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Are you looking for a good, or maybe the best, Bible translation? On a Bible website or app, have you found yourself scrolling through abbreviations like NIV, NLT, NASB, ESV, NET, or CSB and wondering what the difference is between them? Since Tyndale’s English translation in 1526, translators and publishers have created approximately 900 different English Bibles, making it hard to know which to choose.

In the end, no single version of the Bible will perfectly capture every thought or nuance communicated through the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic writing in our available manuscripts. And that’s okay! Rather than attempting to identify the most accurate or best translation, we, like scholars, can learn to read and compare different versions in order to gain a deeper, fuller understanding of Scripture. Let's dive in!

The Biblical Translator’s Balancing Act

Scholars developing English translations of the Bible are balancing two goals: reliability and readability. They want to stay true to the wording of original-language manuscripts, while also providing an understandable reading experience. Sometimes we assume that a strictly literal, word-for-word translation would be the most accurate, but that doesn’t always work.

Someone translating John 3:16 word-for-word into English from the original Greek text without trying to make it readable would likely end up with something like this:

The Big Idea

For so loved, God, the world, that his Son, the only begotten, he gave, that everyone who is believing on him may not perish, but may life unto the age.

Most published translations will not render the original language this awkwardly. However, some translations, like the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New King James Version (NKJV), will give more weight to matching the original language word-for-word. Translations like the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) give more weight to readability. And paraphrases push the readability goal even further. Bibles like The Living Bible (TLB) and Eugene Peterson’s The Message (MSG) take more creative license to adjust words, capturing a dynamic thought-for-thought translation rather than literal word-for-word.

Some Translation Examples from the Bible

Any thesaurus proves that we usually have more than one word to convey a single idea. Is winter weather cold, icy, frigid, chilly, or frosty? Each word might be true, but one might be better than the others, depending on the context. This is true in every language, which creates complex challenges for Bible translators.

Different Translations of Psalm 79:8

For one Hebrew example, notice how a selection of translations will render the Hebrew word rakhum (mercy, compassion) in Psalm 79:8.

King James Version, KJV

O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies (Heb. rakhum) speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low.

New American Standard Bible, NASB

Do not hold us responsible for the guilty deeds of our forefathers; let your compassion (Heb. rakhum) come quickly to meet us, for we have become very low.

New International Version, NIV

Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy (Heb. rakhum) come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.

New Living Translation, NLT

Do not hold us guilty for the sins of our ancestors! Let your compassion (Heb. rakhum) quickly meet our needs, for we are on the brink of despair.

Contemporary English Version, CEV

Don't make us pay for the sins of our ancestors. Have pity (Heb. rakhum) and come quickly! We are completely helpless.

The Message, MSG

Don’t blame us for the sins of our parents. Hurry up and help (Heb. rakhum) us; we’re at the end of our rope.

The Living Bible, TLB

Oh, do not hold us guilty for our former sins! Let your tenderhearted mercies (Heb. rakhum) meet our needs, for we are brought low to the dust.

It’s clear we have more than one way to understand the Hebrew word rakhum: tender mercies, compassion, mercy, pity, help, and tenderhearted mercies. Seeing and respecting variations helps us humbly continue the work it takes to understand the words of others. We can see how multiple English renderings of the same idea give us a deeper understanding of rakhum, not to mention all the other words.

For another example, try reading multiple translations of 1 Samuel 13:1. Some will say that King Saul was a toddler when he became a ruler, while others put him in his 30s. Some say he reigned for two years, and others say he reigned for 30 years. When you hit a passage like that, you can be sure the original manuscript evidence we have is hard for even the best biblical scholars to decipher.

Different Translations of Galatians 3:24

Let’s check out a Greek example with a line from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia—Galatians 3:24. He uses the Greek word paidagogos (guardian/tutor), which is challenging to convey in English, and this passage has been a source of debate for centuries.

English Standard Version, ESV

So then, the law was our guardian (Grk. paidagogos) until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

King James Bible, KJV

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster (Grk. paidagogos) to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

New American Standard Bible 1995, NASB 1995

Therefore the law has become our tutor (Grk. paidagogos) to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.

New Living Translation, NLT

Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian (Grk. paidagogos) until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith.

Contemporary English Version, CEV

In fact, the law was to be our teacher (Grk. paidagogos) until Christ came. Then we could have faith and be acceptable to God.

New Revised Standard Version, NRSV

Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (Grk. paidagogos) until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous by faith.

The Message, MSG

The law was like those Greek tutors (Grk. paidagogos), with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

The Living Bible, TLB

Let me put it another way. The Jewish laws were our teacher and guide (Grk. paidagogos) until Christ came to give us right standing with God through our faith.

So is the law like a tutor, a teacher, a guardian, a disciplinarian, or a schoolmaster? We can conclude that the meaning of paidagogos must include more duties than any one English job title can hold, having something to do with instruction, assistance, and protection. This, then, teaches us both the purpose and limitations of the law.

With the help of all these fresh translations, revisions, and paraphrases, we can better understand the layers of meaning offered in Paul’s brilliant use of metaphor.


Wisdom in Reading Multiple Translations

No single English translation will ever represent the original biblical languages perfectly. Why? In part because the Bible’s ancient languages do not function like English. A word in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic might not have an exact English word to match. And each language constructs sentences differently, which means a variety of words or reconstructed sentences will always be necessary.

This is okay, even good. It keeps us in an inquisitive, learning mode alongside others who are also trying to understand the Bible. It helps us remember that our Bible is not an answer book or instruction manual—it is a collection of sacred Scriptures we are to meditate upon within community.

When translations differ, we can wonder: Did English culture change? Or is something so fascinating and complex happening in the original languages that it can’t be resolved with only one English word?

When we notice what appears to be a disagreement between translations, instead of getting argumentative, discouraged, or confused, we can get curious. We can receive an invitation to discover more. We can read the full context, meditate on the biblical text with other people in our community, and read it in as many translations as possible.