The Bible is the most widely read book in human history. It has been translated into over 500 languages and has sold billions of copies over the centuries. Yet with so many Bible versions available today, it can be confusing to know which one to choose.
This comprehensive guide will walk you through the key things you need to know about the top Bible versions and translations. We’ll cover the history behind the Bible, how the various translations compare, and tips for choosing the right Bible version for your needs.
A Brief History of the Bible
Let’s start with some background on where the Bible came from in the first place. The Bible is a collection of 66 books written by over 40 authors over a period of 1500 years. The books include historical accounts, poetry, prophecy, and letters.
The Old Testament contains 39 books written primarily in Hebrew that cover God’s interactions with mankind up until a few centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. The New Testament contains 27 books written in Greek that detail the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in the 1st century AD.
Here is a quick history of how the Bible was written and compiled into the book we know today:
- 1400 BC – 400 BC – Old Testament books authored
- 200 BC– From 1400 BC to 200 BC, Hebrew Old Testament texts being translated to Greek known as the Septuagint
- 45-95 AD – New Testament books authored
- 90-100 AD – Council at Jamnia determines Jewish canon of Old Testament books
- 367 AD – Athanasius defines New Testament canon
- 382 AD – Pope Damascus commissions the Latin Vulgate translation
- 500s-1400s AD – Scriptures translated into common languages after the fall of the Roman Empire
- 1380s AD – Wycliffe translates the Bible into English
- 1516 – Erasmus publishes the first printed Greek New Testament
- 1522-1610 – Tyndale, Matthews, Geneva and King James Bibles translate from Hebrew & Greek into English
As you can see, the development of the Bible we have today spanned across languages, continents, and centuries. This will be important to keep in mind as we look at the different Bible versions available now.
A Brief History of Bible Translation
The necessary work of Bible translation has been going on for over 2000 years. Here is an overview of the key milestones in Bible translation history:
200-100 BC: Septuagint
The Hebrew Bible is translated into Greek, allowing diaspora Jews and early Christians to read the “Old Testament” scriptures in a common language.
405 AD: Vulgate Latin Bible
Jerome finishes translating the Bible into Latin, creating what becomes the standard Catholic Church version for over 1000 years.
1384 AD: Wycliffe’s Bible
John Wycliffe oversees the first handwritten manuscript Bible translation in English.
1516 AD: Erasmus Greek New Testament
Desiderius Erasmus publishes the first printed critical edition Greek New Testament which informs many later translations.
1522-1534 AD: Luther’s German Bible
Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament sparks greater scriptural accessibility for common people.
1611 AD: King James Bible
The authorized King James Version becomes the standard English Protestant Bible for centuries.
1885 AD: English Revised Version
British scholars update the KJV into more modern English based on revised Greek source texts.
1901 AD: American Standard Version
An American version is produced using the ERV and updated scholarship as a basis.
1946-1958 AD: Revised Standard Version
New archaeological discoveries from the Dead Sea scrolls influence this updated Bible translation.
1978 AD: New International Version
A committee of evangelical scholars produce the NIV using modern English.
Digital Bible Revolution
Bible translations proliferate and become accessible worldwide through print, websites, apps, audio, video and social media.
Types of Bible Translations
There are four main translation philosophies that Bible versions can fall under. The translators’ approach impacts how literally or freely they translate the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into modern languages.
The four main translation philosophies are:
- Word-for-word: Translates the original words and phrases as literally as possible. Follows the original languages very closely.
- Thought-for-thought: Translates the meaning and ideas behind the words. More readable but less literal.
- Paraphrase: Translates freely for readability and simplification. The most loose translation style.
- Dynamic equivalence: A balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought. Aims to be readable yet faithful to the original.
Most Bible versions fit into the word-for-word or dynamic equivalence translation philosophies. The right approach depends on your needs as a reader. Word-for-word versions are great for in-depth Bible study, while dynamic equivalence aim for smooth readability.
How the Bible Came to English
Now let’s trace how the Bible first came to the English-speaking world. This journey from Hebrew and Greek to English was driven by people passionate to make the Word of God available in common tongue…
Early Anglo-Saxon Translations
The first attempts to translate portions of Scripture into Old English date back to the 7th and 8th centuries, including Caedmon’s metrical Genesis and the Venerable Bede’s translation of the Gospel of John.
John Wycliffe’s Bible
The first complete translation of the Bible into English was done by theologian John Wycliffe and his associates in the late 14th century. Since copying manuscripts was illegal, these early handwritten Bibles were scarce.
William Tyndale’s Bible
William Tyndale was determined to make the Bible available to the common man. He worked from Greek and Hebrew sources to produce the first printed English New Testament in 1526. Copies were smuggled into England, where authorities burned them.
