What to Look For in a Bible Translation

The NEW Friday feature of the Worldly Saints blog is an opportunity for blogging about anything. Unlike the other days of prescribed themes, this day is for blogging about an issue that I couldn’t fit anywhere else or couldn’t wait until next week to write.


Last Friday, I blogged about The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language and you can read that post here. What prompted the post was really a question I received about a month ago from a friend in the body of Christ who had been asked that question before and wanted a little help on what to say. And I have been asked about The Message before. So I answered the question.

But, after spending a few hours considering my post, I realized that I needed to add a few more thoughts post. Hence, this is the follow up.

Today, I simply want to cover two additional issues related to last week’s post: (1) explain how Bible translation works and the differences in theories and (2) how to choose a good Bible translation.

I felt a little “guilty” for criticizing The Message, but then not offering any alternatives. So here goes.

Differences in Bible Translation

There are two basic theories of Bible translation: (1) thought-for-thought and (2) word-for-word.

Theory #1: Thought-for-Thought

This is also called dynamic equivalence theory. It “is a theory of translation based on the premise that whenever something in the original text is foreign and unclear to a contemporary English reader, the original text should be translated in terms of an equivalent rather than literally.”[1] This theory of translation is NOT the best for the following reasons:

  1. It allows the translator the freedom to add commentary to his translation and that commentary is fallible. Thus, you end up with a translation and a commentary, and then you call that a Bible.
  2. It demands that the translator make Scriptural interpretations when that is not his responsibility as a translator. You end up with a translation telling it’s reader “what the Bible means” and not “what the Bible says.”
  3. Thus (based on the previous 2 concerns), the reader doesn’t always know what is translation and what is commentary or interpretation.
  4. The temptation for the translator is to be “more concerned with the human reader than the divine author.”[2]Some examples of translations that use a dynamic equivalence theory: New International Version (NIV), New English Bible (NEB), New American Bible (NAB), Good News Bible (GNB) or the Jerusalem Bible (JB).Is it wrong for a Christian to read a translation that has used a thought-for-thought theory? No. I would not discourage a Christian from using these translations, as long as they know what they are reading. I would encourage Christians to read it more like a commentary than a Bible and always be comparing it with literal translations to get a better understanding of what God is saying.

Theory #2: Word-for-Word

Next, there is literal translation, or word-for-word theory, which is “the attempt to translate by keeping as close as possible to the exact words and phrasing in the original language.”[3] This is the preferable translation theory for the following reasons:

  1. It maintains the closest accuracy to what God actually said.
  2. It encourages the potential of the original text. In other words, you can stay away from phrases like “what Moses was trying to say.” You can get a better understanding of what the text was supposed to produce in it’s readers.
  3. There is no commentary in the translation. Thus, it remains simply as a Bible.
  4. You have to correct far less translation when you preach.
  5. It celebrated the beauty of the inspiration of Scripture in a more exact way that the other form of translation.

Some examples of Bible translations that are literal: King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), English Standard Version (ESV), New American Standard (NAS), or the Revised Standard Version (RSV).

Choosing a Bible Translation

The preference is certainly a literal translation, but there is a place for translations like the NIV. I personally feel like the NIV can be very helpful to young children who are just starting to read or young believers who are getting acquainted with Christianity and what the Bible says.

The KJV is translated is a more archaic form of English. The NAS is very literal and almost choppy at times because it follows original word order so strictly. The ESV is a happy medium between the KJV and NAS.I would encourage you to pick one from each theory. That way you can a literal rendering of the original and a little commentary as well.

Or if you don’t like that, follow your conscience on the matter.

For those who want to read further on the popular translations, their pro’s and con’s, read “Choosing a Bible Translation” by Daniel B. Wallace.


[1] Leland Ryken, How to Bible Translations Differ From Each Other, pg. 6

[2] Ibid., pg. 9

[3] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, pg. 35


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