An evaluation and comparison of the NASB, ESV, NIV, MSG, and TPT
We’ve spent the last few episodes generally looking at both translations and paraphrases of the Bible, but what happens when we dig into a few of them? Today we’re going to talk specifically about the NASB, ESV, and NIV translations and the Message and Passion paraphrases. Then we’re going to work our way through one passage across all five versions. Buckle in, friends, and let’s dig in!
Interviewing the Versions
We’re going to start this exercise in comparison by conducting a little interview of each of these versions. Usually, when we’re talking about authorship in the Bible, we’re either talking about God who inspired it or the men who penned the words. In this case, however, we want to interview the folks who translated and interpreted the text in these English versions.
If you want to know more about how the Bible was translated or the difference between translations and paraphrases, you’ll want to watch the first two videos in this mini-series.
Today we’ll be asking three standard questions of each version:
First, who translated or assembled it?
Here we’re looking specifically at who did the translation and how many people were involved. Generally speaking, the more people you have involved in a translation, the more trustworthy your result will be.
Second, what was the general philosophy of the translation?
How did they treat the text? Were they translating word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or in the case of a paraphrase, what was the author’s aim?
Finally, what support does this version receive?
Who is advocating for or offering a critique of it? What do they have to say about it? What do we know about these supporters and critics that might impact the version’s credibility?
Interviewing the New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The NASB was initially completed in 1971 by a team of 39 translators with the Lockman Foundation. It was then revised in 1995 by a separate group of 15 scholars and translators.
The 2020 update to the NASB is expected to print in the Spring of 2021, but we’ll be looking at the 1995 revision.
The philosophy of this translation was one of “formal equivalence,” which means whenever possible, the English word selected was the closest equivalent word to the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word. The Lockman Foundation says this “accuracy of every word” is important because “these words are the living and eternal Word of God.” I love this statement because it shows how highly the translation values the Word of God! They recognize that these words were inspired by God and that the reader’s confidence ultimately should be in those inspired Words, more than their own thoughts and explanation.
Some critique was given in the early days by paraphrase authors like Robert Bratcher (author of the Good News Bible), that leaving the idioms from the languages intact made the version unapproachable. There was also some pushback against the removal of old English words like “thee,” “thou,” and “thy” in the 1995 update. Despite those criticisms, the NASB has been widely received and used by pastors, scholars, and everyday students of the Bible for almost 50 years.
Interviewing the English Standard Version (ESV)
The ESV was initially published in 2001 by Crossway, with the most recent update made in 2016. It was completed by a team of 50 scholars, with a 15 person oversight committee that reads like a who’s-who of the most well known Christian scholars and writers today.
The philosophy of this translation was to complete an “essentially literal” translation, which is similar to the NASB in that the emphasis is on word-for-word translation. A subtle difference is that the ESV has done a bit more work to smooth out the English grammar and syntax, which results in a smoother read for the English reader. Their description of this balance is that the translation “seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text” but also “the personal style of each Bible writer”.
Like the NASB, the ESV has received some criticism for the words they chose to change and some criticism for the words they decided not to change. I won’t get into this today, but much of the debate you’ll find around these translations involves their treatment of gendered language. For example, do you try to clarify passages talking about all humanity by changing “man” to “human beings”? In passages where Paul addresses the whole church as “the brothers in Christ,” do you change the text to read “brothers and sisters”? There’s a lot more to that discussion, and we’ll have to save it for another day, but just be aware that the debate is out there and is featured prominently in any Google searching you might do.
Endorsements for the ESV, similar to the list of scholars who worked on it, is an impressive list of seminary presidents and professors, theology textbook authors, and pastors. The ESV oversight committee includes council members from The Gospel Coalition, and Gideons International (the ministry that puts Bibles in hotel rooms) selected it as their distributed version as of 2013. Before we move on, I also want to disclose that this is the translation I use for the majority of my Bible reading as well.
