I was weaned on the KJV. In college, the NIV and NASB came out, and the NIV quickly took over the Church of Christ market. I now use the ESV almost exclusively. Here’s why —
* The KJV and the New King James Version are based on a seriously flawed Greek text, being the best text available in 1611. But that text, the Textus Receptus, was based on texts no older than the 13th Century. We now have nearly complete New Testament manuscripts dating from the Fourth Century and books of the NT going back to the Second Century. Why on earth would anyone use a translation based on a text known to be flawed?
* The NIV is fine for most purposes, but when I discuss Romans or Galatians, I find myself having to constantly re-translate to get the text close enough to the Greek to have an intelligent conversation about faith and works. And the most conservative Church of Christ preachers delight in preaching against the NIV (not really sure why) — making it hard for me to be persuasive to that community when I use the NIV. But they love the ESV, which is a very fine translation that I rarely need to correct.
* The ESV can be downloaded to your smartphone for free. The Kindle version is free, too. I love the willingness of the publisher to get the ESV to the public at low cost.
* The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible are excellent as well, but I just like the ESV a little better.
* I detest paraphrases, such as The Message and The Living Bible, in part because the English is so often clichéd and just bad writing. But I have friends who love these translations. I just wouldn’t use them for serious study. Far too often the translators take difficult passages and make them easy — which is not entirely honest to the reader.
* I don’t like any translation done by one man. No one man is that smart. Committee work is always better — less biased, more accurate.
* I like the NET Bible, especially the translator notes. This was originally electronic only but now can be had in print.
* I love a multi-column Bible with multiple translations. I used to carry a combined KJV, NIV, Greek interlinear (guaranteed to help you win every argument in Bible class; just say, “According to the Greek here ….”). But such a resource is pointless if you don’t know a little Greek. Maybe more helpful would be a NKJV, NIV, Living Bible, and the Message parallel.
Once you decide on a translation, you need to pick from untold thousands of Bible features. For example,
* Cross-references. To me, good cross references are essential. I use them daily. And I find that older translations often have very weak cross references. ESV has top notch cross references.
* Maps. If you’re a new Bible student, of course you want maps. I love maps.
* Abridged concordance. A concordance lets you look up verses by words. A complete (“exhaustive”) concordance would be too big for a Bible add on, and so publishers give partial concordances. But paper concordances don’t work nearly as well as electronic ones.
Carry a paper Bible but have the same Bible in a searchable electronic format on your smartphone or tablet. Then you won’t need an abridged concordance.
Or just bookmark BibleGateway.com in your browser. It’s free.
* Topical index. There are two popular topical indices to the Bible, Nave’s and Thompson’s Chain Reference. Nave’s is simply a compilation of Bible verses by topic. It’s almost always printed in the KJV, and it dates from the 19th Century. But it’s still very useful, especially for novices.
Thompson’s is similar except, in the paper version, it gives a topical number by each verse, making it easy to find verses on the same topic. I wore out my NIV/Thompson leather Bible.
I rarely use these resources today, but for about 25 years, they were mainstays of my personal Bible study.
* Tabs. A tabbed Bible has cut outs designed to make it easy to turn to a given book in the Bible. I find that they increase the wear and tear on the pages, and so I don’t get them. But others love the ease of finding Lamentations before anyone else in the class.
* Goldleaf. Gold edges on the Bible make thin pages easier to work with. Essential if the paper is really thin. I try to avoid really thin paper because I’m old and arthritic. But I still like the gold edges — and think it pays for itself over time by reducing wear on the paper. The gold will wear out over time, but it extends the life of the Bible.