By Mark L. Ward Jr.
One of the first questions people have when they get serious about studying Scripture comes when they first go to a bookstore and look at the shelves full of different English Bible translations.
What are the differences among them—and which translation is right for you?
Before I answer those questions, I should clarify a common misunderstanding. Many Christians assume that there exists one Bible translation that, should you manage to find it, will prove to be THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME. You will save yourself some confusion and even heartache if you avoid aiming at this imaginary target, this holy grail. God never said there would be one best translation in any given language. And there isn’t. Every Bible translation is the result of tens of thousands of small choices; it simply can’t be that one translation got them all right and everyone else got them all wrong.
For the most part, English Bible translations pretty much say the same thing in mildly different ways. There is no Bible that says Jesus wasn’t divine; or that adultery and idolatry are OK in some circumstances; or that, actually, Joseph sold his brothers into slavery, not the other way around.
John 3:2 gives us a helpful example. In some translations, Nicodemus calls Jesus “Rabbi”; in others, he calls Jesus “Teacher.” The Greek text has the word rabbi—and some translators have decided, “If the Greek says rabbi, our English translation will, too.” This is good and valuable.
But there’s a problem: many people today don’t know what “Rabbi” meant in Jesus’ day. So other translators say, “If the Greek word means ‘teacher’ [and John 20:16 actually says it does], our translation will, too.” This also is good and valuable.
The first translation strategy is called “formal,” because it tends to follow the form of the Greek and Hebrew. The second is called “functional,” because it duplicates the actual effect—the function—of the original language in a modern tongue.
Greek scholar Bill Mounce has worked on both a major formal translation (the English Standard Version) and a major functional one (the New International Version). He observed recently:
Personal experience has shown that both the ESV and the NIV translators have an extremely high regard for every word of Scripture. The difference is in how they view the relationship between words and meaning. I watched the ESV [translators] agonize over how to translate as many of the words as possible in a faithful and meaningful and consistent manner. And I watch as the CBT [Committee on Bible Translation—the NIV translators] agonize over how to accurately translate all the meaning conveyed by all the words in a faithful and understandable way.1
I recommend using both major kinds of English Bible translations in your personal Bible study. The more formal ones (see chart) will tie you a little more closely to the original languages, even if you don’t know them. The more functional ones (see chart) will make the meaning of the text more clear in contemporary English.
I have used both kinds of translations this way for two decades, and I’m grateful to the Lord and to the many people who have worked hard on our major modern English Bible translations. I understand God’s word better because of them.
When you look to choose a translation, I suggest you start with whatever translation your pastoral leadership is using—and then add to it. If your church uses a formal translation, pick up a functional translation to read alongside it. If your church goes with a functional translation, choose a formal translation to help you get a better sense of the original Greek and Hebrew. By looking at several options—and maybe reading through a formal one this year and a functional one next year—you will come to greater understanding.
Occasionally, in passages that are particularly difficult to translate, there are more significant differences among Bible translations. (This happens more often in the Hebrew Old Testament than in the Greek New Testament.) Looking at multiple options will be particularly helpful (and interesting!) in these cases. The overall message of the Bible is clear in every translation, but they are also usefully different, providing helpful angles on various passages.
What About Paraphrases of the Bible?
Some translations of the Bible are not translations at all—they’re paraphrases. They go off the right end of the formal-to-functional spectrum. They go beyond translating the Bible; they trans-culturate it. They put Scripture in highly interpretive and very contemporary language.
The most famous paraphrase is The Message, by Eugene Peterson. He has the apostle Peter and Moses and even Jesus talking like modern English-speakers. Readers who regard this as sacrilegious are misunderstanding Peterson’s intent—and missing a useful and stimulating Bible study and devotional tool.
No, a paraphrase is not “a Bible.” It’s not intended to be. But you still ought to have one on your Bible shelf. Pick it up once you have a pretty good understanding of a more formal translation.
Compare Different Bible Translations
There’s a great website that demonstrates differences among English Bible translations: expandedbible.com. It asks you to choose among possible translations of given phrases.
Even without knowing Greek or Hebrew, if you know the Bible you should be able to perceive that all the translation options presented are viable.
Was Nicodemus “a ruler of the Jews” or “an important Jewish leader”? Both translations work.
Did Nicodemus come to Jesus “one night” or “by night”?
Did he call Jesus “Rabbi” or should we translate this as “Teacher”?
Did he think Jesus performed “miracles” or “signs”?
In each case, there are good reasons to go with one of the choices, and there are good reasons to go with the other.
How Do Manuscript Differences Affect Bible Translation?
The Bibles we read today are based on thousands of ancient manuscripts written in Hebrew and Greek. But no two manuscripts of the Greek New Testament of any length are precisely the same.
The story is rather complicated, but the result is this: all modern translations of the New Testament are based on two slightly different editions of the Greek New Testament. The King James Version, New King James Version, and Modern English Version use one edition of the Greek New Testament; the other major English versions (such as the English Standard Version, New International Version, and New Living Translation) all use another. The three passages where the most significant differences occur are Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11; and 1 John 5:7. My advice is to trust your pastor(s) and use whatever translation they use.
To learn more, check out the September/October 2018 issue of Bible Study Magazine, which focuses on the Bible’s ancient manuscripts (to order, visit Logos.com/BSMResources). To see the differences between the two Greek texts, check out my online project, KJVParallelBible.org.
1 Bill Mounce, “Do Formal Equivalent Translations Reflect a Higher View of Plenary, Verbal Inspiration?” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO, 14 November 2018), 6.