Interviewing the New International Version (NIV)
The NIV was first published in 1978 by Zondervan, with complete revisions in 1984, 2005, 2011, and 2020. Note: We’ll be talking about the 2011 edition, as it is the most commonly used at the moment. Their translation process is probably the most extensive I’m aware of, at least in terms of people involved. Each book of the Bible went through a team of five translators and consultants, was reviewed by a group of five bible scholars, and then by a general committee of 8-12 scholars. The process itself is impressive, but maybe a unique aspect of it is the ongoing work on this translation. While revisions of a translation are standard, the NIV is reviewed every year by their Committee on Bible Translation.
The goal of the NIV translators was to balance “transparency to the original [text] with clarity of meaning.” That word “meaning” is important because it tells us that some of what they’ve done has moved beyond translation and into some level of interpretation. The high value they place on readability goes beyond the previous two translations, and much of their ongoing review of the text is to update language to be more easily read and spoken. One way they accomplish this is through the use of the Collins Bank of English database, which, at any point in time, can determine the most common way to say something in English.
The most significant criticism of the NIV came in 2005 with the introduction of a revision called “Today’s NIV” or the TNIV, which made sweeping changes to gender language in particular. While the 2011 revision (simply called the NIV) rolled some of these changes back, many remain in the current edition. When it comes to endorsements, the NIV boasts a long list of various pastors, Christian writers, and scholars. Many of these note just how readable the translation is and several of them mention the NIV as their choice for personal reading.
Interviewing The Message (MSG)
The Message is one of the more popular paraphrases of the Bible available today, so I thought I would include it in this lineup of versions. It’s important to note that this is a paraphrase, not a translation of the Bible, and you should consider it accordingly. If you’d like to know more about the differences between translations and paraphrases, and some tips on using a paraphrase, we covered all that in the last episode, which you can find here.
The Message Bible is primarily the work of the well-known pastor and author Eugene Peterson. He wrote and published The Message in segments, beginning with the New Testament in 1993. Over the next decade, he gradually completed the remainder of the Bible, publishing the complete edition with NavPress in 2002. While the publisher provides a list of 20 consultants that have reviewed Peterson’s work, the writing was completed solely by Peterson, and only reviewed by this team.
When considering the philosophy of translation for this paraphrase, we have to do a bit of separation between the author’s intent and the publisher’s promotional work. In Peterson’s words, The Message is a book that “grew from the soil of forty years of pastoral work” with a text “shaped by the hand of a working pastor.” When asked why he wrote this book, Peterson admits it was for the benefit of his congregation and that he felt free to take significant liberties with the text. So from the author, we find a primary interest, not in textual accuracy, but rather teaching his church from the text in contemporary language. The publisher, on the other hand, promotes The Message not as a paraphrase of the Bible, but as a “vibrant Bible translation.” I just want to clarify that I feel this is a misrepresentation by the publisher of the author’s intent, which was to teach his congregation about the Bible using contemporary language and loose modern-day equivalent examples.
Support for the Message is undoubtedly wide-ranging. The top listed endorsements come from Bono (lead singer of U2), Dave Dravecky (pitcher for the Giants), and a long list of contemporary Christian authors. While these names are well known, it’s honestly hard to know what to make of these endorsements, as they’re all from different fields and professions. For example, I might ask Bono for his approval of my music...but perhaps not a translation of the Bible? We’ll come back to this later.
Interviewing The Passion Translation (TPT)
Finally, we come to our last version in this list, with The Passion Translation. Before we go on with some details, I feel it’s necessary to point out that the very title of this book is misleading. This version is not a translation, and honestly, I’m not sure it qualifies as a paraphrase of the Bible either, but we’ll save that discussion for later.
This book is the work of Dr. Brian Simmons and is being written and published in parts by BroadStreet Publishing. His work on the New Testament was published in 2017, and the 2020 edition also includes Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Songs. He is currently still working on a rendition of the Old Testament. Simmons’ lists his resume experience working as a church planter in Central America, pastoral work in the U.S., and starting Passion & Fire Ministries to teach the Bible. Simmons is listed as the “lead translator” on the book’s website, but if you dig deep enough into the FAQ section, you will find he is the only author of the book. A handful of people are named at the end of this FAQ section as professionals who “theologically reviewed” Simmons’ work, but this process is not detailed, nor is a complete list of these people provided.
