Non-Catholic Bibles: Summaries of Major English Versions

There are many different translations of the Bible in English, some more prominent than others. The 18 versions summarized below are those non-Catholic versions I tend to find when I go into bookstores. Many other versions can be easily enough found, especially electronically, but my goal here is primarily to help fellow Catholics in choosing a Bible, and since that choice will often take place in a bookstore, I want to help sort out which of the non-Catholic versions on display may be more or less helpful as supplementary texts.  Others may also find these summaries helpful. The versions are ordered alphabetically.

Amplified Bible (AMP)

clip_image002_thumbThe Amplified version has been around for more than 50 years, but was just recently (late 2015) given a major overhaul. It is designed to give the English–speaking student of the Bible as clear a sense as possible of the meaning of the original text, by providing bracketed annotations within the English text to help expand or clarify the underlying meanings of the original languages. While it’s not at all smooth-reading, it’s an interesting tool to aid in study, but it contains only the 66 books of the Protestant canon. The older editions are still easy to find, but the 2015 edition sounds like it is much improved (I haven’t seen one yet).

Common English Bible (CEB)

clip_image004_thumbA fairly new (2011) translation targeted at readers with a middle school-level reading competency, produced by a committee from the publishing houses of several liberal Protestant denominations. It includes the Apocrypha. This translation suffers both from the vulgarities and reductionism common to other “simple language” efforts, as well as from the brittle silliness of political correctness. Useful traditional language is squelched in favor of banal terminology, for example: “temple vessels” becomes the industrial-sounding “temple equipment”; “persecute” is reduced to the anodyne “harass”; and “son of man” becomes an all-too-plastic “human”. Even in its messianic setting in the New Testament, with Jesus using the expression to refer to himself, “the Son of Man” is awkwardly rendered “the Human One”.

Too much important meaning is lost in these “simple” translations. Top off that widespread defect with the overbearing genuflections of the CEB’s PC pieties, and the result is a tortured translation of dubious value. The CEB might be useful for skimming in order to get the surface elements of the story, but it needs to be checked against better translations for understanding the text itself, which is really the point of engaging the Bible.

Available in print, with or without Apocrypha, in numerous editions. The online Bible sites also have editions of the CEB with or without the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is included in the editions of at least some of the electronic Bible Study platforms.

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

clip_image006_thumbA limited vocabulary, “common language” translation published by the American Bible Society in 1995, aimed at readers with a very low level of English language skills. Includes modest explanatory notes. The CEV eliminates words like covenant, salvation, justification, and other fundamental Biblical ideas. Amazingly, the term ‘grace’ is used only to refer poetically to the beauty of a woman, but never to God’s gift of self, for which is substituted terms like “God’s kindness”. Somehow, the CEV New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs have been approved by the US Catholic Bishops for personal use. I find this translation difficult to recommend for any purpose.

CEV editions containing the Apocrypha are available, and sometimes bear the label “Catholic”. The CEV is often packaged as youth or children’s Bibles, and is widely available both in print (mostly in cheap editions) and electronically. CEV editions for electronic Bible Study programs lack the Apocrypha books.

English Standard Version (ESV)

clip_image008_thumbThe ESV is a very popular, 21st century, formal equivalence translation, undertaken as a revision of the Revised Standard Version by American evangelicals dissatisfied with the liberalizing elements of the NRSV, which had been an earlier attempt at revising the RSV. Remaining close to the RSV while updating its obscurities, the ESV is an excellent translation. The translators provide minimal textual notes, although “Reference” editions supply an abundance of accompanying cross-references. However, the translators did not produce an Apocrypha, limiting the value of this version for Catholics. However, under a special arrangement, Oxford University Press appended their own revision of the RSV Apocrypha to the ESV to create an edition they call the English Standard Version with Apocrypha, but that will likely be the only “full canon” edition of the ESV. That Oxford edition would be the obvious ESV print edition choice for Catholics, though it purportedly uses overly thin paper, leading to significant bleeding. 66-book electronic editions are widespread, and are typically tagged for analytical study in Bible Study programs.

