Is the NLT a Paraphrase or a Translation?

The New Living Translation is actually one of my favorite Bible versions, due to its simple reading level and beautiful English composition. But there is a bit of confusion about the title. Is the NLT actually a translation? Or is it just a paraphrase?

The New Living Translation is an accurate and legitimate translation from Hebrew and Greek. The confusion, however, is understandable, since the NLT began as a revision to the 1971 paraphrase by Kenneth Taylor, the Living Bible. However, the final product grew into much more than a revision. The result was a complete translation from the ground up.

The NLT is no ordinary translation, however. It’s very unique in the way it came about and in the way it was translated. Keep reading to learn more about how this descendant of the Living Bible Paraphrase became the complete translation that it is today.

From the Revision of a Paraphrase to a Full Translation

Kenneth Taylor’s The Living Bible was widely received and loved by many. However, as is to be expected with any large project of this scope taken on by one person, there were a few issues with the original paraphrase. There were enough inaccuracies to warrant an update.

So in 1989, almost twenty years after the original release of The Living Bible, 90 scholars from various religious traditions and academic disciplines came together to start working on the new version of The Living Bible, originally titled The New Living Version.

As the update started, the Bible was divided up into six parts and assigned to different scholars. Each scholar would review their section of The Living Bible and submit their suggestions for details that needed updating. The committee went through several sweeps through the text before it became apparent that the best thing to do was just to create a brand new translation from scratch, which then became known as the New Living Translation.

So the 90 scholars worked from the original Greek and Hebrew texts to create their translations. But there was also a team of English stylists working with the translators just to ensure that the flow of language adhered to the original feel of Taylor’s paraphrase.

So, at the end of the day, the New Living Translation is a translation, not a paraphrase. But at the same time, its development was immersed in the spirit of a popular paraphrase. The result is a beautiful hybrid of the accuracy and reliability of a large-scale translation and the beauty and clarity of a literary paraphrase. In my humble opinion, this is what a good translation of the Bible into English should be.

The NLT was originally published in 1996 with various updates since then, the most recent being in 2016.

The NLT Translation Philosophy

The translation philosophy of the New Living Translation is to emphasize English clarity. As such, it is a very dynamic equivalent translation, which means the text reflects an idea-for-idea philosophy instead of word-for-word.

The NLT is one of the most dynamic translations out there, since it aims to capture the clarity and beauty of the original Living Bible paraphrase. Its readability is unmatched by most other modern translations. So if you’re looking for a readable and understandable translation that’s still totally based on the most up-to-date textual evidence that we have at our disposal, the NLT is probably the Bible for you.

Now, it’s not perfect. There is some give and take. The more dynamic a translation becomes, the more interpretive it is. This means the NLT is quite a bit more interpretive than a translation like the NIV.

But here’s the thing. The translation is interpretation. In order to take words from ancient Hebrew and reflect those same ideas in modern English, interpretation has to happen. The question is, how much interpretation needs to take place?

A formal equivalent translation, such as the ESV, will do only as much interpretation as is necessary to get the words into English. This is great because it allows the reader to make interpretive decisions on their own without being guided by the translation committee.

However, the downside of this is that many readers are not able to make those interpretive leaps on their own. Not without additional resources, such as scholarly articles and commentaries.

With more dynamic equivalent translations, like the New Living Translation, many of those interpretive decisions are made for the reader. Many people are uncomfortable with this because they want to read the Bible as a blank slate, with no human interference. While this desire is understandable, it’s not possible. Not without learning Greek and Hebrew.

The NLT was born out of incredible scholarship. While it does make many interpretations on behalf of the reader, for the most part, these are interpretations that we can trust. There is no hidden agenda behind the translation committee. They’re not trying to poison God’s Word (and yes, I’ve heard this argument before). They’re simply trying to make the Bible as clear and understandable as possible to an English audience, and I think they met their goal.

That said, you should take any translation with a grain of salt. I think you should definitely read the NLT. But I don’t think you should read only the NLT. I don’t think you should read only one translation at all. If you expose yourself to a variety of translations, you’ll be able to better understand why translators make the interpretive decisions that they make.

The NLT Translation Basis

How do we know the NLT was a translation and not a paraphrase? While it was originally based on The Living Bible paraphrase, its textual basis is found in the original languages. This doesn’t automatically qualify the NLT as a translation, but at least we can see that their starting point is not The Living Bible paraphrase, but on the best textual evidence, we have that points to the original documents. The Living Bible, on the other hand, was based on the English text of the 1901 American Standard Version.