Simmons’ philosophy in writing is something he calls “essential equivalence.” He describes this process as prioritizing the “essential meaning of God’s original message” over the “literal form of the original words.” While he isn’t clear on where this “essence” comes from, if not from the original words, we might gain some insight from an interview he gave in 2015. In this interview, he describes a meeting with Jesus himself, where he was personally commissioned to write this translation. In his words, “he [Jesus] promised me that he would give me secrets of the Hebrew language,” and he then received “downloads of understanding” to translate. He also describes this “essence of meaning” as something that must go “past the defenses of our mind, and into our spirit.”
The endorsements for this book are headed up by Bill Johnson of Bethel Church and Bobbie Houston of Hillsong Church, which is significant in terms of impact. These are influential people in contemporary Christianity, primarily because of the rapid growth of their spiritual movements, and not necessarily because of their sound theology. Conspicuously absent are the Bible scholars, and what replaces them is a long list of authors and leaders praising Simmons and his words as “divine revelation,” providing “spiritual understanding,” and carrying a “fragrance of God’s Spirit.”
Walkthrough of Psalm 1:1-6 (NASB)
So with no further delay, now that we have a brief introduction to each of those five versions, let’s make some comparison with the text itself!
Since I’m not a translator or a Hebrew expert, I lean on the scholarship put into the NASB and their focus on accuracy. It makes it an excellent translation to use as a plumb line or level, to see where other versions deviated from the original text, and sometimes gives us a clue as to why.
We’re going to look at Psalm 1:1-6 today, and it’s going to contrast the way of a righteous person with a wicked or ungodly person. We’ll take some time to study it verse by verse to have the right frame of reference when we compare it to some other versions later.
1 How blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
So this person is first defined as blessed by what they don’t do or avoid. It isn’t until verse 2 that we’re told what the righteous man does. So what is he told to avoid in verse 1? Three things, one right after the other. Sometimes when you see things repeated in poetry, it’s for focus or emphasis, but other times you’ll notice slightly different words are chosen to give a more comprehensive or broader picture. Here we have three different types of ungodly people listed: the wicked, sinners, and scoffers. Each of these is represented by a different Hebrew word. Each has a different activity associated with them: walking in their counsel, standing in their path, and sitting in their seat.
The word translated as “wicked” usually means “someone hostile toward God.” We’re warned here not to be influenced by the things they have to say. People who are hostile toward God do not make good counselors or advisors for followers of God.
The word translated as “sinners” means “recognized offenders,” or people who are openly living in a way contrary to God’s law. We need to be cautious that we are not standing or walking on a path that leads away from God and toward our destruction.
Finally, the word for “scoffers” means “those who mock with arrogance.” To sit with them, and mock the righteous, is something to be avoided.
You can see a movement here from listening to bad advice to then living in the same way and eventually joining in with those who would laugh at righteousness.
So what does the righteous person do? Where do they get their joy? Verse 2 says:
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
The “law of the Lord” is a phrase often used in Scripture to talk about all of God’s instructions to His people. The writer is talking about Scripture! And don’t let the word “meditates” freak you out either. Other religions often define this activity as emptying the mind, but meditating on Scripture is the opposite. It means filling your mind with God’s Word and thinking about it all the time!
Now we get to some poetry describing the life that comes from this non-stop focus on God’s Word.
3 He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
Sounds good, right? There are a few things this verse tells us, and a few it does not. First, a person who gets their delight from the word of God will not lose their joy when external things change. It’s not saying that he will avoid times of drought or difficulty surrounding him, but because this stream of God’s Word feeds his roots, he doesn’t wither when other potential sources of joy and refreshment cease.
