Everything You Need To Know About Bible Translations

Aaron WaidBlog, Challenges

Everything You Need To Know About Bible Translations

Aaron Waid

Aaron has Master's degree from Denver Seminary, a Master's degree in Journalism from Marshall University, and Bachelor's degrees in Psychology and English from Davis and Elkins College. Aaron has served in churches for over a decade in many positions. He is a husband, father, musician, and deeply believes that knowing Jesus is the purpose of life.
Aaron Waid

A few days ago, my Mom came to visit and she brought with her a number of items from my childhood home that she thought I’d like to have. Among them were a pair of little New Testaments that were given to me as a child. I instantly remembered each little Bible, both of which are King James Version translations.

As I flipped through their pages, I stopped suddenly in one Bible on a passage in John 14, that was circled in pen. My jaw literally dropped.

Circa 1980’s Pocket New Testaments

You see, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had John 14:1-6 memorized. For many years, it was the longest passage of the Bible that I had memorized. But I couldn’t tell you when or how or where I memorized this passage. I have absolutely no recollection of why I studied this particular Scripture…but in looking at this little Bible, this is obviously the one that I used to memorize it, given its highlighting and because the translation in my head is the King James Version.

My love for Scripture began at an early age with the King James Version. As time has gone on, I’ve added other great translations to my Bible collection, and have found studying Scripture in a variety of translations to be one of the most useful ways for better understanding a passage – regardless of what translation is your favorite.

The number of Bible translations available can sometimes seem daunting when you’re trying to decide on what best fits you and your goals for Scripture study. There are dozens of translations in English alone, and if you ask anyone serious about Scripture study, they’ll have a different opinion about which is best and what you should be using. 

Choosing the right Bible translation for you, or picking a collection of translations, is one way to encourage your own personal study of Scripture. A Bible translation that fits your goals and makes sense to you will help you connect more deeply with God and empower you to dig further.

In reality, most Bible translations are excellent, produced with attention, care for accuracy, and the purpose of helping Christians grow in discipleship and faith. They’ve often been produced with different goals in mind, and you, as a student of the Bible, should recognize these differences when selecting a Bible translation.

Before we begin, a quick disclaimer

Many people have very strong opinions about Bible translations, but the goal of this article is not to discuss the in-depth issues surrounding translations, but instead help you understand broadly the differences among them. Simply searching online for more information about any given translation will probably bring up several articles written by scholars on why they think that translation is great or terrible.

You should have a discussion with your pastor or another respected Christian leader in your faith tradition about Bible translations if you have any particular concerns about the translation you’re using.

Instead, the goal with this article isn’t to advocate for any particular translation, but to help you think through the choices, why they are different, and perhaps encourage you to find a translation that will enhance and add to your personal study of Scripture.

My hope is to simply better inform you about Bible translations, how they are produced, what to expect when looking at Bible translations, and how incorporating one or more translations into your life might be the perfect step for growing in your discipleship and faith.

So let’s get started! But first, a quick story from my past that illustrates how differences in Bible translations often become apparent for practicing Christians.

Ever had something like this happen?

Several years ago, while serving as an associate pastor, I led a Bible study that focused on understanding Jesus and the Gospels through the lens of the entire Bible. Central to that class was the reading of the Bible, which we did in a group of 10-15 people while sitting in a circle. Nearly every week, the following kind of scene would occur, which I’ll depict below with made-up names:

Me – “Ok, let’s go on to the next chapter in Luke. Would someone mind reading the first three verses?”

Susan – “Sure, I’ll read.” *Reads the three verses*

Me – “Ok, what do you think about that passage?”

Derek – “Just a second…my Bible is different. In verse 2, it says…” *reads verse 2 from his Bible.”

Me – “Well, it’s pretty close in translation…”

Robert – “Oh, hey, in mine, it says…” *reads his verse*

Me – “What translation to do you have, Robert? And what do you have, Susan and Derek?” 

*Discussion continues about translations…not the Gospel!*

Eventually, we settled on a universal translation for study in that class (which at least most people adhered to), but perhaps you’ve encountered this issue before. It’s sometimes surprising for people to realize that the wording of their Bible might be different from someone else’s.

Every translation of the Bible is written differently, though all tell the same story. I want to help you better understand these issues, either in selecting a translation, or in study and ministry with others who use different translations.

Everything You Need To Know About Bible Translations

What is a Bible translation?

For many people, the Bible translation is “The Bible” as they know it. In actuality, a translation is an attempt by scholars to communicate the text of ancient manuscripts of Scripture into a readable form. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek, which are each very different languages. The Bible translation’s goal is to take the words of the source manuscripts (which are ancient copies of the Bible or parts of the Bible) and then make the best effort to communicate what those manuscripts state.

Bible translators tend to choose a philosophy for their translation that guides them in their efforts. For example, a particular Bible translation might be created with the goal of providing the closest possible representation of the original text’s words, while another might be produced with the purpose of communicating the original emotional intent of the ancient text, which can sometimes be harder to transmit in English. Still, other translations are designed to help you think differently about the Bible, or see it in a new light. 

Everything You Need To Know About Bible Translations

Why Can’t You Just Directly Translate The Words Of The Bible From The Original Language?

If you’ve ever taken a Spanish, French, or other language class, one of the first things you’ll learn is that sentences are often structured differently in other languages than they are in English. For example, beginning Spanish students are often surprised to learn that nouns have masculine or feminine gender assigned to them, even inanimate objects. Also, adjectives regularly follow the noun in Spanish, where as in English, the adjectives come first.

