Which 'modern' (anything inclusive of King James Version to date) English translation of the Bible is considered the 'closest' or most accurate translation from the original Hebrew & Greek texts?

By accurate or closest, I'm referring to which one(s) is/are literal, which translate the Hebrew and Greek texts to the closest literal meaning possible in English.

  • 10
    It depends on how you define accurate. Do you mean most literal? Versions like ASV and ESV aim to be the most literal translations in their intent. Versions like the NIV aim to translate the meaning into something easy to read today.
    – Cody C
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 20:00
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    This question is way too subjective for this site. Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 23:57
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    @Lance Roberts: I don't think so. Often the translators themselves weigh in on how close their translation comes to being literal. The NASB and ESV aim for word-for-word translations and the NIV aims for idea-for-idea translations. Other translations are quite upfront about being paraphrases. Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 19:10
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    There is a difference between "literal" and "accurate". If the literal order of the Greek or Hebrew words doesn't yield a sensible sentence in English, or if the original language contains an idiomatic expression, a direct word-for-word translation is less accurate than a translation that captures the meaning but loses the structure of the original. Commented Oct 6, 2011 at 15:40
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    As the first commenter said, well over two years ago as I type this comment, it depends on what feature of translation you're testing for "accuracy". An older book (and much has been written since then) that set the agenda for much of the modern discussions and still repays close reading and study: Eugene Nida, Toward a Science of Translating: With Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964). Google Scholar lists ~2,060 works which cite it. Influential.
    – Dɑvïd
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 0:06

9 Answers 9


Among popular translations, New American Standard Bible is one of the most literal translations from the original languages, attemping to preserve as much as possible of the original sentance structure and word order.

From more literal to less literal popular translations include: NASB, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NIV, NLT, CEV, The Message. (list order courtesy of evangelicalbible.com)

However, an interlinear bible would far exceed the NASB as a more literal translation, as the english is not even arranged in the English word order, but is translated as a footnote or subtitle under the Hebrew or Greek, often with annotations about the part of speech.


I agree wholeheartedly with Jessica Brown's answer, but there's another dimension to accuracy: the text a translation is based on. Before the Tyndale Bible, English translations were made from the Latin translation (the Vulgate) and not directly from the Greek. For obvious reasons, these translations are automatically less accurate to the original texts than more recent translations.

Until quite recently, English Bibles were translated from a version of the Greek New Testament called the Textus Receptus produced by Desiderius Erasmus. It was formed from just 6 Greek manuscripts and was supplemented by translations of Vulgate texts back into Greek. By contrast, modern Greek texts make use of over 5,800 Greek manuscripts including some found only within the last 100 years.

Modern translations of the Old Testament are also informed by the Dead Sea Scrolls, which strongly support the Masoretic Text. Older translations were unable to benefit from these sorts of discoveries.

Thankfully, English translators have a long tradition of including introductory notes to their work. If you look in the first few pages of a Bible, it's quite likely you will be able to read an impassioned argument for why that particular English version should be read and used. You can get a good idea of the translation philosophy represented in the subsequent pages and where the editors stood on controversial issues such as gender-inclusive language, archaic pronouns referring to God, translating the names of God, and so on.

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    While this is true, at the same time, these manuscripts show how accurate the limited ones in centuries past were. Compare NASB (or any other recent translation) to KJV. Besides archaic word chioce, the translations are very similar.
    – timw4mail
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 19:11
  • Hmm, I'm not sure what scholarly articles you've read, but from what I've read the Dead Sea Scrolls have often supported the LXX more than the MT. There certainly some places where the MT is more accurate, but in a majority it seems the LXX is the most reliable.
    – user1985
    Commented Jan 19, 2013 at 14:47
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    @theosis: I'm mostly relying on Wikipedia and the impression I've received from reading introductions to various translations. See also my answer to "Why is the Septuagint (LXX) significant?" Can you point me to the articles you are thinking of? (And welcome to the site, by the way. ;-) Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 18:54
  • This requires a long answer, question come soon
    – user1985
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 21:24

This is cross-posted and adapted from my answer here.

Accuracy and 'literalness' are only two of several factors in a translation, and I would argue that they are subjective factors at that. I would propose the following criteria for selecting an English Bible translation:

  • faithfulness to the original languages
  • translation philosophy (thought-for-thought, word-for-word, or paraphrase)
  • usage of the best texts/manuscripts available
  • readability

As I stated, these criteria are purely subjective, therefore some religious traditions will prefer various manuscripts or translation philosophies over others.

