Scripture (Bibliology)

Navigating Bible Translations

In the time that I have been teaching and presenting the gospel message to others, it is very common to hear that they do not read the Bible because it is too difficult to understand. This is often because they have the King James translation of 1611, which is written in the old English that was spoken during the time of Shakespeare. That translation is outdated and difficult to read because it contains words and terms no longer used.  When I mention that there are several modern English translations which are easy to read, many people are surprised to learn that there are more than one translation of the Bible. Let us therefore dive into a brief explanation of the various bible translations available and which ones are best for reading, study, and accuracy.

First, it is important to remember that the original copies of the Bible were written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a small portion written in Aramaic. As a language is translated into another language many things have to change because grammar and words are different. For instance the original Hebrew does not use vowels nor are there any spaces between words or sentences, so a reader would have to know where to make those breaks. Bible translation requires interpretation and since interpretation is dependent on the translator, no translation will be exact. The best translation possible is one that can put a Greek or Hebrew sentence into meaningful English that is equivalent to its original meaning.

If we look at different translations of the same verse, then this will be helpful in understanding the different Bible translations. We will look at Psalm 139:13, in the King James (KJV), the New American Standard (NASB) and the New Living Translations NLT).

For thou hast possessed my reins:

Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.” (KJV)

“For You formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb.”(NASB)

“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body

  and knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  (NLT)

As you can see, the outdated language of the KJV makes it difficult to understand. When we switch to the NASB, the verse can now be better understood and the translation is more loyal to the original language.  The NLT is the easiest to read and understand, but may lose some of the depth of the original text.

The work of bible translation is divided into two different philosophies regarding the priorities in completing translations; Formal Equivalence, and Dynamic Equivalence.

Formal equivalence (Word for Word)

Using the method of formal equivalence, translators attempt to reproduce the original language in as close to a word-for-word manner as is possible. The positive side of this approach is that it results in a text that is more faithful to the original. It stresses the importance of the words of the Bible rather than simply the ideas, which is important if we accept verbal inspiration. While the outcome is a text that is often more difficult to understand, the reader can be assured that, at least in most places, the reading is closely aligned with the original.

The downside of formal equivalence is that the resulting text may be more difficult for the readers to comprehend. It may include figures of speech that, directly translated, are meaningless without explanation. Another problem with attempting to adhere to strict formal equivalence is that it simply is not possible. As we have already noted, it is impossible to translate word-for-word from one language into another. Some words will have to be deleted or added to make the passage flow correctly in the target language. In the King James Version, many of these additional words are indicated by the use of italics.

Dynamic equivalence ( Thought for Thought)

The second method of translation is dynamic equivalence (aka functional equivalence). With this method, the translator considers the meaning behind the original text and attempts to convey this meaning to the reader of the target language. The goal is to produce the same effect on the modern readers that the original readers experienced. The disadvantage of this method is that, in order to get the meaning across, the words of original Scripture must be changed much more than with formal equivalence. On the positive side, it makes for a much more readable text. With dynamic equivalence, the burden of interpretation of the original text is on the translator, while with formal equivalence, it falls upon the reader.


For personal Bible reading, I recommend the NLT for an accurate but easy to understand translation. For Bible study, the NASB and the NSRV are the best options. The ESV, NKJV, and NIV are good choices for general use. As a student of scripture it is best to own multiple translations. The only translation I do not recommend is the Message (MSG) translation. The MSG is a paraphrase which is an inaccurate and awkward sounding translation. For a short but thorough explanation of bible translations I recommend, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss.

(see above chart for translation abbreviations)

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