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Why are there so many Bible translations and do we need them?

Wed June 13th, 2018

Why are there so many translations?

God's Word does not change, but languages do change, thus the need for updated and revised translations of the Bible.

The Bible was originally written in languages relative to the country and age in which its various books were written, which means that the Old Testament is primarily Hebrew, with a little Aramaic thrown in, whilst the New Testament was written in everyday Greek. Therefore, unless you can read these ancient languages, you need a translation to enable you to access the Bible.

There is a great cost in producing a translation because even with computers to help, the skill you need to produce a reliable translation is enormous. These days you see lists of names typically about one hundred translators take part in the process of production. This is always a positive because they can check each other’s work!

For small Amazonian tribes and even reasonably large people groups there may only be one translation in their language and still today not every people group has any access to the Bible at all. In a sense we are spoilt by having so many English translations but that is because of the primary world usage of the English language and there being a lot of money to be made in selling Bibles. Remember that although the Bible is never listed in the lists of top selling books, that it is because it would always be number one and so is excluded.

Traditionally Holman were the biggest Bible publishers. This all changed when the first NIV’s best-selling status lifted Zondervan to that position, but when the NIV’s copyright was about to end Holman and all the other publishers had another shot which is why the early part of this century has resulted in a lot of new translations.

Why is translation difficult?

Just as the Inuit people have over 180 words for snow whereas we have only a handful, not every language has interchangeable words. In English, there is neither any apple or pine in a pineapple, no egg in an eggplant and no ham in a hamburger. Some words in the Bible have no modern equivalent in English. Just like we use idioms, so did the Bible writers. For example the phrase ‘stiff-necked’ is found in many bible translations, yet it never means having a stiff neck- it means to be obstinate or stubborn. Some translations will say stiff-necked but it is meaningless to most people today. Some metaphors are also meaningless today, e.g. ‘face of his birth’ (James 1:23) means your natural face, or ‘wheel of birth’ (James 3:6) means the course of life.

A good translator uses whatever words they can to represent the original. Some people say that some Bible version are literal translations (or formal equivalent versions) and others try to convey the thought behind the language (functional equivalent versions), but I challenge anyone to literally translate the Bible and present me with something that I can understand. It is not so much the translator’s interpretation, as the translator helping you to understand the same thought that the original reader would have. The fact is that ALL translations involve some interpretation of what the original writer meant.

The version that Jesus used

The King James Version of the Bible has had an enormous impact on British literature and was a great translation in its time. However, when it was translated there was no access to the older and more reliable manuscripts that we now use for translation. We now have so many ancient manuscripts that we didn’t have in 1611. We know how hard this is to handle because of the schoolboy’s experience of Shakespeare – a similar language.

In 1 Sam 24:3 the KJV renders the text as Saul going into a cave ‘to cover his feet’, when most versions modern versions offer ‘to relieve himself’; the latter is correct the former is bizarre. Despite my respect for it and the fact that it was the Bible I started out with, the reality is that the KJV is probably the least reliable of all the versions out there. No academic institution or Bible college would suggest that you quote from it in an essay. Simply the KJV didn’t use the most reliable manuscripts when it was made. We used to have someone in church who would refer to the KJV (tongue in cheek) as ‘the Bible that Jesus used’, and as much as I also have a great respect for it, it is time that we walked away from using it. The New King James Version, whilst better in terms of use of modern English, is still only based on the limited manuscripts that the KJV used and so it isn’t to be recommended either (this doesn’t stop me from having an affection for it though!)

Popular Versions

The English Standard Version is reminiscent of the KJV and is a fairly-popular version, but by far the dominant English language version in the world is the New International Version, the updated version of which was published in 2011. Holman publish the highly regarded Christian Standard Bible and the New Living Translation is also a big seller. The internet gave birth to the NET Bible (now known as the New English Translation) which is known for its excellent footnotes and the New Century Version was aimed at children and also adults with a low reading age.

Academics almost universally use the New Revised Standard Version, seeing it as ‘the most reliable for Bible students’, although most people agree it isn’t the best for public reading, and in the USA the New American Standard Bible or the updated version NASU also have a great following.

The truth is that all of these versions are good – they are just different, and it wouldn’t do you any harm to read them all.

Eugen Peterson’s ‘The Message’ is not a paraphrase as some people suggest but a translation that has brought a lot of blessing to the church, but it is mainly the work of one man. I probably wouldn’t choose it as my only Bible to have on a desert island, but I would like a copy to be part of my library. The original Living Bible is an example of a paraphrase which although it is of a lower overall quality than a translation does still have something to offer. 

The Amplified Bible (the one with a lot more words in it than others) is the text of the New American Standard with words added to amplify the interpreter’s meaning – and that is just one interpreter. Again, some people have found the Amplified helpful in private devotions from time to time, but it is probably the other key version to avoid from a point of view of reliability. If you do want a version which follows the idea of the Amplified then you could try the Expanded Bible which does to the text what the Amplified tried to do, but better, and is prepared by three serious theologians with a good understanding of ancient Biblical languages.

Reading Age

The design of Bibles is influenced by the reading age that they are aimed at. For example the NRSV and ESV are aimed at later teens, whereas the NIV  along with many other versions is aimed at pre-teens. The NCV (New Century Version) was initially marketed as the Children’s Bible and then the Youth Bible,  but is available in presentations for every age and this is aimed at 7+.

In a society where literacy is taken for granted, in the Church we must always remember that we have people who cannot manage an NIV but might manage an NCV, but may need an audio version (so always keep an NCV audio bible at hand). Sometimes we have to be ready to coach some people with their reading skills too, or at least signpost them to where they can get help.

Some churches recommend a single translation, to facilitate a common understanding or group reading. and it may help you to buy that to help you in group study.

There is no ‘best’ translation – at least not until the next one! The fact is that unless you can master Biblical languages we all have to make a compromise by having a ‘main’ version that we use. It seems that a new English version lands on my desk at least once a year, which is why I have over 30 in my office, and it seems the words of Solomon have come true, at least regarding Bible translations:

“there is no end to the making of many books” Eccl 12:12 HCSB

There is no doubt that when you are studying the Bible having a few versions to compare is a big help. I find it brings variety to my daily readings to keep changing versions, I also find it very interesting to compare translations, but the most important thing is to find a translation that you are comfortable with and not to become too closed minded about it. Whatever version you pick up, please read your Bible – asking the Holy Spirit to open its meaning to you.

Do we need all these versions? No! However, it would be wise to use them to your advantage by letting them all help you in your walk with Christ.

If you want to read more of this subject I would like to recommend the book by Gordon D. Fee “How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth!”