Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM
There are over 100 different English translations1 of the Bible. That’s a daunting number if you think about it. That’s 100 different options to choose from – 100 different versions that one group or another thought was so necessary that they would spend years of arduous work producing. So, when you pull out your personal copy of Scripture, why do you have that version and not another. More importantly, why do you have that version, and does it matter that you read that one and not another.
Today’s blog will look into some of these issues and hopefully give you some confidence in your own selection. Let’s begin by talking about why there are so many translations, to begin with. Translations typically fall into one of three categories:
- Word-for-Word Translations
- Meaning-for-Meaning Translations
Before you decide what Bible translation to read, you should decide which of these categories will be most helpful to you and your personal study. Each has its own pros and cons.
Types of Translations
Word-for-Word translations seek to translate the original language into English as accurately as possible. They give great attention to grammar and word choice, ensuring that the English you read is as close as possible to the original words.
Pros: Word-for-Word translations are excellent for deep, intentional study, especially when it comes to word studies, grammatical context, and so on.
Cons: These translations can be difficult to read and understand. They can sometimes obscure the meaning of the text when a word or phrase is translated too literally.
Examples: NASB, ESV
Meaning-for-Meaning translations attempt to deliver in English the meaning of the original text as accurately as possible. In these translations, the words themselves and the grammar are not as important as the meaning.
Pros: These translations can be easier to read than Word-for-Word translations. They can also make the meaning of a passage clear when a more complex translation might make the meaning difficult to grasp.
Cons: The quality of the translation depends far more on the translation team and their understanding of Scripture. When you read one of these, you are reading someone’s interpretation of the meaning of a passage, which may or may not be accurate to the passage itself.
Paraphrase Bibles are not true translations as they typically seek to restate the message of Scripture in unique ways. The Living Bible, for instance, uses the ‘in other words’ method of paraphrasing and worked from the American Standard Version from 1901 rather than from the original languages. The goal of a paraphrase is to make the message of scripture easier to understand.
Pros: A Paraphrase Bible is very easy to read. It can be considered a commentary on Scripture, which can be helpful for understanding the meaning of a difficult passage in the same way as reading a Bible commentary.
Cons: A Paraphrase is not Scripture and is not typically a translation; it is one person’s (or a group’s) comments on the meaning of Scripture. A Paraphrase should not be read in place of the Bible. It is tempting to read a Paraphrase because it is easy to read, but it should only be read alongside Scripture. A great way to use a Paraphrase is to read the Bible, then read the same passage in a Paraphrase (the same method for studying Scripture with a Bible Commentary).
Examples: The Living Bible, The Message
As you look over all the translations available on the bookstore shelf, you will find that the vast majority of them fall somewhere between Word-for-Word and Meaning-for-Meaning. There is a spectrum, or sliding scale, between the two.
Does It Matter?
To answer the question, “Does it matter what Bible translation I read?” – yes, it does matter. You will get a different experience with each version. But at the same time, nearly every major translation available today is excellent. If you are reading the NASB, ESV, NIV, NKJV, or many similar translations, you can have full confidence in what you are reading. In fact, there are benefits to reading multiple translations – doing so can help to highlight things you may not have noticed while reading just one version.
On the other hand, there are certainly translations that you should avoid. Many of the lesser used translations are created by groups that, for various reasons, insert a theological slant into the text. The New World Translation, for example, was created for Jehova’s Witness churches. It makes changes to several key passages that identify Christ as God. Others, such as the Queen James Bible,2 are explicitly designed to promote a certain interpretation.
Any Bible version that claims to represent a specific group, identity, culture, or even denomination should be avoided, while most versions that attempt to accurately represent the original text (regardless of the translator’s personal preferences) will make a fine choice.
In conclusion; yes, it matters what translation you read, but as long as you are reading one of the major translations you should have confidence.
1Depending on how you count them, you may come up with nearly 1000 if you count all versions of English translations since the year 1526. If you count only those translations you might find in a bookstore, the number is closer to 60. If you count all English translations in use somewhere in the world today, it’s close to 100.
2The editors of the Queen James Bible state in regard to the eight most notable verses that condemn homosexuality: “We edited those eight verses in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible.”