My Top Bible Translations and Why You Should Read Different Versions of Scripture

If you’re wondering what Bible you should read or what Bible you should buy, this post is for you.

King James Bible
(Photo: chuttersnap/Unsplash)

Although studies indicate most Christians don’t read their bibles very often, those of us who do read Scripture on a regular basis tend to have more than one translation or version we turn to.

If you’re anything like me, you likely have several Bible translations you appreciate for offering a breath of insight into God’s timeless Word. However, if you don’t use various Bible translations or versions in your studies either because you’ve never thought about it or find that choosing the right ones is just too complicated, maybe this article will help you decide which ones to turn to.

Here’s a look at a few different translations I’ve found useful for various reasons.

New English Translation Bible

While this list of top Bible translations is in no particular order, the NET Bible definitely came to mind first when considering which translations to include. The thing is, I only turn to the NET Bible in digital format, i.e., online or on my phone via a Bible app. I don’t think I’ve ever held a physical NET Bible in hand—and I’m not too sure I would appreciate it as much as the digital/online version. You see, what I love the most about the NET Bible is the notation feature (which is usually accessible via a tap or click digitally/online) that provides all kinds of insightful information. In fact, the NET Bible includes more than 58,000 notes with input from 25 different scholars.

The notes break down the meaning of certain Hebrew and Greek terms, offering alternate interpretation options as well as brief explanations as to why translators think a particular choice is more suitable to the understanding or clarity of the text.

NET Bible Journal Leather
NET Bible Journal Edition (available via Amazon).

As netbible.com explains: “This unparalleled level of detail helps connect people to the Bible in the original languages in a way never before possible without years of study of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It unlocks the riches of the Bible’s truth from entirely new perspectives.”

Another fun thing about using the NET Bible for me is that I get to revisit some of the biblical Hebrew I studied in seminary, which I likely otherwise would rarely ever use.

I’m not sure if printed NET Bible includes the 58,000-plus notes that are accessible in the digital edition, but if you’ve got to have one in hand, Amazon has a few options.

Here’s a look at the notes from Matthew 1:1-4.

Notes from Matthew 1 in the NET Bible
Notes from Matthew 1 in the NET Bible.

Contemporary English Version Bible

Years ago on vacation, I flipped through a chunky, soft cover edition of the CEV Bible while perusing a bookstore. After spending a few minutes reading through some of my favorite passages (such as Psalm 5, for example), I found the simple language of the translation intriguing. Although I immediately purchased the copy (it was on sale, so…) and turned to it off and on during my vacation, it didn’t get a whole lot of play when I returned home and to my usual translation options. However, in recent years I’ve turned to the CEV for enjoyable, yet cautionary reading.

I say cautionary because the CEV, though approachable in its language, takes liberties, I feel, with the translation to the point of making the text sometimes say what I’m not quite sure it actually means. That is likely because the aim of the the CEV is to offer “a fresh translation of the Bible using everyday words and phrases so that the Bible can be understandable by everyone.”

Wikipedia explains that the three principles that guided CEV translators were that their version of the Bible:

  • must be understood by people without stumbling in speech
  • must be understood by those with little or no comprehension of “Bible” language
  • must be understood by all.

Because the CEV focuses on using simple wording to remove any barriers from reading Scripture, translators sometimes paraphrase “in order to make the underlying point of a passage clear, rather than directly translating the wording” (Wikipedia).

Although the CEV is high up on my list of preferred Bible translations because of its adherence to simplicity, I personally wouldn’t recommend the CEV to a newbie Christian or to someone seeking to understand the Bible for the first time. If someone’s going to first learn a text as important as the Holy Bible, I think it would be more beneficial for them to get comfortable with a near-literal translation of it before exploring more relaxed translations like the CEV (or Message Bible).

You can get the same chunky green edition I bought years ago used for two bucks or grab a new one direct from the publisher for a couple bucks more.


[If you don’t understand this gif, don’t worry about it.]

The Original African Heritage Study Bible

I was first introduced to the African Heritage Study Bible (KJV) in high school when my mother ordered leather-bound, boxed copies from our church for the whole family.  😀 The African Heritage Study Bible is distinct because it intentionally takes care via articles, notes, and images to impress upon the reader that the settings of many of the stories we know, love, and believe in actually took place on the continent of Africa (which includes Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, some argue) and/or feature important contributions by African people.

