Picking a Mid-Level Bible

I recently encouraged parents to select a Bible written in terms their child can understand.  Early in a child's growth, this may be something like the Jesus Storybook Bible.  This is not a stretch; parents tend to be excited about buying a child her first Bible; but then there's a disconnect between her first picture-book (or over-simplified Bible) and the adult translation she'll own later.  At some point, children need a full Bible they can read, understand, and enjoy.

There are a couple ways a parent can go.  The first option is to get a para-phrased Bible like The Message.  A para-phrased translation takes the general ideas behind giant amounts of text and writes a giant amount of text in English.  Para-phrased translations sometimes get a bum wrap because they are not the best option for study, but they are a good option for general reading and sometimes even devotional reading.  Eugene Peterson, author/translator of The Message, says in his preface,
"The Message is a reading Bible.  It is not intended to replace the excellent study Bibles that are available.  My intent here (as it was earlier in my congregation and community) is simply to get people reading who don't know that the Bible is read-able at all, at least by them, and to get people who long ago lost interest in the Bible to read it again. [...] So at some point along the way, soon or late, it will be important to get a standard study Bible to facilitate further study" (NavPress, 2002, page 8).    
The different theories behind translating the Bible are many, as are the different purposes behind the translations.  It's important to understand the theory and approach of the different translations in order to understand which translation is right for the task at hand.  Often however, the theory and purpose is less concerned with the vocabulary and reading level of children.  Even Peterson's simplified The Message is focused on adult readers.

The second (and better option) is to find a Bible that was translated with children in mind.  There are not nearly as many full Bible translations with children in mind as there are picture-Bibles, but I've found one that seems good.  The New International Readers Version (NiRV) was specifically translated with children in mind.  Their goal was to produce an English translation of the Bible at an overall grade-reading level of 3.5 (3rd year, 5th month); but in the end thay managed to get it down to a 2.9 grade level. 

The NiRV translation team consisted of both Greek and Hebrew language scholars, children's literature experts, and editors who would keep a keen eye on readability and vocabulary levels.  Using the NIV84 as their base text, they set to their task.  As they encountered larger words, longer sentences, or more difficult sentence construction, they would return to the original languages and try to translate them at a lower reading level and child-capable vocabulary.  (On a side note: It's my prayer that they DO NOT attempt to make the same theological changes to the NiRV that were made to the NIV84, resulting in the less-than quality translation called the NIV11.)

Let's compare some different translations with reading level in mind.

I'll use the Flesch-Kincaid readability formulas to compare readability.  Up front I need to say the Flesch-Kincaid is not perfect, but it is a helpful tool for comparison purposes.  These formulas use the number of words, number of sentences, and number of syllables to provide reading ease and a grade level.  They do not however compare vocabulary or theological concepts, and different test engines may provide slightly different results.  For the sake of my tests, I'm using the readability tool provided with Word for Mac 2011.

The Flesch-Kincaid is reported in two ways.  The first is readability.  It is reported on a scale from 0 to 100 with 100 being the most readable.  For example, a score of 90 should be readable by the average 11-year old, scores between 60 and 70 should be readable by a teenager between 13 and 15 years old, and a scores below 30 are probably best understood by university graduate students.  

The second Flesch-Kincaid formula measures grade level.  With ever-changing educational standards, this is not truly representative of what's happening in schools today nor is it any kind of guarantee (so please don't compare your children to these numbers!)  The grade-level provides a number that attempts to represent the grade level in years and months.  For example, a 3.9 would mean the 3rd year, ninth month.  In this post, I'll simply post the readability followed by the grade level.  (Up to this point, this post ranks at  53.5/10.1.)

Neither of these two numbers are as useful when looking at a single translation as when used to compare translation against translation (NiRV, NIV84, ESV, NASB, and the KJV).  Therefore, we'll look at a few translations using 5 selected verses (which just so happen to be taken from my children's Bible memory verses this month).  Each verse will include the readability and grade-level.  Remember, these numbers only measure so much, so there's real value in the human factor.  Just read the verses and think about how a child in the 2nd Grade may understand the verse.

James 4:10
NiRV - Bow down to the Lord. He will lift you up. (100/0.0)

NIV84 - Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (87.9/3.7)

ESV - Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (78.2/4.8)

NASB - Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. (83.0/4.9)

KJV - Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. (79.5/6.1)

Luke 19:10
NiRV - The Son of Man came to look for the lost and save them. (100/1.2)

NIV84 - For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (100/1.6)

ESV - For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. (100/0.8)

NASB - For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost. (100/2.4)

KJV - For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. (85.1/5.8)

Romans 5:8
NiRV - But here is how God has shown his love for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (100/0.6)

NIV84 - But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (89.5/5.4)

ESV - But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (99.2/3.8)

NASB - But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (85.1/6.1)

KJV - But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (72.3/8.1)

John 3:16
NiRV - God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son. Anyone who believes in him will not die but have eternal life. (92.7/3.5)

NIV84 - For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (76.3/9.0)

ESV - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (76.7/8.5)

NASB - For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (69.7/9.7)

KJV - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (50.9/12.0)

Ecclesiastes 7:20
NiRV - There isn’t anyone on earth who does only what is right and never sins. (89.8/4.1)

NIV84 - There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. (90.1/4.6)

ESV - Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. (84.4/5.2)

NASB - Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. (70.1/7.6)

KJV - For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not. (70.1/7.6)

Hopefully this small sample has helped shape your thinking a bit about translation.  It's also my hope and prayer that this post will help you, the parent, find a good mid-level Bible for your children. And by the way, when running these tests with all 5 verses together, the NiRV scored a 100/1.5, the NIV84 is 90.0/4.9, ESV is 90.1/4.6, NASB is 82.3/6.2, and the KJV 86.1/5.6.  It may also be helpful to run more samples and include other translations such as the NLT, HCSB, and the NKJV.  

*I have no connection to any of the listed translations, material or otherwise.