Men like William Tyndale and John Wycliffe devoted their lives (and sometimes even sacrificed them) to bring us the English translation of the Bible. While they would likely be pleased to see how far their initial work has come in making the Bible available to all English speakers, they would also be confused by the sheer number and variations of translations and types available now. Walk into any Christian bookstore, or any other bookstore for that matter, and you will be faced with so many options that you may long for the days when the King James Version was the only one available.
Choosing the right Bible for you is no longer a simple task, but it can be made easier with a little work before you buy. The first and often most difficult choice is which translation is best for you. There are stalwarts out there who still insist that The King James Version is the only true translation, even if many of the words haven't been in use for nearly 200 years. If you are one of these people your choice is easy, at least as far as translation. For everyone else, let's take a look at the plethora of translations available.
When translating the Bible from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) there are two basic methods: word-for-word or thought-for-thought. In reality, all versions use some combination of this process, because many Greek and Hebrew words don't have an exact English equivalent and the word order doesn't match up exactly either. A true word-for-word translation would be virtually unreadable. And while thought-for-thought translations better convey the original meaning, even they translate Greek and Hebrew words exactly wherever possible. A third method is the paraphrase, but these versions allow for current slang and idioms and are outdated almost as soon as they are printed.
The ultimate goal is making the Bible relevant and understandable to us today without everyone having to learn Greek or Hebrew. My recommendation is to stay to the thought-for-thought side without slipping all the way to a paraphrase. Another consideration is the reading level required for each version. The translations on the word-for-word end of the spectrum will require a higher reading level (12th grade for the King James Version, for example) while the thought-for-thought versions will require a lower reading level (4th grade for the New Century Version). Below is a list of widely available versions, the translations type, and reading level:
King James Version (KJV): Word-for-word, 12th grade.
New American Standard Bible (NASB): Word-for-word, 11th grade.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 10th Grade.
New King James Version (NKJV): More verse-for-verse than word-for-word, 9th Grade.
English Standard Version (ESV): Word-for-word, 8th Grade.
New International Version (NIV): Balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought, 7th Grade.
New Living Translation (NLT): Thought-for-thought, 6th Grade.
Contemporary English Version (CEV): Thought-for-thought, 5th Grade.
New Century Version (CNV): Thought-for-thought, 4th Grade.
Beyond reading level and translation method, there are a few other important choices that must be made when selecting a Bible, things like font, print size, cost (which is related to the binding method) and type of Bible. Cost can vary widely, but generally speaking you get what you pay for. A particular study Bible may come in soft cover for $19.99, hardback for $29.99, bonded leather for $39.99, and genuine leather for $49.99 and up. While more expensive, a genuine leather Bible should last for a lifetime, while a soft cover may wear out in two years or less. In the long run, it's better to pay more now.
When speaking of the type of Bible, I am referring to another phenomenon that is fairly recent: the specialty Bible. For centuries Bibles had only the sacred text, some maps, and perhaps a brief concordance. Today the choices are enough to make a person dizzy. Type in "Study Bible" on Amazon and you will get hundreds of results. A few include: The ESV Study Bible, The Life Application Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Seeker's Bible, The NIV Study Bible, The McArthur Study Bible, The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, The Women's Study Bible, The Recovery Study Bible, The Men's Devotional Bible, and the list goes on and on.
Almost anyone can find a study Bible that suits his or her particular need at a given moment in time. All are filled with helpful notes, articles, diagrams, concordances, maps, and application tips that can be very useful. But one word of caution: it is very easy to get so caught up reading the notes and articles that you're not actually reading the Bible itself. The notes should always be used in addition to, not in place of, the actual Biblical text.
As for my own personal recommendation, especially if this is the first Bible you've purchased in some time (or ever), I would suggest the NIV Life Application Study Bible. The NIV is the world's best selling translation and is very readable. In addition, the notes in the Life Application Study Bible are easy to understand without a seminary degree, which is not true of every study Bible out there. For deeper study, perhaps the best available right now is the ESV Study Bible, as evidenced by the fact that it is used by ministers across all denominations.
Regardless of which version and type you choose, the best Bible version for you is the one you'll actually read. It will only be of use to you if you're reading it daily, not simply letting it sit on the shelf gathering dust. Start with 5 minutes a day; it will change your life.