Blessings of Multiple Translations

Welcoming multiple translations can help you move from your first Bible ever deeper into God’s Word, so it shapes your life and conversations with neighbors.

Before a sermon on Psalm 13, a woman began reciting the familiar cadences. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Several worshipers startled when a second liturgist shouted, “Long enough, God—you’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough.”

They continued verse by verse through Psalm 13, from the NRSV and The Message. This Old Testament lesson during a 2012 Calvin Symposium on Worship service showed the power of using multiple Bible versions and translations. Memories of particular biblical phrases and images connect Christians and congregations in our walks with God. Meanwhile, fresh translations surprise us into new insights.

Welcoming multiple translations can help you move from your first Bible ever deeper into God’s Word, so it shapes your life and conversations with neighbors.

Their first Bible

The best first Bible—for children, new Christians, or people with intellectual disabilities—is whichever translation they can understand.

Check readability by comparing the same verses at BibleGateway.com or Online Parallel Bible (biblecc.com). Essentially literal translations preserve the apostle Paul’s love for long sentences. For example, Ephesians 1:7-10 is a single 72-word sentence in the ESV. The NIrV breaks that up into ten sentences of words that are shorter and more familiar than the ESV’s redemption, trespasses, lavished, and fullness of time.

Readability is important. According to ProLiteracy, an international nonprofit, about 29 percent of U.S. adults over age 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at an eighth grade level. Another 14 percent of U.S. adults can only read at a fifth grade level or lower. The Canadian Council on Learning reports that 48 percent of Canadian adults have low literacy. In both countries, many adults with low literacy live in poverty or prison.

For centuries, more Jews and Christians heard than read Scripture. You can listen to the Bible for free online or by purchasing Bible CDs, mp3s, and USB flash drives. Listening to a multi-actor dramatized version of an essentially literal translation is often more understandable than reading it.

Invitation to wonder

Studying multiple Bible translations invites you to wonder about God’s plan for unfolding the Gospel across time and place.

Mark D. Roberts suggests getting a copy of the translation your pastor preaches from. “There are many excellent translations available today. All have strengths. All have weaknesses. There is no ‘one best translation.’ For serious Bible study, someone who does not know the biblical languages should consult at least three translations,” he says.

Sometimes Christians feel uneasy that Bible translations or churches vary so much among cultures and languages. Discomfited by diversity, some long for precisely-defined faith that lets them know who’s wrong or right about God, in or out with God.

“Since Jesus did not write or dictate the gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. The missionary environment of the early church made translation and the accompanying interpretation natural and necessary,” Lamin Sennah writes in Whose Religion Is Christianity? Raised in a scholarly Islamic family in Gambia, Sennah first read about Jesus in the Koran. He became a Christian and now teaches at Yale Divinity School.

“The fact of Christianity being a translated, and translating, religion places God at the center of the universe of cultures, implying free coequality among cultures….No culture is so advanced and so superior that it can claim exclusive access or advantage to the truth of God, and none so marginal or inferior that it can be excluded,” Sennah writes.

Two things happen when we realize that God’s power is transmitted—but not tied down—by ink on paper. We’re freed to learn from Christians whose language or culture sheds light on facets of the Bible that we’ve forgotten or missed. And we’re inspired to “set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake,” as Barbara Brown Taylor says in Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.

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