Good News Bible/ Good News Translation/Today’s English Version (GNB/GNT/TEV)

clip_image010_thumbThis is a loosely-translated Bible from the American Bible Society, originally released in the mid-1960s and last updated in 1992, geared toward those with middle school level reading skills and vocabulary. This makes for easy reading, but it tends to flatten Biblical doctrines, and can be quite pedestrian as literature. The original version received an imprimatur in 1978 when the translation of the Apocrypha was completed. After it was republished in a second edition in 1992, it was re-branded as the Good News Translation to battle the perception that it was more a paraphrase than a translation. A little bit less oversimplified than the later CEV from the same publisher, there are still better options available among the dynamic equivalence translations for easy reading (e.g. NJB, REB)

Widely available, with or without the Apocrypha, in cheap print editions and electronically, online. Also widely available in electronic editions for freeware and commercial Bible Study programs, but these generally do not include the Apocrypha.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

clip_image012_thumbThis is a fresh translation undertaken by the Southern Baptist Convention (via Holman Publishers), first published around the turn of the century. It lands somewhere in the middle of the scale in terms of formal vs. dynamic equivalence. Perhaps it could be characterized as semi-formal, as it avoids most of the pitfalls of dynamic approaches, such as paraphrasing, doctrinal flattening, and politically-motivated obfuscations. Still, it’s a bit quirky, perhaps especially so in the editors’ decision to not infrequently use “Yahweh” to transliterate the Divine Name – a decision they more than doubled-down on when the 2nd Edition was published in 2008. No HCSB translation of the Apocrypha should be expected. It’s not bad, but it is of little value to Catholics looking even for a secondary version – plenty of better options exist. Several software vendors have developed analytically tagged editions of this version.

King James Version (KJV/AV)

clip_image014_thumbThis version needs no introduction, as the preeminent translation of the Bible in the English-speaking world. At one time, almost all the analytical Bible study tools available to English speakers were keyed to this version, which made it fairly indispensable for serious Bible study among those without adequate original language skills. However, that is no longer the case. Most Catholics have little reason now to pick up this Protestant classic, other than out of curiosity, or perhaps in appreciation of its literary accomplishment. As fine a presentation of the Eternal Word as it may be, the 17th century language is just too far removed from the cognitive sphere of modern man to be an effective presentation of the living voice of God for most common folk today. It is still widely read, and remains a staple of electronic Bible Study programs, which continue to offer analytical tools keyed to it, but most students looking for a good literal translation would do better with one of its modern revisions.

Living Bible (LB or TLB)

clip_image016_thumbThe 1971 Living Bible is not a translation, but a paraphrase of an older English translation (the American Standard Version), written by a Baptist layman, Kenneth Taylor. It originated in paraphrasing Taylor prepared to help teach his children the Bible, and was eventually published for sale to other readers with similarly limited Bible experience. A 1976 collaboration with Our Sunday Visitor produced a “Catholic Edition” of this paraphrase, but that edition is no longer available, and the copies of the Living Bible lingering on store shelves today lack the Deuterocanonical books provided by OSV. These should be left on the shelf by all but the most curious.

Message (MSG)

clip_image018_thumbThis is an unapologetically paraphrastic retelling of the Biblical story written by a single author (Eugene H. Peterson) around the turn of the 21st century. This version makes no real attempt to re-present the sacred words of the Scriptures in English, but merely, as the title of the work itself suggests, to convey the message allegedly being delivered through the instrumentality of the words. Of course, to arrive at “the message” of the Word, one must first listen to the actual words, discern their meaning, and only then interpret their message. This version aims to save you the steps of actually listening to and discerning the Word of God yourself, and attempts to tell you what those sacred words intend to say. It occasionally has an interesting angle on a text, but is mostly just too cute. In 2013, an acquaintance of Peterson supplied paraphrases of the Deuterocanonical books, allowing for the release of a “Catholic/Ecumenical” edition, although there is no ecclesial sanction for publishing it as a Catholic Bible.

