You can get overwhelmed when you see all the different Bible translations that are out there. Just in English alone, there are over 450 translations that have been written! Why are there so many translations of the Bible? How did that come about? Why didn't they just stick with the original one? Is there is one translation of the Bible that’s better than others,? Are all translations created equally? Are there any really bad translations? Is it better to only read one translation or switch up between several?
Tune in for answer to these questions and more!
Episode 92 – Why are there so Many Translations of the Bible?
Welcome Back! Chris, I’ll bet our listeners get tired of hearing us say read your Bible. And, we know we say it a lot! But, you know, there are questions we have never answered. Is there is one translation of the Bible that’s better than others, why are there so many translations of the Bible, and are all translations created equally?
You’re right. We don’t ever address any of those questions, but in this episode we will! You can get overwhelmed when you see all the different Bible translations that are out there. Just in English alone, there are over 450 translations that have been written! Why are there so many translations of the Bible?! Are they all pretty much the same? Is it better to only read one translation or switch up between several? Rose, we have a lot of questions to answer! Since we are creatures of habit, like we do with many issues, let’s start at the beginning.
And for this subject, the beginning is not Genesis. It’s the entire Old Testament. Many, many years before the New Testament was put together, the books of the Old Testament was accepted as Divine Revelation, meaning they were cannonical. The Old Testament was written on scrolls by roughly 28 – 30 authors (some authorship of books and some psalms is unknown). Twenty-two of the OT books were mentioned by name by Flavius Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. In fact, he is the most credible and quoted Jewish historian in history. In fact, if you want some great historical narrative on the Bible, Josephus is a great resource. He wasn’t a Christian, but he gives some great historical background to the times of Biblical events.
The OT books were the foundation of Judaism. They were often read from in synogogues. They were all written in Hebrew except for some of Daniel and Ezra which were written in Aramaic – a language closely related to Hebrew. How do we know that all of these books are authentic? Well, throughout Scripture, the entire OT is sometimes referred to as The Law, sometimes The Law and the Prophets, and sometimes, The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Its just semantics. Kind of like how the Northern nation of Israel was sometimes also referred to by its biggest tribe, Ephraim, or its capital, Samaria. All three mean the entire northern nation.
Right. The OT gets about the best endorsement for validity something can possibly get! Jesus, Himself, says in several places that what was contained in the scrolls of the OT was authentic and true. One place is in Luke 24:44, “Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” And He says something similar again in John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
The only written Scriptures around when Jesus walked the earth was the Old Testament. Jesus is saying in those verses that the OT is authentic and true. That’s some pretty solid evidence that they are. Plus, as most of us know, Jesus often quoted from many of the books of the OT. So besides some early church debate about the book of Esther, which some had issue with because it never mentions God by name, the OT has had very little pushback. But how about the NT? Things get a little hairier here, but we can still have complete confidence that all 27 books of the NT are authentic. For one thing, the writers of the NT quote each other. Paul often quotes the gospels, and Peter quotes Paul’s epistles, just to name a couple of examples. But as we will see, there’s a lot more reason to be confident that the books are canonical, meaning Divinely inspired and genuine.
In 140 AD, the first list of canonical books of the NT was formulated, ironically by a man who was later declared a heretic, but that’s another story. By the end of the second century all but seven books (Hebrews, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Revelation) were recognized as being apostolic. By the end of the fourth century all twenty-seven books in our present canon were recognized by all the churches of the West, and by the year 500, they were recognized by the church worldwide. Now there was a council, several, in fact, who met to decide which books were canonical, and which weren’t. The criteria they used was first, the author must have either been an apostle or the close associate of an apostle. Second, the document could not contradict other “inspired” writings with respect to doctrinal teaching. (remember the rule, Scripture must interpret Scripture) And, third, it must have been cited by early Christian writers and be accepted by the majority of churches.
This helps us have confidence the NT books are genuine, but, of course, the main reason we know that the 66 books in the Bible are accurate and genuine is because the Holy Spirit not only divinely inspired the writers of Scripture, but He testified to the truth of them to the councils and to all believers. John 14:26 says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” And John 16:12 – 15, “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’
Before we go any further, let’s pause and talk about the books that didn’t make it into the cannon. And why does the Catholic Bible have books in it that the Protestant Bible doesn’t? I’ll start with the books that didn’t make it. Most of us probably remember the Divinci Code which was loosely based on the gnostic gospel of Thomas. It had all these crazy, heretical ideas that Jesus was married to Mary Magedeline and that they even had a child together. People jumped on this. And many continue to jump on the band wagon of gnostic books. If you want to know for sure that the gnostic books are junk, let’s just look at the dictionary definition of Gnosticism, “a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin. Gnostic doctrine taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit.”
