F.A.Q. #7: What’s Up with All These Translations?

Christians have long been considered “the people of the Book.” While practically every religion has a sacred text of some sort (the Qur’an, Torah, the Bhagavad Gita), the Church of Christ seems to be especially dedicated to its scriptures. The Holy Bible is a constant across the faith; worship styles, church architecture, and other local traditions may come and go, but every believer experiences the normative (and life-giving) influence of the Bible. (Or at least we should.) This raises a fairly important question: which Bible? Do we believe things as they appear across translations, or do we establish dogma only on the Vulgate? The King James? Can we trust every translation and version to be faithful to the original manuscripts — or should we even care?

I think it’s important to understand the process of compiling a new version of the Bible. There are several different approaches, and each one has its own merits. Some translations seek to provide a literal, word-for-word version of the manuscript. If, for example, the Hebrew reads “his countenance fell,” then these versions also read “his countenance fell” instead of something like “he was saddened.” Literal translations have the advantage of extreme faithfulness to the verbiage of the manuscripts, but what they gain in fidelity, they can sometimes lose in readability. Take, for example, the first editions of the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The translators set out to make the most literal English translation in history, a feat which they accomplished — at the cost of sounding like Yoda. Preserving the word order of the source languages meant keeping some verbs at the end of the clause or verse, and so the finished product was a little hard to keep up with at times. (Unless, of course, you happened to be a small green Jedi master who lives in a swamp on Dagobah.)

On the flip side of the literal/word-for-word translation are “thought-for-thought” translations, the most extreme being paraphrase versions of the Bible. Thought-for-thought translations aren’t concerned necessarily with the words themselves; rather, they prefer to rephrase the meaning behind the words in a way the target readers would understand. In keeping with my original example, instead of a Hebrew verse reading “his countenance fell,” these would opt for “he was saddened” or something along similar lines. A more concrete example is the New Living Translation’s (NLT) John 3:16. Instead of the “only-begotten son” of the original Greek, it reads “one and only son.” Every translation does this on occasion (yes, even the beloved KJV exchanges “born from above” for “born again” earlier in John 3), but some versions use this as a standard mode of operation. The paraphrase editions such as The Message and The Voice give up on word-for-word translations altogether and instead use contemporary language exclusively (including modern slang and other colloquialisms which weren’t even invented at the time Scripture was being written).

Of course, some translations try to straddle the fence and use a combination of both word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations. The most common of these is probably the New International Version (NIV), and this approach may account for the translation’s success in church circles worldwide. If you ever want a spectrum of translations mapping out which ones fall under what translation style, you can find a pretty good one in most Christian bookstores or online here and here.

Alright. We understand the basic options in putting together a new version from the source texts. But what sources do we use?

Modern translations are typically made from the Greek and Hebrew texts used by biblical scholars, which are themselves carefully compiled and edited to give a “best reading” from the original manuscripts. I have to say “best reading” because not every manuscript is identical. Thousands of scrolls exist, and some of them have been adapted or edited by the scribes for various reasons (for more info on this, see my earlier post here). For this reason, many Bibles have footnotes or other notations explaining how a word could be translated a different way or that a specific verse or passage doesn’t appear in other manuscripts. The New Testament of the King James Version, for example, was translated from the Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) and supplemented by earlier English translations (particularly for Revelation). Since its creation in 1611, other manuscripts have been uncovered which offer a new best reading or majority text which differs from the one used for the KJV, and these texts are used for newer translations. In other words, because we have more and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts than we did 400 years ago, we understand that some verses probably aren’t authentic and are thus either removed entirely or annotated in newer, more accurate translations. (For the die-hard KJV-only crowd: I’m not saying your preferred version is bad; I’m just saying there are better ones on the market nowadays, both in terms of accuracy and readibility, even though they potentially drop some of your favorite verses. And I guess I’m also saying it’s kind of silly to say a single translation in a language spoken by a fraction of the world’s population for only a couple of hundred years is the definitive version/the only “real” Bible; I mean, Jesus didn’t sound like Shakespeare.)

The multitude of versions of the Bible shouldn’t necessarily be a source of concern for the Christian. Each one fills a niche in terms of readership. For example, I would be hard-pressed to find a middle school student who loved the beauty of the King James or felt up to the task of handling the NASB, but I just might be able to get a seventh grader to dive in to the NIV, NLT, or CEB. On the other hand, a scholar wanting to work with the English text will probably reach for an NASB, ESV, or RSV, but the same scholar might not consider The Message to even be a real Bible. Each one conveys gospel truth and the full body of our sacred writings; they merely package it differently so as to make it accessible to a wide range of readers — believers and nonbelievers alike.

And just because you asked (okay . . . you didn’t, but I know you really wanted to), I prefer either the English Standard Version (ESV) or the NASB for my own reading and devotions, and I find the NIV and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) useful for teaching and preaching. I just personally prefer a literal, word-for-word text (which is also why I use a Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament for all of the above — but that’s another thing altogether).

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2 thoughts on “F.A.Q. #7: What’s Up with All These Translations?

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