Why Are There So Many Bible Translations?
And Which One(s) Can I Trust?
Welcome, Young Believer!
Last time we talked about the Inerrancy of Scripture and the authority of Scripture otherwise known as Sola Scriptura. We know that applies most directly to the original texts of Scripture in their original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. However, the vast majority of Christians today are "second-language Christians" meaning that we were not born speaking ancient Hebrew or Aramaic or Koine Greek. These were the common languages of the people to whom the original revelation of Scripture was given. However, even before the birth of Christ language had begun to change and translation was needed even of the Hebrew Bible for Jews who had been spread throughout the world and lived largely in Greek-speaking communities. The first widely dispersed and used translation of the Hebrew Bible or what we would call the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint. You will see that translation referenced in the footnotes of most of our English Bibles today.
The History of Bible Translation
In the early church, the Septuagint along with the Greek writings of the New Testament would have been the most widely used and shared, however, translation started early. The spread of the Gospel to nations beyond the reach of Hellenized (Greek) Civilization brought to the forefront a great need to have the Scriptures in the common languages of the people early missionaries were sharing the Gospel with, these included Syriac, Ethiopic, Slavic, and Coptic to name a few. Often these were oral translations as the missionaries became familiar with the people's languages to whom they were ministering.
As Christianity spread and language changed, Latin became the common language of the people and the Bible was translated into first Old Latin and later Latin Vulgate. In the 9th Century, Pope Adrian II and Pope John VIII commissioned a Slavonic translation of the Bible. Shortly after this, because of political changes and corruption in the church, reading in general much less reading Latin (the most common language of the Bible) became reserved for the wealthy or for those educated for ministry by the church. Worse than this, the common languages of the people developed away from Latin into Romance languages and Germanic languages. Very few people who even attended church regularly could have told you what the Bible said because they simply did not understand the language it was written, spoken, and taught in. For nearly five hundred years, this led to many abuses of Scripture by the church.
Then the Lollard Movement began, they believed as we do in the supremacy of the written Word of God above the authority of the Catholic Church and knew it was imperative that the people be able to understand God's Word for themselves. John Wycliffe, the leader of this movement, along with some of his associates translated the first full Bible into English. It was a word-for-word translation from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible which made it somewhat clunky so it was revised by Wycliffe's friend John Purvey to make it more readable. Obviously, there are some downsides to this translation, first, it is a translation of a translation which definitely means that some nuance and meaning is going to be lost across languages and second the number of manuscripts they were able to use for this translation would be significantly less than what we have access to today. However, this would be like lighting a candle in a pitch-black room, it wouldn't give you the same light as a lamp, a lightbulb, or the sun but it was certainly a huge step from zero access to the Scriptures by English-speaking people prior to this point. The effort also cost John Wycliffe his position at Oxford and comfort at home, although he was protected from outright persecution by other political stresses of the time. He wasn't excommunicated or declared a heretic until after his death when they exhumed his bones, burned them, and threw them in the River Swift. Reading or translating an English Bible was expressly forbidden by King Henry IV of England in 1401.
Only five decades later, the printing press was invented and it changed everything. Prior to the press, all works of writing including the Bible had to be hand copied which is part of the reason only the wealthy could afford to have their own copy of God's Word. The printing press meant that the Bible could finally be more accurately mass-produced on a much broader scale.
In 1516 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam published his Greek translation of the New Testament which he had gathered together from six remaining historic manuscripts he had access to at the time. For the pieces of Scripture, he did not have access to, he translated from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek which produced all sorts of interesting errors. His compilation/translation became known as the Textus Receptus and was used by Luther to translate his German Bible and also by later translations of the English Bible most well-known among them, the King James Version.
Struggles for the right to translate the Bible into English for the common people continued. William Tyndale, a great proponent of this project was murdered before he was able to complete his English translation but his bravery and influence kept the work moving forward.
Bible Translations Today
Today we have around 3,500 translations of the Bible into English each with varying strengths and weaknesses. That is not even including the translation of the Bible into the many other languages of nations we seek to reach for Christ around the world today. While we can recognize the difficulties of translating the fullness of the original text into other languages we affirm with Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, and the reformers of the Catholic Church that it is important for all peoples to have access to God's Word in their own language. This is the essential reason for why there are so many translations.
Beyond that, there are several reasons we don't have one single translation for each language the chief example being English.
Language changes, we don't speak the same Middle English of the Wycliffe translation or even the English used in the earliest King James Version. We don't even commonly use the English that's still used in the King James, New King James, and Revised Standard Versions of the Bible. Some words no longer exist in our language and others have changed meanings entirely.
