I was curious about various Bible translation grade levels for my children, so I started doing some research. Here is brief compendium of common translations, their reading level and some of their attributes. Hope this is helpful to you.
Christian Standard Bible (CSV)
- Website: https://csbible.com/about-the-csb/faqs/
- Reading Level: 7th Grade.
- History: An edited version of the Holman Standard Bible.
- Translation Philosophy: Optimal Equivalence. “The CSB was created using optimal equivalence, a translation philosophy that pursues both linguistic precision to the original languages and readability in contemporary English. This process ensures that both the words and thoughts contained in the original text are conveyed as accurately as possible for today’s readers.”
- Texts: “The textual base for the New Testament is the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th edition, and the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 5th corrected edition. The text for the Old Testament is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th edition. Where there are significant differences among Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek manuscripts, the translators follow what they believe is the original reading and indicate the main alternative(s) in footnotes.”
English Standard Version (ESV)
- Website: https://www.esv.org/translation/
- Reading Level: 10th Grade.
- History: “the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work”
- Translation Philosophy: “The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on “word-for-word” correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”
- Texts: “The ESV is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible as found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (5th ed., 1997), and on the Greek text in the 2014 editions of the Greek New Testament (5th corrected ed.), published by the United Bible Societies (UBS), and Novum Testamentum Graece (28th ed., 2012), edited by Nestle and Aland. The currently renewed respect among Old Testament scholars for the Masoretic text is reflected in the ESV’s attempt, wherever possible, to translate difficult Hebrew passages as they stand in the Masoretic text rather than resorting to emendations or to finding an alternative reading in the ancient versions. In exceptional, difficult cases, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, and other sources were consulted to shed possible light on the text, or, if necessary, to support a divergence from the Masoretic text. Similarly, in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 28th edition. Throughout, the translation team has benefited greatly from the massive textual resources that have become readily available recently, from new insights into biblical laws and culture, and from current advances in Hebrew and Greek lexicography and grammatical understanding.”
New Living Translation
- Website: https://www.tyndale.com/nlt/faq
- Reading Level: 6th Grade.
- History: Revising Living Bible (paraphrase) into a translation.
- Translation Philosophy: Meaning-Based. “English Bible translations tend to be governed by one of two general translation theories. The first theory has been called “formal-equivalence,” “literal,” or “word-for-word” translation. According to this theory, the translator attempts to render each word of the original language into English and seeks to preserve the original syntax and sentence structure as much as possible in translation. The second theory has been called “dynamic-equivalence,” “functional-equivalence,” or “thought-for-thought” translation. The goal of this translation theory is to produce in English the closest natural equivalent of the message expressed by the original-language text, both in meaning and in style.
Both of these translation theories have their strengths. A formal-equivalence translation preserves aspects of the original text—including ancient idioms, term consistency, and original-language syntax—that are valuable for scholars and professional study. It allows a reader to trace formal elements of the original-language text through the English translation. A dynamic-equivalence translation, on the other hand, focuses on translating the message of the original-language text. It ensures that the meaning of the text is readily apparent to the contemporary reader. This allows the message to come through with immediacy, without requiring the reader to struggle with foreign idioms and awkward syntax. It also facilitates serious study of the text’s message and clarity in both devotional and public reading.
The pure application of either of these translation philosophies would create translations at opposite ends of the translation spectrum. But in reality, all translations contain a mixture of these two philosophies. A purely formal-equivalence translation would be unintelligible in English, and a purely dynamic-equivalence translation would risk being unfaithful to the original. That is why translations shaped by dynamic-equivalence theory are usually quite literal when the original text is relatively clear, and the translations shaped by formal-equivalence theory are sometimes quite dynamic when the original text is obscure.”
- Texts: “The Old Testament translators used the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible as represented in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977), with its extensive system of textual notes; this is an update of Rudolf Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica (Stuttgart, 1937). The translators also further compared the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint and other Greek manuscripts, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac Peshitta, the Latin Vulgate, and any other versions or manuscripts that shed light on the meaning of difficult passages.
The New Testament translators used the two standard editions of the Greek New Testament: the Greek New Testament, published by the United Bible Societies (UBS, fourth revised edition, 1993), and Novum Testamentum Graece, edited by Nestle and Aland (NA, twenty-seventh edition, 1993). These two editions, which have the same text but differ in punctuation and textual notes, represent, for the most part, the best in modern textual scholarship. However, in cases where strong textual or other scholarly evidence supported the decision, the translators sometimes chose to differ from the UBS and NA Greek texts and followed variant readings found in other ancient witnesses. Significant textual variants of this sort are always noted in the textual notes of the New Living Translation.”
New King James
- Website: https://www.thomasnelsonbibles.com/nkjv/about/
- Reading Level: 7th Grade.
- Translation Philosophy: Formal equivalence. “The translation method is “complete equivalence,” which is sometimes known as formal equivalence. It gives the meaning clearly in natural English while maintaining as much of the wording and grammar of the original languages as possible. Therefore, the match between the original language and the English translation is as complete as can be, making the NKJV ideal for close study. The NKJV was created using a painstaking translation and review process involving scholars in countries around the world.”
- Texts: Masoretic Text, Textus Recepticus. “The NKJV translates from the traditional texts of the Hebrew and Aramaic Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and it has footnotes wherever variations are found in critical texts that would affect the wording of the English translation.”
- Website: https://www.britannica.com/topic/King-James-Version
- Reading Level: 12th Grade.
