Differences between English Bibles.


Background knowledge you need to know for this article:

  • The Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew (a minor portion in Aramaic, which is a related language to Hebrew)
  • The New Testament was mostly written in Greek (some would viably argue all of its originals were in Greek)


So what are the differences between some of the major English Bible Translations?  There are two major matters that underscore what is "different" between English Bibles:

  1. Translation method:  The translator will be More Literal, or Less Literal when translating from the original language into English. 
  2. The underlying texts  The translator must decide what text to translate from (what Hebrew manuscripts to use in the Old Testament and which Greek ones in the New Testament) There are many manuscript portions available from ancient times, and the originals are long gone.


First up:  Translation method


A Grace To You web article from October 2009 succinctly says:  Since no one language corresponds perfectly to any other language, every translation involves some degree of interpretation. A translation based on formal equivalency (Literalism) has a low degree of interpretation; translators are trying to convey the meaning of each particular word. When faced with a choice between readability and accuracy, formal equivalency translators are willing to sacrifice readability for the sake of accuracy.



When we speak of translation methodology, there are two extremes on the spectrum.

  1. Literalism (also known as word-for-word) (also known as formal/complete equivalence)
  2. Less Literal (also known as thought-for-thought) (also known as Dynamic Equivalence and at times Paraphrase)


The goal of Literalism is it attempts to take the words from the original into the English as closely as possible word for word. Here is an example of a Greek text from the New Testament as an example. The Greek literal (transliterated), including word order, is given, then a few examples of how it was rendered into English.



εν τουτω εγνωκαμεν την αγαπην οτι εκεινος υπερ ημων την ψυχην αυτου εθηκεν 


  • 1 John 3:16  Transliterated ...by this  -   we have known  -  the love  -  because that One  -  on our behalf  -  the life  -  His  -  laid down
  • NKJV-Literal  By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us.
  • NIV - Dynamic Equivalent  This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us
  • Living Bible- Paraphrase We know what real love is from Christ’s example in dying for us

In this instance, the NIV has not moved far from the generally more literal NKJV, but of concern about paraphrasing is how the Living Bible makes Christ's love an example. This makes the meaning of the Greek word huper to be a mere example, rather than laying down His life "for" us. There is a subtle theological issue about substitution here, compared to His death being an example. We really do not want our bible to be a book of interpretation but instead, to be a translation. Thus the conflict between methods, word for word vs. meaning to meaning, - as to which should be the translators goal.  We would state here that leaning toward word for word is far more wise.


Another example- 2 Timothy 2:2    The context is Paul exhorting Timothy to pass along to other faithful MEN, what he had heard from the apostles.  The key word "men" being the masculine anthropois.  This word can mean humanity in general but also men in particular, whereas aner is always males only.  In 2 Timothy 2:2 there are four words in a row -nouns/pronouns/adjectives- that are masculine.  A translation like the NIV, seeking to be perhaps more gender inclusive, chooses to say "entrust to reliable PEOPLE" instead of to faithful MEN.  Where are we going with this?  It becomes an example of problematic mis-use of dynamic translations. Here's how: A Bethel-Charismatic teacher type used this verse in the NIV that says "people" to counter arguments against women preachers & teachers. He was in essence saying "see, !! here's a place where women are included in teaching/preaching truth."  This all despite Paul's prior letter 1st Timothy, where in 2:12, he had specifically forbidden this very thing of women usurping their role. This Bethel man (should we say person instead?) was trying to show that women (because they are "people" in the NIV) are are part of the faithful group of "people" that are to pass along truth to future generations. So perhaps Paul's clear instruction in his first letter is being misundertood by mysoginistic men, is the implication! See how a simple translation that is dynamic instead of more precise yielded a bad teaching?


What this also illustrates, is the challenge of translating something from one language into another, and to do it faithfully in a way that helps saints the most. And as we are dealing with the word of God and not merely an unearthed phoenician tablet of an ancient grandma's snickerdoodle recipe, it matters how we proceed.


Here's a summary of strengths & weaknesses of the more Literal method:


Literal method or Formal/Complete Equivalence


Strengths Weaknesses
Significantly lessens bias of translators, and checks against their introduction of interpretation into the translation. Can be choppy/harder to read

Has a high view of the text of scripture & attempts to follow original grammar  & syntax as primary guidelines

Struggles with expressing a train of thought in a new language, esp idioms

Sacrifices readability for accuracy Sacrifices readability for accuracy :)


What popular English Bibles are in this category?  

  • KJV
  • NKJV
  • ESV
  • NASB

Now, for the strengths and weaknesses of the Dynamic Equivalence/Paraphrase method:


Strengths Weaknesses
Tends to be thought of as more readable Injects the translators interpretations, often seriously so. Loses continuity of knowing the underlying Greek word usage.
More dominant and popular today in evangelicalism, and in English based foreign missions, due to ease of readability (ie..NIV)

Can tend toward a lower view of scripture, by exalting an interpretive framework of thinking (and the ever present bane of "what does this verse mean to me"). Makes scripture fit the culture.


What popular English Bibles are in this category?

  • NIV
  • The Message
  • The Good News Bible

One dynamic equivalence translator said, "We take THE ORIGINAL THOUGHT and convert it into the language of today. ... We can be much more accurate than the verbal translation."  The problem here is that this makes the reader dependent upon the translator's accuracy in discerning God's "original thought."  And that is a problem indeed, because the frailties of even the best of men, make all men unsafe in such a matter. In this the value of more literal translations is manifest. True, it takes more work that way sometimes, to get at original meaning, but surely it is better to have gifted men expound and the Holy Spirit interpret His own Word. 