It also says this tree yields its fruit in its season, which is good news because it means that God has not only planted this tree but will bring about the right fruit in the right season! This tree prospers because it is rooted near this stream of water! The Hebrew word translated to “prosper” actually means “to succeed in the work you set out to do.” From this, we understand that this tree will succeed in bearing fruit in the proper season and that it will not wither and die because the water sustains it.
Now we come to the wicked:
4 The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Where the righteous man was a planted tree, the wicked have no permanence. They are like the dry husk of seed, like wheat, that gets blown away by the slightest puff of wind.
Verse 5 continues:
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
Usually, when we hear about “the judgment,” the Bible is referencing the final judgment before the throne of God. Here we find out that these people who were hostile to God and living as offenders against the law do not have a place to stand on that final day.
Here’s also where things get a little challenging, because where does that leave us, the reader? If there is no place for anyone hostile toward God and no place for anyone who sinned against God, where does that leave us? Verse 6 says:
6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Since all of us have sinned, it’s good news then that God sent a perfectly righteous man, who perfectly lived out verses 1-3. He also died for our sin and wickedness but rose from the dead and invites us to follow Him and be covered by his perfect righteousness. See, we can’t go back and fix the times that we didn’t live up to verses 1 and 2, but we can walk forward in the grace of God. When we accept Jesus as Lord, we who were once wicked and sinful, have a place to stand in the assembly of the righteous because of the righteousness of Jesus!
Who knew that the very first Psalm was going to point us right to Jesus? I certainly didn’t when I started reading this passage! But God did when He inspired these words to be written!
So that’s Psalm 1 in the NASB, with a little bit of explanation in light of the New Testament. With that foundation set, let’s compare and contrast some of the other versions to see how they line up.
Let’s see what the other versions do with our text, beginning with the ESV:
You’ll notice a few minor changes in the order of some words, but otherwise, this is very similar. Verse 3 changes “will be” to “is” for clarity, and “whatever” is changed to “all.” Finally, verse 5 changes “assembly” to “congregation.” Knowing what we know about the text so far, none of those translation changes make a massive difference in our understanding of it. Let’s move on to the NIV:
You’ll notice there are more changes right off the bat:
We see several changes from “man” to “one” and “he” or “his” to “whom.” This is one of those gendered language changes I mentioned earlier that had caused so much disagreement, and this one stands as a good example of that debate. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to change the text’s meaning if it’s merely talking about being a generally righteous person, but what if the text is talking about a specific person? What if the text is pointing us to a particular man? If the text is indeed pointing to Jesus, it makes more sense to leave those gendered nouns and pronouns as they were originally written.
The other changes to verse 1 are kind of a mixed bag. Rewording it as “the way that sinners take” and “the company of mockers” actually help us get closer to what the text is getting at. However, “walk in step” is in my mind a bit different from walking “in the counsel” of the wicked. It gets a little harder to distinguish the “taking of bad advice” warned against in the first part from “standing in the path of sinners” in the second part.
The biggest challenge I have out of these changes comes from verse 3, and it’s very subtle. The text from the NASB, in the last line of verse 4, indicates that it is the man who prospers in the end. The way the NIV reads, we have “whatever they do” as the subject of prosperity. Instead of the one righteous man prospering in the end, we now have a possible reading of this that all righteous people will succeed in whatever they do. With only a few words being changed, we’ve perhaps stepped away from the author’s intent.
So with that in mind, let’s move on to the paraphrases. We’ll do these a little differently since most of the words will be different. We’ll look at the text and determine what worked in the paraphrase and what didn’t.
The first line seems misplaced because this passage is more about the righteous man’s delight in the things of God than it is about the delight of God over the righteous man.
I must say that Peterson’s rendering of verse one is imaginative. Still, it doesn’t bring us closer to understanding the distinctions the original text makes between the various temptations to align with the unrighteous.
Verses 2 and 3 are combined and generally get the point across but perhaps go beyond what the original text was saying. Being “replanted in Eden” has some connotation of the world around the tree being perfected, which the original does not contain. The production of fruit and blossoms in this rendering is also changed into a perennial or unending event, instead of the original text’s idea of producing fruit “in its season.” Changing the imagery of withering leaves to dropping leaves also weakens the original picture of a tree that does not dry up and die.
