Brief Thoughts on the New Living Translation

The NLT was first published in 1996 but this review concentrates on the second edition that arrived in 2004, occasionally referred to as NLT2 or NLTse. The NLT was a major revision of the popular Living Bible but different enough that comparisons between the two are probably unhelpful. Accordingly, it’s best not to think of the NLT as an update to the Living Bible but a new translation in its own right.

My guess is that the NLT is the best-selling dynamic equivalence (a.k.a. functional equivalence) Bible on the market and deservedly so. (I am unaware of any global sales figures for Bible translations — the Christian Booksellers Association figures are US-only and I doubt they reflect the situation in the UK or globally.) Whilst I do not usually use dynamic translations, when I do I reach first for the NLT.

Surprisingly, the 1st edition of the NLT is still widely available — often packaged in study Bibles despite the publication of the 2nd edition in 2004. This is especially surprising given that the changes can be quite significant. If you are considering purchasing an NLT, make sure it’s the 2004 second edition. Compare for example the following:

NLT1 – Isaiah 9:8 “The Lord has spoken out against that braggart Israel”
NLT2 – Isaiah 9:8 “The Lord has spoken out against Jakob; his judgement has fallen upon Israel.”

NLT1 – Romans 12:1 “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice — the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask?”
NLT2 – Romans 12:1 “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.”

One of the most helpful improvements between the first and second editions is that the updated version breaks up lines for poetic text. In the first edition, Hebrew poetry was often written as if it were prose — the lines flushed left to right as in a novel or newspaper print. The second edition sets the verses poetically (like almost all other major translations) thereby making more obvious poetic parallelisms. I’ll show an example of this later with Jer 31.

As with all dynamic translations, there will be many who voice disappointment at the concept of a thought for thought translation instead of word for word. Personally, I feel there is room for both in a believer’s library. I prefer a more literal version for in-depth exegesis (ESV) but when it comes to reading extended passages, or just getting to the basic meaning of a text, I appreciate the NLT. I believe there are advantages and disadvantages which I will illustrate with Amos 1:2-3.

NASB, Amos 1:3 “thus says the LORD, for three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment”
NLT, Amos 1:3 ” this is what the LORD says: the people of Damascus have sinned again and again and I will not let them go unpunished!”

See the difference? I really doubt that most Christians would understand Amos 1:3 in the NASB (or ESV which is almost identical here). It may be more literal but without knowledge of Hebrew idiom or a good commentary it’s pretty meaningless. The NLT may be more helpful on this verse. But on the other hand, consider the preceding verse, Amos 1:2:

NASB, Amos 1:2 “The LORD roars from Zion and from Jerusalem He utters His voice”
NLT, Amos 1:2 “The Lord roars from his temple on Mount Zion; his voice thunders from Jerusalem!”

Notice that the NLT inserts the word temple – it stands alone among all major translations on this and I am baffled as to why they added this word since it’s not in the original. Of course, you might infer that the Lord would indeed roar from his temple since the Hebrew mentions Zion but frankly translations ought not to be adding words in this manner.

Let’s consider a few other aspects of the translation. Firstly, the NLT is not afraid to depart from traditional English terms and phrases. Nearly always “good news” is preferred to gospel and “LORD of Heaven’s Armies” is preferred to LORD of hosts. The Feast of Tabernacles becomes “the Festival of Shelters” whilst Zion is usually replaced with Jerusalem (but not always as seen above in Amos 1:2).

Sometimes, these changes seem quite unnecessary as in Hebrews 4:9 where the ‘Sabbath rest’ of most translations is avoided so that, “there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God.” I fail to see why “special rest” is better even within the stated intentions of dynamic equivalence. In a similar case, John 21:5, has Jesus addressing his disciples as “fellows” (the Greek says paidia meaning children) whilst 1 Samuel 20:30 is surely overdone: “Saul boiled with rage at Jonathan. ‘you stupid son of a whore!'”

Occasionally, the word choices leave much to be desired. In 2 Corinthians 2:17 we find, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit”. Perhaps American readers can tell me whether huckster is a common US term but in the UK, it’s not a word we use. I had to look it up in a dictionary.

Elsewhere, 2 Timothy 3:16 has, “All Scripture is inspired by God” which is disappointing in that inspired is a rather weak translation of theopneustos. Interestingly, The Message is completely literal with, “Every part of Scripture is God-breathed”.

But in case all this sounds too negative, let me point out where the NLT is at its best – bringing out the meaning of the underlying text with sparkling clarity. Here are some of my favourites (compare and contrast with your favourite literal version):

Rom 1:17 “This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.”
Heb 11:1 “Faith is the confidence that what we hoped for will actually happen; it gives us an assurance about things we cannot see.”
Luke 11:9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.”

