The Bible Key Lessons

Choosing an English Bible Version

Lesson 3 provided a brief overview of the entire subject of Bible transmission down to the printing of the Revised Version and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Only the manuscripts and versions of the greatest renown have been mentioned. Actually, there are today more than 700 in existence, and much more which were known to have at one time been in existence.

Since the turn of the century, numerous English versions and translations of the Bible have been made available for us. Shopping for a Bible today can be an overwhelming and almost frustrating experience for the sincere and conscientious Bible student intent on making a correct choice. The big question is, which translation or version is best? Which one represents most accurately the original Word of God?

To begin with, we must sadly realize that there is no perfect English version. English is not the language in which the Bible was originally written. The "perfect" Bible would be the original manuscript written in the original language - Hebrew (Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament). Bibles in our possession today are quite removed from that, although, as we have seen, the preservation of accuracy down to our time has been generally remarkable.

How to evaluate Bible versions.

There are three basic criteria that must be applied in order to make an intelligent and enlightened choice:

We will proceed in this lesson to examine these criteria one at a time so that you will be able to apply them in your personal choice of a bible version.

1. Type of translation.

English Bibles are translated according to one of four methods:

  1. Formal Correspondence method
  2. Dynamic Equivalence method
  3. Paraphrase method
  4. Translational Compromise method

Each of these methods have very distinct characteristics of translation that we need to be aware of when choosing a Bible version:

a) The Formal Correspondence method

Word-for-word translation (as accurately as receptor language will allow) closely follows the syntax of original language - most objective type of translation - best type for serious Bible study, when one desires to know the exact message of inspired scripture - should also be best type for devotional purposes, since it most closely follows the original language

Examples of Bible versions based on the Formal Correspondence method:

b) Dynamic Equivalence method

Meaning-for-meaning translation (meaning of original text is translated into what translator feels is an equivalent thought in the receptor language) leaves room for translator to transfer his or her own biases into the translated text many important inspired thoughts, teachings, terms, and phrases are lost in this process used extensively by the Bible Societies in non-English translations

Examples of Bible versions based on the Dynamic Equivalence method:

c) The Paraphrase method

Not a true translation, but merely putting something into different words paraphraser does not use the original language as a base, but paraphrases from a translation

Examples of Bible versions based on the Paraphrase method:

d) Characteristics of the Translational Compromise method

Translational Compromise method examples:

2. Translator's Beliefs.

Another element which can seriously affect the accuracy of a version is the beliefs of the translators regarding the doctrine of inspiration. If translators do not firmly believe that ALL the Bible was given by Divine inspiration, the door is opened for them to be influenced by "higher criticism" - which can result in passages or sections of the Bible being left out. There may also be tendencies in the translation to undermine the doctrine of inspiration, or a tendency to include spurious readings which contradict other parts of the Bible.

Translators may also have other personal biases. Certainly a concerted effort was made to keep such biases, of whatever type they may be, from influencing the outcome of the text; but we must be aware of the possibility that the presence of biases in the mind of the translators could be a factor in influencing a decision between two or three possible renderings in a passage. Some versions include in the preface a statement with regard to the beliefs of the translator; most, however, do not. It is helpful to have such information, because if we are aware of the religious background of the translators of a text, we will be better prepared to look out for and identify places where translators may have been influenced by a religious bias.

There has been, in certain versions, an obvious trend towards "liberalism"; that is, expressing scriptural concepts and principles in much more liberal a manner than in the original language.

The latest trend in some modern Bible translations is called "inclusive gender", which effectively changes the gender of the original to include women in roles that the original language had clearly indicated for males. (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:2, 1 Timothy 3:12 NRSV) In none of the original languages is there license to do this.

3. Underlying Text.

The source text from which a version is translated should ideally be the most original, pure, and accurate that is possible to obtain. Not always is this principle followed with the translation of some modern versions. In certain cases the source used is that of a modern Greek and/or Hebrew manuscript.

It is therefore important to understand what is the underlying source text for whatever version you select for study or even casual reading. Look for the phrase "Textus Receptus" or "Received Text" in the introductory notes of a Bible. If it is indicated that the translation has used this text as its source, you can rest assured that the translation was derived from the best possible source.

Recommended Choices (listed in order of preference):

  1. King James or New King James Version (for serious study)
  2. New American Standard Bible
  3. Revised Standard Version
  4. Revised Version

Other suggestions and advice

Look for a Bible with marginal notes or footnotes giving various readings where applicable. A wide margin or interleaved Bible is desirable if you want to make personal study notes.

The King James Version continues to be widely used for serious study purposes because almost all of the major Scripture reference books such as Strong's Concordance, Englishman's Hebrew and Greek Concordance, Thayer's Lexicon, Vine's Expository Dictionary, etc., are based on the text of the King James Version.

The New King James Version is simply the King James Version in current English, and with most of the obvious textual errors corrected. Because of the changes, however, it may be more difficult to use some of the concordances and lexicons based upon the older text of the KJV. Some of these concordances and lexicons have been revised for use with the NKJV. Try to obtain these if you feel more comfortable using the NKJV version.

The New International Version is showing signs of fast becoming the most popular version almost to the exclusion of the King James Version. While this is unfortunate, it is not hopeless; it simply means that the serious Bible student will have to become familiar with the shortcomings of the NIV and understand and mark those passages where the renderings are questionable. Also, the recent publishing of the standard dictionaries and lexicons for use with the NIV will be of great assistance.

In addition to a Bible based upon the Formal Correspondence method of translation (e.g. the King James Version), it is a good idea to have one of the less literal versions for comparative purposes, but not for serious study. Alternatively one might obtain a version that has alternate renderings in footnotes or in the margins.

Do not rely heavily on "study Bibles" except perhaps for reference purposes. The "study" is accomplished by professional clergy members and heavily slanted toward the ideas of orthodox religion. It is "canned" study, and as such tends to discourage personal study.

Just as one must compare scripture with scripture to arrive at the correct meaning of a passage, one must also be prepared to compare version with version to arrive at a correct conclusion as to the best Bible to suit our needs.

More intensive study of this subject is recommended to those who are so inclined. Such study has been made easier by the numerous works and writings of very capable and learned people; and the student will be benefited by acquiring the knowledge necessary to make the best use of the many scripture sources available to us.

To summarize all that has been discussed on this subject, it is interesting to observe a quote from the former director of the British museum which contains several of the most important ancient manuscripts; "The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries."


  1. What is the first of three basic criteria that must be applied when selecting a Bible Version?
  2. What is the second of three basic criteria that must be applied when selecting a Bible Version?
  3. What is the third of three basic criteria that must be applied when selecting a Bible Version?
  4. List the four methods of Bible Translation:
  5. Which method results in a Bible version which is considered the best for serious Bible study?
  6. Which method should be considered the least desirable? Why?
  7. How might the beliefs of translators regarding inspiration of scripture affect the outcome of a translation?
  8. What should we look for as the basic characteristics of the underlying text of a version?
  9. Which versions are considered in this lesson to be "recommended choices"?
  10. If circumstances dictate that the range of choices are restricted to the New International Version, what should one be prepared to do?
  11. Why is it desirable for the Bible student not to rely heavily on "study Bibles"?

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