Thinking Out Loud

November 15, 2013

Bible Translation Families

Bible Translations

Although we tend to classify Bible translations as fitting into one of two categories — formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence — or a third category which is a combination of the other two; today, I’d like to propose a different way of understanding what is currently on the market in terms of clusters.


These are versions that read the same as other products people would be reading (magazines, newspapers, blogs) and are currently gaining traction.

  • New Living Translation (NLT) — Though Tyndale Publishing House lacks Zondervan’s expertise when it comes to marketing, and tends to get mired in an obsession for One Year Bible editions which scramble the text order, the translation itself continues to catch on with readers.
  • Common English Bible (CEB) — A recent attempt to offer something in modern language that specifically targets the mainline Protestant market.
  • New Century Version (NCV) — Its simplified reading level allows you to read faster, and pick up macro-themes. Though it’s also the International Children’s Bible, it reads and was written for adults.

Denominational Niche Versions

Some may object that the first one in this list sees broader usage, but for the most part, these editions are associated with the denomination named.

  • English Standard Version (ESV) — Reformed, Calvinist
  • New American Bible (NAB) — Roman Catholic
  • Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) — Baptist
  • New King James Version (NKJV) — Charismatic, Pentecostal, Conservative Evangelical


Some versions are now simply famous for being famous. The translations have become so familiar to users and are used so widely in various types of churches that this widespread use eclipses any unique features.

  • New International Version (NIV) — You could argue that without Zondervan’s aggressive push to see “a Bible for every age and every stage,” there wouldn’t have been the push-back of the King James Only movement. In 2013 (and as you’ll see again in 2014), HarperCollins Christian Publishing continues to offer creative ways to get people engaged in the scriptures. For the record, Zondervan — or parent HarperCollins, or Rupert Murdoch — doesn’t own the NIV, but licenses use of it from Biblica aka the International Bible Society.
  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) — Despite the above, the Mainline Protestant market continues to perceive the NIV as an Evangelical product, and therefore gravitates to New Revised. The translation philosophies are actually very similar. Also available in a Catholic edition that is widely used.
  • King James Version (KJV) — It’s been 402 years; enough already!

Unique Alternatives

Some versions offer a creative approach that simply sets them apart, including the first two here, which could equally land in the Contemporary cluster above.

  • The Voice — Puts the Bible in a dramatic script format, and adds some additional sentences to clarify the story.
  • The Message — A translation (please don’t say ‘paraphrase,’ it’s neither accurate nor applicable) that uses conversational English and (in the original editions) strips out verse numbers.
  • The Amplified Bible — A Bible that saves you running to a Hebrew or Greek dictionary by offering additional shades of meaning for key words.
  • The Expanded Bible — A more recent version that uses a similar approach to the Amplified.
  • New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) — A Roman Catholic Bible which has an English edition that was translated directly from its French counterpart.
  • New International Reader’s Version (NIrV) — An NIV broken up into smaller sentences with a limited vocabulary. Marketed mostly to children, an adult edition is available for people for whom English is a second language. Quite different from the NCV which is also marketed for kids.
  • The Living Bible — The forerunner of the NLT, this was officially superseded by it; a small but loyal following keeps it in print. This one is a paraphrase, in this case of the RSV which preceded the NRSV.
  • J. B. Phillips — As radical as The Message when first released, unfortunately, this was only a New Testament. Still frequently quoted.
  • Jewish New Testament — Although a complete edition of both the Jewish Old Testament and New Testaments is available, I mention the NT here because seeing the Hebrew names and terminology makes for interesting (and most contextual) reading.


  • New American Standard Bible (NASB) — Although once forecast to be for the North American English market what the NIV became, the NASB, through its more rigorous following of the formal correspondence translation method, is a more difficult read. It’s a reliable workhorse of a translation, often found in Bible Colleges and Seminaries, but not so frequently quoted in books or sermons anymore.  If you write your own Bible translation, this is the one they’ll compare with you with, verse-for-verse.