Verses 4 and 5 are actually done very well, particularly the picture of being “without defense in court,” which clarifies the idea of the wicked not being able to stand.
Verse 6 paints a vivid picture for the modern reader by using Skid Row, an impoverished area of Los Angeles, but ultimately it’s a picture that falls short of the reality painted by the text. The text doesn’t say the wicked will end up in a place of poverty; it says the way of the wicked will perish.
Now let’s take a look at The Passion Translation, our second paraphrase, and the final version we’ll be looking at today.
While most of verse 1 remains faithful to the original, there is one significant change in structure. The original text first defines a righteous man by what he does NOT do (sin), which is contrasted with what he does do (meditate on God’s Word) in verse 2. Brian Simmons, the author, really adds his own verse 1 and changes the tense of the remainder of the verse from “does not” to “will not.”
Verse 2 is almost unrecognizable and moves away from a more concrete picture of reading God’s word to a poetic and practically ethereal description of meditation. The text says delight is found “in the law of the Lord” or God’s Word. In other words, the righteous man is delighted with Scripture. Simmons changes that to some kind of pleasure that comes from righteous living. There is certainly pleasure in studying your Bible and living out, but this verse talks more about the former than the latter. I’m also unsure of why Simmons chose to use “the Word of ‘I Am’” instead of “LORD” or “Jehovah,” as you might translate it more directly. It doesn’t seem more reader-friendly or textually accurate. I’m also unsure of why “true revelation of light” was added.
Verse 3 keeps the main idea intact, albeit with a lot of additions. Just for reference, this paraphrase of Psalm 1 is over 30% longer than the original due to these additions. The stream is described as “brooks of bliss,” and again, we see the idea of constantly bearing fruit in every season, instead of in “its season.” We also introduce a new concept of being “ever blessed” in addition to “ever prosperous.” This is interesting because where the original text seems to be talking about an internally recognized strength coming from the stream, this description moves us toward an external recognition of blessing, prosperity, and bliss.
Verse 4 is pretty accurate with the description of “dust in the wind,” which may or may not have been inspired by the band Kansas. Still, Simmons also adds that this dust is driven not only away but “to destruction,” which is not specified in the original verse.
The significant additions continue in verse 5, with Simmons adding the entire middle section of the verse. Just a note that this is going beyond paraphrasing the text that’s there and Simmons is actively adding new ideas here. The concept that the wicked won’t stand because “God will not defend them” is nowhere in the original text. The idea that “nothing they do will succeed or endure for long” is also apparently an additional thought from Simmons and is not in the original verse.
The “assembly of the righteous” is also changed to “those who walk in truth.” This seems alright at first glance, but I would be very cautious about changing the description of the people who can stand before God in the final judgment as anything less than “righteous.”
Finally, to the beginning of verse 6, Simmons adds a summarizing thought, that “the way of the righteous is different" and then goes on to make probably the most significant change in the whole passage. The text describes God knowing "the way" of the righteous, indicating only one way. Interestingly in the early years of the Church, Christianity was often referred to as "the way", in a nod to Jesus' words in John 14:6. Simmons changes this to plural "paths" that are apparently all "embraced" even as these people are making their way on them. That's a big difference.
The end of the verse talks about the way of the wicked leading to doom, which is better actually than Peterson’s “Skid Row” analogy in The Message but still misses the point. Not only will the wicked meet an end, but the text says even the “way of the wicked” will one day meet an end.
Final Thoughts & Recommendations
Now that we’ve had a chance to see and evaluate all of these versions in an actual chapter of the text, I’d like to offer some final thoughts and recommendations on them.
NASB & ESV
I can honestly recommend both the NASB and ESV without hesitation. Their philosophy of translation recognizes the authority of Scripture. That leads them to place a high value on accurately translating those words inspired by God to English words that are a treasure to us. The teams of highly qualified people who have been a part of the scholarly work on these have done a tremendous job walking the balance between accuracy and readability. Add to that the number of scholars and bible teachers who endorse the NASB and ESV, and I can recommend either one as an excellent option for personal reading and study.
