Fifty years ago, only a handful of Bible translations in English were available. Today, we have dozens to choose from.
Two of the most popular are the New International Version (NIV) and the New King James Version (NKJV). Let’s contrast and compare these two favored versions.
Origins of both Bible translations
In 1956, the National Association of Evangelicals formed a committee to assess the value of a translation in common American English. In 1967, the International Bible Society (now Biblica) took on the project, forming a “Committee on Bible Translation,” with 15 scholars from 13 Evangelical Christian denominations and five English-speaking nations.
The New International Version was first published in 1978 and stood out as a completely new translation, rather than a revision of a former translation.
The New King James Version, first published in 1982, is a revision of the King James Version of 1769. The 130 translators, who worked for seven years, endeavored to preserve the poetic beauty and style of the KJV while updating vocabulary and grammar. The “thee” and “thou” in the KJV was changed to the modern “you,” and verb endings were updated (giveth/give, worketh/work).
Readability of the NIV and the NKJV
Among modern translations (not including paraphrases) the NIV is generally considered the second easiest English translation to read (after the NLT), with a reading level of age 12+. The NIrV (New International Reader’s Version) was published in 1996 at a 3rd-grade reading level. The NIV and NIrV are commonly used for children’s Bibles. It’s readability lend it to reading through the Bible.
Although much easier to read than the King James Bible on which it was based, the NKJV is a little difficult to read due to somewhat awkward and choppy sentence structure, as is common with more literal translations. However, many readers find the poetic style and cadence make it a pleasure to read. It is written at an 8th-grade reading level (age 13+).
Bible translation differences between the NIV and NKJV
Two important decisions that Bible translators must make include:
- which manuscripts to translate from, and
- whether to translate “word for word” from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts or to translate “thought for thought.”
The Manuscript Issue
In 1516, the Catholic scholar Erasmus published a Greek New Testament called the Textus Receptus. He used a collection of Greek manuscripts that had been copied by hand over and over through the centuries from the original manuscripts (which no longer exist, as far as we know). The oldest manuscripts of the New Testament available to Erasmus had been copied in the 12th century.
Later, much older Greek manuscripts became available – some dated back to the 3rd century, so they were as much as 900 years older than what was used in the Textus Receptus. These older manuscripts are what are used in most modern translations.
As scholars compared the older manuscripts with the newer ones, they discovered some verses were missing from the older versions. Perhaps they had been added in over the centuries by well-meaning monks. Or perhaps some of the scribes in earlier centuries had inadvertently left them out.
For instance, a portion of Mark 16 is missing in two older manuscripts (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus). And yet it does appear in over a thousand other Greek manuscripts. Most translators decided to keep that part of Mark 16 in the Bible, but with a note or footnote that those verses were missing from some manuscripts.
Neither the NIV nor the NKJV omit the verses in Mark 16; rather, they both have a note that the verses are not found in older manuscripts.
Translators used the oldest manuscripts available for translation. For the New Testament, they used the Nestle-Aland edition in Koine Greek that compares readings from many manuscripts.
Like its predecessor, the King James Version, the NKJV mostly uses the Textus Receptus for the New Testament, not the older manuscripts. However, the translators did consult the older manuscripts and placed notes in the center when they conflicted with the Textus Receptus.
Word for Word versus thought for thought
Some Bible translations are more literal, with “word for word” translations, while others are “dynamic equivalent” or “thought for thought.” As much as possible, word for word versions translate the exact words and phrases from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). “Thought for thought” translations convey the central idea, and are easier to read, but not as accurate. Most Bible translations fall somewhere in the spectrum between the two.
The NIV compromises between being a literal and a dynamic equivalent translation, but on the dynamic equivalence (thought for thought) end of the spectrum. This version omits and adds words not in the original manuscripts to clarify the meaning, for better flow, and to incorporate gender inclusive language.
The New King James Version uses a “complete equivalence” or word for word principle of translation; however, it is not quite as literal as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) or the English Standard Bible (ESB).
Bible Verse Comparison
Psalm 23:1-4 “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Romans 12:1 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.”
Colossians 3:1 “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
1 John 4:8 “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Mark 5:36 “Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
1 Corinthians 7:19 “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”
Psalm 33:11 “But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”
Psalm 23:1-4 “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
Romans 12:1 “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
Colossians 3:1-2 “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”
1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 John 4:8 “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Mark 5:36 “As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not be afraid; only believe.”
