5 Tips for Picking the Best Bible Translation

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

There are dozens of Bible translations.  The King James, the New King James, the English Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard, the 21st Century King James Version, the New Living Translation, and many others.  Which is the best Bible translation for you to read?  Which is closer to the original text?  What translations use the original Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew?  Is there one single version of the Bible that theologians, pastors, or churches prefer?

The Languages of the Bible

Bible Translation

There are dozens of Bible translations

First of all, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Much of the Old Testament Hebrew was trans- lated into the Greek called the Septuagint.  I received a wonderful gift once.  It was a Bible that had four different translations in one edition.  This is an exceptional Bible study tool that allows the reader to look at each different translation to extract meaning out of each and every verse you read.  I recommend that you own or buy more than one Bible translation and do not depend upon any one single version because different Bibles bring out different areas that can differ in interpretation.  I also prefer the Bibles with margins and footnotes where the original Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic is given.

Which is the Best Bible Translation?

There is no simple answer to this.  Some of this has to do with which part of the Bible you want to read.  The Bible is the Word of God, God-breathed and God inspired (2 Tim 3:16).  It is described as living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword since it can penetrate human thoughts and motives (Heb 4:12).  The Word is the very power of God (Isaiah 55:11).  Which translation is best?  I will answer this question but first, there are five tips that I would recommend before you pick the “best”.

Tip Number One:  Popular Doesn’t Mean Accurate

The most popular translations are not always the best translation.  For example the Living Bible, the Message, or the Amplified Bible are very popular today but they tend to paraphrase a bit too much.  This leaves too much room for personal interpretation and the Bible is not for private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20).  When authors try to translate the Bible into the modern day vernacular, they take too much license in the wording and as has been said:  Take text out of context and it makes it a pretext.  This is exactly what modern day translations like the Amplified Bible or the Message do.  They take the verses and put them into a story form.  These translations paraphrase too much and this makes extracting the meaning even more difficult or gives a meaning that can be misleading.  They may be the most popular, but that does not mean they are the most accurate.

Tip Number Two:  Modern Translations Can Become Mistranslations

An example of this can be found in Matthew (28:20) when Jesus was departing this world and the disciples for heaven and giving them instructions regarding the Great Commission.  Read how these different translations differ in only one verse.

The Common English Bible, “teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

The New Century Version, “Teach them to obey everything that I have taught you, and I will be with you always, even until the end of this age.”

The Message, “Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

The New International Version (NIV) is the best rendering with the original meaning, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The NIV is better than The Message because where The Message version says to “Go out and train everyone you meet…” but the NIV simply says “teaching them to obey everything I have command you.”  This is a big difference.  It would be hard to go out and “train everyone you meet” (The Message) when it specifically means to teach only those that you “make disciples” (v. 19 of Matthew 28).  Plus The Message uses 78 words in translating one verse while the NIV uses only 24 words in the same verse (v. 20 Matthew 28).

Also The Message puts quotations around Jesus inferred meaning. That is dangerous theological ground when you are quoting Jesus and He didn’t exactly say those specific words.  The margin of error skyrockets when the author adds several words.  You can be sure that there were not that many words in the original Greek text so the meaning is effectually changed.

Tip Number Three:  Buy a Study Bible 

If you are going to spend good money on buying a Bible, you might as well invest in a good one.  Whatever Bible translation you use, get a Study Bible or one that has footnotes and side margins.  These Bibles will tell you when some manuscripts were added and not in the original text while noting that other manuscripts are omitted and not in the original texts.  A good example is what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:19-13.  It reads, “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  The New International Version correctly states that some late manuscripts read, “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”  I am always cautious when I read “some later manuscripts read” because these were added by non-apostles.  In this case, this verse was added by the Catholic Church at a much later date than the original manuscripts were written.  These should be red flags for the readers that they are not inspired by the original author and thus are not considered scriptural.  Also, some Bibles use italics and this is for an important reason.  Anytime you see italics used in scripture, customarily these means that the words or sentences were not in the original text and have been inserted by a later, non-apostolic or non-original author.  It can also mean that they were not found in the original manuscripts or that they were found in some later manuscripts. .

