Translations, Target “Reading Level” and Their Differing Uses

People say that different translations are for people of different reading levels or are at least at certain reading levels. The CEV would be preschoolers and ESV would be for people going for their PhD. (Hyperbole) But is that really what the translators are targeting?

Shouldn’t there be a term like “Bible comprehension level”?

Mounce gives these examples in Greek for the Rest of Us:

Romans 11:16 RSV
the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

If you were raised in a church and understand the Old Testament background of Abraham and the patriarchs, you could figure it out. The NLT says:

Romans 11:16 NLT
And since Abraham and the other patriarchs were holy, their descendants will also be holy—just as the entire batch of dough is holy because the portion given as an offering is holy. For if the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too.

Apparently I don’t know the Bible as well as I thought. I didn’t grow up with catechisms and Bible teaching; I grew up in the Catholic church which taught us nothing about the Bible.

Another example of this is in Stan’s post entitled The New Living Translation in Ecclesiastes 5.

So that brings me to my next thought and a question: Should we have a Bible for reading and a Bible for studying? And what is reading, other than reading through the Bible and what is studying? Is referring to a Bible when reading a commentary studying, for example?

Do you use one Bible for reading and another for study? I’m wondering if I should “read” the NLT until I become more Bible literate. Although I’m more Bible literate than the vast majority of Christians, I’m not as literate as most of my Bible blogging friends.

Which brings me to one more thought, question and quandry: I like to highlight and take notes in one Bible and I want to keep them forever. I used the NIV for 20 years and when I became a “more serious student of the Bible” 2 1/2 years ago I switched to the NRSV. I copied all my highlighting and notes from the NIV to the NRSV. Then in the last 2 1/2 years I’ve written more in the NRSV than in the previous 20 in the NIV. This helps me to find things via the highlighting and reminds me of the things I’ve learned.

Now that I want to switch again sometime next year, I want to transfer the notes again which would be quite a task.

What do you think about this?

Since this wasn’t a very cohesive post I’ll restate my questions:

  • Shouldn’t there be a term like “Bible comprehension level”?
  • Should we have a Bible for reading and a Bible for studying and what do those terms mean other than reading through the Bible in a year would be reading and phrasing would be studying?
  • What do you think about wanting to keep highlighting and notes in one Bible forever?

13 Responses to “Translations, Target “Reading Level” and Their Differing Uses”

  1. 1 Stan McCullars

    Great post. Thanks for the link.

    I like the term “Bible comprehension level”. Hopefully it will catch on. It makes sense.
    I’m fairly confident that you’re going to shame me into getting Greek for the Rest of Us. I know that wasn’t a question but I’ve been thinking it for days.
    Regarding Bible reading vs studying… I used a multitude of versions for both “purposes.” I typically use the REB, NLT and TNIV. I will add the NRSV and NAB occasionally. When I know I’m going to be studying and taking notes I pull out my calf-skin, wide margin NASB in which I started taking notes a couple of years ago. I feel trapped. For me, reading and studying break down like this: by studying I mean reading through several translations and going through a commentary to attempt to get a more involved idea of a passage. Reading would involve everything else.
    Like I said above, I feel trapped. I don’t know what to do about that.

    I remembered the formatting keys!!!

  2. 2 ElShaddai Edwards

    Good post, Jeff. I am in constant conflict between (a) the desire to have one Bible/translation for all of my reading and studying and note taking, and (b) the constant message we get that we really need to be comparing multiple translations in order to best understand a passage. The result of (b) for me is that I can never decide which translation to simply read and as a result I get distracted from reading at all, which is no good. And of course the problem with (a) is that my preferred translations aren’t available in formats that are conducive to taking notes. So I usually end up blogging my notes instead… can blogging be considered studying?

  3. 3 Scripture Zealot

    Stan, no shame. But the pleasantly surprising things about this book are it helps you to learn why translations are different and he helps you to learn how to do basic exegesis. Those two things, or even just the latter are worth the book, although I suppose there are other books on the latter. (Any suggestions?)

    ElShaddai’s (a) reminds me I was also thinking I’d like to have one translation for everything. This is where the HCSB could fit in for me and I can see how the TNIV would work here too with the TNIV being more literal than many realize and more literal than the NIV aside from the gender issues.

    Many of our blog posts are the result of studying or we study in the process of writing posts. Unless you’re writing movie reviews. (I won’t mention any names that start with an N.)