And if that’s confusing, more simply put, gnostics were a heretical anti-Christian group who thought at most, God was a remote, uninvolved Divinity, and at worst, Jesus was not fully God. So that pretty much destroys any credibility of any of the gnostic books. They obviously have an agenda, hence why they said Jesus was married with a child. They wanted Him to appear just like any other man. So what about the extra books in the Catholic Bible? The books found in the Catholic Bible that are not in the Protestant Bible are from the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a group of Biblically-related writings that all occurred between the OT and NT (the 400 years when nobody heard from God). Although they are a good resource for historical context, they have been deemed not genuine because they did not pass the canonical requirements we named earlier.
Okay, so I know we flew through that, but we can all rest assure that the 66 books we have in our Bible is all the Divine revelation God intended for us to have. As Paul says in 2Tim 3:16 – 17 say, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God[b] may be complete, equipped for every good work. But now it starts getting trickier. Technically, this 2 Tim verse applies to the original scrolls. If we are reading anything other than the original Hebrew / Aramaic Scrolls of the OT or the original Greek writings of the NT, (and I am assuming we all are) then we are reading a translation of Scripture.
Okay, let’s get this translation discussion started by saying God is infallible, but translators are not. And unless we are fluent in Hebrew and Greek and can read the original text, we are at the mercy of translators. The first translation of the Bible was the Vulgate, written by St. Jerome in the 4th century, and it was in Latin. It was the official version of the Bible for the church up until the 16th century. But the reformers started noticing problems with it, particularly Martin Luther.
Yeah, he found a huge mistranslation that rocked his world and changed everything for him! The vulgate had translated the original Greek word for “Repent” as “do penance.” This is why the church taught that you had to do penance to pay for your sins. One way to do penance was to purchase indulgences that the church sold to make money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. An indulgence was grace. If you paid the church for the indulgence, you were given a paper that said you were given a portion of grace from the “grace treasury,” so you were forgiven of your sins. When Martin Luther realized that the word was actually “repent,” he realized that we only needed to go to God seeking forgiveness and turn from our sin and we would be given grace. It was totally free and totally dependent of the sovereignty and grace of God, not the church!
Yeah, this mistranslation was huge! It is one that could actually effect someone’s salvation. But the church wasn’t that concerned, because when the Reformers split off and formed the protestant church, that original church became the Roman Catholic Church and they still recognize the Vulgate as their main version of the Bible. And while not as major as this one, there are still problems in translations. Translators don’t always agree. As we said, God is infallible, translators aren’t. Here’s a couple of examples. 1Sam 8:16. The NKJV and NASB translate that verse as, “he will take your finest young men and your donkeys.” The NRSV and NIV translate it as, “he will take the best of your cattle and donkeys.” Samuel is telling the Israelites the consequences of them appointing a king over themselves. Big difference between a king taking your finest young men and taking your cattle!
And just to do one more. 1Cor 7:36. The NLT says, “But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly” The KJV says, “But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin.” And The Message Bible says, “If a man has a woman friend to whom he is loyal but never intended to marry, having decided to serve God as a “single.” So how can we know which is the correct translation?! Well, before we jump too far ahead, let’s get a little foundation. For this episode, we are going to concentrate on English translations. In 1526, one of the reformers, William Tynedale, using the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture, was the first to translate the Bible into English.
William Tyndale was a brilliant man. He could speak seven languages, including being proficient in ancient Hebrew and Greek. He was a priest and he could have gone far in the catholic church, except for his one flaw. He had a passion to teach English men and women the good news of justification by faith. Like Martin Luther, he saw the false teachings of the catholic church and the major errors in interpretation in the Vulgate, and he wanted people to know the truth. In fact, he was inspired by Martin Luther’s translating the Bible into German, to do the same for English speaking people.
For his efforts, in 1536, Tyndale was labeled a heretic, stripped of his priesthood, and ultimately killed. I’ll quote how he died from his biography, “He was bound to the beam, and both an iron chain and a rope were put around his neck. Gunpowder was added to the brush and logs. At the signal of a local official, the executioner, standing behind Tyndale, quickly tightened the noose, strangling him. Then an official took up a lighted torch and handed it to the executioner, who set the wood ablaze.” William Tyndale did not die in vain. I’m going to quote his biography again, “His translations, it would turn out, became decisive in the history of the English Bible, and of the English language. Nearly a century later, when translators of the Authorized, or King James Version, debated how to translate the original languages, eight of ten times, they agreed that Tyndale had it best to begin with.”