This, and many other grammatical differences, can be found in the original Bible languages, Greek and Hebrew (and some Aramaic). That’s why all English Bibles (and in pretty much every other language) are translations of the text.

If you really want to get an idea of what the Bible in the original language looks like – I invite you to click the links below to take a look at some very well known passages in an interlinear Bible. An interlinear Bible is a translation that makes no attempt to make the text more readable in English, but simply renders the English words underneath the original language as is.

Read John 3:16 in an interlinear Bible

Read Psalm 23 in an interlinear Bible

Read Romans 4:17 in an interlinear Bible

It would be pretty tough to read an interlinear Bible understandably without significant education on the issue, right? That kind of raw translation would serve as such a barrier to discipleship as to become a significant barrier to the spread of the Gospel. That’s why we need translations.

Three Types of Translation Approaches

Bible translations are typically grouped into three categories – translations that mostly use formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, or a blend between the two. Of course, that makes no sense to the vast majority of us, so let me attempt to break that down!

So what does the 3 approaches look like?

Formal equivalence is a translation approach that attempts to convey the original Hebrew or Greek as closely as possible to the original wording, with less concern about the overall readability in the contemporary language. Translations that use formal equivalence heavily are most concerned with creating a text of the Bible that is most grammatically close to the source manuscripts. These translations are sometimes depicted as being “word for word” in their approach.

Examples of translations that widely use formal equivalence include the New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), King James Version (KJV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Translations that use formal equivalence are widely used in scholarship, study, and preaching. They are excellent for anyone interested in discerning the original text as closely as possible in English.

Dynamic equivalence is an attempt to help readers understand the text by rendering passages with language that sounds most familiar to contemporary speech and writing. Dynamic translations may sometimes substitute modern words or phrasing that the translators feel might better convey the emotion and impact the original readers of the Bible could have felt reading the Scripture in their native language and time. Some dynamic translations may be so different from the original text that they might instead be thought of as “paraphrases” of the Bible.

These translations are sometimes described as being “thought for thought” in their approach.

Common translations and paraphrases that use dynamic equivalence are the Christian English Version (CEV), Good News Bible, The Passion Translation (TPT). Others that are usually called paraphrases are The Living Bible, The Message, and The Voice.

Dynamic equivalent translations are often used in personal Bible study, as well as in areas of preaching or teaching where the leader wishes to bring a different perspective or rendering of the Scripture.

Blend of formal and dynamic equivalence translations try to bring together adherence to the original language and grammar as well as readability for the modern reader. One such version, the Holmon Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), uses the phrase “optimal equivalence” to describe this approach. These translations are usually produced with significant thought put into how to balance readability with adherence to the original grammar and word use (lexicon).

Translations created with a method similar to this approach include the New International Version (NIV – both the 1984 and 2011 editions), the New Living Translation (NLT), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the Amplified Bible.

Blended approaches are good for general use, as one might imagine, and are often accepted for use in higher education work.

Everything You Need To Know About Bible Translations

How are Bible translations made?

Most Bible translations are assembled by a team of scholars (professors, pastors, researchers) who are proficient in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. They then work from collections of ancient manuscripts (which is a whole other topic itself) that contain the Bible in original language. These manuscripts aren’t the actual books and letters written by Paul, John, Peter, or other Biblical authors, but rather copies made hundreds of years ago. 

Manuscript study is very complex, but it is often the reason why there might be differences among a small number of passages in different Bible translations. 

Sometimes people are surprised to know that we don’t own the original handwriting of the Biblical authors, and it gives them concern about its accuracy. In reality, there are good reasons to trust that the Bible is accurate and faithful. There are thousands of original manuscripts of the Bible, from all over the Eastern Hemisphere, and the vast majority are in agreement about the original text.

Remember, the Bible translation that matters the utmost is what the original authors wrote – everything else is an attempt to get as close as possible to what was originally written.

Why do we need so many Bible translations?

You could argue that we don’t actually “need” that many – but they’re still produced! The Bible is the most read text in the world, and as a result there are many people interested in producing Bibles that might fit the wide range of people interested in reading them.

Everything You Need To Know About Bible Translations

Ok, so what’s the right Bible translation for me?

Let me first say, that many people are quite happy with finding just a single translation that they connect with, and others (like myself) use a broad array in study and teaching.

If you’re only going to pick a single translation for use, you definitely want to pick from a translation that is written from a formal equivalence or blended approach. It’s always important to remember that a dynamic equivalence approach will have to sacrifice some of the original wording and structure in order to make it more readable for a contemporary audience.

However, if you have never used a Bible translated with dynamic equivalence, then using that translation might be a great way to help you think about or study a text in a new light.

Again, I personally use a broad array of translations and paraphrases. With websites like Bible Gateway you can easily compare many translations before purchasing one.

A Final Thought

We are living in a phenomenal era of Biblical scholarship, and I believe we should see it as a blessing to have so many excellent translations to choose from in our discipleship. Never in history have so many tools been available for the average Christian to understand Scripture and grow in their faith.

I hope this article has helped you understand Bible translations and some of the important details surrounding them and their production. I hope you’ll do some investigation into translations and prayerfully ask God to come alongside you in your desire to grow in Scripture. Again, there has never been a better time in human history to be a student of the Bible, and that’s something we should all be grateful for!