Modern English Version (MEV)

clip_image020_thumbThis is a recent (2014) formal equivalence version, the latest in a very long line of attempts at revising the King James Version into a suitable modern literary form. Based on more or less the same source texts used by the original KJV translators, and intentionally hewing closely to the KJV in its wording, this work serves well as a modernizing of the Elizabethan-era masterpiece. It is not quite as formal an updating as the New King James Version is, but the MEV reads more smoothly than the NKJV. The only big drawback to the MEV is that which most better Protestant translations share: it lacks the books of the Apocrypha. Given that usual caveat, it is an excellent choice for a literal yet readable translation. However, it is only beginning to show up on electronic Bible Study platforms, and would be years away from being published in any analytical editions – assuming that ever comes to pass at all.

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

clip_image022_thumbOne of the most strictly formal of the major modern translations, the NASB was a conservative reaction to, and substitute for, the Revised Standard Version, a work which the NASB editors regarded as an overly liberal revision of the 1901 American Standard Version (the American version of the “official” KJV revision). Originally published in 1971, it had a significant update in 1995, removing archaisms such as formal modes of address (thee, thou, …).

This version should not be confused with the (Catholic) New American Bible; this is a very Protestant Bible, and lacks the Apocrypha.

Some readers find the literal translation awkward or stiff, while others appreciate its attempt to reflect the original manuscript as closely as possible in English, allowing the reader to approximate the flow of thought and ancient mindsets that produced the original texts.

Many of the Study editions of the NASB in print are doctrinally anti-Catholic, but NASB texts are also available with minimal commentary. Electronic editions are broadly available, and often analytically tagged, but they are typically sold at premium prices in the commercial packages. Very useful for close textual study, except for the missing books, but take any editorializing with a grain of salt.

New International Version (NIV)

clip_image026_thumbThis was the translation that knocked the KJV off the top of the bookstore sales charts for Bibles. Perhaps not quite as popular as it once was, this was a brand new translation by American evangelicals in the 1970s, using dynamic equivalence methods fairly freely to create an English text at a middle school reading level. The result was pedestrian as literature, and several updates (the latest in 2011) have improved it, but have not salvaged it.

Worst of all, it is a tendentious translation. In numerous places, the editors either added or omitted words (or else translated inconsistently) in ways that appeared to make the Biblical text support conservative evangelical interpretations over against either liberal views on the one hand, or Catholic understandings on the other. The way I figure: if you need to manipulate and misrepresent the Word of God to prop up your doctrines, you may want to go back to the drawing board. This is one of the worst translations out there IMHO; I’ve never understood its popularity.

New King James Version (NKJV)

clip_image028_thumbThe 1982 NKJV is a close revision of the KJV, and is very popular in some circles. It eliminated archaisms, such as formal modes of address, and also provided other clarifications and vocabulary updates. The translators expressly sought to retain the sonority of the original KJV, while replicating its commitment to precision in translation. It thus falls very high on the scale in terms of measuring formal equivalency, or literalness. In keeping the work as close as possible to the KJV, the New Testament was based on the Textus Receptus manuscript tradition, in distinction from most other modern translations, which utilize an eclectic critical text as a basis. Translation footnotes are sparse, and consist mostly of OT cross references in the NT, although publishers often provide their own notes and/or references in their editions.

The one area this work departs significantly from the original KJV is in its failure to translate the Apocrypha, thus limiting its usefulness for Catholics. With that said, it can be profitably used as an ancillary text for studying the vast majority of the canon. The Greek Orthodox Church in America chose the NKJV New Testament to be paired with their new Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint Old Testament translation when they published the Orthodox Study Bible several years ago.

The NKJV is widely available in various print editions, electronically on numerous websites, and on all the significant Bible Study software platforms, where it is sometimes tagged to facilitate analytical study.