After Tyndale’s execution, Myles Coverdale continued Tyndale’s work to produce the first complete printed English Bible in 1535. This Coverdale Bible was a compilation of several sources including Tyndale’s Pentateuch and New Testament.
In 1537, John Rogers published the Matthew’s Bible under the pen name Thomas Matthew. This was primarily a compilation of Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s work, with minor revisions to the text.
The Great Bible
The first authorized English Bible was the Great Bible first printed in 1539. This was ordered by King Henry VIII to be placed in every church in England. The text was prepared by Coverdale, based on Tyndale’s work.
The Geneva Bible
Produced by Protestant exiles in Geneva, the Geneva Bible was published in 1560 with bold textual notes and commentary. The Geneva Bible competed with the Great Bible throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
The Bishops’ Bible
The Bishops’ Bible was an authorized revision of the Great Bible produced by Church of England bishops in 1568. While never gaining much popularity, it did influence the later King James Version.
Popular English Bible Translations
Now let’s take a look at some of the most prominent English Bible translations available today. We’ll cover how they compare in terms of translation philosophy, readability, and intended usage.
King James Version (KJV)
- Publication date: 1611
- Translation philosophy: Word-for-word
- Readability: Difficult
- Best for: Literary/historical significance
The King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version, has had a profound impact on the English-speaking world and literature. This translation was commissioned by King James I of England and published in 1611 by a committee of 47 scholars.
The KJV uses formal wording and closely follows the original Greek and Hebrew texts. While this can make the language harder to understand for modern readers, it remains one of the most influential and well-known Bible translations.
New International Version (NIV)
- Publication date: 1973 (NT), 1978 (complete)
- Translation philosophy: Dynamic equivalence
- Readability: Easy to moderate
- Best for: Bible study and modern reading
The New International Version sought to make the Bible more readable and accessible to modern English readers. It balances readability with faithfulness to the meaning of the original texts. The NIV is the most popular modern English Bible translation, with over 450 million copies sold.
English Standard Version (ESV)
- Publication date: 2001
- Translation philosophy: Word-for-word
- Readability: Moderate
- Best for: Serious study, preaching, memorization
The ESV takes a word-for-word formal approach yet aims to use more modern English than the KJV. It is growing in popularity for its accuracy, readability, and suitability for study and memorization.
New Living Translation (NLT)
- Publication date: 1996
- Translation philosophy: Dynamic equivalence/thought-for-thought
- Readability: Very easy
- Best for: Clear understanding
The New Living Translation focuses mainly on readability and making the meaning of the Bible clear in modern English. It takes more of a thought-for-thought approach. The NLT is great if you want a very easy to understand Bible.
New King James Version (NKJV)
- Publication date: 1982
- Translation philosophy: Word-for-word
- Readability: Moderate
- Best for: Fans of the original King James
As the name implies, the New King James Version aims to update the language of the original KJV while maintaining its familiar style and accuracy. It keeps the eloquence of the KJV but replaces obsolete words to enhance readability.
Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- Publication date: 2017
- Translation philosophy: Optimal equivalence (balanced)
- Readability: Easy to moderate
- Best for: Evangelism and study
The Christian Standard Bible uses a balanced translation approach called optimal equivalence. It aims to convey the original meaning of Scripture in natural, expressive language. The CSB is a newer translation growing in use.
This covers some of the most popular full Bible translations. There are also numerous partial translations of the Bible focused on specific audiences and reading levels.
In addition to the text itself, many printed Bibles now come as “study Bibles.” These include extra commentary, notes, illustrations, and articles alongside the scripture.
Study Bibles help explain context, make connections, and generally enhance understanding of the Bible. They come in various translations and are targeted at specific demographics like men, women, youth, etc.
Here are some of the most popular study Bibles available:
- NIV Study Bible
- ESV Study Bible
- The Jeremiah Study Bible (NKJV)
- MacArthur Study Bible (NASB)
- Life Application Study Bible (NLT)
- The Woman’s Study Bible (NIV)
- Lutheran Study Bible (ESV)
Study Bibles contain a wealth of helpful supplemental resources. The downside is that they can be bulky, expensive, and more subject to the commentary author’s interpretation.
Word-for-Word Bible Versions
Word-for-word Bibles aim to preserve the precise original wording and sentence structure in translation. They adhere closely to formal equivalence. Here are some popular examples of word-for-word translations:
King James Version (KJV)
Completed in 1611 by 54 independent scholars, the KJV used the available Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts of its day as source texts. It has remained the most influential English Bible version for over 400 years and is still beloved by many for its majestic language and poetic cadence.
