published in 1996. Its 90 translators used the original Greek and Hebrew and rewrote the concepts into English. It’s written in everyday language so it’s like a friend is sitting across from you at Starbucks talking (drinking a sugar free cinnamon dulce of course!). It’s very easy to understand.
This is the exact Bible that I used to really start learning and understanding on my own. Like I said with the NKJV, the Life Application Study Bibles give great notes that help you take the scripture and use it in your modern day life. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? 😉
A paraphrase is defined as a rewording of something written or spoken by someone else. Instead of taking the original manuscripts and translating words or thoughts, a paraphrase is a rewording of another English translation.
The Message (MSG) is actually a paraphrase. Published in 2002, Eugene Peterson wanted to give his congregation a translation of the Bible that sparked relevance to their modern day lives. The Message uses very contemporary English to convey, well, the message. 😉
This Message Devotional Bible has notes from the author as well.
The Living Bible (TLB) is another paraphrase. Its creator used the American Standard Bible as his base and rewrote the Bible’s message in a very easy to understand version. Youth and new believers were the inspiration for this paraphrase. Billy Graham used part of the Living Bible in his evangelical events to introduce new believers to the Bible.
Interlinear & Parallels
An Interlinear Bible has the original Hebrew and Greek text along with the English translation below it. The Bible is an absolute beauty with the original languages printed but is not very easily read or used to apply to your daily spiritual life.
Parallel Bibles are some of my absolute favorite tools to better understand the difference between the translations. Why? Because they print two or more translations side by side so that you can look at the literal translation in one glance and then compare it with the more contemporary English that’s easier to understand and apply to life. You can have the KJV next to the NLT or the NASB next to The Message or, or… well, you get the idea.
This is my pick for a great Parallel Bible – the NIV (middle of the road) next to the literal NKJV along with the NLT (easy to understand) and The Message (a paraphrase in today’s language). You’ve got the whole spectrum in one Bible!
Which Bible TRANSLATION is the Most Accurate? Which is Best for You?
I’ve thrown quite a bit of information at you, huh? Which of these translations is the best? Should you stick with the most accurate literal translation or go with the one you find easiest to read? To know which translation is the best we have to answer another question.
What do we use the Bible for? We use it to learn. We read and study the word of God to grow in our faith and know Him better. We lean on it as a manual during trials and questions that we all experience in this life.
That’s why it’s so important to get into His word. Once you’re in it, the FREE Bible study checklist helps you get more out of your study time. Focus better and grow more. Grab it below.
The best translation is the one that you feel comfortable with. You need to be able to understand the language it’s written in. It is a practical tool to be used, just like your favorite cookbook (or cooking blog…anyone out there still have cookbooks?).
I’ll always recommend a study Bible to you. Whether a literal or dynamic translation, a study Bible will help you better understand the scripture and give you notes that scholars add in.
It’s always a smart idea to try something out before buying if possible. You can find almost all of these translations on Bible Gateway’s website. Read the same chapter in a few different translations and see which fits your reading style and faith journey the best.
Do you have a favorite translation? Do you use multiples? Comment below and share what works best for your Bible reading! And don’t forget to download the FREE Bible study checklist to get more out of your study time. Know that I’m praying for you – that He ignites your heart and curiosity to keep learning and growing in His word.