The NLT (New Living Translation) and the ESV (English Standard Version) are relatively recent Bible versions, first published within the past 25 years. Both have become extremely popular with Christians from many denominations. Let’s investigate their origins, readability, translation differences, and other variables.
The New Living Translation was meant to be a revision of the Living Bible, which was a paraphrase of the American Standard Bible. (A paraphrase takes an English translation and puts it into modern, easier-to-understand language). However, the project evolved from a paraphrase to an actual translation from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
In 1989, 90 translators started work on the NLT, and it was first published in 1996, 25 years after the Living Bible.
First published in 2001, The English Standard Version is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV), 1971 edition. Translation was done by over 100 leading evangelical scholars and pastors. About 8% (60,000) words of the 1971 RSV were revised in the first ESV publication in 2001, including all trace of liberal influence that had been an issue with the 1952 RSV edition.
Readability of the NLT and ESV translations
Among modern translations, the New Living Translation is usually considered the most easily readable, at a 6th grade reading level.
The ESV is at a 10th grade reading level (some say 8th grade), and like most literal translations, the sentence structure can be slightly awkward, but is readable enough for both Bible study and reading through the Bible. It scores 74.9% on the Flesch Reading Ease.
Bible Translation Differences between NLT and ESV
Literal or Dynamic Equivalent?
Some Bible translations are more literal, “word for word” translations, which translate the exact words and phrases from the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). Other translations are “dynamic equivalent” or “thought for thought,” which convey the central idea, and are easier to read, but not as accurate.
Gender-neutral and Gender-inclusive Language
Another recent issue in Bible translations is the use of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language. The New Testament often uses words like “brothers,” when the context clearly means Christians of both genders. In this case, some translations will use the gender-inclusive “brothers and sisters” – adding in words but transmitting the intended meaning.
Similarly, the translation of “man” can be tricky. In the Old Testament Hebrew, the word “ish” is used when speaking specifically of a male, as in Genesis 2:23, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (ESV).
Another word, “adam,” is used, sometimes specifically referring to a man, but sometimes referring to mankind (or humans), as in the Genesis 7:23 flood account, “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens.” Here, it’s clear that “adam” means humans, both male and female. Traditionally, “adam” has always been translated “man,” but some recent translations use gender-inclusive words like “person” or “humans” or “one” when the meaning is clearly generic.
The New Living Translation is a “dynamic equivalence” (thought for thought) translation. The NIV is furthest over on the thought for thought spectrum than any other well-known translations.
The NLT uses gender-inclusive language, such as “brothers and sisters,” rather than just “brothers,” when the meaning is clearly for both genders. It also uses gender-neutral language (such as “people” instead of “man”) when the context is clearly for humans in general.
See the first two Bible Verse Comparisons below for examples of how the NLT differs from the ESV with gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language.
The English Standard Version is an “essentially literal” translation that emphasizes “word for word” accuracy. It does adjust for differences of grammar and idiom between English and the Hebrew/Greek. It is second only to the New American Standard Bible for being the most literal well-known translation.
The ESV generally translates literally what is in the original language, meaning it doesn’t usually use gender-inclusive language (like brothers and sisters instead of brothers) – just what is in the Greek or Hebrew text. It does (rarely) use gender-neutral language in certain specific cases, when the Greek or Hebrew word could be neutral, and the context is clearly neutral.
Both the NLT and the ESV consulted all available manuscripts – including the oldest – when translating from Hebrew and Greek.
Bible Verse Comparison
NLT: “Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you.”
ESV: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
NLT: “God wiped out every living thing on the earth—people, livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and the birds of the sky. All were destroyed. The only people who survived were Noah and those with him in the boat.”
ESV: “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark.”
NLT: “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.”
ESV: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
NLT: “Your unfailing love is better than life itself; how I praise you!”
ESV: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”
NLT: “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven.”
ESV: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
- It was first published in 1996, with some stylistic influences from the Living Bible. These influences faded somewhat in the second (2004) and third (2007) editions. Two more revisions were released in 2013 and 2015. All the revisions were minor changes.
- In 2016, Tyndale House, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, and 12 Biblical scholars worked together to prepare an NLT Catholic Edition. Tyndale House approved the Indian’s Bishops edits, and these changes will be incorporated into any future editions, both Protestant and Catholic.
