Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Choosing a Bible Translation

The Big Idea: Why there are so many translation today and how to choose one for my studies.

For over a century the King James Version of the Bible was read in most English Speaking churches.  Today there are so many excellent translations it is hard choose one. There are at least 50 decent translations. Some are very similar. Some sound very different from each other. Why so many? And why doesn't everyone just settle on one to use?


In the days of the Early Church, the Old Testament was available in Hebrew, translated into Greek a couple hundred years before Jesus was born (the Septuagint). The New Testament was written in Greek. Greek was clearly a widely used language in many countries, especially among the educated and literate.  In 400 A.D. A Latin translation (later version called the Vulgate) was carefully translated. Latin was another language used globally for the educated.


The early Middle Ages is sometimes called the Dark Ages. It was a time of feudalism, a church of hierarchy and territorial demands, and the Plague of Black Death. Out of it came Martin Luther (1483-1546 A.D.), a monk who wanted people to know God for themselves and learn the Bible in their own language. He translated the Bible into German for his people. Out of it Lutheranism and a fresh movement of excitement for God's Word was born across Europe. Other voices before and after him championed the Bible for non-clergy, the common man. The era coincided with the invention of the printing press.  William Tyndale (1494-1536 A.D.) was burned at the stake for translating and printing the Bible into English. The Tyndale Bible was instrumental in the careful construct of the King James Version of the Bible which came into print in 1611 A.D.


For the next couple hundred years, the King James Bible would be the most popular version of the Bible. To this day it is preferred by many. It was created in the period and language style of Shakespeare and is stunningly beautiful and memorable. It remains my favorite version for memorizing Bible verses because it is so poetic. Its unique language style makes it easier to remember as it flows in a musical manner. Many verses and sayings you know come from this Bible. However, many new to the faith who have not grown up with it find the archaic language slows down their understanding of what God says.


Up until about 80 years ago there were only a small handful of English translations of the Bible. Now Christian Bible Distributers carries 45 different Bible versions! So, what's up with that? Why are there so many? Here are a couple of reasons.

  • Language changes over time, such as spellings and word meaning.  ("gay")
  • English language differences in different parts of the world. (US-"trunk" vs UK "boot")
  • Efforts for different reading levels. (Scholarly language vs. 5th grade reading level)
  • Archeological discoveries of older Bible portions and Biblical land clarifications. (Dead Sea Scrolls)


King James reigned at a time in history where Christian divisions were sometimes violent. In an effort to bring clarity and unity to God's people, the King James Bible translation was born. King James called a conference of church scholars to discuss his idea. Ultimately almost 50 scholars worked on it. Working groups were formed, and peer review essential. The model of a large scholastic team with peer review is done still today for the best translations.

Just as a side note on teamwork, the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament is abbreviated the LXX, meaning 70. It is so called because in 3rd Century B.C. 72 Jewish scholars were commissioned to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek for the Greek King, Ptolemy of Philadelphus.


There are two basic sides to explain translation methodologies. On the one side is a word for word translation. That is, the most literal efforts to translate what the original languages of the Bible are saying into English, word for word. It is a formal equivalence of the ancient words.

The other side of the spectrum is the thought for thought method. It takes these ancient languages and explores the thought, the intention, to communicate words to God's people. It then seeks to translate that thought in such a way that the audience today, in a given cultural setting, can understand. It has been referred to as a dynamic equivalence method.

At first you might be tempted to say the word for word would certainly be the most accurate. However, the ancient writings of the Bible were used in a Middle Eastern culture a couple thousand years ago, using ancient languages that don't always have a modern English equivalent. So translators have to ask themselves, how can this be written so people can understand what God is saying to us in our world? Most of the best translations have some blend of both sides.