Incidentally, the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 is not in actuality the “Lord’s Prayer”.  It is an example or arch-type of how to pray that Jesus Himself gave.  The key is where He said, “This, then, is how you should pray” (v 9).  The actual Lord’s Prayer is really found in John 17:1-26 and it is called the “High Priestly Prayer” because it is where Jesus actually prays.  He is not just giving an example on how to pray as in Matthew chapter six.  A good Study Bible will point this important difference out.

Tip Number Four:  Research Your Bible Translation

Even before you buy a Bible, research the translation.  Do your homework. Just because the Bible translation is more reflective of modern day, liberal thought, does not necessarily make it better.  I would also not buy a Bible translation just because it was written in a more poetic nature.  Perhaps you could also ask a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, or an elder or deacon or a trusted Christian friend about which translation that they use or one that they like.  What translation does your church use?  This doesn’t ensure it is the best one.  This was a decision that the church made as a whole and was not taken lightly, but it was also one that may have been decided upon many years ago before they knew about some issues in that particular translation. You can rest assured that the church counseled together long before making a decision on buying these Bibles for the church but  they are only human and can make mistakes.  Even though this was likely not a snap decision it does not mean it is the best translation available.  Much forethought must have gone into the process of purchasing them but you may have discovered one that is a more accurate one.  Just because the church chose it doesn’t mean it’s the best translation.

Tip Number Five:  The Best Translation

The “best” is subjective.  There is no one single translation of the Bible that stands head and shoulders above the rest.  There is one version of the Bible that is used by more seminaries, more churches, and quoted more often by Christian websites.  If you Google verses of the Bible, the chances are high that it will return a Bible Gateway link (http://www.biblegateway.com/) and that translation will be the New International Version (2011).  The NIV as it is called, is the most often used but  many do not consider it the most reliable and even though it might be the most often quoted of any of the major translations that are used today doesn’t mean it is the best.  What is popular is not always right just as what is right is not always popular.

If I were to personally recommend a Bible translation, I would select the King James Version, the New King James or the English Standard Version (ESV).  The ESV Study Bible is the one that I use and with the margins and footnotes, I can easily reference the original work in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew.  The New King James (NKJ) Study Bible is also a fine translation.  As I said before, I have several translations and I use more than one.  But a Study Bible always gives you more and better information on the scriptures and it gives you associated scriptural references from elsewhere in the Bible that have to do with the same subject, topic, or person.  An example is in my ESV Study Bible, John 19:25 the Roman soldier’s caste lots for Jesus seamless tunic which fulfilled the prophecy of Him in Psalm 22:18.

Only you can decide which translation is best.  I have only given you the three that I think are the most accurate and the best for Bible study.  You ultimately will have to make your own decision.  I have more than one translation myself.  Whichever one you choose, a good Study Bible will never disappoint and the English Standard Version, the New International Version or the New King James Study Bibles will be something that you will get years and years of satisfaction from.  There is so much enjoyment in studying the Word of God.  And if you have all three Study Bibles, then you’ve won the Triple Crown.  And then you can teach me a thing or two about the Bible I am sure.

What Is Your Favorite Bible Translation? Let us Know in the Comments.


Hot Issue Topic The subject of Bible translation is one that could be considered a hot topic. Here are some more “hot issue topic” articles that you might want to check out:

Interracial dating and marriage Jack Wellman examines the question of whether or not the Bible addresses this issue.

Politics and the Christian Jeff Telling shares a conversation that he had with a friend on the topic of controversial politics and how a Christian should examine issues before they cast a vote or endorse any one in government.

Is there really a place called Hell? Jack shares some study notes on the existence of Hell which may be a subject argued between believers and non-believers.


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