FAQ: Why are there so many different translations of the Bible?
The Bible has been translated into over 450 languages—and the New Testament into over 1,600 languages. These numbers are increasing every year as organizations such as Wycliffe Bible Translators and the United Bible Societies produce new language versions. Obviously, translating the Bible into different languages is a good thing. It is estimated that about 98% of the world’s population speak a language in which at least part of the Bible has been translated. This is true of no other book in history.
Roughly a hundred or so English translations of the whole Bible have been produced, most of them in the twentieth century. Many people wonder why there are so many translations of the Bible in the same language. (There are probably far more translations in English than in any other language. For example, Spanish has roughly half as many versions as English.) Several factors are involved.
1. Some half a dozen or so translations of the Bible into English were produced before the King James Version (KJV), including the translations by John Wycliffe (1300s) and William Tyndale (1500s). Those versions were of tremendous importance in their day but were superseded by later translations, the most influential being the KJV (1611), still widely popular after 400 years.
2. At least ten of the works commonly listed as different “translations” of the Bible are actually nothing more than revisions of the KJV. Of these, only the New King James Version (NKJV, 1982) enjoys significant use.
3. Scholars have produced new translations because the English language has changed considerably over the past four centuries and is spoken by people all over the world. As a result, there are translations that cater to British readers (e.g., the New English Bible and its update the Revised English Bible), to American readers (e.g., the New American Standard Bible or NASB), and to international readers for whom English is not their first language (notably the Contemporary English Version). There are also children’s Bibles that use limited vocabulary and simple sentence structure to make them accessible to younger children.
4. Some English versions are based on ancient language versions that were translations of the Bible. Thus, these English versions are actually translations of translations. For example, there are English translations of the Septuagint, which was in turn an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Some English versions are based on the Vulgate, the fifth-century Latin translation of the Bible that dominated Christianity in Western Europe for the next millennium. George M. Lamsa produced an English Bible (1833) that was a translation of the ancient Syriac translation of the Bible. Most modern English versions are not dependent on these ancient translations but are based on the original-language texts.
5. Generally speaking, newer English versions reflect more precise knowledge of the wording of the original text (Hebrew or Aramaic in the Old Testament, Greek in the New Testament). The differences between the older versions and the newer ones are the result of increasing knowledge about the original texts of the Bible resulting from modern discoveries of ancient manuscript copies of those texts. The most famous of these discoveries are the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s. These scrolls included Hebrew manuscripts of Old Testament writings that were roughly a thousand years older than any other Old Testament manuscripts known at the time. New Testament manuscript discoveries of the past three centuries made it clear to most scholars that in some places material had been added to the later manuscripts that were the basis of the KJV (not lost, as many people mistakenly believe). These discoveries have made it possible for scholars to make the Bible more and more accurate. It is therefore a myth that the passage of time has made the text of the Bible become more and more corrupt. Furthermore, the advances in our knowledge of the original text have not resulted in radical changes to the Bible but instead refinements of already quite reliable, accurate texts.
6. Contemporary English versions, particularly of the New Testament, reflect some different assessments of modern discoveries of ancient manuscripts and their significance for the New Testament text. Notably, the NKJV is based on a “Majority Text” view of the New Testament Greek text, according to which the variant reading supported by the majority of Greek manuscripts must be the correct reading. The result is that the NKJV usually follows the same textual readings for the New Testament as the KJV, rejecting most if not all of the alternate readings that most New Testament scholars today argue are the original wording of the text. Most biblical scholars reject the “Majority Text” theory, because the majority of manuscripts are also the latest (dating from the late medieval period). Textual scholars almost uniformly agree that the earliest manuscripts should be given more weight and that each set of differences in the manuscripts should be considered on a case by case basis. These different views of the original biblical text, though significant for fine-grained, close study of the Bible, do not affect the overall worldview or theology of the Bible. For example, none of the manuscripts of the New Testament teaches reincarnation, as New Agers claim it originally did. None of them prophesies the coming of Muhammad, as Muslims claim the New Testament originally did. None of the New Testament manuscripts use the divine name Jehovah or Yahweh, as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the “Sacred Name” sects claim it did.