What stands out the most in the African Heritage Study Bible are the images of Black men and women depicted as biblical figures. The artwork and photos in this Bible version are beautiful, and the contextual information general editor and New Testament professor Cane Hope Felder provides is invaluable.

Needless to say, those who have only been exposed to Christianity as the “White man’s religion” or think Black and African peoples have no place in God’s redemption story would find the African Heritage Study Bible to be an eye-opening resource.

“The book’s Afro-centric approach stresses in commentaries that Moses’ wife, Zipporah, was an Egyptian; that Abraham’s mistress, Hagar, was an Egyptian slave girl who bore him his first son, Ishmael; and that Mary probably was dark-skinned, given her hometown (in today’s Yemen) and background,” reports a 2005 Los Angeles Times article. “It renounces the ‘Europeanization’ of the Bible and Christianity through art and academia. It also includes sections on African women in the Bible, 25 original slave songs and 101 favorite black verses in the African diaspora.”

The only downside to this version of the Bible is that it’s in the King James Version. Though beautiful and evoking colorful imagery, the “Shakespearean” translation can be a real stumbling block and time-guzzler in times of Bible study.

Watch this (sped-up) video of me flipping through my copy of the Original African Heritage Study Bible. Make sure to take note of Black Jesus talking with the Black Samaritan woman at the well  😀


The Original African Heritage Study Bible has been republished a few times, so if you’re not feeling this paperback edition on Amazon, you can buy the leatherette edition from publisher Judson Press.

Honorable Mentions

If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’re likely wondering, “What about the (insert your favorite translation) Bible?” Yes, I read the English Standard Version and New International Version of the Bible (if those happen to be your go-to favorites). I love the countless notes, articles, charts, and illustrations included in the ESV Study Bible and find the edition I have to be a good resource when I’m more interested in reading about the historical context of what’s happening in the text than simply following the story.

The edition of the New International Version that I find most refreshing is The Books of the Bible New Testament. Although it can get a little tricky if you want to cite a specific passage because chapter and verse numbers aren’t included in this version (and the books are not in the “usual” order), the translation provides an easy, relatable way to connect with Scripture—this is a “modern” translation that I wouldn’t mind handing to a newbie Christian. Finally, I love that this edition is a lightweight paperback that you can toss into a backpack or purse and not worry too much about it getting banged up.

Since most Christians value the Old Testament as much as the New Testament, it makes sense to get familiar with a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible. I first learned about the Tanakh during college when I had to buy it for an Ancient Israel class. I was immediately intrigued. It’s pretty neat how the Jewish Scriptures are divided (between the five books of Moses, the Torah; the Nevi’im of the prophets; and the remaining  Kethuvim, or writings). Most interesting, however, are the translation choices. If you’re new to the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of the Tanakh, one thing that might jump out at you when first reading it is the frequent appearance of “meaning of Hebrew uncertain” in the footnotes—even for passages that you think seem pretty “clear” in Christian translations of the Old Testament.

Finally, if you’ve gone as far as picking up the Tanakh, why not go one step further and get a copy of the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, too. Or, maybe skip the plain Tanakh and go straight for this version. It’s exactly as it sounds—the Jewish Bible in both Hebrew and English, with the text in Hebrew on one page and the English translation on the facing page. If you’ve never really considered getting familiar with biblical Hebrew, I highly recommend it. I find it’s another way to enrich the Bible-reading experience and gain greater insight into perspectives on translation choices.

I know many of us are wed to our “favorite” or “most faithful” translations of the Bible or even may think we know the Bible cover-to-cover, but I’ve found that adding at least two other Scripture translations or versions to the mix can enliven our studies a bit and deepen our appreciation of God’s Word. If owning hard copies are not your thing (or not in your budget), most of the Bible translations and versions mentioned in this article are available to read online and/or in apps. That means a simple Google search will have the NET, CEV, NIV, ESV, and Tanakh at your fingertips.

Editor’s note:  This article includes links to affiliate partners that may pay us a commission based on your purchases.


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    Newbie

    Written by Nicola A. Menzie

    Nicola A. Menzie is Editorial Director of Faithfully Magazine. Nicola is a religion reporter in NYC whose bylines have appeared on the websites of the Religion News Service, The Christian Post, CBS News and Vibe magazine. You can find her on Twitter @namenzie. Email: nicola.menzie (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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