New Living Translation (NLT)

clip_image030_thumbThe NLT has been published under three copyrights, the last one obtained in 2015. It is a revision of Kenneth Taylor’s 1971 Living Bible paraphrase. Although improving upon many dubious readings from the Living Bible, this revision remains both very colloquial and imprecise, aimed at readers with minimal reading skills, and little familiarity with the Bible. The editors claim it is a dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought) translation, and not just a rehashing of the Living Bible paraphrase, but a comparison of the two makes it plainly evident that the Taylor text is the basis of the NLT, and I think revision is probably the proper term for it, despite the extent of the changes. It is clearly designed to be warm and easy-to-read, but such an approach tends to stress the story at the expense of the Word, and the NLT is no exception to that rule. An effort of evangelicals, there was nonetheless an unofficial “Catholic” edition published in 2002, including the Deuterocanonicals, based on the original (1996) edition of the NLT, called the “New Living Translation Catholic Reference Edition“.  A “Catholic” edition based on the second edition of the NLT (2004) is in circulation outside the U.S., and is expected to be marketed in the U.S. by October, 2017.

New JPS Tanakh (NJPS)

clip_image034_thumbThe Tanakh version was produced by American Jewish scholars over the course of 30 years, and published in whole in 1985. It is a revision of the Jewish Publication Society version of 1916. The name of the version is an acronym reflecting the three divisions of Scripture according to the Hebrew canon: The Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Kethuvim (Writings). Obviously lacking the New Testament, as well as the books of the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon, this translation has a decidedly different character to it, and makes for a good comparative version of the Hebrew books. The ordering of the books is according to the traditional Jewish canon, not the Christian canon. The text is available online here, as well as in ebook form on the better Bible Study software platforms.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

clip_image036_thumbThis formal equivalence translation, at least in editions which come “with Apocrypha”, is more or less equivalent to the NRSV-CE translation discussed under Catholic Bibles, except for some book ordering changes, and the inclusion of a few books not in the Catholic canon. The verdict is the same: excellent translation, but goes overboard with “inclusive language” modifications. Includes minimal notes, which address textual ambiguities.

Available in numerous print editions – be sure to get one that says “with Apocrypha”. Oxford and Abingdon each make terrific Study Bibles for this translation; other Study editions are also available. It is available online, and on all the major electronic Bible Study platforms, sometimes tagged, in whole or part, with original language manuscript correspondences. The Logos edition offers full-blown reverse-interlinear tagging for the entire translation, including the Apocrypha. Outstanding for serious study.

Revised English Bible (REB)

clip_image038_thumbA 1989 revision of the 1970 dynamic equivalence New English Bible, the REB tightens up some of the looseness of the 1970 translation, and attempts to produce a bit more literary stateliness for the sake of public proclamation, while eliminating archaisms, and introducing a modest level of “gender neutrality”. This is still a dynamic equivalence representation, but avoids some of that genre’s worst tendencies to oversimplify. It is about on a par with the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible in terms of its balance between translational precision and “accessibility”. It is British in literary character, and primarily Protestant in origin. The Deuterocanonical books are only available in editions which state they are “with Apocrypha”.

Published in somewhat limited print editions by the Oxford and Cambridge University presses. Oxford publishes a study edition. Available on some but not all of the major Bible Study platforms.

Revised Standard Version (RSV)

clip_image040_thumbThe excellent New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version appears to be the only print edition of the RSV still available that is not one of the modified “Catholic Editions”. Aside from the Oxford annotations, this edition differs only slightly from the first (1966) “Catholic” RSV edition. The NOAB RSV incorporates an “Expanded Apocrypha”, which includes not only the three books from the standard Apocrypha which are not found in Catholic Bibles, but also a small number of other books which complete the canons of the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches.

In electronic editions, the RSV itself is widely available online and for Bible Study programs, where it consists of the 1952 OT, 1971 NT, and 1977 “Expanded Apocrypha”, at least in most editions. Most electronic editions are not analytically tagged, but the Logos edition offers an embedded reverse-interlinear for the New Testament.