Which English Bible translations are most accurate and readable? Which should you use in your Bible study? Here’s why we recommend the New King James Version.
“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? What is the best Bible translation to buy and study?”
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.
Why we recommend the New King James Version
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.
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.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 and thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases
Some translations are literal, that is, they attempt to stay close to the original Hebrew or Greek text. Others are more focused on translating the meaning, that is, translating thought for thought.
On the far end of this spectrum are the paraphrases, where the effort to make the thoughts more understandable in English takes even greater precedence than the literal meaning of the original languages.
These categories are not precise labels. The wide variety of Bible translations today fall along a spectrum of these three categories.
Literal (word-for-word) translations
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. (Many modern readers find the archaic English of the 1611 King James Version challenging, so we generally use the New King James Version.)
Literal translations such as these allow less of a role for the beliefs and doctrinal orientations of the translators. (Word-for-word translation is also known as formal equivalence.) Along with the KJV and the NKJV, other literal translations include:
- The Revised Standard Version.
- The New Revised Standard Version.
- English Standard Version.
- The Tanakh translation of the Jewish Publication Society (Old Testament only).
Dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought) translations
There are also many less literal versions, some of which are termed dynamic equivalence or functional 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.
- The Revised English Version.
- Contemporary English Version.
- New Living Translation.
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.
We do not recommend these for doctrinal study, since specific passages can be colored by the doctrinal beliefs of the translators.
Even less literal are the free-flowing versions or paraphrases, such as:
- The Living Bible.
- Good News Translation.
- The Message.
Because these are so loose and not literal at all, we do not recommend them for Bible study, and especially not for understanding biblical doctrine. Paraphrases are not accurate Bible translations.
Learn more in our article “Bible Study Tools: Where to Start.”
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.
Like most ancient writings, the original written documents have not survived the centuries. These original manuscripts (known as the autographs) were written on perishable materials like papyrus and leather parchment. However, 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.
Old Testament manuscripts: the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew (with a few Aramaic sections). It was carefully copied through the centuries.
“The Hebrew Bible has come down to us through the scrupulous care of ancient scribes who copied the original text in successive generations. By the sixth century A.D. the scribes were succeeded by a group known as the Masoretes, who continued to preserve the sacred Scriptures for another five hundred years in a form known as the Masoretic Text” (NKJV Study Bible, p. xii).
The New King James Version, like most English versions of the Bible, is translated from the Masoretic Text.
The accuracy of the Masoretic Text was confirmed after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered starting in 1947. These 2,000-year-old manuscripts closely matched the Masoretic Text. Learn more in our articles “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Prove?”
New Testament manuscripts
The New Testament was written in Greek. “There is more manuscript support for the New Testament than for any other body of ancient literature. Over five thousand Greek, eight thousand Latin, and many more manuscripts in other languages attest the integrity of the New Testament” (ibid., p. xiii). There are some variations, but there is an “overwhelming degree of agreement” among the manuscripts.
However, in the New Testament, there are two main 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.
Alexandrian text vs. Textus Receptus
The reason for such differences 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.
Thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Byzantine text type exist, and they closely match each other. This is the traditional text of the Greek-speaking churches. At the time the King James Bible was translated, the Byzantine text was represented by the Textus Receptus (Received Text).
More recently scholars have compiled a Majority Text based on the consensus of the majority of Greek manuscripts. “The Majority Text is similar to the Textus Receptus, but it corrects those readings which have little or no support in the Greek manuscript tradition” (ibid., p. xiv).
The New King James Version is based on the Textus Receptus, but notes differences with the Majority Text in the margin.
The Alexandrian text type consists mainly of two manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus. These became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when they were discovered, mainly because they were older.
“However, some scholars have grounds for doubting the faithfulness of Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, since they often disagree with one another, and Sinaiticus exhibits excessive omission” (ibid., p. xiii).
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.
Imperfect translations, but the inerrant Word of God
Even though modern translations are imperfect, we believe that the original writing of each of the 66 books of the Bible was inspired by God.
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The books of the Bible, in their original form, were divinely inspired and free from error.
A few errors have crept in during the copying and the translation process. But even so, history records the meticulous effort used by many to preserve and translate the Bible, and comparing the many manuscripts and translations reveals that overall the differences are minor.
We believe that we can come very close to the original autographs by studying a Bible version based on the most carefully copied manuscripts, translated in a word-for-word manner by a team of scholars striving to be faithful to the text.
That’s why we believe that by using a translation like the New King James Version, and by comparing other translations, we can study the Word of God—and we can use it to change our lives.
Study more about why we can trust that the Bible is true in our booklet Is the Bible True?
For more tips on Bible study, read the articles in this section: “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.”