New King James Version (NKJV)
Published in 1982, the NKJV is an update of the KJV in contemporary English yet preserving the literal accuracy of the KJV. It also uses the Textus Receptus manuscripts as its basis like the KJV.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The NASB, completed in 1971 and updated in 1995, is widely considered the most literal word-for-word English Bible translation. It is based on the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts.
English Standard Version (ESV)
First released in 2001, the ESV seeks to be an “essentially literal” translation in updated English. It was translated by over 100 evangelical scholars and uses a word-for-word approach. The ESV is growing in popularity.
Amplified Bible (AMP)
The Amplified Bible, published in 1965, expands on the meaning of key words and phrases in the text by adding amplifications and alternative renderings inside parentheses and brackets. It aims for an ultra literal translation method.
Thought-for-Thought Bible Versions
Thought-for-thought translations place a higher priority on conveying the full meaning of phrases and passages over formal word-for-word accuracy. Here are some popular thought-for-thought versions:
New International Version (NIV)
The NIV, first published in 1978, is one of the most widely used contemporary English Bible translations in the world. It maintains the meaning of the original texts using modern, readable English suitable for public teaching, evangelism, and personal study.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Published in 1996 by Tyndale House Publishers, the NLT sought to communicate the meaning of the Bible in clear, natural English. It prioritizes readability and understanding and is increasingly used for personal devotions and reading.
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
Released in 1995 by the American Bible Society, the CEV uses contemporary, everyday American English vocabulary and grammar to convey the meanings of the original text. It aims to make the message of the Bible accessible.
Published in 2002, The Message was translated by Eugene Peterson over 10 years. It presents the Bible in the language of informal spoken English. The Message often uses paraphrases quite freely to get ideas across in very idiomatic language.
New Century Version (NCV)
The New Century Version was first published in 1987. It aims to use clear, natural English at an easy-to-understand reading level to accurately communicate the meaning of the original biblical texts. The NCV targets readers at a third grade reading level.
Paraphrase Bible Versions
Paraphrase translations convey the general thoughts and ideas of scripture passages using many words and phrases rather than formal equivalence to the original texts. Here are some examples:
The Living Bible (TLB)
Completed in 1971 by Kenneth N. Taylor, The Living Bible is an idiomatic paraphrase of the Bible in English. It conveys ideas thought-for-thought using informal language and creative paraphrasing for readability.
The Cotton Patch Version
This translation by Clarence Jordan was published between 1968-1976. It paraphrases much of the New Testament scriptures by translating them into the vernacular of the mid-20th century Southern United States.
Published fully in 2014, The Voice translates the meaning of the biblical narratives into modern dramatizations of scripture passages and uses screenplay format. It takes translational freedom to convey ideas.
Catholic Bible Versions
Catholic Bible versions include the books in the Catholic biblical canon known as the Deuterocanonicals or Apocrypha. Here are some notable Catholic translations:
Translated from the Latin Vulgate between 1582-1610, this is the traditional Catholic English Bible. It was revised by Bishop Challoner in 1749-1752. A very literal translation.
New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE)
The NABRE, first published in 1970 and revised in 1986 and 2011, is the current official Catholic Bible translation in English approved for liturgical use. It uses modern scholarly linguistic methods.
Released in 1966, this Catholic translation was translated from Hebrew and Greek original texts primarily by Dominican Biblical scholar Reverend Alexander Jones.
Original Language Versions
Studying the Bible in its original languages can provide much deeper insight and meaning. Here are some original language Bible versions:
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
This is the definitive Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible published in 1967-1977. It is based on the Ben Asher manuscripts of the Masoretic Text tradition.
Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece
The Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament is the standard scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament published by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research. It uses full textual critical apparatus.
The Septuagint is the primary Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament scriptures. It was created between the 3rd to 1st centuries BC and was used heavily by the New Testament authors.
Biblia Sacra Vulgata
This is the authoritative Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. Originally translated from Hebrew and Greek by Jerome in 405 AD, it was declared the official Catholic Church Bible translation in 1546.
Study Bible Versions
Study Bibles contain extra supplementary materials like: theological commentary, maps, charts, timelines, introductions for each book, definitions, and more. Here are some popular study Bible versions:
ESV Study Bible
The English Standard Version Study Bible, published in 2008, contains over 20,000 study notes explaining passages, introductions, doctrines, illustrations, and scholarly articles. Very comprehensive.
NIV Study Bible
With over 21,000 study notes and hundreds of additional resources, the NIV Study Bible is a tremendously useful tool for digging deeper into God’s Word. First published in 1985.