Also, the dynamic translations seek to make the Bible acceptable into the culture. For any discerning person that should raise up red warning flags. The translator's task is not to make scriptures fit the culture, but to faithfully translate the Word, and let the Word impact the culture and specifically the individual.


The method of translating scripture is a herculean task, and great wisdom is needed. We can thank God for pioneer translators Tyndale, Wycliffe and the 1611 English committee. Their legacy is honorable. Modern trends in this area are a concern.


Second:  Underlying Hebrew & Greek Texts/Manuscripts:


We must acknowledge that before a translator can begin his work, he/she must have the right Hebrew/Greek text in hand, from which to translate.

  • On the Old Testament side of things, the underlying texts that influence translation are settled as mainly the Masoretic text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew from BC 250). At times the Targum (an OT paraphrase) is considered.
  • For the New Testament, there are generally two text types that influence translation, the Alexandrian, and the Byzantine. It is the NT side we are emphasizing in this article, rather than the Hebrew/OT.

While the details are outside the scope of this article, it is our reverent and studied opinion that the Byzantine Text Type is the correct one from which to translate the New Testament. It is what underlies only two of the main translations of the English Bible, the KJV (Authorized Version) and the NKJV (Nelson).  


Byzantine Text type (the vast Majority of manuscripts found) based New Testament translations:

  • KJV (aka..the Authorized Version or AV)
  • NKJV
  • MKJV
  • MEV- though unfortunately using the Textus Receptus

Alexandrian Text type translations of the New Testament:

  • ESV
  • NIV
  • Darby (not exclusively Alexandrian though, but heavily influenced)
  • NASB
  • The Message
  • Good News Bible
  • All other English translation as well


When there is a textual variation, the translator has to determine which text to use before using a more literal or a more dynamic method of translation- to bring it into English. This is not to mean that the source documents are hopelessly unclear or errant, it just means we recognize that there are variances in existence brought about by human infirmity. 99% of the time they are meaningless spelling issues, word order changes, obvious omissions or blunders by copyists, and other human errors - things that are easily detected and ultimately irrelevant. We have a very sure Bible, we can rest assured.


But there are some important Greek manuscript differences. Since our modern Bibles have margin notes that draw attention to it, these things need explanation. The NKJV has marginal notes that show the Majority Text with an M, and the Alexandrian with NU (referring to Nestle/UBS)-showing the main variants.  We refer the reader to the following linked article where a discussion of the underlying text type is explained in more detail, especially in the 2nd half:


Read more here


In summary, the translator chooses the underlying text to translate FROM, and then must proceed with principles of LITERALISM or DYNAMIC EQUIVALENCE as he translates. We believe a primary use of the Byzantine Greek text type, alongside the more Literal word for word translation method is where safety and blessing resides.

With this in mind, we now venture to recommend the following English Bibles use for the serious student of the Word of God:

  1. For Primary translationNKJV or KJV   The former is an update of some archaic terms of the KJV, while maintaining its majesty and fluidity. These are Byzantine tradition texts, the vast majority of surviving manuscripts- being the source documents in the NT from which the translation was taken. If readability is the argument, then the NKJV suffices. The Byzantine empire was the home of the Byzantine text type-thus the name. "Majority Text" is another common term.
  2. Secondary translations to use: NIV (the most popular and more literal of the dynamic equivalence family) and the Darby translations (Literal and very helpful, but at times wooden.) And the newer ESV is growing in popularity, being much like its NASB ancestor.  These three either use exclusively or heavily reference the Alexandrian school of Greek texts of the New Testament - which we cannot recommend. The Alexandrian family is the text group of a few very old manuscripts that survived in the arid regions of north Africa, thus the name Alexandrian (for the city of Alexandria) Therefore, where these translations (whether literal or dynamic) depend on the Alexandrian Greek NT text, their translation may be questionable.
  3. Not recommended, at least not without great caution: English Bibles like The Living Bible and The Message Bibles. And certainly not as a primary or secondary Bibles to use.  To be honest, calling them "bibles" is also a stretch.

More literal: KJV →  NKJV  →  ESV   → NIV →   Living Bible →  Good News →  The Message  Less Literal


The serious Bible student today has many English helps at his disposal. Concordances (like Strongs/Youngs) and dictionaries like Vines Expository Dictionary are readily available.  There are word study aids such as Kenneth Wuest's works (Eerdmans). Commentaries can and should be consulted. We recommend William MacDonald's single volume Believers Bible Commentary (Nelson).  And a study bible like the Scofield Study Bible or Ryrie Study Bible are a great help.

With these in hand, Bible meaning is achievable, and blesses the born again student to know and learn the mind of God... and see Christ in scripture. The believer can also rest assured that he has in hand, the very word of God, perfect in the originals, and highly trustworthy in the better English translations- we owe a great debt to the work of godly scholarship over the centuries.

We can hold the Bible in our hands and say without apology, this IS God's Word. Remember the admonition, 2 Timothy 2:15  Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. It takes work.

With the following mini library you cannot go wrong; read the word, obey it, look for Christ, and enjoy!

  • NKJV Bible
  • KJV New Scofield Bible 1967
  • Darby's Translation
  • Strongs Concordance
  • Vines Expository Dictionary
  • Believers Bible Commentary
  • Online Interlinear



post-script:  One often hears the argument: "the Bible can't be trusted as it has been translated so many times."  This is a bogus argument, based on poor information and hearsay. The original language texts are available and are the source from which translations are made. The bible didn't go from Sanskrit to Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to Spanish to French to Russian to whatever and then pieced together into English.  The original languages are consulted in all translations.