The earliest translations like the Wycliffe Bible were translated from Latin and/or a small number of manuscripts and some of them incomplete manuscripts.
We now have access to thousands of manuscripts many of them dated much earlier than the manuscripts available to Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the Reformers.
The scholarship continues to improve our understanding of the original languages and the discovery of more manuscripts that date closer to the time of the completion of both the Old and New Testament help us to confirm the accuracy of our translations.
There are different types of translation word-for-word or formal translations that are much more literal, but may not transmit their meaning very well into the second language. Phrase-for-phrase or thought-for-thought translations can be easier to understand than the more literal translations but they're more open to the dangers of human interpretations being placed on the text. All translations work on a sliding scale between these two types.
Therefore, you can actually find more than one translation that would be beneficial to you in your study as long as you understand the quirks of the particular translation you're reading. It's very helpful in these cases to compare translations. You can spend the time compiling these for yourself or use online resources such as the Blue Letter Bible and Bible Reference.
There are a few "translations" that I would recommend staying away from for general study and perhaps being aware of in case others ask you your opinion on them. These are on the far end of phrase-for-phrase translation and work more so as a paraphrase or personal commentary of the Bible by a particular individual. They should not be read as Scripture. This would include The Message Bible and the Passion Translation, though I'm sure within that 3,500 number there are a few more of these to avoid, these are simply the most well-known right now.
If you would like to know the differences between the common translations still in use today, I would recommend this resource by Pastor Mike Winger. He is very thorough and his thoughts on the matter should help you choose the Bible that is right for you in your study.
It's also good to remember that this can change across time. The church I attended as a child preferred the King James Version (KJV), I read the New King James Version (NKJV) because it was slightly easier to understand but didn't differ to greatly from the translation they were teaching from, in later grade school I was gifted the New International Version (NIV) which I studied from for years. Now I study from the English Standard Version (ESV) while my church prefers and teaches from the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) which I find easily comparable and good for a broader range of study. After this research project, I may be looking into getting a New American Standard Bible (NASB) for continued study because of its dedication to a word-for-word translation although that makes it somewhat clunky around cultural sayings that made sense in the original language and sound awkward to readers today.
If you would like to dive deeper into the Evidence for the Bible series by Pastor Mike, here is the first part.
Some Christians view this expansion of the number of translations as a bad thing and nonbelievers often use it as an argument against the accuracy of Scripture itself. However, the true intent of meaning across scholarly accepted translations has not significantly changed. In fact, Scripture has only been more greatly confirmed by the discovery of more manuscripts and the continued dedication of scholars to the accuracy of their understanding of the original texts. As long as they remain faithful to that study, I would say that the continued improvement of our understanding as "second language Christians" can only be a good thing.
If you'd like to know more about how we got the Bible, I would recommend this podcast.
In another podcast which I'll link here, Dr. Peter Gurry gives some great advice on how to pick a Bible that works for you by understanding the five decisions that translators have to make when translating the Bible.
First, what language will they be translating into? He notes that this is more complex than just choosing English because different English-speaking countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom may use different words for different things or have different spellings.
Second, will it be a fresh translation or a revised one? Believe it or not, most of our translations start from the foundation of an already completed translation and are revised as more scholarship and access to more ancient manuscripts come along (as well as the language they're translating into changing with time).
Third, which of the manuscripts will they use to compare for their translation? This is important because of some of the textual variants that you will find across the hand-copied manuscripts. Often the translator will make a footnote for why they went with one manuscript's word, comma, period, etc... over the others.
Fourth, how modern are they trying to make it? If your translation sounds more like your culture than like the Word of God, then there is probably room to be skeptical of its accuracy. After all, many of the examples and nuances in the original text will be lost in a translation that's too focused on being culturally accurate for one generation.
Fifth, what notes and extras will they include? This goes back to how transparent or inclusive the translators are of noting their process in their copy or of whether they will include visual aids or other charts to help with your understanding.
To answer all of these questions, you'll have to do a bit of research before buying a translation and read that (most likely very boring) preface at the beginning of the translation you're looking at picking up. One of the extras you might like in your Bible could be study notes and there are a wide variety of study Bibles for you to choose from, but I encourage you to know the theology of the ones making the study guide before trusting all of that commentary just because it's on the pages of your Bible under, over, or beside the actual Scripture.
If you have more questions or thoughts about translations of the Bible, please leave them in the comments below. Also, feel free to dive into the references I provided below for a deeper scholarly dive into this topic. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith, if you haven't already, who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!