Jeremy Sarber

Why Popular Bible Versions Are Not Identical

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes
Kid Reading the Bible

Continued from “The Bible’s Journey From Greek To Latin To Greek To English

I’ve often wondered why revisions and updates to the KJV stopped after 1769. I still don’t have the answer. But that didn’t prevent others from publishing their own editions. There was the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 followed by the Revised Standard Version of 1952.

Recent English Versions

In 1971, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) was produced, setting a new precedent for English translations in the United States. Rather than merely revising another Bible or retranslating the Textus Receptus, the translators worked from a larger collection of both Byzantine and Alexandrian manuscripts.

In 1973, the New International Version (NIV) was published. While the translators also used a wider array of manuscripts similar to the NASB, they were expressly interested in creating an easier-to-read Bible. They opted for a phrase-for-phrase translation as opposed to the word-for-word approach of the KJV and NASB.

In 1982, the New King James Version (NKJV) returned to the KJV tradition of using the Textus Receptus. Aside from the obvious differences in English styles, the Old Testament of the NKJV was translated from the Greek Septuagint rather than the KJV’s Hebrew Masoretic text.

In 2002, the English Standard Version (ESV) followed the practice of the NASB’s word-for-word translation while striving to achieve the readability of the NIV.

Today, the KJV continues to be the most used version of the Bible in the United States. NIV is second. NKJV is third. ESV is fourth. I believe the NASB hovers around the seventh spot on the list.

Translation Methods

These various Bibles fall somewhere on a sliding scale based on how they were translated. On one end of the scale are versions categorized as formal equivalency translations. They are more literal. For example, the KJV, NKJV, and ESV.

On the other end are those categorized as paraphrased. They are essentially interpretations and not translations. For example, The Message (MSG).

In the middle are dynamic equivalency translations. They are typically as literal as possible except some antiquated idioms and expressions have been replaced by their modern equivalents. For example, the NIV.

Note the differences in Luke 9:44:

KJV (formal): “Let these sayings sink down into your ears”

NIV (dynamic): “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you”

NKJV (formal): “Let these words sink down into your ears”

ESV (formal): “Let these words sink into your ears”

MSG (paraphrase): “Treasure and ponder each of these next words”

The KJV, NKJV, and ESV provide a word-for-word translation. The NIV updates the expression since we don’t use it in our modern vernacular. The Message is like the creators said, “Here’s what I think Jesus meant.”

Look at John 13:8:

KJV (formal): “He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me”

NIV (dynamic): “He who shared my bread has turned against me”

NKJV (formal): “He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me”

ESV (formal): “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me”

MSG (paraphrase): “The one who ate bread at my table Turned on his heel against me”

Again, the KJV, NKJV, and ESV provide a more literal translation. The NIV changes the latter part of the verse since we’re not prone to describe betrayal as one lifting his heel against us. The Message interprets the verse and assumes Jesus meant the betrayer, Judas, would turn on his heel and do an about-face though the original expression implies more than that.

According to several evaluations of these Bibles by Hebrew and Greek scholars, the ESV is considered to be the most literal followed by the KJV, NKJV, NIV, and MSG in order.

Manuscript Usage

The KJV and NKJV were translated from the Textus Receptus (later Byzantine manuscripts plus parts of the Latin Vulgate). The ESV and NIV use older Byzantine and even older Alexandrian copies. Because of textual variants, there are differences to be found in the translations.

For instance, Matthew 17:20:

KJV (Textus Receptus): “Because of your unbelief”

NIV (Alexandrian): “Because you have so little faith”

NKJV (Textus Receptus): “Because of your unbelief”

ESV (Alexandrian): “Because of your little faith”

This is an example of a difference between Alexandrian manuscripts and the larger Byzantine family. “Unbelief” (ἀπιστία) is found in the Byzantine manuscripts and Textus Receptus. “Little faith” (ὀλιγόπιστος) is seen in the Alexandrian manuscripts.

The NIV and ESV translators used the Alexandrian text in this case.

Consider Luke 2:14:

KJV (Textus Receptus): “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”

NIV (early Byzantine): “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”

NKJV (Textus Receptus): “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, good will toward men”

ESV (early Byzantine): “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased”

In this example, it is not Alexandrian versus Byzantine. It’s earlier Byzantine manuscripts versus later Byzantine and the Textus Receptus. The difference is between εὐδοκία (nominative) and εὐδοκίας (genitive).

The NIV and ESV used the earlier Byzantine text.


As you would expect, the readability of these Bibles vary.

Compare Acts 28:13:

KJV: “And from thence we fetched a compass”

NIV: “From there we set sail”

NKJV: “From there we circled round”

ESV: “And from there we made a circuit”

Bibles are often ranked by grade reading levels. The KJV averages between a 12th and 10th-grade reading level. The NKJV is at a 9th-grade reading level. Both the NIV and ESV are at 8th-grade reading levels.