How Do I Know Which Translation(s) of the Bible Would Be Good to Use, Especially for a “Word for Word” Study?

I have a desire to do some serious Bible study. With so many translations out there, how do I know which one(s) would be good to use, especially for a “word for word” study?

Congratulations on your desire to study the Word. God has given us as English speaking believers so much opportunity to study the Word through the diligence of the Bible societies and translation committees.

I am James A. Swanson (Jim) who makes and edits Bible reference books. Bible translations have long been an interest of mine. I am a paid consultant for accuracy in rendering in Bible translation.

There are, of course, many wonderful translations, all but one or two (none probably known to you) that I would name as reliable.

And among those that translate word for word, the ESV is more literary and readable; the NASB is not quite as good English, but still accurate as a word for word translation. A person reading a passage looking for key terms that repeat, then a NASB would be better. If you are trying to understand the passage as a whole, then the ESV is better.

Both have conservative, evangelical, accurate translators. Both are suitable for study.

So generally, the higher the reading level, then a NASB can be “handled”; for general passage reading, I would use the ESV.

When I have time to only give a one word answer, I recommend the ESV. Also read the footnotes, since they will give valuable insights of alternate understandings of the text.

There is a caution in having only a word by word translation, in that important meanings may not be rendered, thus creating some inaccuracy.

For example, in Colossians 1:15 “He (Jesus) is the firstborn of creation” is roughly the rendering in both the ESV, NASB. But the meaning of “firstborn” here is not that he “came to being” just before the rest of creation,” but that in that culture the “firstborn” has a position of honor, and so Today’s English Version (and many like it) render:

“Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. He is the firstborn Son, superior to all created things.” (American Bible Society. The Holy Bible: Today’s English Version [2nd ed.] New York: American Bible Society, 1992.)

Note that though the TEV included “firstborn” in the rendering, it also correctly included the extended meaning (the “connotation”) that Christ is in the position of honor, and so included in the rendering, “superior” to all creation.

Here is a suggestion. Get either the NASB or the ESV (as fits your need) and then pick a “meaning for meaning” based translation to perhaps clarify or “comment” on the literal rendering. Though I used the TEV for my illustration above, there are many good “meaning for meaning” translations.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

James A. Swanson (ThB, MSM, MTh) is a biblical studies scholar with original language expertise. His works include A Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (OT)A Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (NT), and A Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Aramaic (OT).