I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I read Scripture together. Our cute little dating selves were taking turns reading through Romans (as you do), and when I was finished with my paragraph, my gorgeous had a funny look on his face.

“What translation are you reading?”

I was confused by his question. I was a fairly new believer, so all I knew was that mine said “The Holy Bible” on the front, just like everyone else’s, so why the face?

That’s when he pointed to the spine and, sure enough, I had me a New King James, which was a bit different from his Life Application Study Bible. What I hadn’t realized was that there was more than just one type of translation and picking which type to read is an important (and sometimes polarizing) choice, especially when it comes to getting a Bible for our kids.Picking which type of Bible to read is an important (and sometimes polarizing) choice, especially when it comes to getting a Bible for our kids. #discipleship #bibletranslations #mamabear Click To Tweet

That’s why we here at Mama Bear thought it would be helpful to evaluate the three types of translations (and one that isn’t), compare how they translate biblical passages, and offer a few tips to help you choose which one will best suit your study style. That way, you and your children can confidently pick out a Bible (or three!) and dive into God’s Word.

Type 1: Word-for-Word (Formal Equivalence): ESV, NAS, KJV, NKJV, and RSV

Formal equivalence is often called the “literal translation,” and for good reason. The translation committee of these Bibles strove to find an English equivalent for li-ter-all-y every Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek word in the Old and New Testament documents. If a clarifying word is needed, it’s often put in italics.

Literal transitions also keep the original word order whenever possible, which means that our reading is closest to that of the original audience. Which is pretty amazing, if you ask me!

As great as this sounds, there are a few cons to this type of translation. For one, formal translations suffer from a bit of false advertisement: they’re not truly literal. Translators have adjusted both words 1Early King James uses words like “wimple” and “crisping pins” when talking about head-coverings and purses, neither of which were used by the original Hebrew or Greek writers. and word order to make it more understandable to those who aren’t fluent in ancient Hebrew  because it would sound like complete gibberish if they didn’t! 2To understand why we only need to read the words of the translator of the Latin Vulgate, Jerome: “Translation…is a difficult, almost impossible, art to master. Languages vary in their order of words, their metaphors, and their native idioms. The translator is thus faced with a choice between a literal, word-for-word rendering (which is certain to sound absurd and so be a travesty of the original) and something very much freer (in which case he is liable to be accused of being unfaithful.).”

Just read this literal translation of Matthew to see for yourself…

“Of the but Jesus Christ the birth thus was, Being betrothed the mother of him, Mary, to Joseph, before of to come together them she was found in belly having from Spirit Holy” (Matthew 1:18)

Now imagine trying to read the entire Bible like that! No, thanks!

Secondly, literal transitions often use the same old-fashioned phrasing common to 14th century England, but not so much in modern America. Sure, this style makes the heart of any Shakespeare fan flutter, but it’ll confuse the jeepers out of the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong, if you love all those “thees” and “thous,” by all means, pick up a KJV. But if you dozed off during your high school English reading of Hamlet, you may want to pick a translation in the functional or optimal category instead.

Third, some have a tendency to idolize literal translations. Addressing this issue will require its own blog post. For now, please know that only the original autographs written by the apostles were divinely inspired, not one particular translation.

Type 2: Thought-for-Thought (Functional Equivalence): NIrV, CEV, NLT 1996

While formal equivalence is focused on getting every single word to readers today, functional equivalence is all about getting the original meaning of Scripture to impact the reader in the same way as it would have the original audience.

This means the translation committee will use most of the same words as the earliest documents. But if anything starts sounding like something you’d hear from Yoda, their team of scholars will paraphrase the passage to make it understandable to modern audiences, though the amount of paraphrasing will vary.

The pros of this style are obvious. For one, functional translations are accessible to pretty much everyone. No English Lit degree required. This also means there won’t be any outdated words causing snickers from the kids because a donkey is just called a donkey (and not another word for your backside!).

The cons, however, are worth noting. For one, functional translations do not italicize the clarifying words added to help you better understand the passage. Secondly, you end up losing the impact of the original reading the further you drift from a literal translation. Stray too far and you get someone’s impression of Scripture, instead of Scripture itself (otherwise known as paraphrase).

