Why are there so many versions of the Bible in English?
There are over 100 Bible translations available in English today! What makes each version different and unique?
This article gives you descriptions to 10 popular versions and translations to introduce you to the unique characteristics of each. These selections represent the two primary approaches to translation ("formal equivalent" and "functional equivalent"), as well as both older and more recent translations. Most modern translations benefit from a high level of scholarship and accuracy, because as time goes on, we are learning more from research and new findings. This short list is shown in alphabetical order; for the more complete curated list of English translations that's kept updated, see "A Brief Description of Popular Bible Translations" at American Bible Society Resources (from which this article is adapted).
Christian Standard Bible (CSB, HCSB)
This is a 2017 update of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004), an original translation from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Its scholars, most of whom are from conservative and evangelical church traditions, have aimed at a balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation—as close to the original wording as possible while emphasizing clarity for modern English readers. It uses a seventh-grade reading level.
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
The CEV is a meaning-based (or functional equivalent) translation done in a contemporary style using common language. It was designed to be understood when read and heard out loud, not just when it is read silently. It is one of the better Bibles for children and youth, as well as for new Bible readers who are not familiar with traditional Bible and church words. It was first published in 1995 and revised in 2006.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The ESV was published in 2001 (revised in 2007 and 2011) and is another revision of the Revised Standard Version (1971 edition) that follows a formal equivalence approach. It is quickly growing in popularity, particularly among conservative Protestants.
Good News Translation (GNT)
The GNT (also known as Today's English Version or Good News Bible) was one of the first meaning-based (or functional equivalent) translations of the Bible into English. It was originally published in 1976 and was revised in 1992. The GNT presents the message of the Bible in a level of English that is common to most of the English-speaking world. The GNT is still used widely in youth Bible study groups and in less formal worship services. Editions are also available for Roman Catholic readers.
King James Version (KJV)
The KJV (also known as the Authorized Version) is a word-for-word translation (or formal equivalent) originally published in 1611 at the request of King James I of England. It has been frequently reprinted and its spelling updated, and most copies today are slightly adapted from a 1769 edition. The translators mostly aimed at making a clear and accurate translation from the original languages. So many people have used the KJV over the centuries that it has become the single most important book in shaping the modern English language. Many of the best and most ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of Bible books have been discovered since 1850, so the KJV could not make use of them. In many cases, it is helpful to read and study the KJV alongside another more recent translation. The KJV is still the most widely owned and used English translation in the United States.
The Message (MSG)
The Message is a popular paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson, who used the original Greek and Hebrew texts and tried to bring their “feel”—their tone, rhythm, and idiom—directly into contemporary English. It is presented as a Bible more for personal reading than for study or public reading. The Message is often useful to read side by side with other, more word-for-word translations. Peterson’s choice of words can help new readers unlock the sense of the text and can help seasoned Bible readers find fresh energy in passages that have become too familiar.
New American Bible (NAB, NABRE)
The NAB was originally published in 1970 as a meaning-based translation intended primarily for Roman Catholic readers. The New Testament was revised in 1986, shifting more toward a word-for-word or formal translation. The full Bible with a newly revised translation of the Old Testament and extensive notes was released in 2011 as the New American Bible, Revised Edition. The NABRE is useful for individual study. The older NAB is approved for public worship for American Catholics.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The NASB, first published in the 1960s, is an excellent example of a formal translation of the Bible in English. It is probably the most “word-for-word” type translation available today. Because of this, the NASB is a good version to use in Bible study where one is concerned with the form of the original Hebrew and Greek. The most recent edition of the NASB was published in 1995.
New International Version (NIV)
The NIV was a completely new translation, but it was strongly influenced by the tradition of the King James Version The full Bible was published in 1978. It was revised in 1984 and again in 2011. A blend of form-based and meaning-based translation types, the NIV is one of the most popular English Bibles in use today. It is equally useful for individual study and public worship, especially among more traditional and conservative denominations.
New Living Translation (NLT)
The NLT is a meaning-based revision of the Living Bible (LB). The Living Bible is a popular 1971 paraphrase of the 1901 American Standard Version. (A paraphrase is different from a translation. For a paraphrase, authors take an English text and put it into their own words, that is, the way they would say it themselves. A paraphrase does not begin with the Hebrew and Greek texts as a translation does.) The New Living Translation involved comparing the LB to the original-language texts, and then making changes so that the NLT is now a true translation. The NLT is a good translation to use with youth and adults who have difficulty with the traditional language of a formal equivalent translation.
P.S. One scholar, Steven J. DeRose, has itemized nearly 400 English Bible Versions, Translations, and Paraphrases, as of 2009. For a more detailed explanation for why there are so many translations, see the article, "What are the different English Bible versions?" (GotQuestions.org).