And finally, my favourite stretch of poetry in the Bible Jeremiah 31:3-9 reads beautifully (this is arranged in poetic lines unlike the first edition of NLT where it appears in newspaper style prose):

Long ago the Lord said to Israel:
“I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love.
With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.
I will rebuild you, my virgin Israel.

You will again be happy
and dance merrily with your tambourines.
Again you will plant your vineyards on the mountains of Samaria
and eat from your own gardens there.
The day will come when watchmen will shout
from the hill country of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Jerusalem
to worship the Lord our God.'”

Now this is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Israel.
Shout for the greatest of nations!
Shout out with praise and joy:
‘Save your people, O Lord,
the remnant of Israel!’
For I will bring them from the north
and from the distant corners of the earth.
I will not forget the blind and lame,
the expectant mothers and women in labor.
A great company will return!
Tears of joy will stream down their faces,
and I will lead them home with great care.
They will walk beside quiet streams
and on smooth paths where they will not stumble.
For I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my oldest child.

Overall then, while I generally prefer more literal translations, the NLT is certainly my first option when I want a more dynamic rendering. It’s excellent for reading long passages or to get the basic meaning of the text.

This is part of a series of Bible translations reviews. Andy Cheung is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham researching Bible Translation, and a tutor in New Testament at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School in England.

  1. That is a really nice rendering of Jer 31:3-9, I have to say! Hebrews 11:1 isn’t bad either.

    I’ve never really worked with NLT or the NLTse but I’m sorely tempted to go and buy one. (You’re going to have to stop doing these reviews, Andy, or I’m going to end up spending all my money on new bible translation :-)) I did a google search and picked up lots of interesting information: apparently there’s also an edition available with the apocrypha.

    The comparison of Proverbs 5:15-17 available here (http://www.pastorport.com/secondedition/compare.asp) shows it up particularly well.

    Thanks again Andy.

  2. Chris Lazenby

    Andy; thanks for this very helpful review of the NLT. I do like this translation and especially for use with small group bible study, where there may be some folk who are not ‘well up’ on theology. The translation is good at getting basic meanings across and often acts as a commentary beside literal translations such as NASB etc.

  3. I caught this post last year and would agree that the NLT has many positive qualities. Its wordings seem to be rather concise, which does make it very readable (that might be why Andy likes it for long passages) and easy to understand. Conversely you could say that it has removed some words from the text (which is just as bad as adding them).

    Whilst Jeremiah 31 is particularly beautiful, as given above, I’ve just noticed something that made my heart miss a beat. Verses 35-37 are as follows in the NLT:

    (35) It is the Lord who provides the sun to light the day
    and the moon and stars to light the night,
    and who stirs the sea into roaring waves.
    His name is the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
    and this is what he says:
    (36) “I am as likely to reject my people Israel
    as I am to abolish the laws of nature!”
    (37) This is what the Lord says:
    “Just as the heavens cannot be measured
    and the foundations of the earth cannot be explored,
    so I will not consider casting them away
    for the evil they have done.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!

    As Andy said, we note the translation of tzevaot as “Heaven’s Armies” in verse 35. I loved the take on verse 36 (“abolish the laws of nature”). That’s definitely easier to understand than the more usual varient of “only if these decrees vanish from my sight”, and I’d give it full marks.

    However, my opinion went downhill all the way when I read “evil” in verse 37. I really don’t like it and it made me feel sick. But is it justified? No other translation does anything similar as far as I know. Do we have a Hebrew expert who can advise if the text supports that reading?

  4. Admittedly, it is rather interpretative to add in the “evil” in verse 37 but I think the idea is found throughout the passage — notice the end of verse 34. Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Jeremiah states that the clause “because of all they have done” (NIV) indicates that “all of that evil cannot undo God’s powerful choosing”. I think it’s true that verse 37 does not explicitly state evil, and perhaps the New Living Translation would do better without it, but the principle that evil has been committed is clear from the context.

  5. Interesting. I used to usually go straight to the NIV, preferrably the TNIV, for dynamic equivalence after hearing Gordon Fee & Mark Strauss comment on bible translations on a radio broadcast. However, I have been opting for the HCSB more and more lately and consult it first before I go check the T/NIV for dynamic equivalence. I have browsed the NLT at times yet favored the NIV over the NLT.

    What would you say are the differences if any Andy? (between NLT2 & T/NIV)

    The HCSB has been very helpful and its really growing on me. It has helped me avoid the NIV altogether at times since the translation is so fresh and different from the norm.

  6. David,
    the NLT 2 is further down the line of dynamic translations than the TNIV or NIV. I think all three are very good translation and they are very helpful in a Bible study, especially as they function well as commentaries on the text in a literal version.

    Check out my post on the HCSB. I think it’s an outstanding translation

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