7. Different religious communities have produced their own English versions of the Bible. Jews and Christians have both produced translations of the Old Testament (what Jews call theTanakh or The Bible). There are Catholic versions (e.g., the older Douay-Rheims or the New American Bible [NAB]) and Protestant versions (the KJV, NASB, etc.) of the Bible. Among Protestants, there are mainline or ecumenical versions (e.g., the New Revised Standard Version or NRSV) and conservative, evangelical versions (e.g., the NASB, New International Version or NIV). The theological differences among these different versions are miniscule, affecting the interpretation of few passages. Other religious groups have produced versions that are radically different to serve their own idiosyncratic views. For example, Mormons use the Joseph Smith Translation (first published in 1867), which is not a genuine translation at all but a revision of the KJV produced to bring it into closer conformity to Joseph Smith’s teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses produced their own version, called the New World Translation (1961), that has novel or unusual renderings of numerous doctrinally significant verses to suit their doctrinal positions and that uses the name Jehovah in the New Testament 237 times. Less radical yet also noteworthy for its doctrinal slant is the Clear Word Bible (1994), a paraphrase produced by Seventh-day Adventist scholar Jack Blanco.
8. Contemporary English versions reflect different translation methodologies and serve different purposes. Some versions are more “literal,” that is, adhere closely to a word-for-word approach to translation (e.g., the NASB, and to a great extent the English Standard Version or ESV). Others are paraphrases that follow a thought-for-thought approach (e.g., the New Living Translation or NLT). Still others fall between these two approaches (e.g., the NET Bible). All of these versions just mentioned are generally very accurate and succeed well in doing what they claim to do, even though they vary in the way they translate the biblical text. Then there are versions that are essentially creative, interpretive rewritings of the Bible, re-casting its thoughts in contemporary cultural idioms and ways of thinking (e.g., The Message). It would be best not to think of such works as “translations” at all, but rather as contemporaryadaptations of the Bible
9. Finally, contemporary English versions take different approaches to the issue of the use of masculine English pronouns (he, him, his) in reference to God or to people, as well as certain nouns that refer to people (e.g., men, fathers, brothers). Inclusive-language versions, notably the NRSV and Today’s New International Version (TNIV), avoid masculine pronouns for God wherever possible, avoid the generic use of masculine pronouns to refer to people, and use inclusive terms such as people instead of men, ancestors instead of fathers, and brothers and sisters instead of brothers. Other versions use inclusive language for humans but not for God, or use inclusive language sparingly, or use it only where it is a more literal rendering of the original text (e.g., the Greek word anthropos means “human being” and is not gender-specific). While the debate over inclusive language in Bible translation can be intense, it does not affect fundamental doctrinal issues.
Understanding why there are so many English versions of the Bible is helpful for putting into perspective the differences among these versions. With rare exceptions and mostly in regard to comparatively minor doctrinal issues, one can arrive at the same basic understanding of Christianity from reading almost any of the mainstream Christian translations of the Bible (KJV, NKJV, NAB, NASB, NIV, NRSV, ESV, NLT, TNIV, etc.). The differences between Jewish and Christian versions of the Old Testament are likewise extremely minor. One finds radical differences theologically only when turning to Bible versions produced to service modern offshoots of Christianity, in which promoting their own very different theological views took priority over sound translation principles (of whatever translation methodology). These include the Joseph Smith Translation (Mormons), the New World Translation (NWT), and the Clear Word Bible (Seventh-day Adventists).
For Further Study
“About Bible Translations.” Webpage at ChristianBook.com providing a useful overview of different translations, featuring a spectrum from extreme word-for-word versions (e.g., NASB) to extreme thought-for-thought versions (e.g., The Message).
Fee, Gordon D., and Mark L. Strauss. How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Defends the translation philosophy behind the TNIV (thought-for-thought, inclusive-language).
Grudem, Wayne, Leland Ryken, C. John Collins, Vern S. Poythress, and Bruce Winter. Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005. Rejects inclusive-language and thought-for-thought approaches.
Rhodes, Ron. The Complete Guide to Bible Translations. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009. Popular-level overview of English versions and advice on how to choose one.
Ryken, Leland. The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. Argues largely on literary grounds that translations should follow something closer to a word-for-word approach. A 32-page excerpt, Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences (2005), is currently available free online.
Wallace, Daniel B. “Choosing a Bible Translation.” Bible Study Magazine 1, 1 (Nov./Dec. 2008): 23-26. This article, available free online as a PDF document, is an excellent introduction to the issue by a respected evangelical New Testament scholar.