The challenge for me with the NIV is not that it’s an inaccurate translation, but that it’s a changing translation. The publisher states that around 95% of the original 1984 edition remains unchanged, which I think is meant to calm concerns that their revision process is too aggressive. However, a 5% change equates to around 36,000 words being changed in just a few decades, which doesn’t feel insignificant. The very process of an annual review that they see as a strength is also a potential problem. It means that while this year’s version might be ok, a different committee ten years down the road has the ability, with only a 70% majority vote, to change another few thousand words.
As far as paraphrases go, The Message isn’t a particularly bad one, as long as you understand it as a paraphrase. This is teaching from Eugene Peterson on the topic of Scripture. It’s clear that Peterson was a vivid and imaginative writer and that he was also a pastor with a heart for his congregation to get excited about God’s Word. I only wish that both he and the publisher would have made it clear that The Message is Eugene Peterson’s description of Scripture, which is not a translation. I think I can recommend The Message in the same way I would any other book he’s written, but certainly not as a replacement for an actual translation of the Bible.
The Passion Translation
Many of the issues with the so-called “Passion Translation” should be evident by now, and some of them we’ve talked about already.
The first issue is that it masquerades as a translation of the Bible, even in the title, when in reality it’s nothing of the sort. The website for the book even goes so far as to recommend it for use while preaching in a church and for in-depth personal study. This recommendation is entirely inappropriate and is virtually the same as someone telling you not to read your Bible but just to take their word for it. That is not wise counsel, and it is dangerous.
The second issue stems from Simmons’ description of the inspiration for his writing. In addition to the original text and the historical way it has been translated and taught, Simmons seems to introduce a third source that supersedes (in his mind) both of these. It’s what he calls the “spirit of revelation,” and these “secrets of the Hebrew language” given to him by this spirit he claims was Jesus himself.
I can’t help but hear the echoes of history in statements like these. If you go back to the 2nd Century, when the church was very young, there was a group of people called the Gnostics. This group was a challenge to the early church because they claimed to have secret knowledge about God that was exclusively given to them. This included secret information about Jesus that wasn’t revealed in the words of Scripture. They even went so far as to produce their own versions of Christian literature, to put their spin on it. Sound familiar?
The deeper I have dug into Brian Simmons and his Passion translation, the less comfortable I get with it. This is not a translation at all, and often it is not even a paraphrase or restatement of the text. This is someone who is actively working to replace the inspired words of Scripture with his own words and teaching, and then calling it inspired Scripture. My recommendation is to stay far away from this book. Instead, stay close to translations focused on accurately and carefully translating the Word of God into the English language.
If you’d like to do further research on Brian Simmons and his book, I’ve linked all my sources below.
The good news is there are excellent translations of the Bible that are readily accessible to us! More good news is that we don’t have to study and train in the Word alone! If you haven’t already, I encourage you to be a part of a local church committed to the Word of God. There’s just no substitute for sitting under Bible-centered teaching and preaching alongside other believers. Just remember that nobody’s teaching, no matter how good, can replace or be prioritized over the Bible.
I hope this helped you decide what Bible translation to dig into during the next year! We’ll be making lots of new content in the new year, always centered on scripture and focused on practical application. You can subscribe to Biblicalish here, and on most social platforms.
Grace and peace,
 “The New American Standard Bible”—New Testament, Eternity 15 (June 1964)
 Nav Press Interview - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRXbYEUn3Yc
 The Psalms (Vol. 1): Rejoice, The Lord Is King - James Johnston
 Church History, 4th Edition - Bruce L. Shelley
Additional Passion/Brian Simmons Research:
Author - Dan Morse
Dan is a writer, musician, and amateur theologian who resides in Iowa with his wife and four children. He serves as a worship leader in the local church, and writes/records music in his spare time.
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