Lost in Translations

In our modern day, we are blessed to have the Bible in our own language. In fact, we have a multitude of Bibles in our own language! This raises some questions. Are they all faithful witnesses to God’s message? Are they all useful? Which ones should you use? We discuss some of these questions in the following blog post.

The King James Version has been commonly used for a long time (several hundred years) but nowadays it is too outdated to be seriously helpful with Bible study. It has two major issues: firstly, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts it was based on are not as reliable as the ones we have today, and secondly, it’s language is archaic. It is important to read a Bible that makes sense to you and the language of the KJV is simply not as easily understood as good modern versions.

So what modern version is the best one? Are there versions you should avoid? Every version has its own strengths and weaknesses. They will all betray some bias now and then. The key is to be able to identify this and work with it. You can work around this problem by using several different versions. That way you can work out when one version isn’t translating a particular section well. When studying, you should try to use distinctly different versions. For example, don’t use the English Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version (they’re both Bibles that stem back to the KJV). Instead you might want to compare translations like the NET Bible, the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New Jerusalem Bible.

Obviously it isn’t practical to constantly be reading the Bible in multiple versions. This is important for studying, but for general reading one main Bible helps you develop familiarity with wording and helps you to remember passages. So what makes a good reading Bible? A Bible that makes sense to you and that doesn’t have too much translator bias. This leads us to the question of whether you use a literal translation or paraphrase. A literal translation tries to translate one Greek or Hebrew word into one English word, so that the English text you read is very close to what the original Hebrew and Greek was. A paraphrase tries to work out what the original Greek or Hebrew is saying, and then tries to express that really clearly in English, without necessarily translating word for word. Both ways of translating can be helpful. A paraphrase is more likely to contain some bias though as the translator first decides what they think the text is saying before they then express it in English. A literal translation leaves more of the decision making to you. However, it isn’t always possible to find one English word to translate one Greek or Hebrew word, so literal translation doesn’t always work well either. The best solution for an everyday reading Bible is to find one that treads a middle path between these two translation types. Bibles like the New International Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Living Translation, and the New English Translation (NET Bible), fall into this category. The NET Bible is especially helpful because it also contains translators’ notes that explain why the translators translated passages a particular way, or to help make sense of parts that seem a little obscure.

Another important question to ask when you are assessing a Bible translation is “Was it done by a committee or just one person?” Bibles translated by just one person are likely to reflect that persons biases more than a Bible that has input from a lot of different people. Most modern versions are made by committees, but older Bibles like Moffatt’s or Eugene Peterson’s The Message, can be quite biased and a little odd in places.

When you are studying, literal versions get you a little closer to the original text. This means you have to do more work to understand what the text is saying, but that’s the point of study! A literal translation will make it easier to identify keywords, and means that more of the interpretation is done by you, not the translator.

So in summary, our main tips are:

  1. Don’t use the KJV, as it’s out of date and just isn’t as easy to understand as modern versions.
  2. Be aware that every version has strengths and weaknesses, so use several different versions.
  3. For general reading, use a Bible that makes sense and treads a middle path between literal translation and paraphrase.
  4. Use Bibles that have been translated by a committee, not just one person.
  5. Compare translations that are more likely to differ rather than ones that are likely to say similar things.


Recommended Resources

Books and Book Excerpts

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, ch 2

The Bible In Translation by Bruce Metzger

Web Resources

What Translation should we use by Mark Olsen (click here)

What Bible Should I Own by Dan Wallace (click here)

Fifteen Myths About Bible Translation by Dan Wallace (click here)


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