Faithfulness to the original languages

Is the translation based on the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts (or an attempt to reconstruct non-extant manuscripts in another language)? Or is it based on an existing translation? Is the translation consistent? Does it take recent scholarly linguistic and philological data into account? Does it allow the New Testament to inform how the Hebrew Bible is translated (and take into account differences between the Septuagint and Masoretic or other texts)? Are masculine pronouns translated as gender-neutral where grammar allows? Is there a clear bias (translations produced by sectarian groups or individuals often have a determined bias - and all translation involves bias if we're honest)?

Translation philosophy

A thought-for-thought translation is known as dynamic equivalent, while a word-for-word translation is called formal equivalent. A paraphrase involves restating the meaning of a given passage in other words. Essentially this is a metric of how literal a translation is (does it follow form or meaning?). Remember that both form and meaning can be important; this is a subjective decision (just like all of the other criteria). 'Literal' is not always better, especially when the text refers to idioms or cultural/historical practices or events which are unfamiliar to modern readers.

This seems to be the main criteria you are using, but I hope to persuade you that the other factors are equally important. However, since this is the main criteria you asked about, here is an infographic prepared by Dave Croteau that illustrates where several major English Bible translations fall on this spectrum:

Translation Philosophy Comparison

Keep in mind, however, that this infographic does not take these other factors into account - which I believe are equally important (but highly subjective, and thus unable to be neatly graphed).

Usage of the best texts/manuscripts available

Some religious traditions have defined manuscripts/texts that are to be considered authoritative. Others tend to trust certain "families" of manuscripts more than others (Byzantine/Majority vs. Alexandrian, etc.), or they reject the 'family' theory altogether (e.g. CBGM). Others would prefer 'eclectic' texts produced with the best quality scholarship that take early translations and manuscript variants into account.


This criteria is often overlooked. There is some truth to the old saying that "the best Bible translation is the one you read." Who cares how well it meets the other criteria if you can't comprehend what you're reading? Some translations are harder to read than others.

The best translation is a purely subjective choice that factors in these criteria. Some may consider certain criteria to be more important than others, while others may wish to balance all of them equally.


Your question asks two things together which are normally considered conflicting goals: "literalness" and the "closest meaning possible".

Translations such as the NASB and ESV are usually considered to be very "literal". They both attempt to mimic the morphosyntax of the original texts. The problem with this approach is that the Biblical languages have very different grammars than English. Greek for example has a very free word order, whereas English has a fairly fixed word order. The order of words in the NT is therefore determined on the basis of Information Structure - certain sentence positions are used to indicate that they are communicating new information, or important information. English also has Information Structure conventions, but they are different. Mimicking Greek's syntax therefore not only produces awkward English sentences, but can in fact put the emphasis on all the wrong words.

Another example where mimicking the morphosyntax is unhelpful is with multi word verbs. In translations like the NASB you will often see that someone "answered and said", whereas most translations recognise that this is an idiom and will just say "answered" or "replied". In Matthew 26:33 the ESV says "fall away" because the Greek uses two words, but the NLT says "desert" because its translators thought it conveyed the meaning better.

One final fact about Greek is that it normally doesn't explicitly use pronouns - they are used for emphasis. Matthew 26:33 is one of the times when a pronoun is used, which is something that most translations miss. One that doesn't miss it and does communicate the emphasis is the ISV which says "Even if everyone else turns against you, I certainly won’t!"

While many exegetes recommend syntax mimicking translations, most linguists would recommend one that doesn't attempt to do that, because it confuses the meaning too much, and doesn't actually give any substantial benefit to the reader. In my opinion the most accurate translations are ones like the NIV and NLT - the NLT is the translation which I feel is written in language and style most similar to the English I actually speak. The NIV11 is of special note for being the only translation I'm aware of which has commissioned a corpus study to inform the translators as to how English is actually spoken today. You can read that full report here.

(Several examples I gave here came from a blog post I wrote a few years ago.)


Copied from my answer to this question (as suggested by @Jack Douglas).

Actually, most modern translations are done from the original languages (or are revisions of previous translations that were translated from the original languages), and it usually states so in the first pages of that edition of the Bible.

The problem with asking for something that is "closest" to the text, is that this can mean "closest in word choice" or "closest in meaning" (which are not the same). This is usually referred to as "word for word" vs "thought for thought". The terms "literal", "dynamic equivalence" and "paraphrase" are also used to describe where on the spectrum a translation falls under. For example, a more literal translation would translate the words of an idiom, which might not make any sense in English, so you might actually lose a bit of the meaning for readers unfamiliar with these idioms. A more paraphrased translation has the problem that it interprets the text for you, so that means that in certain key verses (or sometimes entire chunks of text) what you will get is the translators theological understanding of the text (which can be completely wrong, and even contradictory to what the original text said).

