What Is the Best Version of the Bible?

Chris Martin
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The Bible has been translated or paraphrased into dozens if not hundreds of different English versions over the years. If you gathered a group of 10 Christians from different backgrounds and worship styles into a room and asked them all to name their favorite English versions of the Bible, you may get 10 different answers! At the very least you’d get three or four different answers.

To answer the question asked in the title:

What Is the Best Version of the Bible?

There is no “best” version of the Bible.

Different kinds of readers and Christians from different backgrounds prefer reading the Bible translated in different ways. The same truth is in every version of the Bible, but different translation practices may be used depending on the goals of the Bible publishers (more on that below).

We want to help you know which version of the Bible may be best for you, but first, let’s look at some of the most popular versions of the Bible and learn a little bit about them.

Top Five Most Popular Bible Versions

Here’s a list of the five most popular English translations of the Bible (from 2020), with a bit of information from each one excerpted and paraphrased from Dr. Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks’ great book Living By the Book:

  1. New International Version (NIV)
    • Published by Biblica originally, now Zondervan (US), and Hodder & Stoughton (UK).
    • Originally published in 1978.
    • Last revised in 2011.
    • From Dr. Hendricks: “The product of a broad-based coalition of translators, the NIV aims at a marriage between accuracy and clarity. It is one of the more readable translations.”
  2. King James Version (KJV)
    • Published by many publishers (it is in the Public Domain).
    • Originally published in 1611.
    • Last revised in 1881.
    • From Dr. Hendricks: “The classic translation of 1611, this is also known as The Authorized Version, though it was never formally authorized by any ecclesiastical body. The KJV has a richness of language that is hard to beat, especially in the psalms.”
  3. New Living Translation (NLT)
    • Published by Tyndale House.
    • Originally published in 1996.
    • Last revised in 2015.
    • From Dr. Hendricks: “In 1996, a broad range of evangelical scholars were gathered to provide an improved version of Ken Taylor’s Living Bible. The result has been an excellent translation based on the goal of setting out to render the message of the original texts of Scripture into clear, contemporary English.”
  4. English Standard Version (ESV)
    • Published by Crossway.
    • Originally published in 2001.
    • Last revised in 2016.
    • From Dr. Hendricks: “This version, endorsed by several conservative Christian leaders, provides an ‘essentially literal’ yet literarily graceful translation. Popular among those in Reformed traditions, this version draws from its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version. Excellent for both personal study and public reading.”
  5. New King James Version (NKJV)
    • Published by Thomas Nelson.
    • Originally published in 1982.
    • Last revised in 1984.
    • From Dr. Hendricks: “The NKJV was produced ‘to preserve the original intended purity of the King James Version in its communication of God’s Word to man.’ If you like the King James but struggle with its Elizabethan English, this is a very helpful translation.”

Those are the five most popular English versions of the Bible and a little bit about them from our trusted friend Dr. Hendricks. Now, let’s explore a little bit about Bible translation methods and see which kind of translation may be best for you and how you like to read.

Bible Translation Styles…And Picking Yours

When it comes down to it, there are really just two Bible translation philosophies or methods, and every English Bible translation falls somewhere in a spectrum between those two primary philosophies.

The two philosophies are called “Formal Equivalence” (or “Word-for-Word”) and “Dynamic Equivalence” (or “Thought-for-Thought”).

The Christian Standard Bible is published by Lifeway Christian Resources. On the website for the Christian Standard Bible, they provide this chart showing where major English Bible translations fall on the spectrum of translation philosophies:

This is just one version of the chart, but if you search “Bible translation chart” online you can find many other versions of this that may vary a little bit here and there.

What is the difference between “Formal Equivalence” and “Dynamic Equivalence”? Let’s briefly examine the two philosophies:

Formal Equivalence/Word-for-Word

This method of Bible translation is generally known to be more “literal,” meaning word-for-word, and often a little bit more difficult to read. The idea behind translating the Bible into English with this method is to take every individual word in the original language and translate it exactly as it meant in the original language. While this may make a translation feel more “accurate,” it can make the English language version feel a bit wooden or more difficult to read than a thought-for-thought translation. The thought is to translate each word as accurately as possible and then let the reader have a bit more responsibility in understanding the text. Word-for-word translation may be more accurate to the original language, but that can make it more difficult to understand.

As demonstrated by the chart above, some translations closer to the formal equivalence end of the spectrum include the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV).

Dynamic Equivalence/Thought-for-Thought

Also sometimes known as “functional equivalence,” this method of Bible translation is less interested in translating every individual word from the original language and more interested in translating the thought, phrase, or idea from the original text. This translation philosophy usually produces English Bibles that are easier to read because they are translated with meaning in mind rather than word-for-word accuracy. However, one common concern with dynamic equivalence versions of the Bible is that a lot of trust and responsibility are given to the translators who are translating not only the text but also the meaning of the text, which could be controversial in some passages. The ease-of-reading that comes with thought-for-thought translations does come with a sort of “cost,” that is, to trust the translation committee to translate the meaning of the passage accurately.

Some translations closer to the dynamic equivalence end of the Bible translation spectrum include the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT).

Which Do You Prefer?

Regardless of what anyone says, there is no “right” translation philosophy when choosing between the two listed above. Both formal and dynamic equivalence are widely recognized as reliable translation methodologies that maintain the accuracy and meaning of the Bible text that God intends to be His Word.

When deciding what is the “best” Bible translation for you, one of the best places to start is deciding whether you prefer word-for-word translations for thought-for-thought translations. Word-for-word translations usually more appealing to people who consider themselves “good” readers, and thought-for-thought translations are often more appealing to people who do not consider themselves good readers or would prefer Scripture to be a little bit easier to read.

Whichever translation philosophy you prefer and whatever Bible version you decide to read, the most important thing is that you read. God doesn’t care whether you read the King James Version or the New Living Translation. God just wants you to read His Word so that you can know Him better and learn of the love He has shown you in His Son Jesus Christ.

For Further Reading:

Living by the Book

by Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks

For every person who draws strength and direction from the Bible, there are many more who struggle with it. Some call it a long book with fine...

book cover for Living by the Book