- Translation Philosophy: Literal.
- Texts: Masoretic Text, Textus Receptus.
New American Standard
- Website: http://www.lockman.org/nasb/nasbprin.php
- Reading Level: 11th Grade.
- Translation Philosophy: Literal. “The New American Standard Bible translation team adhered to the literal philosophy of translation. This is the most exacting and demanding method of translation, and requires a word-for-word translation that is accurate and precise, yet easily readable. This philosophy of translation follows the word and sentence patterns of the original authors so that the reader is free to understand God’s message as the Holy Spirit leads.”
- Texts: “HEBREW TEXT: The latest edition of Rudolf Kittel’s BIBLIA HEBRAICA has been employed together with the most recent light from lexicography, cognate languages, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
GREEK TEXT: Consideration was given to the latest available manuscripts with a view to determining the best Greek text. In most instances the 26th edition of Eberhard Nestle’s NOVUM TESTAMENTUM GRAECE was followed.”
New International Version
- Website: https://www.thenivbible.com/faqs/
- Reading Level: 7th Grade.
- Translation Philosophy: Balanced approach. “Some Bible translations focus on the way Scripture was written—the form, grammar, even the word order of the original. The difficulty is that no two languages follow the same set of rules. That’s why translating Scripture is more than a matter of replacing Greek or Hebrew words with English equivalents.
Other Bible translations focus on the meaning of Scripture, helping you grasp the message of the Bible in your own words. The challenge with this approach is that if you stray too far from the form of the text, you might miss some of the subtle nuances—literary devices, wordplays, etc.—found in the original.
Even the best literal translation can’t follow the original form all the time. And even the best meaning-based translation can’t capture every detail of meaning found in the original.
In 1978, the NIV pioneered a different approach: balancing transparency to the original with clarity of meaning. Our view is that if the first people to receive the Bible could understand God’s Word the way it was written, you should be able to as well.”
- Texts: “The translators of the NIV have used the Old Testament and New Testament texts that are widely accepted among modern scholars as giving us the best possible access to what God inspired in the original documents.
For the Old Testament the standard Hebrew text, the Masoretic Text, as published in the latest edition of Biblia Hebraica, has been used throughout. The NIV translators have sometimes used variants of the Hebrew Masoretic tradition or other ancient versions, where these seemed to provide a superior text than the Masoretic tradition. These are all noted in footnotes.
The translators have used the accepted Greek New Testament text, as printed in the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testaments. Here also the translators have occasionally accepted a variant printed in these editions. Footnotes usually indicate the options in each case.
The translators have used the accepted Greek New Testament text, as printed in the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testaments. Here also the translators have occasionally accepted a variant printed in these editions. Footnotes usually indicate the options in each case.”
On the differences between original texts
An excellent summary of the issue from the NLT website:
“Why do many scholars say that the NLT and most modern translations are more accurate than the King James Version?
The NLT, like most modern versions, is more accurate than the KJV in several ways. First, knowledge of Hebrew was not very advanced when the KJV was translated. The Hebrew text they used (i.e., the Masoretic Text) was adequate, but their understanding of the Hebrew vocabulary was insufficient. Second, the Greek text underlying the New Testament of the KJV is an inferior text. The KJV translators used a Greek text known as the Textus Receptus (commonly abbreviated as TR), which came from the work of Erasmus, who compiled the first Greek text to be produced on a printing press. When Erasmus compiled this text, he used five or six very late Greek manuscripts dating from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. These manuscripts were inferior to earlier manuscripts that were unknown to Erasmus.
After the KJV was published (in 1611), numerous earlier New Testament manuscripts were discovered—manuscripts that began to show deficiencies in the TR. Around 1630, Codex Alexandrinus (dated c. 400) was brought to England. In 1859, a German scholar named Constantin von Tischendorf discovered Codex Sinaiticus in St. Catherine’s Monastery located near Mount Sinai. The manuscript, dated c. 350, is one of the two oldest vellum manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. The earliest vellum manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, had been in the Vatican’s library since at least 1481, but it was not made available to scholars until the middle of the nineteenth century. Codex Vaticanus, dated slightly earlier (c. 325) than Codex Sinaiticus, is one of the most accurate manuscripts of the New Testament in existence.
At the end of the nineteenth century, two British scholars, Brooke Westcott and Fenton Hort, produced a volume titled The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881). Along with this publication, they stated their position that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, along with a few other early manuscripts, represent a text that most closely replicates the original writings. In the twentieth century, many second- and third-century papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered. Most of these papyrus manuscripts have a text that is very similar to Codex Vaticanus and to Codex Sinaiticus.
One of the most noteworthy papyrus manuscripts is P75, a copy of Luke and John dated c. 175–200. It is universally recognized as a very accurate manuscript and one that bears extremely close resemblance to Codex Vaticanus. This shows that a pure line of textual transmission was preserved from the middle of the second-century to the fourth century. The papyrus P75 and several other papyrus manuscripts have helped twentieth-century scholars produce a Greek text that is even closer to the original text than that of Westcott and Hort. This most recent edition is commonly known as the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament.
The upshot of the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century discoveries and publications of better Greek texts is that we now have a Greek text that is far more accurate than the Textus Receptus. Subsequently, English versions (like the NLT) that are based on the better Greek manuscripts are superior to the KJV, which is based on the Textus Receptus.”(https://www.tyndale.com/nlt/faq)