This choice of how literal to go is an inherent problem in the craft of translation. As an example, in English you can say that something is "at the heart of the matter", but to translate that literally (i.e., "word for word") into another language yields a phrase that does not convey the meaning of "this is the main issue of the matter" or "the central point of the matter". In certain cultures in Africa, for example, the heart is not the organ used to refer to feelings and desires, so verses like Ezekiel 36:26 that refers to "God giving us a new heart" would make no sense to them, but something like "God giving us a new liver" would. So a strict word-for-word translation would not be a good choice to convey what the text means.

For this reason, for serious Bible study, it is good to have multiple translations that range from strict word-for-word to somewhere into the middle (the closer to paraphrase you go, the more interpreted the text will be for you, and the more it will instead reflect the theology of the translators than what that of the text; no man has perfect understanding to claim an inerrant interpretation). This is why it is good to also familiarize yourself with the languages, and culture behind the text, use (multiple) Bible study tools, and so on. In reality, we want to know what the authors meant not merely what they wrote.

So to answer your question, here are a couple of charts showing where some translations lie on that scale:

from Why We Have Different Bible Translations. :

reasonabletheology.org chart

from Not Just Another Book.:

notjustanotherbook.com chart

from Quantifying Traditional vs. Contemporary Language in English Bibles Using Google NGram Data.:

openbible.info chart

Also useful from that last link is this chart:

enter image description here

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    But you can't call the Message 'contemporary' when it uses outdated 90s American slang!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 22:05
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    hehe.. I would wonder if it can even be called a "Bible".. but that's a whole other topic unto itself.. Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 8:59
  • I would wonder that too! I would probably mark the "Message" in the charts about one mile to the right.
    – cnaak
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 0:55

There are a few translations that are probably considered more literal than the NASB. These all have "literal" in the title. They tend to be less readable, but certainly more literal. Included are the following:

  • Young's Literal Translation (YLT), Robert Young - 1862

  • Green's Literal Translation (LITV), Jay P. Green - 1985

  • Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT), Gary Zeolla - 2001 (NT), 2012 (OT)


An alternate literal translation that is not very popular but worth looking at is the Orthodox New Testament (not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Bible or the Orthodox Study Bible)

It is based on the 1904 Patriarchal Text of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, compiled from Greek manuscripts that had been archived at Mt. Athos, an ancient autonomous monastic state within Greece. The Majority Text ended up being very close to the Patriarchal Text, though not by design. If one is interested, the Eastern Orthodox Bible (another English translation of the PT) footnotes differences between the Textus Receptus (TR), Critical Text (CT; the basis of the NASB) and the PT.

The Orthodox New Testament is unique among other versions in that besides being more literal than most, the translators took extra care to review witnesses to the various texts among the Greek Church Fathers. There is at least one instance (John 5:26-28) where the reading provided by the other versions (including the NASB) was known to be heretical by the Church Fathers. The editors (a group of Greek Orthodox nuns) take care to footnote expressions and verses that have special idiomatic and colloquial nuances.


YLT is the best literal translation of the Bible. Its about 200 years old. For some reason most answers above do not mention it. Here is the link

There is also Concordant Literal Version. Here is the link. Check it out. It is the best. And the software is great to learn Hebrew and Greek.

I also translated the first book of the Bible here. I tried to follow YLT. Its word-by-word translation.


Short answer: Literal is considered "formally equivalent." So, if the original language has a noun, then it is translated with a noun (same form). This is problematic with things like participles, which are verbal nouns. Sailing is both a noun and a verb depending on context. Top this off with the fact that Greek does not use English sentence structure. Greek can say He kissed her, her He kissed, kissed he her and have them all mean roughly the same thing. This is because Greek is a declined language opposed to English being a positional language. So, if you want "most literal" it won't necessarily convey the meaning and intent of the original text.

To help further answer the question. An Interlinear Translation will be the most literal, followed by something like the NASB. The ESV sits about 3/4 of the way towards literal, keeping a balance of literal with some functional equivalence. NIV sits about dead middle on the spectrum and the Message is most functionally equivalent.

  • 1
    The clarification on how meaningless "literal" is is good, but you need to actually answer the question as well. Can you edit this with some remarks about what translations employ more formal rather than dynamic equivalence so that this can stand alone as an answer to this question?
    – Caleb
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 10:26

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