- Crossway published the ESV in 2001, followed by three text revisions in 2007, 2011, and 2016. All three revisions made very minor changes, with the exception that in the 2011 revision, Isaiah 53:5 was changed from “wounded for our transgressions” to “pierced for our transgressions.”
The target audience is Christians of all ages, but especially useful for children, young teens, and first time Bible readers. It lends itself to reading through the Bible. The NLT is also “unbeliever friendly” – in that, someone who knows nothing of the Bible or theology would find it easy to read and understand.
As a more literal translation, it is suitable for in-depth study by teens and adults, yet it is readable enough to be used in daily devotions and reading longer passages.
Which translation is more popular, NLT or ESV?
The New Living Translation ranks #3 on the April 2021 Bible Translations Bestsellers list according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). Numbers 1 and 2 on the list are the NIV and the KJV.
The Canadian Gideons chose the New Living Translation for distribution to hotels, motels, hospitals, and so forth, and used the New Living Translation for their New Life Bible App.
The English Standard Version ranks #4 on the Bible Translations Bestsellers list.
In 2013, Gideon’s International, who distributes free Bibles to hotels, hospitals, convalescent homes, medical offices, domestic violence shelters, and prisons, announced it was replacing the New King James Version with the ESV, making it one of the most widely distributed versions around the world.
Pros and Cons of Both
The New Living Translation biggest pro is that it encourages Bible reading. Its readability is great for reading through the Bible, and even in Bible study, it brings new life and clarity to verses. Its readability makes it a good Bible to hand to an unsaved loved one, as it’s likely to be read, not placed on the shelf.
Another pro of the NLT is that it seems to be translated in a way that answers the question, “How does this passage apply to my life?” The point of having a Bible is to let it transform one’s life, and the NLT is great for that.
On the negative side, even though the NLT is supposed to be a “completely new translation,” rather than just a revision of the Living Bible paraphrase, in many instances verses were simply copied directly from the Living Bible with only minor changes. If it were indeed a new translation, one would expect the language to be a bit different than what Kenneth Taylor used in the 1971 Living Bible.
Another negative that comes up with every “dynamic equivalent” or “thought for thought” translation is that it gives a lot of room for the opinion of the translators or their theology to be inserted into the verses. In the case of the NLT, the opinions and theology of one man, Kenneth Taylor (who paraphrased the Living Bible), still holds strong sway over what the translation team suggested.
Some Christians aren’t comfortable with the more gender-inclusive language of the NLT, as it is adding to Scripture.
Some Christians dislike both the NLT and the ESV because they don’t use the Textus Receptus (used by the KJV and NKJV) as the primary Greek text to translate from. Other Christians feel it is better to consult all available manuscripts and that drawing from older manuscripts that are presumably more accurate is a good thing.
One important pro is that, as a literal translation, the translators were less likely to insert their own opinions or theological stance into how the verses were translated. As a word for word translation, it is highly accurate.
In places that may be difficult to understand, the ESV has footnotes explaining words, phrases, and issues with translation. The ESV has an amazing cross-reference system, one of the best of all translations, along with a useful concordance.
One criticism is that the ESV tends to retain archaic language from the Revised Standard Version. Also, in some places the ESV has awkward language, obscure idioms, and irregular word order, which make it somewhat difficult to read and understand. Nevertheless, the ESV readability score places it ahead of many other translations.
Although the ESV is mostly a word for word translation, to improve readability, some passages were more thought for thought and these diverged significantly from other translations.
Pastors who use NLT:
- Chuck Swindoll: Evangelical Free Church preacher, nowpastor of Stonebriar Community Church (nondenominational) in Frisco, Texas, founder of radio program Insight for Living, former president of Dallas Theological Seminary.
- Tom Lundeen, Pastor of Riverside Church, a Christian & Missionary Alliance megachurch with multiple campuses in Big Lake, Minnesota, preaches from the NLT, and copies of this version are handed out to visitors and members.
- Bill Hybels, prolific author, creator of the Global Leadership Summit, and founder and former pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch with seven campuses in the Chicago area.
Pastors who use ESV:
- John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for 33 years, reformed theologian, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, founder of Desiring God ministries, and best-selling author.
- R.C. Sproul (deceased) reformed theologian, Presbyterian pastor, founder of Ligonier Ministries, a chief architect of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and author of over 70 books.
- J. I. Packer (deceased 2020) Calvinist theologian who served on the ESV translation team, author of Knowing God, onetime evangelical priest in the Church of England, later a Theology Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.
