I vividly remember my first shopping trip to purchase my first “real” Bible. I gathered up all my babysitting money and excitedly entered my local Christian bookstore. My balloon filled with enthusiasm promptly popped when I made it to the Bibles section. There were so many choices! After staring at them all, and haphazardly picking up samples to look through, I hesitantly chose a big black leather-like Bible—mainly because it looked studious and super-spiritual. I did not end up using that Bible much. In hindsight, it was a poor fit for me for many reasons.
You see, I was a toddler in the faith—actually not quite yet walking. I crawled around desiring to grow up and become closer to God. I just knew that getting a brand-new Bible would be the answer. But the version and type I chose was all wrong for me. This particular Bible lacked the simplicity and extra helps I really needed at that point in my spiritual journey. Plus, behind the study notes were beliefs that were a far cry from my own. This led to even more frustration and confusion. If I could go back and stand beside my former self, I would help past-Katie narrow down her choices in order to find a Bible that would fuel her burgeoning desire for the Bible and arm her with the basics of the Bible she needed.
That was in 1996, and the options today are much more numerous than they were then. So if you are in the market for a new Bible today, you might be just a bit overwhelmed! Past-Katie certainly would have been. She might have just walked out of that bookstore and given up on this walking-with-God thing.
So how do you know which one is going to be the best purchase for you? Before you go dropping dough on a Bible, you need to know the answers to three questions.
Why are there so many versions of the Bible?
The Bible was not originally written in English. Duh, right? But I won’t tell you how old I was when that fact finally dawned on me. I guess I just never really thought about it. It is important to recognize this fact because it will help us understand why there are so many different versions of the Bible (it can also help us with Bible study later on). Specifically, it is useful to understand that each publisher that has produced a new Bible has a purpose and a target audience. Some of them want to provide an accessible Bible that is super-readable to the everyday public. Others want to remain as true to the original text as possible, providing a better version for study. Therefore, each team of translators choose between “thought-for-thought” and “word-for-word” approaches, depending on what their end goal is.
If you are new to the Bible and/or want to do mostly Bible reading, I suggest you stick with one of the “thought-for-thought” translations below. If you want study the Bible, a “word-for-word” translation is going to be most helpful. I think a healthy mix of using both types over time is ideal. There are loads of free Bible apps and websites that allow you to toggle between translations. I’m not super-familiar with all of the translations out there, but here are several I’ve had experience with. Those closer to “word-for-word” are listed first and as we move down the list, we migrate more and more towards “thought-for-thought” translations.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB) – I grew up on this version and it was the primary version I used for study until the ESV came along.
- English Standard Version (ESV) – This is the translation I’ve used since 2005 for all my deep studies and most of my Scripture memory.
- King James Version (KJV) – I’ve never used this much, but it is certainly a popular version.
- New King James Version (NKJV) – I used this for a little while but it never stuck with me.
- Christian Standard Bible (CBS) – My husband and I have several new Bibles in this version, and have been trying them out for the past year or so. It claims to be the “optimal blend of accuracy and readability.” We like it.
- New International Version (NIV) – I’ve never been a huge fan of this version either.
- New Living Translation (NLT) – I enjoy this as fresh look at familiar verses.
- The Message – This is technically not a translation, it’s a paraphrase. So it is definitely a “thought-for-thought” and can be helpful if you find yourself completely unable to understand what a passage is saying. (Keep in mind, however, this is only one man’s thoughts on the passage.)
Mardel has a super-helpful chart of all of the above translations, alongside several others, and how they rank on the scale of readability and accuracy, as well as loads of other helpful information.
What is the difference between aaaaall the types of Bibles?
Once you’ve narrowed down your versions (translations), you need to understand the different types of Bible you want/need. For each translation, you will find several different types of Bibles available, thus a myriad of combinations can be found. Here are the main categories of Bibles typically found on the shelves.
- A Bible – This is just a plain ol’, regular Bible. There might be a few textual notes in the bottom margin, but typically these contain only the book titles (Genesis, Ephesians, etc.), maybe a few headings throughout each book, and the chapter and verse references. These are often referred to gift edition, slimline, compact, or thinline Bibles. One example is this pretty “Premium Gift” teal Bible .
- Study Bible – These are typically very thick Bibles, filled with loads of helpful information. Most include important info like the author, audience, and aim of each book, commentary (teaching and explanation by the really smart people who have studied the Bible in an academic setting and know what they are talking about), charts, and maps interspersed throughout—all geared toward helping you understand what you are reading/studying. Many study Bibles are geared around a certain Bible study method or even a theme, which often means the commentary provided will be mostly within that subject. Study Bible examples: ESV Study Bible , CSB Study Bible , Inductive Study Bible
- Devotional Bible – Typically geared toward a certain group of people (women, men, students, children, etc.), these Bibles contain short devotional thoughts and stories throughout each book of the Bible. You can think of them like a devotional book all split up and appropriately placed into the Bible for you. Examples include the (in)courage Devotional Bible (I contributed to this one!), She Reads Truth Bible , FamilyLife Marriage Bible , ESV Men’s Devotional Bible , The Message Devotional Bible and many, many more.
- Journaling Bible – These Bibles are laid out to give you white space for note-taking or art journaling. Some provide designations in the title of where the journaling space is, such as single column, double column, interleaved (where every other page is blank), and whether or not it is lined. If not in the title, you’ll want to be sure to check the description or look for an opened sample so you purchase your prefered layout. Examples: ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition , ESV Single Column Journaling Bible .
How are you going to use this new Bible?
This may seem like a silly question, but it is important. Another way to ask this question is, “What do you primarily need from this Bible?” Room for sermon notes? Teaching on what a verse means? Space to record prayers and/or what you are learning? You might have your eyes on a stunning journaling Bible, but what you really need is a solid study Bible. Maybe you have a well-loved study Bible, but need room to record your study notes. You might be like me—continually forgetting to pack your Bible and favorite pens —so having a Sunday morning bag like this with a dedicated Bible and pens for recording sermon notes is just what the doctor ordered.
Generally speaking, a solid study Bible is going to be a great first investment ( I recommend the ESV Study Bible ), especially if you are new to the Bible. Here’s the key though: you need to use it! Study Bibles can be pretty overwhelming at first, but the charts, book info, and study notes are invaluable guides as you begin to explore Scripture.
Though ill-fitting, I’m glad I did pick out a Bible way-back-when. It was a choice of obedience for me. A determined step in the right direction. Though it wasn’t a perfect choice, God used my frustration with not understanding what I was reading to draw me even closer to Himself and also to seek out help from others. So if you are still feeling a bit stymied by all the options, I encourage you to step out, regardless. His Word is alive (every version and type!), our God is in control, and He can guide you even through an eeny, meeny, miny, moe approach. Narrow it down by version, type, and something you can afford, then take action … pick one!