Why We Have Different Bible Translations

There are many different Bible translations to choose from. Why is that?

If scholars faithfully use reliable manuscripts when translating Scripture, why do we have different versions of the Bible?

There are a variety of factors that have influenced the creation of a Bible translation. Two such reasons are changes in the English language (when is the last time you used ‘peradventure’ in a sentence?) and the use of different New Testament manuscripts, or hand written copies (there are thousands more manuscripts available now than when the King James Version was translated).

While these two factors are important, we will focus on perhaps the most vital thing to understand about different Bible versions: by their very nature translations are NEVER word for word. Even Bible versions which are often referred to as word-for-word translations technically are not. 

No two languages are exactly parallel, so translators are by necessity also interpreters.

For example, a literal word-for-word translation of the Greek in Matthew 1:18 would be something like:

Of the but Jesus Christ the birth thus was. Being betrothed the mother of him, Mary, to Joseph, before or to come together them she was found in belly having from Spirit Holy.

Meanwhile, the King James Version, which is considered a word-for-word translation, renders the same verse as:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

The above example illustrates why a strict adherence to each individual word would not produce a readable Bible in English. Even so-called ‘word-for-word’ translations aren’t truly word-for-word.

Translators must interpret to some degree, and how they go about this process falls into two philosophies: formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence.

Formal Equivalence Translations (Word-for-Word)

Formal equivalence attempts to create as literal a translation as possible, and comes as close as it can to a word-for-word rendition out of the original languages. This philosophy utilizes a minimum of interpretation and will favor accuracy over readability, as translators will convey the meaning of each individual word rather than a thought or passage as a whole.

Doing so means that the translators are less likely to have influenced the reading of the text by introducing their own viewpoints, either intentionally or unintentionally. The challenge with this method can be achieving a high-degree of readability when translating the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic into English.

For example, if you’ve ever been left scratching your head at what a particular verse means, it is possible that the translators have remained faithful to the literal translation of the words and so have not given great insight into the meaning of a particular phrase.

For example, in Romans 12:20 (ESV), Jesus says “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Clearly, Jesus is not saying that this will literally happen. He is using a common saying, or idiom. The ESV translated the actual words and did not add or replace words in order to make the meaning more clear. The reader is left to do a bit of work in properly understanding the verse.

Popular examples of Formal Equivalence translations include:

Such translations are recommended for more thorough study of the Scriptures, though they are sometimes criticized that the rigid method of translating into English produces a text that is less readable.

Logos Deal

Dynamic Equivalence Translations (Thought for Thought)

The dynamic equivalence translation philosophy seeks to convey an idea-for-idea translation in order to express what they believe the original author intended. Dynamic equivalency focuses on readability above faithfulness to the original words.

This form of translation has a high degree of interpretation and can produce less accurate translations if the editors are too cavalier in interpreting the Word of God. It is more likely to make concessions for political correctness, such as the use of ‘gender-neutral language’ of the 2011 New International Version.

That being said, the desire to focus on conveying the thoughts of a passage is easily understood. A helpful illustration would be the need to translate the phrase “when pigs fly.” While this phrase indicates an impossibility to English speakers, it may be nonsense when translated word-for-word into French or Portuguese.

Dynamic equivalence focuses on keeping the originally intended meaning, even if the words used are drastically different.

Remember Romans 12:20 with the burning coals mentioned above? A dynamic equivalence translation, such as the NLT, adds “heap burning coals of shame on his head” to increase clarity, even though the words ‘of shame’ are not in the text. The Message, meanwhile, reads this way: “Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.”

You can see in that one example the great variation that can exist in translations that fall in the dynamic equivalence category (the same can be said of formal equivalence, with some translations being more or less ‘wooden’ than another).

The most popular dynamic equivalency translations are:

Of these, the NIV (1984 edition) takes a moderate approach towards dynamic equivalence and is the most accurate and reliable. I do not recommend the others on this list, as they stray too far from the original text.


The difference between the formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence methods of translating Scripture is an important factor in explaining the reasons for the variety of English versions of the Bible available. There are other complexities involved, and it is important to note that there is a broad range of approaches that fit within the above categories.

Also, some translations seek to strike an appropriate balance of both methods. For example, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) attempts to strike a balance between both methods and is considered ‘optimal equivalence.’ The CSB is a solid translation of Scripture.

While you can certainly find poor translations on the shelf of your local bookstore, the majority of popular Bible versions do a great job of accurately translating the Old and New Testament.

A Recommendation

I would recommend that you choose a Bible that falls within the “formal equivalence’ category, or one that seeks to provide a balance between word-for-word and thought for thought. Those looking for a recommendation of a good Bible versions will find the ESV, the NASB, the Legacy, and the CSB to be excellent choices.

That being said, I would actually recommend that you make regular use of more than one translation. While it may be best to stick to one version for your primary study and memorization, there is great benefit in consulting other translations to get a broader understanding of the meaning of the text.

To learn more the history of the English Bible, particularly in relation to the use of ancient manuscripts, I recommend How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot.

Interested in choosing a good Study Bible? Here are some recommended Study Bibles.

  1. Good synopsis Clay. I read through the Bible every year and have read all those translations on the formal equivalence side of the equation. How about your thoughts on which study version of these translations would be the best for a serious Bible studier? Can a good study Bible help to alleviate any of the potential weaknesses you mentioned in your article? Truly enjoy reading/listening to these thoughts of yours.

    1. A good study Bible will definitely help you sort out translation differences and also give insight into why a translation might lean one way or another with a particular word or phrase. Steve Lawson put out a helpful video on some good study Bible options that you can find here: Steve Lawson’s Favorite Study Bibles. Thanks for the question!

  2. Thank you for your article, Clayton. As a career Bible translator, I have found that the distinction between the various versions is not nearly as simple as many people think. There are a surprising number of places where the NIV and/or NLT are MORE literal than the NASB and/or ESV. For example, in Psalm 44.14, the Hebrew says, “a shaking of head.” The NIV and NLT both translated this phrase quite literally as, “peoples/they shake their heads at us.” But the NASB and ESV both give a purely dynamic equivalent rendering: “laughingstock.” So, in this case (and quite a few others) the NIV and NLT are “word-for-word” and the NASB and ESV are “thought-for-thought.” I would be glad to send you a complimentary copy of my book on Bible translation if you are interested. It is called: One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2013). I guarantee that anyone who reads this book with an open mind will come away with a truer, more complete understanding of the various English translations of the Bible.

    1. Thank you for making this important point. The article is, admittedly, a very simplistic overview of the different translation methods and it is important for readers to know that there are instances where a Bible translation in one category (dynamic equivalence, for example) may translate something word-for-word — and vise versa. Also, I appreciate you letting me know about your book on this subject and will gladly give it a read.

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