Thompson Chain-Reference Bible
The Thompson Chain-Reference system contains over 4,000 thematic topical chains linking related biblical themes together as a unique study tool. Popular since 1908.
Scofield Reference Bible
First printed in 1909, the Scofield Reference Bible contains chronologies, thorough book introductions and divisions, and theologically conservative Cyrus Scofield study notes and commentaries interpreting passages.
Ryrie Study Bible
This dispensationalist study Bible includes detailed notes from Charles Ryrie emphasizing literal interpretation, dates of writing, historical and cultural context, and archaeological insights. First published in 1976.
The Bible in Digital Formats
While printed Bibles remain popular, digital Bible versions offer many advantages:
- Takes up no space, easy to carry all translations on one device
- Adds convenient search, highlighting, bookmarking and note-taking
- Enables instant looking up of dictionary definitions and footnotes
- Links between verses and chapters for quick navigation
- Access to thousands of daily reading plans and devotionals
- Availability of study tools like commentaries and lexicons
- Media integration such as audio, video and images
- Sync across all your devices so your notes and progress follow you
Apps like YouVersion and Logos Bible Software make the Bible fully digital. Excellent for study, teaching, and daily engagement with God’s Word. Some even let you switch seamlessly between various translations.
Audio Bible Options
In addition to print and digital Bibles, audio Bible versions have become very popular for listening on-the-go. Here are some of the top audio Bible translations:
- ESV Audio Bible: Available for free streaming online or as a nicely produced downloadable app with Max McLean as narrator.
- NKJV Audio Bible: Voiced by Stephen Johnston and available for purchase on CD or as MP3 downloads.
- NIV Audio Bible: Several free streaming audio options are available. Also a very nicely recorded version by International Talking Bibles.
- The Word of Promise Audio Bible: Dramatic audio performance of NKJV with Hollywood actors voicing different roles.
- Bible Gateway Audio App: Provides the audio Bible in 18 different translation versions including KJV, ESV, NIV, NJKV, NLT, and more.
Listening to scripture being read out loud can help you take it in and memorize it. It’s a great option while traveling, exercising, or relaxing.
When looking for a children’s Bible, look for engaging age-appropriate visuals, easy to understand stories, and Biblical accuracy. Here are some popular options by age level:
- Ages 0-4: Picture Bibles, board books, storybooks
- Ages 5-8: Early readers like the Adventure Bible for Early Readers
- Ages 9-12: Full story Bibles like The Action Bible
- All ages: Comic book Bibles like The Picture Bible
Taking time for family devotions that involve reading from a children’s Bible is a great way to nurture spiritual growth at any age. Set a habit early to instill Biblical literacy from a young age.
Parallel Bibles place two or more translations side-by-side for easy comparison. This helps you gain insights from multiple versions like a formal word-for-word translation alongside an easy-to-read translation.
Some parallel Bibles display up to four versions of the Bible together. Popular options include:
- NIV/KJV Parallel Bible
- CSB/NIV/NLT Parallel Bible
- NIV/NASB/ESV Parallel Bible
- The Parallel Study Bible
Parallel Bibles add a helpful layer of Bible study and can clarify meanings. But the multiple columns can make them harder to read as a primary Bible.
Study Bible Apps
Study Bible apps like Logos and Olive Tree fuse the readability of digital Bibles with expansive libraries of study resources.
- Thousands of Bible study references
- Powerful search and seminary level tools
- Greek and Hebrew lexicon integration
- Historical information on people, places and events
- Commentaries, dictionaries, exegetical guides
- Flexible highlighting, notes and bookmarking
- Syncs between platforms for seamless study
Apps like Logos save vast amounts of study time with information at your fingertips. An amazing asset, though premium packages require an investment.
Navigating Bible Translation Differences
With so many Bible versions out there, you may notice that certain passages translate differently or seem to be missing in some Bibles.
Some key things to be aware of:
- Translating ancient manuscripts involves some interpretation, leading to differences. But main doctrines remain consistent.
- Older translations like KJV use different manuscript sources than modern ones.
- Some passages have weak manuscript evidence and are omitted or footnoted in some Bibles.
- Modern language Bibles aim for equivalent meanings vs. literal word-for-word.
- Using multiple solid translations is helpful for gaining full meaning.
While passages may differ slightly between versions, the core message and doctrines agree. Solid modern translations get us very close to the original intent and meaning.
Hebrew and Greek Interlinear Bibles
Interlinear Bibles place the Hebrew or Greek text with an English translation below each word. This shows how the original language translates literally.
