In this post I’m going to be looking at the four most popular and modern translations of the Bible. They are the English Standard Version (ESV), the New International Version (NIV), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the New Living Translation (NLT).
The reason I will only be looking at these four is becausethey are the ones that many consider to be the big four. They are the most recent and most popular versions for people looking for a Bible translated into modern English.
There are many other translations I could have included in this post. The King James Version (KJV) comes to mind, however it is not a recent translation (neither is the New King James Version (NKJV)).
There is also the Message and the New English Translation (NET). However the former is technically a paraphrase and the latter is optimized for online use and is somewhat difficult to find in hard copy form.
Much of what I have to say in this post comes from Which Bible Translation Should I Use? by Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau, of whom the latter was a professor of mine in undergrad. It is a collection of essays written in defense of each of the versions I will be discussing. If you read this post and want to dig a little deeper I highly recommend this book.
For each version I will be covering two areas of translation consideration: translation philosophy (dynamic vs. formal equivalence) and to what degree the translators made use of gender inclusive language.
A version of the Bible’s translation philosophy can be placed on a spectrum. On one end you have what is called formal equivalence. This is where the translators sought to keep the translation as close to the original as possible. However it is important to note that when moving from the Greek language of the New Testament to modern English it is difficult to translate word for word and it is impossible to follow the word order of the original language and still make sense in the target language.
Greek has the luxury, because of the nature of its grammar, to be able to choose the order of the words in any given sentence. Whereas in English prose the order is subject-verb-object, in Greek the verb or the object can be placed at the beginning of the sentence if the author or speaker wants to place the emphases on that word.
On the other end of the translation spectrum is dynamic equivalence. There are many names for this including thought for though or sense for sense. In dynamic equivalence the translators seek to translate the thought behind the original author’s writing. This means that where the author was using a metaphor or phrase foreign to modern-day English speakers the translators will translate it into something that makes sense to us.
Another item in modern translation methods that is important to note is the use of gender inclusive language. As anyone who has noted the changes in the English language (in print as well as in speech) throughout the last couple of centuries can see, we now use different terms for both men and women instead of the masculine man (which at one time meant something like “people” or “humankind” besides simply an individual) and he (which formerly meant something to the effect of “whoever” or the gender inclusive “they”).
The translation teams on each version took a different approach. As someone who has been studying New Testament Greek I can say that every version makes use of gender inclusive language where it was evident that the original authors had in mind both men and women or boys and girls. However it is a question of to what degree did they make their versions gender inclusive.
On the one end the HCSB and the ESV only use gender inclusive language when it makes sense linguistically. On the other end the NIV and the NLT use gender inclusive language more frequently for perhaps they think that the culture of the original authors influenced them towards a worldview and writing style that was gender bias.
In my treatment on the versions below I will begin with the translations that were more dynamic in their translation philosophy and move to the translations that were more literal.
The New Living Translation traces its roots back to the King James Version via the English Revised Version (ERV), the American Standard Version (ASV), and the Living Bible (LB). This last version is probably the most sense for sense translation mentioned so far. It is usually considered a paraphrase instead of a proper translation of the Bible from the original languages.
The NLT is the most thought for thought translation of the four that I will be looking at. The reason for this was so that modern readers would have an easier time both reading and understanding what they were reading. This version also avoids using theologically loaded terms that are now foreign to most who have not grown up with a rich theological education like many Americans of the past. Sadly, in my experience, this is true not only of those outside the Church but those inside as well.
The New Living Translation also seeks to make the language of the Bible as gender neutral as possible. However, as the translators note in the preface, the NLT still retains the name Father for God and the masculine pronouns when used in reference to God the Father.
The NIV was perhaps the most popular translation for the last couple of decades of the 20th century. Then in order to keep up with the changing tides of the English language the translation committee decided to come out with an updated version, Today’s New International Version (TNIV). Essentially they made the language more gender inclusive. Needless to say that many who were devoted readers of the NIV did not appreciate the new translation philosophy. This prompted the translation committee to come out with another updated version where the “T” was dropped (returning the acronym to NIV) and the gender inclusive language was pared down a bit.
This version falls somewhere in the middle of the translation scale. It seeks to be literal as well as readable and understandable, hence its history of popularity. The people in the pews enjoyed it because they could understand it and seminary trained pastors enjoyed it because it adhered fairly close to the original languages.
Like the NIV before it the HCSB is an independent translation. Although the KJV has forever left its mark on the English Bible as well as the English language some translators have sought to translate the Bible directly from the original languages without using a version as a basis or template for their translation.
The HCSB is a more literal translation. However, instead of calling its translation philosophy formal equivalence it prefers the phrase optimal equivalence. This is perhaps because it is not truly a literal translation (or as literal as others) but it seeks to be as literal as possible. It is, although, quick to smooth out verses and passages that may prove difficult to understand in English.
So on the scale it really lies somewhere between a position of formal equivalence and a position that mediates between formal and dynamic equivalence.
There are many interesting features that are included in the HCSB translation. Instead of using “Christ” it uses “Messiah” where the speaker’s audience is Jewish in the narratives of the gospels. “Yahweh” is often used instead of “Lord” in the Old Testament reflecting the original language of the OT. Although it is important to note that: (1) when the OT was read aloud in synagogues in the original Hebrew they did not say “Yahweh” but the Hebrew term for “Lord” out of reverence and for fear of taking the Lord’s name in vain and (2) the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use in Jesus’ day translated “Yahweh” as the Greek term for “lord.”
Most modern translations will have the term “bondservant” where the Greek simply reads “slave.” The HCSB retains the word “slave.” I actually like this feature, for although slavery was different in the first century, ancient Mediterranean world than it was in 17th, 18th, and 19th century America, translating the term as “bondservant” dulls the force of the Greek when Paul addresses himself to the churches he is writing to as “a slave of God” (cf. Philippians 1:1).
The ESV is the most literal of the four translations that I am touching on in this post. However it is not as literal as others (e.g., New American Standard Bible).
In fact, the English Standard Version is essentially an update of the Revised Standard Version (RSV). The publishing company Crossway was able to buy the rights to use the RSV as a bases for an updated translation.
However, the translators who worked on the ESV did not stop with updating the English of the RSV. Many know that the RSV has a more liberal bent in some of its passages. So when the translators took on the task of updating it they also cleaned up the more liberal passages and brought them inline with Evangelical views. For instance, the RSV in Isaiah 7:14 has “young woman” but the ESV reads “virgin.” While the Hebrew can be taken either way, depending on the context, Matthew quotes this as a prophecy in reference to Mary and Jesus in Matthew 1:23.
As far as gender inclusive language is concerned the ESV only uses it when the original author or speaker clearly had both men and women (or boys and girls) in mind. On the other hand the NLT and the NIV make more liberal use of gender inclusive language and will use it when they think that the speaker or author was thinking in general terms.
It should be noted that because of the nature of the translation the ESV is the favorite among evangelical Bible college and seminary students. This is because it has a conservative bent and it is also the closest to the original languages, a fact that is greatly appreciated after one has spent time studying Biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek.
Click here to read why the ESV is my go to Bible.
All four version are very good translations. As to which one you should use it really amounts to your tastes. Does it bother you one way or the other whether the pronouns are more masculine heavy? Do you want them to better reflect the original or do you want them to reflect the times we live in today? Everyone has their opinion on this and even what it means to “better reflect the original.”
Keeping in mind the translation philosophies while using all four versions will help you better understand the passage you are trying to interpret.
Let me know what you think about my thoughts on these four popular versions of the Bible in the comments below.