So if Tynedale had it right, why do the King James translation? Because, in 1604, King James I of England authorized that a new translation of the Bible into English be started. And he was king, so they did it! This new translation was finished in 1611, 85 years after Tyndale’s Bible. The Authorized Version, or King James Version, quickly became the standard for English-speaking Protestants because of its flowing and poetic language. So why not just stop there? The King James was found to have some flaws in how some things were translated, this is especially true after the finding of the dead sea scrolls. Also, some of the language in it was becoming obsolete and hard to understand.
Since the issuance of the KJV, translations have regularly been released as people believe they get a better handle on the original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts. This is called Textual Criticism. Textual Criticism is the exacting science of comparing and evaluating the variant readings found in the ancient documents of Scripture. As any of us who have studied a foreign language know, no languages translate perfectly into each other. Sentence structure is different, word meanings are different, and grammar is different. Therefore, you can’t just take a sentence in Hebrew and translate it word for word into English. That’s what makes translating the Bible so difficult.
However, we need to note that by God’s sovereignty, the vast majority of translations are unified in the essentials. There are a few heretical translations out there, but the vast majority are unified on the big stuff. Again, by God’s sovereignty, reading one translation over another isn’t going to put someone’s salvation in jeopardy. The discrepancies are not as significant as the ones found in the Vulgate. Although a few pretty heretical versions have recently come out. More on those later.
Where there are differences, textual critics examine the evidence and decide which of the variants is most likely to preserve the meaning of the words of the original Biblical author. This is harder than you may think. Translators have a tough job. First, they have to make sure that the text is copied accurately from the original manuscripts. Some errors found in the KJV for example, were because a word was miscopied from the original Hebrew.
Then there’s the problem of linguistics. We see an example of this in 1 Cor 16:20, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (ESV version) The translators have to look at the culture and linguistics to properly translate this. Is this a literal kiss or slang for how everyone in the culture greeted each other? One version, the easy-to-read version has translated this verse as, “Give each other the special greeting of God’s people.” While another version, the Message Bible says, Pass the greetings around with holy hugs!”
There is a process that translators are to follow for interpretation. Some follow and apply this process better than others. The first is a word you have heard us use often and that is exegesis. Exegesis is the close, careful analytical study of a passage of scripture to understand its meaning.
The principle of exegesis is called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the process of interpretation. Its used to recognize the original intent of the author. The translator has to contextualize the passage. The passage cannot mean what it was never meant to mean, and it must line up with other Scripture.
So if translating the Bible is so hard, why are there so many translations?! Well, some new translations come out because a group believes they have a better understanding of the original meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts, some translations are created to play to a specific audience. Also, some translations focus on being more of a word for word translation, called a formal equivalency translation, while others focus on trying to convey ideas thought by thought, called a dynamic equivalency translation. And even within the formal and dynamic equivalency translations, there is a wide variance.
Maybe it will help to name some of the more popular translations, their purpose, and their target audience. I’ll start with the ESV, since that is the one we use, as do many Reformed churches. The ESV, or English Standard Version, is a formal equivalency translation, a literal translation. It is firmly rooted in the Tyndale and King James translations but without the archaic language. The ESV is closely related to the RSV, or revised standard version. It was published at the beginning of the 21st century and is well suited for public reading and memorization.
One of our other favorites is the NIV, New International Version. And let’s clarify that we mean the 1984 NIV Translation, not the 2011 translation. The 1984 NIV Translation was the most widely used version of any Bible translation. It balanced the word for word translation and the meaning for meaning translation. It was straight forward, easy to read, and suitable for a wide range of purposes. In 2011, though, they changed the NIV to make it gender inclusive. For example, the 1984 NIV read in Mark 1:17, “I will make you to become fishers of men.” The 2011 NIV instead reads, “I will send you out to fish for people.”
There’s the NKJV, or New King James Version. The NKJV was published in 1982. It is basically a modernization of the original King James Version. It replaces some of the archaic language but preserves the original purity and flowing language of the 1611 version.
Another version we sometimes like to read is the NLT, or New Living Translation. The NLT was translated from the ancient text by 90 leading Bible scholars. It strives to use clear and natural English. It tries to make implicit information explicit. For example, in Romans 3:15, the ESV says, “Their feet are swift to shed blood.” The NLT says, “They rush to commit murder.” The motto of the NLT translators is “The Truth Made Clear.”
And then there’s the NASB, New American Standard Bible. The NASB is a literal translation from the original texts. Since it an accurate rendering of the source texts, it makes for an excellent study Bible. Another unique feature of the NASB, is that it capitalizes all pronouns related to God. The other versions do not do that.