Interlinear Bibles help:
- See how original words translate into English
- Get definitions of Greek/Hebrew words using included lexicons
- Identify word meanings in context of sentence
- Perform word studies across Hebrew/Greek texts
- Compare translations to see where they differ from formal equivalence
Limitations include cumbersome formatting and lack of readability. Interlinear Bibles serve more as a reference tool for Bible students vs. everyday reading.
Some popular Interlinear Bible options:
- The Interlinear Bible by Jay P. Green
- Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible
- Englishman’s Hebrew & Greek Concordance of the Bible
- Marshall’s Greek/English New Testament
Serious Bible students find great benefit from studying original Hebrew and Greek texts. But it requires learning basics of the biblical languages.
Study Bible Software
Study Bible software brings powerful Bible study tools to your computer that were once only available to seminary students and scholars.
Top programs like Logos Bible Software and Accordance provide features like:
- Fully searchable library of Bibles, commentaries, references
- Original language tools, lexicons and concordances
- Word, phrase and proximity searching
- Compare translations side-by-side
- Reading plans and devotionals
- Note-taking, highlighting and annotation
- Smart graphics, maps and visual resources
- Flexible layouts for study and screen reading
Prices range from free basic versions to premium packages costing a few hundred dollars. Excellent for teachers, preachers or serious students of Scripture.
Choosing a Bible Translation
With so many options, how do you choose a Bible translation? Here are the main factors to consider:
Purpose – Will this Bible be for daily reading, in-depth study, memorization, teaching? Different translations serve different purposes.
Translation Style – Do you prefer formal/literal (NASB, ESV) or dynamic equivalence (NIV, NLT) on the translation philosophy spectrum?
Translation philosophy – Do you prefer word-for-word or thought-for-thought translation?
Readability – Do you want easy-to-understand language or advanced text closer to the original complexity?age
Format – Print, digital, audio Bible? Different media benefits reading, studying, or listening.
Features – Do you want supplemental material like study notes, cross references, maps?
Cost – Premium study Bibles can be costly. Most basic text-only editions are affordable.
Size – Do you prefer a heavy study edition or light and portable?
Price – Premium study editions can get expensive. Most basic text-only editions are affordable.
Group Use – Using the same translation as your church or Bible study aids participation.
Try out samples of different translations online for a sense of the reading experience. For most people, an accurate translation in modern English like NIV or ESV does the job.
Original Bible Languages
The Bible was written in three original languages:
Hebrew – Used for the Old Testament, some Aramaic sections like Daniel. Ancient pictographic, abjad writing system. Read right to left.
Aramaic – Parts of Ezra and Daniel. Related to Hebrew.
Koine Greek – Used for the New Testament. Adopted 26 letter alphabetic writing system. Read left to right.
Here’s a brief overview of each language:
- Abjad consonantal alphabet of 22 letters
- Written right to left with vowel markings added later
- Verbal system reflects sequence, factuality, completeness
- Words paint vivid imagery; nuanced meanings
- Scripts adapted from Phoenician & Hebrew
- Supplanted Hebrew after Jewish exile in Babylon
- Used for commerce and diplomacy in Near East
- Similar grammar and word constructions as Hebrew
- Common vernacular Greek when NT written
- Highly expressive language; precise subtleties
- Evolved grammatical structures from classical Greek
- Allowed widespread dissemination of biblical texts
Learning Hebrew and Greek aids exegesis – understanding what the original texts meant to authors & readers. Even minimal knowledge helps Bible study.
Applying the Bible to Life
The goal of Bible study is not just accumulating information. It’s allowing God’s word to transform our thinking and actions. Here are tips for application:
- Look for direct commands to obey
- Identify sins to avoid, repent from or root out
- Note examples to follow or not follow
- Let biblical truths shape your values, priorities and worldview
- Find promises to claim and trust
- Determine practical action steps to live out in your spheres of influence
Application moves truth from head to heart to hands. Biblical knowledge should lead to godliness and action.
The Transforming Power of Scripture
The Bible is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
God’s word has inherent power to convict, renew, inspire and guide all who engage it sincerely. Lives immersed in Scripture will be transformed from within as the Holy Spirit applies its truths to real-world situations.
The Bible has stood the test of time because it contains timeless divine revelation that cuts to the core of every human heart across all cultures. God wants to use his eternal Word – not return void – to accomplish his redemptive purposes in each generation.
Whether you’re a new believer or a seasoned student of Scripture, God wants to speak to you afresh through his living Word. Approach with an open mind and heart. Let the biblical texts come alive. And allow God’s Spirit to renew your mind to become more like Christ every day.
There is always more to explore about the endless depths of Scripture. But the bottom line is that regular immersion in God’s word will draw you closer to him and shape your life into one of purpose and eternal impact.