Why So Many Translations Of The Bible And Which One Is Best For Me?
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
The Bible is God’s perfect written Word and the very means by which human beings can hear and understand who God is, what God’s plans are, who humans are, sin, how God has made a way for us through Christ for salvation, and the very purpose of man’s life. It is the very desire and passion for the believer to know and grow in relationship with their Redeemer, which is why translation and comprehension of the biblical text is so pivotal in the life of the believer. As protestants we firmly hold onto the doctrinal truth that God’s Word has ultimate authority alone over our lives, not man.
This article is a brief explanation of what biblical translation is, why there are so many different translations of the Bible today, and finally, a brief explanation of some translations that we can trust to use in our daily walks with Christ.
What is Translation?
“Translation is nothing more than transferring the message of one language into another language.”(1) In modern terms, it’s like deciphering a voice mail that is hard to understand, and after listening over and over again, you finally understand the meaning and content of the received message, and are able to articulate that message in your own way. In regards to the Bible, there are three languages that the original text was written in (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).
Translations are necessary for the English reader because most people are unable to read the original languages of the original text. The process of translating is necessary for people of other languages to understand. Therefore, we can conclude with Duvall and Hays with their simple definition of what translation is, “Translation entails “reproducing the meaning of a text that is one language (the source language), as fully as possible, in another language (the receptor language).””(2)
The Process of the Translator
“As before mentioned, the original languages of the Bible are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. God worked through the various human authors, including their backgrounds, language, personality, cultural context, writing style, etc… so that what they wrote was the inspired Word of God.”(3) From the original hand written copies of Scripture, people began making copies of the original manuscripts to distribute, which led to other people making copies of the copies, etc… “As a result, we do not have the original manuscripts any longer, however we do have numerous copies of the books of the Bible today. Just for an idea, there are over 5000 manuscripts (handwritten) of all or parts of the New Testament today.”(4)
This leads us to the work of the translator. To save room, there are various stages of work that that translator has to do in order to get to the translations of the Bible that we have today in the english language (or any other language). Below is a brief understanding of this process, which starts with the authorship of God and translates from there. If you have more questions about this process or would like a further explanation of each step, I suggest investing in Duvall and Hays book, “Grasping God’s Word,” which gives a very good understanding of the entire process of studying the Bible and the work of translating.
Divine Author - - - Human Author - - - Original Text or Scripture - - - Copies of the Original Text - - - Critical Text - - - Translator or Translation Committee - - - English Translation - - - Modern Readers (5)
The Two Main Approaches to Translation
“The most important element of translating is that the modern reader can understand the meaning of the original text.Translating is very complicated and translators often have to make difficult decisions on how to interpret something. Individuals and committees have differences of opinion about the best way to make the tough choices involved in translation including the relationship between form and meaning.”(6)
With this said, there are primarily two approaches to translation that we must consider. First, is a “word-for-word” approach which the translators try to stay as close as possible to the structure and words of the source language. Another way to say this is that these translators try to reproduce the forms of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic whenever possible.(7)
The second approach is a “thought-for-thought” or “meaning-for-meaning.” In this approach the translators try to express the meaning of the original text in today’s language. Where the “word-for-word” translations try to stay close to original words that are written in the original language for its interpretation, the “thought-for thought” translations are focused on reproducing the meaning of the original text in modern language so that the effect on today’s reader is equivalent to the effect on the original audience.(8)
Which Translation Should I Use?
With this brief summary of what translation is, and the two main approaches of translating today, our question now is, “Which translation is the best one to buy?” And my answer for you is simple, “It all depends on what you are using it for.” More than anything, comprehending or understanding God’s infallible Word must be first priority in your walk with Christ. If you can’t understand it, it’s hard to trust and obey it. The best thing for your personal Bible study and growth is to purchase one of each of the above mentioned translations.
For a more formal setting such as preaching, teaching a small group, doing word studies, I would suggest using a “word-for-word” translation. For a more informal bible study, devotional setting, or personal time with the Lord, I would suggest a “meaning-for-meaning” translation. This is not the blueprint of choosing a translation, but just a suggestion that has personally helped with my growth and understanding of the Bible.
The key for choosing a translation is this: If the Bible is indeed the infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word of God, which is good for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness, then make sure you have a translation that will help you understand the context and original meaning that God intends His people to hear.
For a good “word-for-word” translation I would suggest an ESV, NASB, NKJV, or HCSB.
For a good “meaning-for-meaning” translation I would suggest an NLT, NIV, or NET.
1. J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 23.
2. Ibid., 34.
3. Ibid., 25. (paraphrased)
4. Ibid., 25.
5. Ibid., 24. (Summary explanation of graph that is seen on page 24)
6. Ibid., 34.
7. Ibid., 34-35 (paraphrased)
8. Ibid., 34-35 (paraphrased)
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