Lost in Translation

A few editions that filled a void in the market at one time, are still available, but not so often talked about.

  • Good News Translation (GNT) also known as Today’s English Version (TEV) — A production of the American Bible Society that served mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Friday night youth groups well.
  • Contemporary English Version (CEV) — The Bible Society’s attempt to replicate its success with the Good News Bible a generation later. It was not hugely popular at the time, but it is surprising how often it will turn up quoted by pastors and authors, even if most of us don’t own a copy.
  • God’s Word (GW) — A project begun as an attempt to complete the Beck translation, which served as a style guide. Many of the earliest contributors were Lutheran, but the Bible is seen as interdenominational Evangelical.

It’s important to remember that phrases like “Key Study Bible” and “Life Application Bible” refer to specific editions, some of which are offered across several translation platforms.

I recommend owning at least one Bible in each of the first four clusters. If you’re buying a Bible for someone as a gift, remember that your personal favorite may not be the best Bible for them.  You can preview all the translations named here (except the one from Messianic Jewish Publications) at

Comments from KJV-only advocates will be cast into the sea of forgetfulness and remembered no more.


  1. While I don’t necessarily object to the ESV in the Denominational Niche category, I honestly think it would better fit in the Popular category. Certainly a good case for either, but from my vantage point (churches in the US), I see it as a Popular choice. The Mennonite-Brethren church we’re a part of (until we move away) moved to the ESV recently. I’ve always associated the ESV with Reformed, but I don’t think many readers and non-denomination churches really understand the significance there. Just my opinion on that.

    Comment by Eddie Gonzalez — November 15, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    • I guess it depends which part of the country you’re in. One of the first adopters of the ESV that I knew personally was Pentecostal. Generally though, it’s been slow to catch on where I live.

      Stylistically, I do find some of it a bit awkward. The signature ESV is the ESV Study Bible. The notes are supposed to be unbiased, but I remember noting a more reformed take, I believe, in the Olivet Discourse in John’s gospel.

      Anyway, I knew there would be issues if I put it in the denominational cluster, and that’s why I covered that in the intro.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 15, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

  2. NET?

    Comment by Daniel Sinclair — November 16, 2013 @ 1:56 am

    • I omitted reference to ISV and NET because they are not what’s termed “distributed to trade,” in other words, sold through retail channels, though a consumer who wanted NET could always get one through Christian Book Distributors.

      My other challenge with NET is that I’ve had no exposure to it, don’t know anyone who has, and have never read a single verse in it; though I see it’s listed at

      There’s a sample chapter at:!bible/Matthew+1

      Even though this list was to be an alternative to the ‘formal correspondence’ versus ‘dynamic equivalence’ type of list, I guess I’d still want to know their translation philosophy and also who was behind the creating of the translation.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 16, 2013 @ 9:07 am

  3. I have a bible shelf that looks a lot like the photo that heads this piece. I like to compare and gain insights but I have begun to mistrust some of the newer translations. My NKJV is my standby and the one I know best of all.

    Comment by yokedwithhim — November 16, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    • I’ve always thought of ‘mistrust’ in terms of Bibles that were created by a publishing company as opposed to those which sprang from a non-profit.

      *Lockman Foundation = NASB, Amplified
      *International Bible Society = NIV
      *Ecclessia Bible Society = The Voice
      *American Bible Society = Good News, CEV
      *the NCV began as a specialized reading Bible for the deaf community

      On the other hand the HCSB originated with Broadman (Lifeway), the NKJV with Thomas Nelson, and my beloved NLT with Tyndale Publishing House.

      There were good people involved with the latter group, and it doesn’t take away from the reliability of the translation; that just happens to be my personal bias; where I’m coming from. And there are some in the former group, I’m not too fond of.

      The picture was found online!