Third, functional translations use more inclusive language (like saying “brothers and sisters”) when the passage’s meaning is directed at all people rather than just specifically men. Within context, this isn’t a big deal, but some fans of the literal translation style see this as adding to Scripture and thus aren’t fans of this practice.

Type 3: Optimal Equivalence: NIV 1973, CSB, NET

Balancing the middle ground of the translation spectrum are Optimal Equivalence Translations. These translations use word-for-word translation but will switch to thought-for-thought when the meaning isn’t clear. You won’t find confusing old-English words or phrases in these Bibles; instead, optimals blend the best of formal and functional translations for a reading that’s both robust and accessible.

This doesn’t mean that optimals are perfect for every person. Optimals, like their functional counterparts, don’t italicize their clarifying words and have used inclusive language, which can really bother the fans of more literal translations. Optimals can also be more challenging to read for those drawn to functional translations.

What about paraphrases?

One style of Bible that’s growing in popularity is the paraphrase. Paraphrases like “The Message” or “The Living Bible” (not to be confused with The New Living Translation) do not qualify as translations because they are not directly translated from original documents by a scholarly committee. Instead, these are retellings of Scripture by one individual using the modern phrasing common to us today.

These Bibles read like an average book and sound like you and your friend discussing your favorite passages. As such, they are really popular with people who are new to the faith or those who are not native English speakers.

Despite their accessibility, the problem with paraphrases is that they are one person’s impression of Scripture. This means that you get the author’s reflection of what the text meant to them or how they think Scripture will be best understood by youngins today. Paraphrases also lack scholarly accountability when it comes to accurately relaying the meaning of the original text.

You can see this best by comparing the different translations of Romans 12:2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. ESV (Formal)

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. NLT (Functional)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is- his good, pleasing, and perfect will. NIV (Optimal)

Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. The Message (Paraphrase)

Notice the difference? Paraphrases often sound more like a commentary on Scripture rather than Scripture itself, which is why we here at Mama Bear do not endorse the reading of paraphrases for spiritual discipleship. Instead, we encourage believers to dive into the Word of God through formal, functional, or optimal translations.

So…..Which translation should you pick?!

That depends on you and your Bible study goals. We at Mama Bear consult multiple translations and encourage you do to the same, but for sake of ease when starting out….

If you attend Shakespeare in the Park and love doing in-depth word studies, then a formal translation Bible might be the one for you! #bibletranslations #mamabearapologetics Click To Tweet

If your shopping lists are written in calligraphy and are working through a Read the Bible in a Year Plan, then a functional journaling Bible will take your study time to the next level. 

If, on the other hand, you nerd out in the concordance section of your local Christian bookstore but have the artistic ability of an under-watered houseplant (can we be friends?!), then an optimal translation study Bible will be your best friend.

When it comes to kids, pick a Bible together! Take their reading and comprehension levels in mind, and don’t be afraid to adjust to a more accessible (functional) translation when needed. Choose one that suits their personality: journaling for the meditative soul, study for the child who loves details, or an Apologetics Bible for the kid with all the questions. 

Above all, read your Bible! Let your children see you read your Bible and read with them! Compare the phrasing in their reader friendly version with your translation to help them become better readers and know God better. Which translation you pick is unique to you, but what we all need is God’s Word. Live in it!

For even more on Bible translations, check out our recent podcast here.

P.S. A note about The Passion Translation

Where does The Passion Translation fit in? We don’t recommend it as a study Bible for two reasons: 1) it was done by one person, not a team of people, and 2) it adds concepts that aren’t in the oldest manuscripts, and not for the sake of better understanding but to evoke an emotional response or to tweak the meaning. The author claims he “received downloads” from God. You can a video of him explaining the process here.

For example, see John 15:2, which The Passion Translation interprets differently than the early manuscripts as well as every other modern English translation. It changes the theology of John 15:2 for a more palatable message.

The Passion: “He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches and pruning every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest.” (emphasis added)

NIV: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (emphasis added)

NLT: “He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” (emphasis added)

KJV: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” (emphasis added)

Bottom line: we do not recommend The Passion Translation.

Recommended Resources

How We Got the Bible by Timothy Paul Jones

40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer

Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall & J. Hays

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