There’s the amplified Bible. The goal of the Amp Bible is to take both word meaning and context into account to accurately translate the original text from one language into another. The AMP does this through the use of explanatory alternate readings and amplifications to assist the reader in understanding what Scripture really says. If you have ever read the AMP version, you will notice immediately that it is very wordy. That’s because multiple English word equivalents to each key Hebrew and Greek word are given to clarify and amplify meanings that may otherwise have been concealed by the traditional translation method. The first edition was published in 1965. It was updated in 2015 to be easier to read.
Let’s do a couple of modern translations. First, the message Bible. The message Bible is a paraphrase Bible. It should never be your sole source of Scripture. It was meant to put Scripture into easy to read, modern language that almost anyone can understand. Paraphrase Bibles may be a nice extra Bible to have just to see how someone else words a passage, but there is danger in them. For example, in the ESV, Romans 3:11 – 12 says, “None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
The Message paraphrases these verses as, “There’s nobody living right, not even one,nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They’ve all taken the wrong turn; they’ve all wandered down blind alleys.
Wow! That really waters down Paul’s original words. As we said earlier, translators are supposed to make sure that they don’t make the text say something it was never meant to say. This is a huge danger with paraphrase Bibles. Another paraphrase Bible that is hugely popular is The Passion Translation. The Passion translation translates the Romans 3:11 – 12 verses as, “There is no one who always does what is right, no, not even one!There is no one with true spiritual insight, and there is no one who seeks after God alone.” The problem with The Passion Translation is that it’s not really a translation. Translations attempt to convey as accurately as possible the thought of the original author, whether they lean towards the word-for-word, formal equivalency or thought-for-thought, dynamic equivalency. The Passion “translation” inserts all kinds of concepts, words and ideas of which the original text gives no hint whatsoever despite the occasional footnotes which say “implied by the context.
Since this is such a popular version, I’ll give another example of how it inserts things that were never part of the original text. Phil. 1: 2, in the ESV says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
In the Passion Translation, it says, “May the blessings of divine grace and supernatural peace that flow from God our wonderful Father, and our Messiah, the Lord Jesus, be upon your lives.” You hate to pull the Rev. 22 card, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” But it’s completely appropriate to pull it here!
Okay, so now that we have probably really confused the heck out of everyone, let’s give some solid advice. First, find an accurate, reliable translation and stick to that translation for your daily reading. If you prefer the formal equivalency translation, we recommend the ESV or the NLT. If you prefer the dynamic equivalency, the 1984 NIV version is the best, but even the 2011 version is better than most other versions in this category. Rose and I do our daily reading out of the 2011 NIV because that’s what our chronological Bible is, and its been fine. But after you have a main translation for daily reading, consider using other translations to study and cross reference. The NASB is the best translation for study, but don’t be afraid to look up other translations, even paraphrase translations to get a more extended view of a passage. If you don’t want to own a lot of translations, you can always go on Bible Gateway.com, Bible Hub, or Blue Letter Bible. They have many, many translations available.
And we haven’t mentioned yet, but even within translations, there are variations. There are study Bibles with different themes. Choose what interests you, but just make sure, if you are using a study Bible, it is credible. I use the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible. Biggest drawback is the print is so dag gone small, but other than that, I love it! It’s theme is to show the Bible as one whole consistent Theological Truth. It has cross reference Scriptures, study notes, introductions to each book of the Bible. It’s great! And there are a lot of great study Bibles out there!
But like we said, make sure the person or group who made the study Bible is credible. Joyce Meyer used the Amp. Translation and made a study Bible. Do Not Use this Bible. Joyce Meyer is a false teacher who spouts constants heresies. The last thing you would want is her giving you her insight into Scripture. The same with Tony Evans and others. Best advice we can give is do your homework.
Definitely, because like we said, while there are some bad translations, there are even worse study Bibles. Rather than solely rely on notes at the bottom of the page of your Bible, do a little research. Look up commentaries on the passage you are reading. (again commentaries by solid, Biblical teachers). Go on Blue Letter Bible, put your passage in and you not only get commentaries, you can see the original Hebrew or Greek and see its meaning and where else in the Bible that word is used.
We know it sounds like a lot of work, and it is! But the rewards and blessings you get out of really digging into reading and understanding your Bible will be a life long blessing. Once you start, you will probably find yourself hungry to keep digging!
That’s all we have time for today. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email us at [email protected] or message us through Facebook or Instagram, and you can always leave a comment in the comment section of wherever you are listening from.
Have a blessed day!