A Bible translation should be chosen according to its use and need. For example, literal translations are better for study, while thought-for-thought translations are often better for reading. It’s best to use a variety of translations for reading and study with one as your primary translation for memorization and general use.
This is a short summary of some of the major translations in use today, with a sample from 2 Timothy. To make your final choice you’ll want to compare more Scriptures, but this will give you an idea of what the translation is like.
The KJV celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2011. There’s a good reason it’s been popular for that long. It’s had a major impact on the English language, and is very elegant in its style. It has gone through several revisions. Probably the most popular edition is the 1769. It is a literal translation that’s based on a few manuscripts known as the Textus Receptus (TR). It uses a lot of words that have changed meaning or are no longer in use.
2Ti 2:15 KJV Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 KJV All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
The NKJV from Nelson publishers is an update to the KJV and is primarily based on the TR. The various manuscripts and ancient translations were consulted and implemented where needed. It contains manuscript notes that show textual variations and shows which manuscripts have the variants. It is also a literal translation.
2Ti 2:15 NKJ Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 NKJ All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The NRSV is an update of the RSV, which itself is an update of the KJV. The NRSV uses newer manuscript discoveries, but also uses exegetical insights and linguistic theories, which tend to make it less accurate because of theological bias. It is also a literal translation.
2Ti 2:15 NRSV Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 NRSV All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
The NASB is an update to the ASV, which is also a revision of the KJV. The NASB is less archaic and more theologically conservative. Some feel that it is so literal that it feels stiff, or inexpressive. Later editions have improved readability. It is perhaps the most literal modern translation. It’s more literal than the KJV, which makes it good for study, but perhaps not as good for reading and memorization as other translations.
2Ti 2:15 NAS Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 NAS All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
The ESV is a revision of the RSV, which retains its KJV heritage. It attempts to be a new translation, but still uses theological terms in the same way that the KJV does (such as justification, sanctification, etc.). It is more literal than the KJV and still maintains its literary excellence. It is popular among many scholars. It is very accurate and readable, but it can feel awkward at times. It’s a literal translation and is a great choice for reading, memorization, and study.
2Ti 2:15 ESV Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 ESV All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
The MEV is a new translation based on the TR and the Jacob ben Hayyim edition of the Masoretic Text. It uses the KJV as its starting point. It sometimes feels like the KJV, sometimes like the NKJV, and sometimes different from both. It modernizes many words that the NKJV doesn’t. Some footnotes are included within the text as italics. It’s a literal translation.
2 Ti 2:15 Study to show yourself approved by God, a workman who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
2 Ti 3:16-17 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The HCSB by Homan Publishers is a newer translation that uses a translation theory they call ‘optimal equivalence’. It uses a literal rendering where possible, and a thought-for thought rendering where necessary. It uses new manuscript discoveries and is a good choice for study and reading.
2Ti 2:15 HCSB Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 HCSB All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
The NIV contains elements of word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation, though it leans more toward thought-for-thought. It had a major update in 2011. Although translators have taken some liberties, it is conservative in its translation. It can sometimes be too simple, causing it to not be as accurate as it could have been. It tries to be gender-neutral (though not as neutral as the TNIV). It is a good translation for reading but not as good for study as the literal translations.
2Ti 2:15 NIV Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 NIV All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The NLT is a functional equivalent translation. It updates the Living Bible – converting it from a paraphrase to a real translation. The translators have gone to great lengths to convey the thoughts of the writers, which makes it highly interpretive by the translators. It is a useful translation for reading, but not as good as a literal translation for study.
2Ti 2:15 NLT Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.
2Ti 3:16-17 NLT All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
For Bible study it’s best to stay close to the literal side of translations. I recommend using a single translation for your main study and memorization and use other translations for clarification.
Avoid translations that were written by certain groups in order to prove their own doctrines. These translations are skewed toward theological biases even at the expense of accuracy in translation.
The Bible translation you use is an important part of your growth and devotion to God. If you don’t enjoy reading it, don’t understand it, or if you don’t like how it sounds, study will be a chore instead of something you enjoy. The translation needs to be one that you’re comfortable with. It’s simple: If you enjoy it, you will use it; if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t use it.
Read as many translations as you can and make educated choices. And once you’ve chosen- read, study, and hide the Word in your heart. Choose your translation carefully. You might be using this Bible for years to come.
A great place online to read multiple translations in parallel is BibleGateway.com.
Featured image: Cambridge NKJV Clarion