How to Study the Bible

Lesson  #05 
Comparing Bible Versions

      There are a large number of English translations of the Bible available today, and people will give you a variety of reasons for choosing one over another.  It is not my purpose to tell you which is right version for you to use.  Instead, the goal of this lesson is to give you a taste of several of the major versions, pointing out some of their strengths and weaknesses.  This should help you evaluate which will best suit your needs at this time.

      The first problem that a person faces in studying the Bible is that we are reading a book written about people who lived 2000 to 3000 years ago, in a part of the world we may never visit.  They had different customs and languages than we do.  English translations start to build a link with with these people by trying to remove the language barrier, but all translations have a common problem: each language reflect the culture of a group of people, and many ideas in one culture are hard to express in the language of a different culture or time.  There are two general methods used to solve this problem when translating the Bible.  The first method, the literal approach, tries to accurately translate the words from the original language.  The best example of this is an interlinear version, which often prints a line of the original Greek or Hebrew text, and under each word has its equivalent word in English.  While this is useful to a scholar, most people need the words converted to an English word order and grammar before they can understand a sentence.  The King James Version of 1611 was an early example which was a literal approach to translation, but was also readable by the common people.  One complaint that some have with a strong literal approach is that due to cultural differences between us and the author, we may miss important points or the emotional impact of the message.  To help us feel the emotional impact of the situation, some translators try to understand the message and then they phrase the message similar to how we might say it today.  This second method is called a paraphrase.  An unusual example of this is the Cotton Patch Version.  To help modern American readers to feel the emotions of the first Christians, the author of the Cotton Patch Version pictured Jesus as being born into the racial and religious culture of modern Georgia, rather than 2000 years ago in Israel.

      An interlinear is the purest form of the literal translation approach, while the Cotton Patch Version is about as close to a pure form of the paraphrase approach available.  Most English translations are a blend of the two approaches.  The following chart tries to give a rough idea of the relative importance of the two methods in the major translations indicated.  Abbreviations used are explained at the end of this study.

Self Study

Contrast between the Cotton Patch (paraphrase) and the ASV (literal) translations:

Several sections of the Bible are quoted below from both the Cotton Patch and ASV translations.
Consider the following questions as you compare these translations:
Luke 18:1-5

(Cotton Patch)   He told them a Comparison to show that they should keep on praying and not give up.  "One time in a certain city there was a judge who didn't believe in God, and didn't give a hoot about people.  In the same city was a widow, and she came to him repeatedly and said, 'Please, hear my case against so-and-so.'  He put her off for a long time, but finally he said to himself: 'Even though I don't believe in God and don't give a hoot for people, yet because this woman has got it in for me, I'll hear her case before she finally nags me to death.'"

(ASV)   And he spake a parable unto them to the end that they ought always to pray, and not to faint; saying, There was in a city a judge, who feared not God, and regarded not man: and there was a widow in that city; and she came oft unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.  And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming.

Acts 21:27-29

(Cotton Patch)   Just as the week of revival was about to end, some WAPs (White American Protestants) from Alabama spied him in the church and whipped up the people against him.  They grabbed hold of him and shouted, "Fellow Southerners, help us.  This is the man who turns people everywhere against good white folks and the Bible and the church.  And worse, he has even brought a nigger into the church and broke up our fine spirit of Christian unity and fellowship."  (For they had previously seen Troy, a Negro from Chicago, in town with him and had assumed that Paul had taken him to the revival too.)

(ASV)   And when the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the multitude and laid hands on him, crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place; and moreover he brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath defiled this holy place.   For they had before seen with him in the city Trophimus the Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.

Luke 2:1-8

(Cotton Patch)   It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register.  This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War.  So everybody went to register, each going to his own home town.  Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant.  While they were there, her time came, and she gave birth to her first boy.  She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in an apple box.  (There was no room for them at the hospital.)  Now there were some farmers in that section who were up late at night tending to their baby chicks.

(ASV)   Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to enrol themselves, every one to his own city.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enrol himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child.  And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock.

