FBC Bosque Farms - Understanding Bible Versions

The KeyUnderstanding Bible Versions


Which version of the Bible is the best? Which versions of the Bible should be avoided? Which version of the Bible will help me grow spiritually? These are important questions and unfortunately there is a lot of misinformation to confuse you. Consider this as your handy guide to understanding the issues in choosing a Bible version.

There are three translation theories which determine the characteristics of the English Bible you choose to use. The English version you choose will have different characteristics depending on which translation method was used to create it.

Remember, Scripture was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, with a few small portions in Aramaic. In order for us to have the Scripture in English, someone (or some persons) must translate Scripture from the original languages into English.

The three translation methods are as follows:

1. Literal - virtually word-for-word

2. Dynamic Equivalent- intended to convey the thought rather than the literal word

3. Free - intended to re-create the emotional impact of the original text

The Literal method attempts to make a word-for-word translation. The Dynamic Equivalent attempts to convey the thought rather than the literal word. The Free is intended to re-create the emotional impact of the original text. Let's look at an example. We'll look at 1 Thessalonians 4.3-6 and see how it would be translated under each method.


The literal translation method endeavors to communicate a literal, word-for-word translation from the original text, even at the expense of clarity of thought, if that is necessary. The following is a literal (and wooden) word-for-word translation of this verse.

1 Th 4:3-6

3 For~this is the will (the) of God, the sanctification of you, for you~to abstain from (the) fornication,

4 to know each one of you (the) his own vessel how to control in sanctification and honor,

5 not in passion of lust even as also the gentiles (the) not knowing (the) God.

There are some things you need to understand about the Greek language in order to understand the limitations of a word-for-word translation.
First, Greek is a synthetic language rather than an analytical language like English. In English, the function of a word depends on its order in the sentence. A typical word order of an English sentence is Noun + Verb + Direct Object.

In Greek, the function of a word depends on the ending placed on the word. Thus, a verb could actually be the last word in a sentence.

Another thing you need to understand is that Greek doesn't have an indefinite article. In English, we have a definite article ("the") and an indefinite article ("a or an"). Greek doesn't have an indefinite article. The proper use and translation of the definite article in Greek is very complicated. In order to illustrate the difficulty, in the translation above every use of the definite article "the" in the Greek has been translated. I have placed in parentheses the uses which most translators believe should not be translated into English because it confuses the reader or maybe even suggests an improper meaning. I have added in italics the definite article "the" in some places where it doesn't exist in the Greek but where it needs to be added in order to read smoothly and make sense. I have also added two other words in italics which don't exist in the Greek but which are necessary for an understandable English translation: "for" and "how."

Note also the tilde (~) between the first two words of the verse. The first word in that verse in Greek is actually "this" and not "for". The word translated "for" is a post-positive in Greek and never is the first word in a Greek sentence but must be placed first in the sentence when translated into English in order for it to make sense.

It would be a fairly unpleasant experience to have to read the entire New Testament in such a wooden, literal translation.

Fortunately, when translators use the literal method, they still smooth it out so it is easier to read. Consider these verses in the King James Version, which is a literal translation.

King James Version

3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:

4 That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour;

5 Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:

This is certainly a lot easier translation than the wooden, literal translation above. It even has some elegance about it. However, because our English language has changed a lot since the King James Version was translated, there are some words here that most people wouldn't understand, for example, "sanctification" and "concupiscence".

Consider these same verses in the New American Standard version, which is also a literal translation.

New American Standard

3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality;

4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor,

5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;

This is even easier to read. But it still contains words that are a literally correct translation from the Greek, like "vessel" in verse 4, but which can be confusing to a modern American reader. Notice that "concupiscence" has been dropped for a more understandable rendering of the word as "lustful passion."


The Dynamic Equivalent method of Bible translation endeavors to communicate reliable thought forms, deviating from the literal language if necessary in order to be faithful to the thought intended by the original author.

Consider these same verses in the New International Version, whose translators used the dynamic equivalent method of translation.

New International Version

3 It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;

4 that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable,

5 not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God;

Notice in particular verse 4. The word "body" doesn't appear in the Greek. Remember, the word in the Greek is literally "vessel". However, the translators of the New International Version understand that Paul was using "vessel" as a metaphor for "body" and since American readers will make the true connection better if the word "body" is used rather than "vessel," they have strayed from the literal word in order to be faithful to communicate the thought intended by Paul.

Consider another dynamic equivalent version, the New Living Translation:

New Living Translation

3 God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin.

4 Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honor--

5 not in lustful passion as the pagans do, in their ignorance of God and his ways.

The thought forms have been reliably communicated, as in the New International Version. As between these two translations, you will mainly find differences in English style.


The Free Translation method endeavors to create the same emotional impact in the modern reader as the ancient text had on its original reader.

Consider these same verses in The Message, a free translation by Eugene Peterson.

The Message

Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity. Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it, as is so common among those who know nothing of God.

What do you think. Has Dr. Peterson succeeded in conveying the emotional impact?

Consider the Cotton Patch Version. This version was translated by Dr. Clarence Jordan. Dr. Jordan was a brilliant, Southern Baptist Greek scholar who was led by God to live out the gospel among the Black population of Georgia. They formed a Christ-centered community where farming was carried on. Habitat for Humanity started here, too. Dr. Jordan translated most of the New Testament using a free translation method that he thought would communicate Paul's passion to Dr. Jordan's beloved people.

The Cotton Patch Version

God's will-that which makes you different-is that you hold back from catting around, that each of you know how to control his own genitals with dedication and honor, not with lustful passion like those guys who don't know God; and that one not go over and stimulate his brother in this matter.

Do you think he achieved his purpose?

Consider the Living Bible. This is not technically a translation. It's author, Dr. Kenneth Taylor, paraphrased the English Revised Standard Version in order to make it more understandable for his children. Though not technically a translation, it could be classified among free translations.

Living Bible

For God wants you to be holy and pure, and to keep clear of all sexual sin so that each of you will marry in holiness and honor-not in lustful passion as the heathen do, in their ignorance of God and his ways.


So which is the best English translation? The truth is that a serious student of Holy Scripture will have at least one English Bible which is prepared using each translation method. Certainly, you will have your favorite. But when studying Scripture, be sure to read it in translations which use a different translation method than your regular Bible.

So, enjoy and "take and read."

Copyright © FBC Bosque Farms 2000-01. All rights reserved.
Questions & Comments: admin@fbcbf.com