Lost in Translation – Bible Study Tips

NIV or KJV? ESV or The Message? There are a lot of Bibles out there! If you’re looking for a new Bible, what one should you choose? What’s the difference?

Let’s start at the beginning. The Bible wasn’t originally written in the English language. If you had never actually realized that, you’re not alone. Don’t feel bad. The Bible was originally written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Since none of these languages do not translate word for word into English, things literally get lost in translation. This is the primary reason there are so many different versions, or translations, of the Bible.

Take the word love for example. I can love my wife. I can love you. I can love Pepsi. I can love God. Do all of these loves communicate the same emotion? Of course not. I do not love Pepsi like I love God and I don’t love you as I love my wife. There are four words that are translated as “love” in the Bible: Eros, agape, phileo, and storge. Eros communicates romance, agape is an unconditional type of love, phileo speaks more to friendships or brotherly love, and storge looks more like affection for a family member. If you were reading in the original languages, you would be able to clearly understand what the author was saying whereas in english, you have one word. As a reader, you have to ask what kind of love is the author referring to?

The primary difference between translations is whether or not they’re trying to be a literal word-by-word translation or if they’re translating to communicate the concept or thoughts of the author. If you were to attempt to translate the Bible in a literal word-by-word fashion, what you end up with is very accurate and useful for study, but very difficult to read. In contrast, if you were to go for more of a thought-by-thought translation, you open yourself up to differences in modern interpretation and you might not read what the Bible author meant. Thought-by-thought translation is great for readability, but could be detrimental to studying what God actually intended.

Every English Bible has been written with a purpose in mind. The New International Version (NIV) has long sought to be the best mix of literal translation while maintaining readability. It’s incredibly popular. The Message wouldn’t be considered a Bible by a majority of people. Instead it’s considered a paraphrase. Its author has rewritten the scriptures thought-by-thought with a purpose of being very readable. It can be good for grasping concepts but definitely not used as a source for serious Bible study. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Its primary goal is to be the most literally accurate English translation. It can be tough to read, but, next to reading the original languages, it’s the best for study and knowing exactly what the author said.

The picture below shows popular translations of the Bible and where they rank on the scale of word-by-word translation (left) as opposed to thought-by-thought translation (right).


The decision of what Bible to use is up to you and what you’re reading for. I really enjoy reading The Message to get a fresh perspective of the scriptures but I would never use it to study what God wanted the Biblical author to say. My go-to translation is the English Standard Version (ESV) simply because it is more literal translation than thought-by-thought. It is tougher to read than the NIV but I find it to be worth it. My recommendation is to get a couple translations so you have one for readability or fresh perspective and one to use for Bible study.

Beyond the translation, there are a couple of other factors that go into choosing a Bible. A study Bible will include additional information about each book of the Bible and include notes on each verse of the bible. If you’re looking to add to your personal study, the first step is to get a study Bible. I find that my ESV Study Bible is always my first stop when beginning to study for a message or class. It’s packed full of information, outlines, and different scholarly opinions allowing me to take my study further and make up my own mind.

You may want to consider a parallel Bible that includes 2 translations. A popular one is the NIV and The Message parallel. It makes the Bible thicker and the print smaller, but with the convenience of one bound book with both versions sitting side by side.

If you aren’t sure what translation suits you, you might want to take a peak at Bible Gateway. This website is a free tool you can use to look up any scripture you want to and select what translation to read it in. The drop down menu at the top right will list all of the versions listed in this post and more so you can read samples and make a decision.

For tablet users, I enjoy using Olive Tree’s Bible App. You can download a number of versions of the Bible (some are free, most aren’t), highlight, and make notes that will sync across all your devices and even your computer.

Here’s the bottom line: Bible study is important. You want to make sure that what you’re reading is accurate yet you don’t want to get so literal that you struggle to read it and become discouraged. The key is to read it as often as possible so that you can know what God wants to tell you and let His presence transform your very being into something that resembles Christ Jesus. It’s not about academics. It’s about Jesus. The Gospel is the only thing that matters.

Leave a comment below if you have questions I didn’t address here and let me know what kind of translation you’re using and why!

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2 Comment(s)
  • susane andrzejewsku Posted May 21, 2015 7:54 pm

    Hey! I am sharing this with my FB, especially with family ( they all got Study Bibles from me for Christmas), Orion is in Korea, others are in TX,AZ,IL,also Mi across the state. Luv

    • Curtis Posted May 22, 2015 3:16 pm

      Awesome Susane – Glad you found this to be useful 🙂

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