Study Bibles to Choose
A good study Bible gives insight and understanding through study notes explaining words, phrases, and spiritual concepts. Some have topical articles throughout, written by well-known Christians. Visual aides such as maps, charts, illustrations, timelines, and tables can aid with comprehension. Most study Bibles have cross-references to verses with similar themes, a concordance to look up where certain words occur in the Bible, and an introduction to each book in the Bible.
Best NLT Study Bibles
- The Swindoll Study Bible, by Charles Swindoll, and published by Tyndale, includes study notes, book introductions, application articles, a holy land tour, people profiles, prayers, Bible reading plans, color maps, and a study Bible app.
- The NLT Life Application Study Bible, 3rd Edition, winner of the 2020 Christian Book Award for Bible of the Year, is the #1 top-selling study Bible. Published by Tyndale, it contains 10,000+ Life Application® notes and features, 100+ Life Application® people profiles, book introductions, and 500+ maps and charts.
- The Christian Basics Bible: New Living Translation, by Martin Manser and Michael H. Beaumont is geared for those new to the Bible. It contains information on becoming a Christian, first steps in the Christian walk, Bible reading plans, and basic truths of the Christian faith. It explains what is in the Bible and provides timelines, study notes, maps and infographics, book introductions and outlines, and information regarding how each book is relevant for today.
Best ESV Study Bibles
- The ESV Literary Study Bible, published by Crossway, includes notes by literary scholar Leland Ryken of Wheaton College. Its focus is not so much on explaining passages as teaching readers how to read the passages. It contains 12,000 insightful notes highlighting literary features such as genre, images, plot, setting, stylistic and rhetorical techniques, and artistry.
- The ESV Study Bible, published by Crossway, has sold more than 1 million copies. The general editor is Wayne Grudem, and features ESV editor J.I. Packer as theological editor. It includes cross-references, a concordance, maps, a reading plan, and introductions to the books of the Bible.
- The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version, edited by R.C. Sproul and published by Ligonier Ministries, contains 20,000+ pointed and pithy study notes, 96 theological articles (Reformed theology), contributions from 50 evangelical scholars, 19 in-text black & white maps, and 12 charts.
Other Bible Translations
Let’s look at the other 3 translations that were in the top 5 on the April 2021 Bible Translations Bestsellers list: the NIV (#1), the KJV (#2), and the NKJV (#3).
- NIV (New International Version)
First published in 1978, this version was translated by 100+ international scholars from 13 denominations. The NIV was a fresh translation, rather than a revision of a former translation. It is a “thought for thought” translation and it does omit and add words not in the original manuscripts. The NIV is considered second best for readability after the NLT, with an age 12+ reading level.
- KJV (King James Version)
First published in 1611, translated by 50 scholars commissioned by King James I as a revision of the Bishops Bible of 1568. Loved for its beautifully poetic language; however, the archaic English can interfere with comprehension. Some idioms can be bewildering, word meanings have changed in the past 400 years, and the KJV also has words no longer used in common English.
- NKJV (New King James Version)
First published in 1982 as a revision of the King James Version. The main objective of 130 scholars was to preserve the style and poetic beauty of the KJV while the archaic language. Like the KJV, it mostly uses the Textus Receptus for the New Testament, not the older manuscripts. Readability is much easier than the KJV, but, like all literal translations, sentence structure can be awkward.
- Comparison of James 4:11 (compare to NLT & ESV above)
NIV: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.”
KJV: “Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge.”
NKJV: “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
What is the best translation to use?
The answer to that question depends on who you are and how you plan to use the Bible. If you are a new Christian, or if you want to read the Bible through from cover to cover, or if you want an easier reading level, you will probably enjoy the NLT. Even mature Christians who have read and studied the Bible for many years find that the NLT brings new life to their Bible reading and helps with applying God’s word to their lives.
If you are a more mature Christian, or if you are at a high school reading level or above, or if you plan to do in-depth Bible study, the ESV is a good choice as it is a more literal translation. It’s also readable enough for daily devotional reading or even reading through the Bible.
The best answer is to select a translation you will read daily! Before buying a print edition, you may want to try reading and comparing the NLT and the ESV (and other translations) online at the Bible Hub website. They have all the 5 translations mentioned above and many more, with parallel readings for whole chapters as well as individual verses. You can also use the “interlinear” link to check out how close a verse adheres to the Greek or Hebrew in various translations.