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Understanding Differences in Bible Translations

God designed the gospel to be translated into every language. English speakers have created hundreds of Bible translations, versions, and updates. Here’s help for finding blessings in the bewildering variety.

Bible translations made the news a lot in 2011. Mainstream media journalists reported on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. They got into gender language details of the updated New International Version (NIV 2011). They noted the swift rise of the brand new Common English Bible (CEB) translation. The CEB wasn’t released till summer 2011 yet ranked 10th in the number of Bibles sold all year in Christian retail stores.

So many outlets covered Bible translations that Religion Newswriters Association members voted the topic a 2011 Top Ten Religion Story of the Year.

All this attention to English-language Bible translations raises questions about how to choose Bibles for church worship, study, and personal use. Christians wonder which version is most authentically God’s Word.

What God said then

The Bible was originally given in forms, structures, word plays, and languages that its first audiences understood. But no one speaks those languages in the same way anymore.

Until the last century, most Bible translators aimed to reproduce the word order or wording of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts. This philosophy is known as word-for-word, formal equivalence, or essentially literal translation.

Examples include the King James Version (KJV), New KJV, New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), and New American Bible Revised Edition of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (NABRE).

“In my congregation, a legacy church, we use the RSV in worship,” says John F. Hobbins, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He explains that essentially literal translations let congregations read “along with believers of generations past and present….and with theologians, hymn writers, poets, and novelists.” Ordinary people still use biblical phrases such as “the way of all flesh” and “there is a balm in Gilead.” Word-for-word translations also help Christians read across language barriers.

Hobbins says formally equivalent translations work well “if worship in your congregation includes music, hymns, and prayers from the greater Christian tradition, and the preaching is expository.”

Leland Ryken, in his books Understanding English Bible Translation and The Word of God in English, argues for translations “transparent to the original text.” Sticking close to what biblical writers actually wrote preserves scripture’s full interpretive potential, theological precision, literary qualities, dignity, and beauty.

For example, many New Testament writers describe the Christian life as “a path down which one walks.” The NASB, ESV, KJV, and NKJV preserve this metaphor in 1 Thessalonians 2:12 as “walk in a manner worthy of God” or “walk worthy of God.” But the NIV, Today’s NIV, New Living Translation (NLT), and Revised English Bible (REB) change walk to the more abstract live. Ryken laments, “English readers have no way of knowing that they have been given a substitute” instead of a many-layered image.

Ryken charges that some translators insert their commentaries into God’s Word. Thus “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5, ESV) becomes “You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings” (NLT). The italics show where Ryken says the translation goes beyond what the psalmist actually wrote.

Understanding God’s Word now

In the 1950s, Eugene Nida asked translators to focus not on what the words are but what the text means. Nida trained teams at the Summer Institute of Linguistics to translate the Bible into new languages on the mission field. These Wycliffe translators worked among indigenous Central Americans who understood “white as yucca” better than “white as snow” and among Africans who prized goats and despised sheep.

Nida’s approach is known as dynamic equivalence, functional equivalence, phrase-for-phrase, and thought-for-thought. Thought-for-thought Bible translations include NLT, Contemporary English Version (CEV), the Good News Bible (aka Today’s English Version), New International Reader’s Version (NIrV), and The Message. These use words and grammar understandable to people who read at a third to sixth grade level. Most word-for-word versions require at least a New York Times reading level.

John Hobbins is married to Paola Benecchi, pastor of The Family Church in Neenah, Wisconsin. He says, “In my wife’s new United Methodist church plant, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning worship is full of new converts and families with young children. Their Bible translation of choice is CEV. If worship in your congregation sticks to contemporary music, contemporary styles of prayer, and thematic preaching—with no dependence on the precise wording of a biblical text—it stands to reason that you will use a thought-for-thought translation.”

The best-selling Bible translation, NIV, aims to balance accuracy and readability. So do the NRSV and CEB, which is written at a seventh-grade reading level. (Some experts classify the NRSV as essentially literal and the CEB as thought-for-thought.)

The CEB uses words the way people do now, such as immigrant not alien, vest not ephod, and strap not thong. It gives measures of length in feet, not cubits. The CEB uses recent science in 1 John 3:9a: “Those born from God don’t practice sin because God’s DNA remains in them.” Compare that to the KJV’s “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him.”

God’s Word prevails

No Bible translation is the best one for public worship. God can speak through any version.

As a young man, Hobbins read Good News for Modern Man (New Testament) cover to cover more than once. “It was a great first gateway into the world of the Bible. Now I read the Bible in the original languages and find all translations wanting from multiple points of view. Still, the message of salvation found in holy scripture comes through loud and clear in virtually all translations,” he says.

Congregational context and consistency matter in choosing Bible translations for worship, according to Mark D. Roberts. He’s an author, blogger, speaker, and Presbyterian pastor who is now senior director and scholar-in-residence at Laity Lodge in the Texas Hill Country.

Roberts advises churches to involve pastors, elders, deacons, children’s and youth ministry leaders, teachers, writers, journalists, and others from the congregation in choosing a translation. They should consider the cultures, languages, Bible translation uses and beliefs, liturgical traditions, and reading levels in both the congregation and local community.

“The goal is not to choose the translation that people ‘like’ so much as to find the one that helps them grasp the sense of the biblical text. Churches should be especially eager to choose a translation that will be understandable to folks who are not lifelong Christians,” Roberts says.

Preachers should practice “moderation and wisdom” in using different translations in sermons, Roberts says. Reading from The Message might help illustrate the more literal version you preach from. But Roberts cautions against searching multiple translations for words that fit a point you’ve “already determined to make. Preachers need to do the hard work of making sure their translation is faithful to the original. The pick-and-choose method can encourage a preacher to read meaning into the text rather than derive meaning from the text.”

Learn More

Don’t miss the conversation with John F. Hobbins about maintaining Christian unity despite so many Bible translations. His blog is Ancient Hebrew Poetry. Mark D. Roberts blogs on about Christ, culture, and the church.

Take this simple online Bible knowledge quiz. Do you know less about the Bible than about your other top interests? Then check out what Congregational Resource Guide suggests. Explore all the Wabash Center’s recommended list of online Bibles and Bible study tools.

English-speaking Christians have been using multiple Bible translations for centuries, even after the King James Bible was released in 1611. These lists compare the NIV 2011 to the NIV 1984 and TNIV. Craig Blomberg describes five intriguing changes in the updated NIV.

Most English Bible translations have been compiled by white men. The 120 scholars who translated the Common English Bible are men and women from 22 Christian traditions in American, African, Asian, European and Latino communities. Seventy-seven reading groups were assigned a book of the Bible. These 300 readers of all ages and 13 denominations read the text aloud to each other and commented on awkward or unclear phrasing.

Watch this video on how to bring scripture alive in worship. Friends of the Groom Theatre Company offered this training during the 2012 Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Gather a group to read and discuss these books:

Browse related stories on ethnodoxology; Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible paraphrase; and scripture memory and public reading.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church staff, board, education, worship, or youth ministry meeting. These questions will help your group talk about how you choose and use Bible translations:

  • What, if anything, made you uncomfortable about these stories on Bible translation?
  • Which Bible translation(s) do you use in worship, family or personal devotions, or Bible study? Why? What might you gain from comparing your preferred translation with another?
  • How can you help people in your congregation to read the Bible more? How can you model ways to move from studying its message to sharing and living out the Gospel?