Which Bible translations are most accurate and readable? Which translation(s) should you use in your Bible study?
“I want to buy a Bible, but there are so many different translations. Which one should I use? What is the most accurate Bible translation?” These can be daunting questions, with more than a hundred translations published in English alone.
While there is no such thing as a perfect Bible translation, there are good ones, as well as bad ones. Since most of us have limited resources to spend on books or computer software, it is best to choose carefully before spending money.
The publications of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, use the New King James Version as their primary translation, and we recommend this version above the others. We find that the NKJV is a very good and accurate translation.
Why? There are two main criteria to consider in determining what is the most accurate Bible translation. First is the degree of literalness, and second is the Hebrew and Greek texts used by the translators.
Word-for-word or thought-for-thought translations
Some translations are literal, that is, they attempt to stay close to the original Hebrew or Greek text. The big advantage of a literal translation is that the reader gets “closer” to the original; its disadvantage is that, since languages express themselves differently, literalness can make reading the English more difficult.
The King James Version of 1611 and the more modern New King James Version are both literal translations, and hence quite accurate. Literal translations such as these allow less of a role for the beliefs and doctrinal orientations of the translators. Along with the KJV and the NKJV, other literal translations include the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version and the Tanakh translation of the Jewish Publication Society (Old Testament only).
There are also many less literal versions, some of which are termed “dynamic equivalence” translations. These translations aim to render the text in thought-for-thought, rather than word-for-word, manner. The advantage of such translations is that they are easier to read; the disadvantage is that the interpretation of the translators plays a more important role, as well as their doctrinal beliefs. Among such “dynamic” translations we may list the New International Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New English Version and the Revised English Version. These translations read easily, and hence may be useful in studying narrative portions of the Bible, such as Exodus, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, but they are not recommended for close study of more conceptual books, such as the epistles of Paul, where accurate translation is very important.
Even less literal are the free-flowing versions or paraphrases, such as the Living Bible, Good News Translation, the Contemporary English Version and The Message. Because these are so loose and not literal at all, we do not recommend them. They are not accurate Bible translations.
Most accurate manuscripts
The other criterion in determining what is the most accurate Bible translation is the type of manuscript used as the base text. There are literally thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts preserved to the present day. While there are slight variations among them, most of those variations have little or no impact on major doctrines.
However, in the New Testament, there are two (or three) types of Greek text that read differently in places, and those differences may have an impact on doctrine. For an example of this, see Matthew 5:22. In the KJV and the NKJV, it reads as follows: “But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment” (italics added). The words “without a cause” are not present in other modern translations such as the NIV and the NRSV, though there may be a footnote acknowledging that some manuscripts include them.
The reason for this is a variation between Greek text types. Briefly, the two major New Testament text types are the Byzantine (eastern) text type—from which the Textus Receptus and, in turn, the KJV and NKJV were derived—and the Alexandrian or Egyptian text type—which forms the basis for most of the modern translations.
A full exploration of the differences between these two text types is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that we find the Byzantine text generally to be the more reliable and superior text type, and hence the King James and New King James Bibles present the reader with a more accurate version of the New Testament, including the words of our Savior. This is another reason why we recommend the New King James Version as a primary translation.
For more tips on Bible study, read the articles in this section: “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”