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Why Are There So Many Bible Translations? How To Choose One You Can Trust.

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Have you ever wandered the Bible section of a bookstore and thought to yourself, “Why so many Bible translations?”

Or maybe you have never opened a Bible, and are wondering why there isn't only one version of this Christian book.

Perhaps you’ve been in a Bible study and noticed how the person next to you has a translation that reads differently than yours, despite reading the same set of verses.

Let’s unpack why together, and look at how to know if you can trust a particular translation or not.

Understanding Yesterday’s Definitions, Today

The original manuscript languages (Greek Aramaic, and Hebrew) aren’t as straightforward as our native English tongue that we have today. Our good friend Lemon Price over at Pricelessly Imperfect explains this in a way that is easy to understand:

“Biblical Greek and Hebrew are not the way we speak today. When I was translating for my Greek and Hebrew classes, I was not allowed to use a modern text to translate. I had to go get a Biblical translator. So the best way I can put it is like when we think of Old English: We simply don’t speak like that anymore. Even in one country that can be the case. For example: Naomi and I come from different parts of the United States. We don’t even use words the same way and we’re roughly the same age and come from the same country. Language simply isn’t static. I’m probably going to nerd out right now but I know a lot of people struggle with the KJV because it was written four centuries ago and our language has evolved drastically since. I personally love the KJV. But then, and I’ll pull out my English degree here for a nanosecond, I look at Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was only written 200 years before the KJV and it’s hard. It’s not an easy read. I have to really work at it.”

The definitions of different words mean something different now than they did hundreds of years ago. Recent discoveries in Greek manuscripts, in particular, shed more light on the New Testament. For example, the KJV is based on six Greek manuscripts, (the earliest was in the tenth century, a thousand years removed from Christ). Today we have over 5,800 manuscripts, (the earliest was late first century). So, there is a lot more evidence to base translations on.

New Insights Into Old Languages

New Testament Greek was common Greek, but we didn’t always know that. We used to think it was a special Greek with special words that were new, but as we’ve found more ancient documents, we’ve had more information about how to interpret them.

Given these findings, there are newer Bible translations (in other words, after KJV was published) for different populations of people, such as various levels of education or reading comprehension.

At the end of the day, the goal of having different Bible translations is for God’s Word to be accessible and understandable to everyone. In order to achieve that, Biblical scholars and committees translate the Bible with different translation methods.

Overview of Translation Methods

There are currently three different methods of translation. By investigating what each of these philosophies focus on while translating, we are able to deepen our understanding on which Bible translations we can trust and which ones we should steer clear from.

While there are many Bible translations in existence today, we are going to focus on the most commonly used in each translation method.

1) Word for Word

The word-for-word translation method tries to stick to the most literal translation it can, keeping as close to the original language as possible. One major pro of this method is that it gets the nuances of what was originally said. On the other hand, it doesn’t always make sense. For example: “Mary was having it in the belly” instead of saying she was found to be pregnant or with child.

Examples include KJV, NASB, ESV, and HCSB (there is a bit of a spectrum here on how exact the translation is).

KJV (King James Version)

Also known as the Authorized Version, the KJV is a word-for-word translation published in 1611 by the request of King James I of England, (hence the name). Most copies today come from an updated version of the 1769 version. The updates are typically just spelling updates. To date, it is the most popular Bible translation.

Unlike other word-for word transitions, the KJV doesn’t include new manuscripts. It sticks to the six New Testament documents available at the time in 1611. Some parts were missing, so they went to the Latin to give their best guess. Nothing terrible happened in doing this, but it’s not based on as much documentation as newer versions are.

KJV-only people think this is the only version that is accurate. That’s untrue. It was a good translation–it’s fine to read–but it’s not better, and most certainly not the “only”. Humans translated this one just like they translated the other versions that have come since.” - Lemon Price

NASB (New American Standard Bible)

Used in more seminaries and scholastic circles than any other translation, the NASB is a word-for-word translation that includes new manuscripts, (unlike the KJV). One con of this translation is that, for some, it can be more challenging to read.

In the instances where phrase-for-phrase is used (instances where a direct word-for-word translation wouldn’t read clean), they put a footnote in with the Word for Word so that you can still see it. This version is highly praised by the top Bible translation scholar, Daniel Wallace.

ESV (English Standard Version)

Alongside the NASB, the ESV includes new manuscripts. Additionally, what makes the ESV differ from the NASB is its readability. It also tries to be gender accurate versus gender neutral.

HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Just as you see with the other word-for-word Bible translations listed above, the HCSB also includes the new manuscripts. One thing that makes this version standout from others in this category is its additional use of thought-for-thought, (but it does lean heavier on word-for-word). The translators use either translation philosophy based on what they thought was best for each verse, and notes which one is used in the footnotes.

2) Thought for Thought

This type of translation sticks to the historical and factual information but updates grammar, capturing the original message written by the author, without giving each word. Examples include NIV and NLT.

NIV (New International Version)

Influenced by the KJV, the NIV was originally published in 1978 and then revised in 1984 and 2011. This translation is one of the most popular English versions, and is commonly used in more traditional and conservative denominations. Despite its KJV influence, the NIV includes new manuscripts. An important thing to note about the NIV is that it leans heavily on thought-for-thought, which means some interpretation has been done for you in its writing.

NLT (New Living Translation)<