The Bible is commonly regarded as the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. There currently exist over 700 different translations available across the globe, with almost 50 distinct English versions. You might be wondering to yourself: Why can’t all Christians just agree on one translation of the Bible? What are the differences between each translation? Does it really matter which translation I use? Furthermore, if we’re to consider the doctrine of Scripture seriously, does that mean every translation counts as the infallible authoritative word of God? In order to answer these questions, we must first investigate the historical background of biblical translation, the two main approaches to biblical translation and the dangers we could fall into. What we’ll come to find is that God has revealed himself in the Scriptures so that all people may come to know and worship him.
The History behind Translation
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bible didn’t just fall from the heavens neatly packaged in the modern English that we read today. Rather the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaric and Koine Greek. The Old Testament is primarily written in Biblical Hebrew, the language spoken by the nation of Israel (different to the modern Hebrew spoken today). However, portions of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, which the Jews began to use after the Babylonian exile. The Gospels and Epistles which comprise the New Testament were written in Koine Greek, the common tongue of Mediterranean civilization in the first century. These are the original languages through which God ordained to reveal himself and set down into writing, which we now inherit as the Holy Scriptures.
But don’t start panicking if you’re not a Hebrew or Greek scholar, the practice of biblical translation has deep roots throughout history, stretching even to Jesus’ time. The first major translation effort is the Septuagint, which rendered the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This was popular among the early Gentile believers and is quoted frequently by the New Testament authors when referencing the Old Testament. This pattern continued with the early church recognising the need for a Latin translation of the Bible, leading to Jerome’s Vulgate. It was important that God’s people understood the Scriptures in their own language and yet they still remained authoritative and sufficient.
At no other time in history had the need for biblical translation been clearer than during the Protestant Reformation. In response to the Church’s unbiblical teachings and overreliance on religious tradition, the Protestants argued that salvation came through faith in Christ alone, apart from good works. One crucial step in propagating their rediscovery of biblical doctrine was through translating the Bible. Early Reformers such as John Wycliffe, Martin Luther and William Tyndale laboured tirelessly to translate the biblical texts into the vernacular English and German, so that the common people could access the Word of God. This principle is helpfully outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states that the Scriptures “are to be translated into the language of every people unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner”. The ultimate goal of translating God’s word is that he might be known and worshipped among the nations.
Two Approaches towards Translation
Now that we know the rich context behind translating the Bible, how have we still ended up with so many different English versions of the Bible? It all boils down the underlying philosophies that guide translators as they seek to communicate God’s word in the English language. I’ll be taking us through the two main approaches, word-for-word translation and thought-for-thought translation, in addition to other various methods employed. Keep in mind that translating the Bible is a difficult task and is more akin to an art than it is a science.
Word-for-word translation, also known as formal equivalence, seeks to literally translate the original text as closely as possible, preserving the grammar & syntax where possible. This approach excels at accurately rendering each word with its English counterpart, making it useful for studying the Bible. However, translating literally doesn’t always necessarily lead to a more faithful translation. Heavy use of formal equivalence is often criticised for being confusing to read and failing to capture certain idiomatic expressions. An example of this can be found in 1 Peter 1:13, which uses the phrase ‘gird up the loins of your mind’ in the King James Version. While this made sense within its cultural context, today the equivalent expression would be to ‘fortify your minds’. Examples of word-for-word translations include the English Standard Version and New King James Version.
Thought-for-thought translation, otherwise referred to as dynamic equivalence, aims to capture the original meaning of the text as the biblical authors intended. This approach attempts to communicate the broader message of each verse in order to produce the same impact it would’ve had on its original audience. While these translations tend to be more readable and user-friendly, they can potentially run the risk of inserting meaning and interpretation into the text itself. Such translations on the extreme end of dynamic equivalence are closer to a paraphrase than a translation and should typically be avoided. Examples of thought-for-thought translations include the New Living Translation and Good News Bible.
What we’ll usually find is that most modern translations attempt to balance both of these two approaches to produce a text that is both faithful to the original text yet clear and understandable. This method has been labelled as optimal equivalence and examples of this translation approach include the New International Version and Christian Standard Bible. Neither of these approaches should be thought of as better or worse than the other, and Christians should feel confident in the freedom they have to read God’s word in their own language.
To illustrate this point more clearly, here is a side by side example of how Luke 1:37 is translated into English using formal, dynamic and optimal equivalence:
- “For nothing will be impossible with God” – Luke 1:37 ESV
- “For there is nothing that God cannot do” – Luke 1:37 GNT
- “For no word from God will ever fail” – Luke 1:37 NIV
Two Dangers around Translation
As we grapple with the wide selection of translations to choose from, we should be aware of two pitfalls we must avoid. The first danger is developing an overconfidence in or loyalty to any one particular Bible translation. No matter how passionate we are about our version of the Bible, there’s no excuse to pass judgement on another or enforce one translation over another. This can be seen in the KJV Only Movement, which asserts that the King James Version is the only translation that ought to be used, with some advocates even claiming it to be divinely inspired. We must remember that the inerrant Word of God, as communicated to us through the Holy Spirit, dwells plentifully through translations.
The second danger that we could fall into is becoming too carefree with which translation we choose. While no translation is perfect, there are definitely some that miss the mark. Certain groups often use Bible translations to render specific passages in favour of their theological positions. Evidence of this can be seen in the New World Translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to promote their false teachings on the Trinity. This can also be found in the Passion Translation, which inserts and omits words in the text to fit New Apostolic theology. Readers should also be mindful of Roman Catholic versions which include apocryphal books, considered to be outside the canon of Scripture. We must avoid translations that tamper with God’s word and critically assess what we’re reading.
So then does it really matter what Bible translation I use? On one hand, it most certainly does since we should not treat our privilege to read God’s word lightly! The wide variety of versions we have available to us today should encourage us to seriously consider how we read the Scriptures. On the other hand, it really doesn’t matter which particular version you decide to use. So long as the translation faithfully conveys the original words and meaning, we can be confident that God’s word dwells plentifully in them all. You can rest assured that the Bible you read at home truly is the Word of God, without having to learn Hebrew and Greek (though I’m sure that wouldn’t hurt!). Biblical translations are a testament to God’s steadfast commitment to make himself known to the nations through his Word, so that they might know and worship him acceptably.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.8