Posted by: Tim | May 24, 2010

English Bible Translation Comparision in Sermon Preparation

The first thing I do when preparing a message is print the passage in eight or more English translations and read it through in each version. If it is a long passage, I might limit it to four or five translations. I find this to be a key part of my study as I notice new things in the text as I read it over and over. Often in the seventh or eighth reading I will catch something that my mind had just glossed over in the earlier readings. I am also able to catch the differences in translation choices and know where to focus additional study in the original language text.

Here are the English language translations I read with my comments for each:

1. English Standard Version (ESV) – I adopted the ESV as my main translation in 2003, switching over from the NIV. It is an ‘essentially literal’ translation, meaning it is mostly word-for-word from the original language, unless the original language would be a mess of a translation into English. I’m a big fan of the ESV – it sounds rich and melodic when you read it (a bit King James-ish without the thees and thous), it is backed up by top scholarship and the best ancient manuscripts, and I have been impressed with the publisher, Crossway. This is the translation I preach from, so I read it first, and I compare the others against it. You can read it and hear it read to you online here at the ESV Study Bible site.

2. New American Standard Bible (NASB) – The NASB is an excellent word for word translation. It is even more literal than the ESV, but there is a tradeoff in reduced readability. The NASB also has excellent scholarship behind it (Lockman Foundation == the Dallas dispensationalist guys, I think!). If I have a question about translation choices, this is usually the first version I check, along with the NET Bible.

3. New International Version (NIV) – I used the NIV for about twenty years of my life, but when I started preaching and studying the original languages I was disappointed to find that it didn’t have the precision I needed. It is no fun preaching and having to explain that the translation is poor, because it does not instill confidence in listeners! However, the NIV has been the most popular English translation of the last thirty or so years, and despite what I just wrote, it is still a good translation and you could do far worse. It follows a phrase for phrase ‘dynamic equivalency’ translation philosophy, meaning it is a blend of word for word and idea for idea. I need to read it to know what many people in the congregation are reading. The NIV is currently undergoing a major revision by leading scholars, and it will be interesting to see what is produced and how it is received (especially after the weak reception and eventual cancellation of the TNIV). Will it be the new Coke all over? Or will people using the current NIV switch over to it? We’ll have to wait for its 20011 release and see.

4. King James Version (KJV) – The KJV is the Bible that has shaped the English language, and until thirty or so years ago, it was what most people used. I grew up on the King James until my Christian school switched to the NIV (around gr 4 for me, I think). I read it to look for the old famous figures of speech that KJV readers love and resonate with (like Acts 1:8 ‘to the uttermost parts of the earth’ rather than ‘to the ends of the earth’ – ‘uttermost’ just sounds so much better!).  Often you find figures of speech that are part of the English language that seem to originate in the KJV, that are worth mentioning in a sermon. It is important to note the KJV’s ancient manuscripts (NKJV also) are not as good as modern translations, so occasionally there is a discrepancy between the KJV/NKJV and modern translations. It doesn’t come up that often, but it is worth noting.

5. New Living Translation (NLT) – The NLT is a thought for thought translation, and is not precise when compared with the original language. However it has good scholarship behind it and I often find it helpful as a commentary when a phrase from a word-for-word translation is hard to understand. It often gives a fresh look at the text.

6. NET Bible (NET) – The NET Bible is a dynamic equivalence translation, like the NIV, but I like it a lot better. It contains a gold mine 0f translators notes. If ever there is a question of the best translation choice, the NET will have a comment on it in the notes, which is very helpful. Like the NASB it has great scholarship – I think from the next generation Dallas/dispensationalist guys. I don’t think it will ever catch on broadly, but I think every pastor should use it for study! It is available online at (a great website!).

7. Holman Christan Standard Bible (HCSB) – HCSB is also a dynamic equivalence translation but it seems a bit more word for word than the NIV. Frankly, I don’t find it adds much to the world of English Bibles, since it isn’t as good as the NET Bible, and the NIV is already doing the job of the main dynamic equivalence translation. Also, the HCSB seems to use unusual synonyms just for the sake of being different. It doesn’t seem to be less accurate, just strange to the ear. I have heard it called the Southern Baptist Bible, since Holman is their publishing arm.

8. New King James Version (NKJV) – The NKJV is quite popular, as it sounds like the KJV without the thees and thous. It has the same scholarship problem as the KJV, though overall this is not a big deal. I would go with ESV or NASB before NKJV.

9. Revised Standard Version (RSV) – The RSV and ESV are very similar, since the ESV is an evangelical update of the RSV (about 8% different, I seem to recall). I don’t always read the RSV in my prep, but sometimes do just to read the text again.

10. Young’s & Darby’s – I used to read the old Young’s and Darby’s translation because they are very literal, but I have not used them for some time.

That’s about it for now. I should note how blessed we are to have so many good English translations. Even the weaker ones are still a tremendous blessing!

Your comments, as always are welcome!


  1. Nice Post 🙂

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