For the Old Testament, the NLT is based on the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia text, which is essentially the Leningrad Codex. This is the standard Hebrew Old Testament used by scholars everywhere, as we don’t currently have an eclectic version of the Hebrew Bible.

For the New Testament, the NLT used both the NA27 and the UBS 4th edition, both of which were the standard Greek eclectic texts widely accepted by biblical scholarship at the time.

Thus, the New Living Translation was the product of a group of 90 top biblical scholars using some of the best resources available to them. It is a trustworthy translation that we can rely on, despite the fact that it was inspired by a paraphrase.

The Difference Between the NIV and the NLT

This raises a common question many people today have about the NLT and the New International Version. Both versions are more dynamic in their translation theory. Both versions are more idea-for-idea than they are word-for-word. So what’s the difference between the NLT and the NIV?

The biggest difference lies in the amount of dynamic equivalence in the text. The NIV is broadly dynamic, but is still more word-for-word than the NLT. As such, the NIV is less interpretive, leaving more interpretation up to the reader than the NLT does. The NIV also did not have English stylists on the translation committee ensuring smooth and literary English.

To compare the two, the NIV is close to an 8th-grade reading level, whereas the NLT is closer to a 6th-grade reading level.

At the end of the day, the NIV is a great dynamic equivalent translation with more of an emphasis on accurately representing the words of the original scriptures. The NLT, on the other hand, is a great dynamic equivalent translation with more of an emphasis on accurately communicating the words of the original scriptures in English. The difference is a small one, to be sure. But the difference is noticeable, to say the least.

What is your experience with the NLT? Do you enjoy the translation, or do you prefer something less interpretive? Let us know in the comments below!

Tyler Martin
Hey, I'm Tyler Martin! I'm a husband, father, content creator, and Bible nerd. I have a B.A. in biblical languages and an M.A. in biblical exegesis. I've spent my life learning about the Bible and I am passionate about helping others discover the beautiful and imaginative world of the scriptures.
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Cassie King
Cassie King
March 11, 2022 7:57 am

Just a quick addition: The NIV DID have an English stylist. Karen Jobes was the last.

November 20, 2021 4:56 pm

I’ve been using the NLT for about 9 years & have been blessed by being able to understand what I read. I started learning & studying with the NASB but would have a hard time with wording/etc. I’ve had people tell me the NLT is not a good Bible because interpretation is too loose, however I feel it’s best for me. All translations have their faults. There is no perfect translation. Read what you understand & are blessed by & will keep you in God’s word. We are not to worship that Bible we read but the creator of these words, the One who created all things. Thank you for this article & everyone’s comments. We serve a mighty Lord.

August 14, 2021 5:42 pm

I really enjoy reading the NLT. I have pulled some key points out in it. I found one mistake in it so far, Matthew 5:23 it is an offering, not a sacrifice. I looked it up in greek after being corrected.

Justin McKenzie
Justin McKenzie
Reply to  Hal
February 25, 2022 2:33 am

In Greek sacrifice means gift.

Matt Noonan
Matt Noonan
July 13, 2021 10:14 pm

When I study to gain insight and knowledge I depend on the King James Bible. When I read for pleasure, I enjoy the New Living Translation. As you said, many versions; same Message. Let the Holy Spirit guide you and you will not fail.

May the Joy of Christ Jesus fill your heart and calm your soul!

March 18, 2021 4:04 am

Nice post. I be taught something more difficult on different blogs everyday. It is going to always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice slightly something from their store. I’d prefer to use some with the content material on my weblog whether or not you don’t mind.

Phil Brown
Phil Brown
December 1, 2020 8:06 pm

I enjoy the NLT personally, and my two oldest sons do as well. Our church uses the ESV, and I have found that reading the ESV and NLT together is extremely helpful.

August 2, 2020 9:23 am

What boble comentary would u advise to use for bible study and prep for sermons and more,,, and…wonderfull ..but not the article it stades that doct billygraham .used a bible comentary. But it doesn’t state which one.culd u help me.more, in….thank ur Tony.R.

July 18, 2020 8:26 am

Like!! I blog quite often and I genuinely thank you for your information. The article has truly peaked my interest.