1 Corinthians 7:19 “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.” (Obedience Bible Scriptures)
Psalm 33:11 “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, The plans of His heart to all generations.”
- A minor revision was published in 1984.
- In 1996, the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition was published in the United Kingdom but not the United States because conservative evangelicals opposed the gender-neutral language.
- Also, in 1996, the NIrV (New International Reader’s Version) was published at a 3rd-grade reading level that was suitable for children or those learning the English language.
- A minor revision was published in 1999.
- In 2005, Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was published, which contained changes such as saying Mary was “pregnant” rather “with child” (Matthew 1:8), and Jesus saying, “truly I tell you” became “I tell you the truth.” “Miracles” were changed to “signs” or “works.” The TNIV is gender neutral.
- A 2011 update dropped some gender-neutral language, reverting to “man” instead of “humans.”
Since the publication of the entire Bible in 1982, the NKJV’s copyright hasn’t changed except for in 1990, although numerous minor revisions have been made since 1982.
The NIV is popular with evangelicals of all ages for being so easy to read, but is especially appropriate for children, teens, new Christians, and those desiring to read large portions of Scripture.
As a more literal translation, it is suitable for in-depth study by teens and adults, especially those who appreciate the poetic beauty of the KJV. It is readable enough to be used in daily devotions and reading longer passages.
As of April 2021, the NIV is the most popular Bible translation by sales, according to the Evangelical Publisher’s Association.
The NKJV ranked 5th in sales (the KJV was #2, New Living Translation #3, and ESV #4).
Pros and Cons of both
Perhaps the biggest reason the NIV is so well-loved is that it is easy to read. That’s important! The Bible really does need to be read, not gathering dust on the shelf. So, readability is a definite “pro!”
Some very conservative Evangelical Christians dislike the NIV because it doesn’t use the Textus Receptus as the primary Greek text to translate from; they feel that the Alexandrian text, even though older, was somehow corrupted. Other Christians feel that drawing from older manuscripts that are presumably more accurate is a good thing. So, depending on your stance, this could be a pro or a con.
Some conservative Christians aren’t comfortable with the more gender-inclusive language of the NIV (for instance, “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers”). They say this is adding to Scripture. Obviously, many times when “brother(s)” or “man” is used in the Bible, it is being used in a generic sense, and clearly isn’t denoting only males. For instance, in the Romans 12:1 verse above, Paul certainly wasn’t encouraging only men to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God. “Brothers” in this context is referring to all believers.
But does the translation need to be changed? Do words need to be added? For most Christians, the use of words like “man” and “brothers” has always been understood from the context to mean both men and women.
“Adding words” for better comprehension and flow (or for gender inclusion) is hotly debated. Doing so certainly makes the NIV more readable. But it does sometimes alter the original meaning. For this reason, the Southern Baptist Convention expressed profound disappointment in the 2011 NIV and discouraged Baptist bookstores from selling them.
The NKJV is beloved by many because it retains much of the poetic beauty of the King James Version, while being easier to read. Because it is a literal translation, the translators were less likely to insert their own opinions or theological stance into how the verses were translated.
Some Christians feel that it is a “plus” that the NKJV used the Textus Receptus for translating (although they did consult with other manuscripts), as they believe the Textus Receptus is somehow purer and maintained its integrity for 1200+ years of being copied by hand. Other Christians feel it is better to consult all available manuscripts.
Although the NKJV is somewhat easy to read, it does retain some archaic phrases and sentence structure, making some sentences odd and a little difficult to understand.
Pastors who use NIV
Even though the Southern Baptist Convention discouraged the 2011 NIV translation, each Southern Baptist pastor and church is independent, and can decide for themselves. The NIV is widely used by pastors and members of Baptist and other evangelical churches.
Some well-known pastors and theologians that use the NIV include:
- Max Lucado, famous author and co-pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas
- Jim Cymbala, Pastor, Brooklyn Tabernacle
- Charles Stanley, Pastor Emeritus, First Baptist Church of Atlanta
- Craig Groeshel, Pastor, LifeChurch TV
- Larry Hart, Professor of Theology, Oral Roberts University
- Andy Stanley, Founder, North Point Ministries
- Mark Young, President, Denver Seminary
- Daniel Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary
Pastors who use NKJV
Because the Eastern Orthodox Church believes the Textus Receptus is the most reliable Greek manuscript for translating the New Testament, they use the NKJV as the basis for the New Testament section of the Orthodox Study Bible.