  4. 4 tc robinson

    Good stuff, Jeff. I tend to read three English Bibles really.  For study, the TNIV; for devotional the NLT at times but not exclusively; and the NRSV for a more formal feel.But I’ll find myself checking out the HCSB, REB, and NASB.I personally thing that a person who reads the Bible publicly should use a smooth, contemporary type.

  5. 5 Nathan Stitt

    I definitely use only 2-3 bibles for reading. They are, in order, the TNIV, NLT, and ESV. When I do a study I usually go to the REB, NJB, HCSB, Message, CEV, NASB, and my commentary sets. I occasionally go to the Greek or Hebrew and use a lexicon but I don’t have time to do that right now. I tend to use my NRSV when I’m looking up something in the Deuterocanon so there is quite a variety that I utilize when I need to find something. Hmm, and I also have thousands of volumes in Logos, which is my ultimate destination if I have to dig deep. It would be hard for me to go to using only a single translation, but if I did, it would probably be the TNIV. Also, this comment reminds me that I still don’t have a paper copy of the NET translation and that I plan to pick it up eventually.

  6. 6 Nathan Stitt

    I forgot to comment on the reading levels of translations. I have checked out many of the lower reading level translations and I think the CEV is extremely well done and an excellent translation. Also, I totally forgot to mention the Good News Bible (GNB) which is one of my favorites and I should have added it to my study list in my prior comment. In my opinion, the three absolute best easy-to-read bible translations are the NLT, GNB, and CEV.

  7. 7 David Ker

    Regarding reading  vs. studying I think they are distinct activities and require different Bibles. If we’re always stopping to look at footnotes, cross references etc. we aren’t able to take in the message the way the original author intended. In general, a simple format with a minimum of distractions is best and then when we have questions or are preparing for a teaching or sermon we should consult a study Bible or other helps.

  8. 8 Scripture Zealot

    Thanks David. This is part of the reason why I prefer pew Bibles or at the most, reference Bibles.

    What I’m really getting at is should someone like me use one translation for reading and another for study.

    I like TC’s distinction of devotional reading.

    I need to take a better look at the GNB.

  9. 9 David Ker

    Another thing to consider is whether you are reading out loud. A “dumbed down” translation is better for that. I do a lot of reading out loud with my kids and CEV flows better than any other. Finally, if you want a family Bible an easy to read choice will last your family for decades.

  10. 10 Scripture Zealot

    Thanks. I only read in soft. I don’t preach or teach and don’t have kids so when reading it’s just me and God.

    I also actively memorize but I decided about a year ago that I’m free to memorize in any translation I want. I don’t need to stick with my “main Bible” for that.

  11. 11 John

    Right now I use NIV, NEB and Esperanto (which is a good formal-equivalence translation) for reading. I plan on getting NLT and CEV also.

    I could probably also use NAB, NJB, GNB and NRSV, but I prefer to limit my options and get used to a select few. I think with the few I’ve chosen (in addition to KJV and ESV, which I read in public or group setting), I think I’ve pretty much got all bases covered, don’t you think

  12. 12 Scripture Zealot

    That looks like a good combo. I wonder if you’d like the REB?

  13. 13 Sid Wiliams

    Concerning “Reading Comprehension.”
    Google has a different number of web pages every time I search this subject,, “Illumination of the Word by the Spirit.”
    But 800,000 is the lowest reading. Sometimes it registers over 1,000,000.

    What this means to you fellows inquiring about, “Reading Comprehension” is that, “You are in the dark.”

    The Word of God is not intended for mortal man. Observe Paul’s comment on the subject:

    “For the natural man seeks not the things of the Spirit of the God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know for they are spiritually discerned” – 1 Cor. 2.14 and others.

    The Book of Acts is to teach about “conversions.”
    AND — no one was saved by the Bible.
    They were all saved by “witnesses”!

    We are even commanded not to tell you how to be saved.

    “Give not that which is Holy (Holy City) to the dogs, nor cast your Pearls (12 Gates of Holy City were each one Pearl) before hogs, lest they turn and gore you” – Matt 7.6.

    Without the Spirit of the God you are “dead.”
    Without the Spirit of the God you cannot understand the word of God.
    You are totally dependent on the men of the Spirit for witnesses.
    Who do you know who possesses the 7 Spirits of God?

    The Baptists, “Christian Experience” is folly, but close to the truth.
    A) The men saved in Acts were praying to the “unknown God.”
    B) They were performing works of righteousness.
    C) As a result of these two qualities, God sent them “Witnesses” — with the Holy Spirit.

    I wonder if that still works today?
    It is worth a try!

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