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)
More heavily focused on thought-for-thought than the NIV, the NLT avoids theological terms. With that in mind, it’s not designed for careful study. Readers may find this translation good for a causal study, or for those who are younger or have a more basic level of education. In other words, the NLT is simple for readers to comprehend.
These translations are not entirely precise and are not bound by the original language. Examples of paraphrased translations include The Message, The Living Bible, The Passion, The JW/LDS KJV.
In an attempt to emulate the feel, Eugene Peterson wrote The Message as a paraphrase. This paraphrased translation is meant for personal reading, not for study or public use. Peterson himself has been reported as saying he doesn’t think The Message should be read in church, but rather in a personal study alongside a word-for-word translation to help guide context.
However, if someone was going to be handed a Bible to introduce them to God, this might be the only version they’d read. That has a place of value. It just wouldn’t be ideal to stay with this version for very long.
The Living Bible
The fact that The Living Bible is the work of one person is a red flag— This leads to a lot of biases and inaccuracies. Typically, Bible translations are created by the works and studies of hundreds of biblical scholars and theologians, and the original languages are used. The Living Bible didn’t have any of that in its creation. In fact, the author essentially reworded another version.
Sound the alarm and steer clear of The Passion, for it was recently pulled from certain publishers due to how it presents itself. It reads like a loose paraphrase, but the creator presents it as a literal translation, divinely given to him. There are quite a number of additions to the text that change the intended meaning. (See Mike Winger’s comments to CBN about it). This version was translated by one guy without proper education, who claims he translated it with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He also claims he met an angel, named Passion, which is where he got the name for it. Additionally, he claims that God showed him secrets about the Bible and that he translated with this new information. He goes as far as to say God gave him an additional chapter of John that he is going to bring in the future (he says he has it, but isn’t allowed to share it yet).
So, put it back on the shelf, (please). Or better yet, hide it so no one finds it and unknowingly buys it.
The JW (The New World Translation) & LDS KJV
Both of these organizations have their own versions of already accepted scriptures from groups that lack scholars, (red flag).
Really, any religious group with their own version of anything that is already widely accepted by scholars should send up a red flag.
The New World Translation is so word-for-word that you can hardly understand it, except for passages that teach things that disagree with the Jehovah Witness’ faith, at which points they mess with the text so it doesn’t disagree anymore.
For those of you who feel fearful because you’ve had the Bible used as a weapon to manipulate you:
“For a while, I found myself wanting to check everything for myself because I didn’t trust anyone. I didn’t trust scholars who translated the different versions, so I studied Hebrew and was going to study Greek next…We can create so much stress for ourselves this way that we shut down and give up, because the way of operating that we’ve taken on is impossible to do. People who study biblical Hebrew and Greek confirm that our translations are excellent. Teams of scholars have come together and had to agree on these… That’s not an easy feat. Scholars can be very firm in what they think is best, so for groups to agree–that’s significant and should earn some trust. Not everyone is out to harm us.” - Naomi Wright
“I like this translation better…”
Great! As long as it’s not one of the inaccurate and harmful versions, then it’s your personal preference. Just know what you’re reading and what went into translating that version so you’re aware of what you’re getting, including its pros and cons. For example, if some interpreting was done for you in your thought-for-thought Bible–know that. In the examples outlined above, they did great work so you don’t have anything to be afraid of–rest easy and enjoy!
Still have questions or need additional guidance on choosing a Bible translation that is right for you? Feel free to reach out to us, and we are happy to help you find one that you can trust and feels safe to you.
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