Acts 15:19-21

(Cotton Patch)   "Therefore, I feel that we should not pester people from other races who are turning to God, but should advise them to steer clear of loose sex relations and to be extremely sensitive to and considerate of immature whites who have not outgrown their traditions, since for generations these customs have been advocated on every Sabbath in every church throughout the South."

(ASV)   Wherefore my judgment is, that we trouble not them that from among the Gentiles turn to God; but that we write unto them, that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood.  For Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.

Comparison of four common examples of the Biblical Text:

Consider the following questions to compare the four translations:


Proverbs 19:24
Romans 2:1-3

Cultural Accuracy:

Proverbs 20:10
Proverbs 20:23

Interpretation of meaning:

Proverbs 19:29
Proverbs 20:1
John 1:18
John 9:34
John 11:33-38
John 20:1-9
John 21:15-17


        A translator desires his work to be both readable and accurate.  Many times these goals work together, but there are times that to achieve one goal the other suffers.  Idioms are a good example of this problem.  Consider the problem of trying to convert the following phrase to another language:  "He flew off the handle, right off the bat".  One way to express this is to say, "He quickly became angry", and capture the meaning.  However this ignores all of the original words.  Is that being accurate?  Suppose we wish to translate the Hebrew expression which literally says that "God has a long nose" (Exodus 34:6).  The Jews had the concept that when we get angry, we start to breath hard through our nose.  If our nose is long, than we will get angry slower.  So most translations convert this to "God is slow to get angry".

        A similar problem occurs when we try to understand the emotions when people of a different culture interact.  While we usually understand the signs of prejudice in our culture, they are often hard to see in another culture.  The phrases, gestures or ideas which trigger people's emotions are all closely connected with our culture.  There are times that Jesus spoke with crowds which seemed to be interested in what he had to say, and then without warning the Jews would flash into anger at statements that we would not react to.

        The Cotton Patch translation tries to make sure that we understand the message and the emotions which are talked about.  In Luke 18, changing a few words makes the meaning and emotions clear.  In Acts 21, the prejudice found in the South allows us to understand how Paul could get people very angry with him just for being at one of their special gatherings.  The strength of a paraphrase is that it allows us to feel that we are part of the situation.  The weakness is a loss of accuracy.

        How important is the accuracy of the message?  Probably all translators would say that this is very important.  But a paraphrase does not tell you what the author said, it tells you what the translator THOUGHT that the author said.  If the translator missed the point, then you will miss the point.  Acts 15 may give an example of this.  Early in the church there was strong disagreement about what was a core set of teachings that all believers had to accept.  A special meeting in Jerusalem settled part of the issue, and the decision is stated in verses 19-21.  The Cotton Patch version indicates that several of the decisions were made not because God wanted it, but because there was still a lot of people with traditions that they would not give up.  I feel that the translator missed the point here.  The Greeks worshipped various gods, and teaching them to leave them to worship the one true God was an important issue.  The other items, relating to eating blood or things strangled, dates back long before Jewish law and customs, to a contract that God made with all mankind, for all time, starting with Noah.  The decision made at the Jerusalem council was that our relationship with God, the marriage relationship, and honoring mankind's contract with God were the absolute minimum things that all Christians should obey.  What the translator felt was outdated traditions, the early church felt was part of the core of their religion.

        How important is historical accuracy?  If the Bible is nothing more than cute stories which illustrate a message that God wants us to know, then historical accuracy is not important.  But I believe that the Bible is a collection of times that God has personally interacted with specific people.  It shows real people, in real situations, making both wise and foolish decisions.  It allows us to see the results of those decisions later in their lives.  I believe that God is trying to teach us basic laws of "Cause and Effect" for human behavior.  In physics, students learn that if you push something it moves.  The Cause (a push) produces an Effect (a movement).  God wants us to learn a similar set of rules about human behavior.  The things God commands us to do (i.e.. love, patience) are things which build relationships.  The things God commands us to avoid (i.e.. hate, steal, slander) are things which destroy relationships.  What we do (Cause) has an Effect on our relationships.  If we want to improve our relationships (Effect), we need to change what we are doing (Cause).  One of the strengths of the Bible is that God not only tells us his rules, he illustrates them through the lives of people.

