the shape of leadership

Bible Version Overload

Helping readers understand and navigate translation options

Yisrael Vincent on January 29, 2019

I remember how confusing it was at 17 when I read the New Testament for the first time. I did not realize that the Gospels all told the same story, so when I read through them, I was a little frustrated that the Bible seemed full of reruns.

When I started to download a Bible app for the first time and realized there were dozens of choices, I was even more confused. I didn’t know where to start and chose one randomly. Later, at a Bible study, I read a passage from the digital Bible translation I had chosen.

As I looked up, I saw the confused stares of the other group members. The obscure translation I chose used unfamiliar and antiquated language. They politely encouraged me to choose something more modern. It was a bit embarrassing, but I later appreciated reading a version that was easier to understand and came with helpful notes at the bottom of the page.

I had forgotten this experience until a friend of mine reached out about Bible translations and expressed similar feelings. Why are there so many? Which one is right? What are the differences? And most importantly, should I trust the one I’m currently reading?

Perhaps you’ve heard such questions. I’d like to suggest three practical perspectives you can communicate to a new Bible reader about translations.

1. History

Translations have been around for a long time. Sometimes people express an aversion to the idea of the Word of God being translated. However, the Bible did not come to us in English. In fact, it did not even get to us in a single language. The Bible was written over many centuries by many writers, from Moses at the Exodus to the apostle John at the end of the first century. Most of Scripture was originally in Hebrew and Greek, with a few portions in Aramaic.

Even before the New Testament was penned, the Hebrew Scriptures had already been translated into Greek in the third century B.C. We refer to this ancient translation as the Septuagint, and biblical writers appear to have been familiar with it. Greek was a common language in the ancient world, thanks to the spread of Hellenism. A Greek translation of the Scriptures enabled Jews and other interested readers around the ancient world to experience Scripture in a language they understood.

The New Testament itself was written in Greek, which allowed a significant amount of the Roman empire to understand it. This was especially useful as Paul and other itinerant missionaries strategically brought the Gospel to new communities.

By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had permeated the Roman Empire, and the Bible made its way into other important languages, such as Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac and Coptic. Often, as with the Latin Vulgate, translated by Jerome in the fourth century, these translations had tremendous influence on the spread of Christianity.

Nearly a thousand years later, the efforts of figures such as John Wycliffe in the 14th century and William Tyndale in the 16th century helped bring the Bible into English. Their efforts laid the groundwork for the completion of the King James Version (KJV) in 1611, a translation many churches today still use.

The era of the Reformation sparked a new fervency for the Word, which led to several English translations and a significant amount of conflict. Translating the Bible was often highly controversial, and sometimes a deadly pursuit. As more people had access to the Bible, it allowed for personal engagement and interpretation, which helped fuel the Reformation and the different spiritual traditions that came out of it.

Overall, history tends to reflect that when people have access to the Bible in a language they can understand, they actually engage it more. The result of this widespread engagement often leads to deep transformation within communities that change the tides of history.

2. Reliability

Translations are not perfect. Most of us have a preferred translation. Sometimes we hold so dear to a particular translation that we treat as suspect anything that differs from it. Some go so far as to translation-shame anyone who does not use their preferred version of the Bible.

We currently have greater access to God’s Word than any other generation in history.

However, it is important to keep in mind that translations are not perfect and often reflect different philosophies when it comes to the best way to translate.

The prolific number of translations today are often informed by archaeological discoveries of ancient manuscripts of biblical texts. Since there were no printing presses in the ancient world, people had to handwrite copies of biblical materials.

This process was slow and tedious and sometimes prone to normal human mistakes, like misspelling words or accidently skipping a line as the scribes copied. Even so, archaeological discoveries, like the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Old Testament and papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament, show that copies of biblical texts are surprisingly accurate.

When the King James Version was first published in 1611, there may have been a couple dozen ancient manuscripts consulted for the work. Today, there are more than 5,800 pieces of ancient Greek manuscripts available for translators to use, allowing for more accurate translations. As far as ancient documents go, this is overwhelmingly reliable evidence for knowing what the original New Testament writers communicated.

For this reason, we can be highly confident that the Bible we have today is an authentic representation of the apostolic witness. The few minor places where translators are unsure about a passage due to differences between older and newer manuscripts will typically include a footnote or bracket for transparency (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11).

However, no major doctrine rises or falls on single passage with textual variants. As a result, it may be helpful to consult several translations when studying a particular passage in order to develop a full picture of how the passage can be stated.

3. Comprehension

The Bible was meant to be understood. Since the Bible refers to places, things and idioms that are at times thousands of years old, it does not always make sense to readers today. This is where translation philosophy comes into play.

Some believe it is important to keep translations as “word for word” as possible. After all, it’s God’s Word, right? However, an exact word-for-word translation would make no sense in English, since Hebrew and Greek syntax differs significantly from English.

Translations like this do their best to reflect what the text says, even if it is more difficult to understand. These types of Bible translations are great for study and often come with helpful study notes to fill you in on how long a cubit is (Genesis 6:15); what a tabernacle looks like (Exodus 40:34); or why the Festival of Tabernacles is celebrated (Leviticus 23:42-43).

Other translators emphasize the idea that the Bible was fundamentally given to be understood (Nehemiah 8:8). The fact that God chose to deliver the New Testament in Koine Greek, which was primarily for everyday use, illustrates that God has no problem communicating in familiar terms. These translations are more “thought for thought” and do their best to translate the text in a way that honors the original meaning while still making sense today.

This type of translation may smooth out the wording of difficult phrases or use modern measurements or expressions that reflect the meaning of the original phrase. Some go so far as giving the gist of what the passage means in a conversational tone. Overall, thought-for-thought translations help make the Bible approachable by removing barriers to communication.

Whether you prefer a more word-for-word translation or a more thought-for-thought translation, or something in between, you should remember that translation teams are made of biblical experts who possess a desire to communicate the Bible in a fresh way. All translators make judgement calls, and no translation is perfect.

We currently have greater access to God’s Word than any other generation in history. Every Bible translation offers a new opportunity to engage the Bible in a way that is meaningful. Understanding the Bible involves more than just reading words on the page; you must be able to apply them personally (Acts 8:30-31).

You may have noticed that I haven’t named any translations for recommendation. This is by design. People should be encouraged to use a translation that is appropriate for their season of life.

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