Many Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers will use only the NKJV or KJV.
Many ultra-conservative “fundamentalist” churches will not use anything other than the NKJV or KJV because they believe the Textus Receptus is the pure and only acceptable Greek manuscript.
Well-known pastors who endorse the New King James Version include:
- John MacArthur, Pastor-Teacher of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles for over 50 years, prolific author, and teacher on the internationally syndicated radio and TV program Grace to You
- Dr. Jack W. Hayford, founding pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California, Founder & former President of The King’s University in Los Angeles and Dallas, hymn composer and author.
- David Jeremiah, conservative evangelical author, senior pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church (Southern Baptist) in El Cajon, California, founder of Turning Point Radio and Television Ministries.
- Philip De Courcy, senior pastor of Kindred Community Church in Anaheim Hills, California and teacher on daily media program, Know the Truth.
Study Bibles to Choose
Some Christians find great value in using a study Bible for the additional helps provided in understanding and applying Bible passages. These include study notes which explain words or phrases and/or give various scholars’ interpretations on passages that are hard to understand. Many study Bibles include articles, often written by well-known Christians, on topical themes related to a passage.
Most study Bibles have maps, charts, illustrations, timelines, and tables – all of which help visualize concets related to verses. If you love journaling during your private Bible reading or taking notes from sermons or Bible studies, some study Bibles provide wide margins or dedicated spaces for notes. Most study Bibles also contain introductions to each book of the Bible.
Best NIV Study Bibles
- The Jesus Bible, NIV Edition, from the Passion Movement, with contributions from Louie Giglio, Max Lucado, John Piper, and Randy Alcorn, features over 300 articles, a dictionary-concordance, and room to journal.
- NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible—edited by D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, along with other notable scholars. Contains articles on theology, lots of color photos, maps and charts, and thousands of verse notes.
- The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible (also available in NKJB) features 2500 life lessons (such as trusting God, obeying God, listening to God) that can be learned from various passages. It also has maps and charts.
Best NKJV Study Bible
- NKJV Jeremiah Study Bible, by Dr. David Jeremiah, features study notes, cross-references, articles on essentials of Christian faith, topical index.
- The MacArthur Study Bible (also available in NIV), edited by reformed pastor John MacArthur, is good for explaining historical context of passages. It includes thousands of study notes, charts, maps, outlines and articles from Dr. MacArthur, a 125-page concordance, an overview of theology, and an index to key Bible doctrines.
- The NKJV Study Bible by Thomas Nelson Press contains thousands of verse-by-verse study notes, notes on Bible culture, word studies, maps, charts, outlines, timelines, and full-length articles.
Other Bible Translations
- NLT (New Living Translation) is number 3 on the bestselling list and is a revision of the 1971 Living Bible paraphrase. Over 90 scholars from many evangelical denominations conducted a “dynamic equivalence” (thought for thought) translation. Many consider this the most easily readable translation.
The target audience is children, young teens, and first time Bible readers. Here is how Colossians 3:1 is translated – compare it with the NIV and NKJV above:
“Therefore, since you have been raised with Christ, strive for the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”
- ESV (English Standard Version) is number 4 on the bestselling list. It is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1971 and an “essentially literal” or word for word translation, second only to the New American Standard Version for accuracy in translating. The ESV is at a 10th grade reading level, and like most literal translations, the sentence structure can be slightly awkward.
The target audience is older teens and adults interested in serious Bible study, yet readable enough for daily Bible reading. Here is Colossians 3:1 in the ESV:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
- NASB (New American Standard Bible) is number 10 on the bestselling list and a revision of the 1901 American Standard Version, considered the most literal word-for-word translation. Translated by 58 evangelical scholars, it was one of the first to capitalize personal pronouns related to God (He, Him, Your, etc.).
The target audience is teens and adults interested in serious Bible study, although it can be valuable for daily Bible reading. Here is Colossians 3:1 in the New American Standard Bible:
“Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
Which Bible Translation Should I Choose?
Choose the Bible translation you will love reading and will read regularly. Aim for the most accurate version that is still readable enough for your comfort level. If you want to do a comparison between the NIV and NKJB (and other versions), you can go the Bible Hub website and see how certain verses compare from one translation to another.
As valuable as it is to listen to sermons in church and engage in Bible studies, your greatest spiritual growth will come from daily immersing yourself in God’s Word and following what it says. Find the version that resonates with you and be blessed by His Word!