Jaqueline and me

We can learn from this by looking at what Bible translators have to do in a completely different culture around the world. For instance, where I worked for a number of years in Guinea, West Africa, there is a people group there, the Kissiens, who have remote towns that still do not get bread. Rice is their staple. The question, "Have you eaten? actually means, "Have you had rice yet today?"  Their nickname is "People of the Rice".  To translate "I am the bread of life" directly, inventing a word for bread, a product that has never been seen or eaten, would not be meaningful. To say "I am the rice of life," would not be an exact word for word translation. But it is a necessary adjustment for understanding. I asked my Kissien friend, Jacqueline, what is written in the Kissien Bible. It is a word that means powdered rice made into a little cake. I recall eating some. It was a treat. To think of Jesus as their rice of life is beautiful. Jesus is something they need every day, just like they need rice.

Finally there is the paraphrase. This is generally an explanation of what God's Word is saying. It may be done by one person rather than a scholarly team. It is based on another Bible in the same language, and is not a direct translation of Hebrew and Greek. A good example is the Living Bible. It started as a godly man, Kenneth N Taylor of Tyndale Publications, sought to read the Bible to his children in family daily devotions. He would write out passages in an explainable way for kids to grasp. He was encouraged to share it with others. A couple epistles were printed first in 1962. His rendition made the Bible come alive in modern language.


Here is a chart from Christian Book Distributors showing the Word for Word vs. Thought for Thought translations. You will see that the most literal translations are the New American Standard Bible (NASB) the English Standard Version (ESV) and the Amplified. The most thought for thought Bibles are the Living Bible and the Message.


  • Advantage:  Accurate and literal renderings of what the Bible says. It seriously take more attention to the text, themes, Biblical terms, and so on.  
  • Disadvantage: Sometimes the translation can sound a little wooden, or use terms that are more scholarly which need to be looked up.

Use these when you want more detailed Bible study with the desire to be true to the original text. Precept, Intl. uses the NASB and ESV for their studies. 


  • Advantage: Easy to understand, and fresh thoughts about what it in the Bible. Sometimes it is helpful for a difficult passage, to gain understanding for our world today.
  • Disadvantage: At times it may interpret the Bible too general, or miss some of the nuance of what is in the verse.

Use these when you want a fresh look at what a verse means for your life. It helps greatly with application to our lives. It is often written at a vocabulary geared for a children's audience. It is a wonderful tool for children, teens and new believers. They create a thirst for God's Word.


In the middle of the chart, with a nice blend of the two approaches is the popular New International Version (NIV). This has been used by many churches now for years. It is a very readable, understandable version of the Bible. Also somewhat near the center is the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Christian Standard Bible (CSB/HCSB). They are also beautiful to read and well understood.


Years ago, my husband, a pastor, went to a new area to work. Someone approached him and said, "Now Pastor, do you use the King James Version of the Bible, or one of those Devil Bibles?"

The feeling was that the King James was the absolute best, unpolluted version of the Bible out there and the others were tainted. Honestly, God's Word is powerful. Why shouldn’t it be? It is just that. God's Word. He is not going to give the Devil opportunity to totally ruin God's Word and cause others to go astray in hordes. Give God some credit. If we read it asking God's blessing, with the intention of God speaking in to our heart, the Bible will speak, even if it is a version that is less accurate than some might like.

There is a place for various translations.  I would expect the pastor's pulpit and our seminaries are going to look to texts that are more accurate, scholarly works. But it was on the Living Bible, the paraphrase, that I got hooked on reading the Bible at age 16. I was not worried about verb tenses in the original language or any kind of difficulty with the texts. I just LOVED to read what God had for me and it changed my life and my view of the Bible forever.

What version is right for you? You need to ask yourself if you need something right now that is clear to your understanding and applicable to your life (more thought for thought), or if you need to get into the meat of the Word, figuring out what the intricacies of study have for your soul. You might just need both types in your life. Just as someone need to live on adult food rather than mother's milk, so we should learn to take in the deeper meat of God's Word.

God's Word is GOD's Word. It will accomplish His purpose as it is read. READ IT TODAY!

"It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit.
It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it."
Isaiah 55: 11

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