        To see the effects of decisions people make we need to walk in their shoes and feel what they feel.  When a paraphrase helps this, it is valuable.  But if a paraphrase turns the lives of people into a group of stories which illustrate a lesson, it looses something.  While a good story can sometimes make a strong emotional impact on us, it is easy to turn around and say that it is just a story.  While the Cotton Patch version might make some good religious skits, it is more valuable to take the time to meet the real people who lived in Palestine.

      The section which compares four translations tries to give you a taste of how they are both similar and different.  The King James Version (KJV) is close to 400 years old, and has been a standard among English speaking people for centuries.  The others are more modern translations, reflecting modern updates to the Greek text and using expressions that are more common in our culture today.  But they all try to express what God is saying to us, and they all have value.  If four people described the same thing to you, it is likely that at least one of the four people would make more sense to you than the other three.  Also, after listening to all four, you would probably understand it better than after listening to only one.  There is usually at least one translation that we find easier to understand than the others.  Something about the way things are phrased is just clearer to us.  That version would be a good choice as a reading Bible.  But when we want to study more, it is useful to read from one or more of the others.  Listening to the way someone else tried to explain it may help us understand better.

      When you study the books in the Bible as books, both literal and paraphrase versions provide help in different ways.  Reading a paraphrase is a good way to insure that you get the main point.  It is easy for us to get lost in details and skip what the author wanted us to understand.  Keeping the message simple helps avoid this.  On the other hand, reading more literal translations may make us aware that certain words or phrases are repeated a lot.  This gives us a clue that the author is trying to get our attention focused on that idea.  A paraphrase version, by rephrasing each section of the text, can miss this detail.

        There are two study habits that should be avoided when you read from several versions.  The first problem happens when people read from several versions just to pick the one that best says what they already believe.  They often use the specific wording in one version to support their logic arguments and may refuse to consider what the text says.  A second problem occurs if you strongly dislike the way a few verses are translated by a specific version, and use this to decide that the version is inferior or badly translated.  Both of these problems come from missing the purpose of the translator.  With rare exceptions, each version is trying to say exactly the same thing.  If they don't seem to agree, they may be having problems expressing what the author meant.  Instead of focusing on their differences and judging one to be good or bad, first try to see a message which is common to all of them.  When you can see how they are expressing the same concept in different ways you are likely closer to understanding what the author said.  Remember also that any version of the Bible represents thousands of hours of careful work done by people who have studied for years.  Be respectful of the hundreds of people over the centuries, who's life work has given us the privilege of picking which Bible we like better.

        Both individuals and various groups have made Bible translations available to the public.  It is usually better to use a translation made by a number of scholars from various churches than to use the work of a single scholar, or the work generated from a specific church.  When a single scholar or a church translates the Bible, it is easy to make slight text changes which emphasize their beliefs.  This shows up periodically in the translation published by the Jehovah Witnesses, and is more of a problem with the translation provided by the Mormons. 

        New christians should start with a Bible which is easy for them to read and understand.  Because they are learning basic concepts, and often are facing major behavior changes, they do not need to be concerned with teachings that require a precise translation.  Teachers have a need to know more than the average Bible student, and they have a greater need to be accurate in their understanding.  They should find a version that is easy to read from, and then also have a highly literal version and a good paraphrase as references.  A paraphrase will often allow you to see something in a teaching or situation that you missed.  The highly literal version will make sure that your understanding is consistent with what the author originally said.


  1. My suggestion is that new Christians should use the NIV or the Living Bible as their primary Bible, since both of these make the basic message of the Bible easy to understand.
  2. My suggestion is that teachers should use the NIV as a reading Bible, but have several other versions available to compare ideas.  It is desirable to have at least one literal version (King James, ASV) and at least one paraphrase (Living Bible, Good News for Modern Man)
  3. Use some caution when using a translation made by only one man (Phillips, Barclay)
  4. While the Cotton Patch version might be useful for religious skits, or for helping to explain ideas to children, it should not be used as a study Bible.
  5. No matter what version you like the best, allow others the right to make their choice, and be respectful of their choice.

Abbreviations Used:

Last Update:    11/20/2002
Copyright (c) 1998, 2002 by Bruce J. Butterfield. All Rights Reserved.