There are more than 80,000 ways to order a beverage at Starbucks. Let that thought, ahem, percolate for a while. Some of you are shocked. Others, like me, have been behind the guy whose order is so elaborate that, in the time it takes to order, two shift changes have taken place.
Seriously, an iced, half caff, ristretto, venti, four-pump, sugar free, cinnamon, dolce soy skinny latte is not something any of us really needs, but I’ve been known to knock back a grande peppermint mocha (calories: 330) to get the day started.
Lately, I’ve had several people ask questions about different Bible translations. While the number doesn’t come anywhere near the 80,000 mark, there are several good translations available. Why are there so many? Which one should you choose?
Excellent questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them, but I need to caution and encourage you before we dive in. First, I understand the love of and loyalty to a particular translation. Do not be dismayed if your favorite translation does not make the top of the list–my goal is to share some observations and insight from biblical scholars. Secondly, it’s more important for you to interact with God’s Word than for you to worry about having the best translation. Let’s trust the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Bible as you read, regardless of the translation.
(Note: While there are some awful paraphrases out there, the paraphrases and translations discussed in this post are good choices for devotional reading and personal study unless otherwise noted.)
The simple answer is because very few people are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek language scholars. The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (a TINY percentage was written in Aramaic) and the entire New Testament was written in Greek. So, if you’re going to be able to read the Bible, you need a copy in a language you can read.
Also, languages evolve. Though it was written in English, my 15-year-old daughter experienced some difficulty while reading A Study In Scarlet (a Sherlock Holmes novel written in the late 1880s). These days, there are approximately 1,000 new words added to the Oxford Dictionary each year!
It may surprise you to know that even though the printing press has been around since the 15th century, there is not a Bible translation for 1,800 languages on the planet. According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, there are 180 million people without access to any Scripture in their first language and 1.5 billion people without the full Bible in their first language.
Sadly, there exists no original manuscript from any of the Bible’s 66 books. In the absence of an Apostle Paul original, Bible scholars must utilize some of the ancient hand-written copies of the originals (these existed long before Guttenberg and his printing press).
Remember the telephone game from your childhood? A message was whispered to one person, who then whispered it to someone else, and this continued until the last person reported the message to everyone. I don’t think we ever got the exact message at the end of the game. Since Bible translations have been taking place for centuries, it should come as no surprise that variants exist in copies of biblical manuscripts.
So what’s the solution? Simply put, earlier is better and consistency matters. To translate the Old Testament, scholars used to rely on medieval Hebrew transcripts but earlier manuscripts from Greek translations have been discovered, which are more reliable. For New Testament translation, manuscripts from the second century have been found in Egypt and in various locations in the ancient Roman Empire.
For example, when the original King James Version (KJV) was translated in 1611, scholars at the time had access to later manuscripts which contained a number of variants from earlier manuscripts that had not yet been discovered.
Before I get skewered for speaking ill of the KJV, you need to know that I grew up memorizing hefty chunks of Scripture from that translation. It’s poetic and lovely to listen to, but let me share a word of caution from Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, “the only Greek text available to the 1611 translators was based on late manuscripts, which had accumulated the mistakes of over a thousand years of copying. Few of these mistakes–a we must note that there are many of them–make any difference to us doctrinally… Recognizing that the English of the KJV was no longer a living language, it was decided by some to ‘update’ the KJV by ridding it of its ‘archaic’ way of speaking. But in doing so, the NKJV revisers eliminated the best feature of the KJV (its marvelous expression of the English language) and kept the worst (its flawed text)… That is why you should use almost any modern translation rather than the KJV or NKJV” (excerpt from How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Zondervan, 2003).
Types of translations
There are three approaches to translations. Without getting too technical, I’ll introduce you to these three approaches and the most popular Bibles in each one.
This is sometimes referred to as “word-for-word” or “literal” translation. These translations strive to maintain the structure of the original text by replacing a word from the original language to its new language equivalent. The upside: The modern reader can follow the original structure and grammatical patterns found in ancient texts. The challenge: This type of translation is pretty awkward to read in English since it uses the construction of another language. Popular translations: King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), New American Standard (NASB), Revised Standard Version (RSV), English Standard Version (ESV).
This is sometimes referred to as “thought-for-thought” translation. These translations highlight readability over the preservation of original language structure. The upside: The modern reader will have the intention of a text translated into easy-to-understand modern words and idioms. The challenge: Cultural nuances in the original language can be overlooked, and some scholars question the reliability for in-depth Bible research. Popular translations: Christian Standard Bible (CSB), New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), New Living Translation (NLT), New American Bible (NAB), New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), Good News Bible (GNB), Revised English Bible (REB).
Paraphrases are sometimes referred to as a “free translation,” but I believe the term “translation” should be reserved for efforts that reflect thoughtful and broad-based scholarship. Paraphrases are very easy to read and utilize modern language and expressions. The upside: A paraphrase will take the meaning of a passage of Scripture and attempt to express that meaning in casual, conversational language. Paraphrases make great reading Bibles. The challenge: Paraphrase authors often write their commentary into the translated text. As a result, original intent may be marginalized. Popular paraphrases: The Message (MSG), The Living Bible (LB), New English Bible (NEB).
Comparison of translations/paraphrases
I’ll list the same passage of Scripture (Hebrews 12:1-2) in multiple translations and paraphrases, beginning with high formal equivalence:
- KJV - “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
- NASB – “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
- ESV – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
- NIV – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
- CSB – “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
- NLT – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.”
- MSG – “Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God.”
- LB – “Since we have such a huge crowd of men of faith watching us from the grandstands, let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, and especially those sins that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up; and let us run with patience the particular race that God has set before us. Keep your eyes on Jesus, our leader and instructor. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterwards; and now he sits in the place of honor by the throne of God.”
The bottom line
Props to you, dear reader, for making it this far! I hope this treatise has been informative, but it would be a little unfair for me to provide all this information without offering my preference. I’m a fan of utilizing multiple translations for study – I like the diversity of language. My two favorite translations are the Christian Standard Bible and New Living Translation. I enjoy the scholarship of CSB (and had many of the translators as professors in seminary) and the readability of the NLT. Regardless of what you choose, make sure you’re engaging God through His Word every day.
Hebrews 4:12 (CSB) For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
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