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 16, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  4. This is a good overview. I wrote a similar blog post in which I discussed each of the above translations and more, categorizing translations as literal, dynamic, free and paraphrases.

    Comment by Bob Rogers — November 16, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

    • I think these articles are helpful to people who get bewildered by the choices available; especially as Christmas approaches. We would disagree as to The Message, but Peterson did work from original languages, I know some Wycliffe Bible Translators people who affirm it as a translation, albeit one that sometimes seem like the old televisions where you could turn up the color saturation.

      Did you know the KJV lapses into paraphrase? There are several instances but Romans 6:1-2 is the best example: Shall we keep on sinning that grace may increase? God forbid!” God’s name isn’t used in the original; Paul would never toss it out as a Jew nor would he as a Christian. It’s a British colloquialism (so is ‘God save the King’) that no other translation uses.

      My understanding is that the new NIV only goes gender-neutral where the use of anthropos (referring to mankind in general) affords the opportunity. But translators wrestle with phrases like “Son of man.” I wouldn’t want their job; it’s got to be somewhat thankless, with every move causing people to turn and scowl (oh wait, that’s our church sound guy; but the role is equally fraught with critics.)

      BTW, like you, my wife is a Holman Christian Standard Bible reader. And Psalm 23 is the only Bible passage I have memorized in multiple translations.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 16, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

      • Thanks. Yes, I know that Peterson used the original languages, but I would still classify it as a paraphrase because it is not translating the words, but is rewording it in different phrases, and that’s my understanding of the meaning of the word “paraphrase.”
        I’ve studied the new NIV quite a bit, including a word-for-word study through Romans, and I found that it goes beyond gender-neutral use of “people” for “mankind,” etc. For example, there is a passage in Romans 16:14 where the Greek text lists four male names, followed by the phrase, “and the brothers who are with them,” and the 2011 NIV then says, “brothers and sisters.” Having said that, I will also admit that the 1984 used masculine language when it was unnecessary.

        Comment by Bob Rogers — November 19, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    • The system isn’t allowing me to respond to your last comment, so I’ll place it here. This morning I was reading a verse in The Message, and I paused and said to myself, ‘Where did he get that from?’ The closest thing at hand was a Message/NIV Parallel Bible, so I turned to the same chapter, and The Message rendering of what was on that page was twice as long. So I’ll grant you that there is something going on here that goes beyond translation, but I’m not sure if we have a proper word for it.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 19, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

      • LOL. I can agree with that way of putting it. Once again, thanks for your blog post on this subject. People really get confused about Bible translations, and its so helpful to give an overview of the differences.

        Comment by Bob Rogers — November 19, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

  5. Do you have any thoughts on the current NIV? My church is in discussions now about moving away from the version due to certain decisions they’ve made (such as gender sensitivity).

    Also, I see how The Message may not exactly be a “paraphrase”. But I’m not sure if I can call it a “translation” either.

    Comment by Brian Yu — November 17, 2013 @ 12:08 am

    • Without looking anything up, the example verse I always use is “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” I have no issues with this being rendered as “If anyone would come after me, let them (or let that person) deny themselves (or deny self), take up their cross, and follow me.” That is clearly Jesus’ intention, and our language today cries out for that change. But other verses will vary with context. Again, if it’s anthropos in the Greek, the change is not only permissible, but beneficial and more accurate.

      A good book to read on the angst that translators deal with is How To Choose A Translation for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss, Jr. Mark worked on the TNIV and in a few places they reverted back to older constructions because the poetic form itself carried a weight of meaning.

      It’s a tough issue.

      The Message was translated direct from the original languages. The Street Bible, Word on the Street, The Aussie Bible, The Kiwi Bible, etc., were not. They are paraphrases. The Message is clearly not that. But it stretches the limits of dynamic equivalence.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — November 17, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

      • Thanks for your thoughts. Fee and Strauss’ book sounds like a good read on this particular topic.

        Comment by Brian Yu — November 17, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

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