Anyone who has spent a good amount of time shopping for a Bible knows that there is no shortage of Bible translations available today. There are hundreds of English Bible translations available today, and I outlined some of the most popular translations in my post “Bible Versions and Translations.”
Upon recognizing the fact that there are hundreds of English translations, the logical question(s) in response would be, “Why are there so many? What can hundreds of translations offer that a single unified translation can’t?” While this kind of question warrants much more than just a blog post, I will outline the reasons here.
Ultimately, God inspired the text of the Bible as the original writers were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Peter 1:21 ESV) While the Word he has given us is perfect and inerrant, and the Greek and Hebrew words written by the Prophets and Apostles do not contain human error, there are difficulties and issues that come along with text transmission and translation. I focus here mainly on the New Testament, because that is the center of most of this debate:
1. There are different text “types” that differ from one another. As with any ancient document, we do not possess the original copy of the manuscripts. However, in the case of the New Testament, we have so many early copies that we can know with great accuracy what the originals said. Despite this, early New Testament text collections from a city like Alexandria differ slightly from the texts found in Byzantium. There has been a great amount of debate over which text type is closest to the original manuscripts. Because of this, different Bible translations are based upon different text types. This is why a translation like the ESV omits a portion of 1 John 5:7 that can be found in the KJV. In this case, there is little to no evidence that the longer reading found in the KJV is accurate to the original text.
The King James is based on a text type known as the Textus Receptus. However, as more evidence was discovered to suggest that the Textus Receptus contained certain errors, other scholars saw it necessary to produce translations that used a more reliable text. This is one of the reasons there are so many translations.
2. Language is dynamic and unpredictable, and can quickly become antiquated. This is why you’re less likely to encounter a congregation using the King James Version today than you would be 100 years ago. Both the King James and The Good News Translation are written in the same language of English, but render the same words very differently. For instance, see the differing word use between the two in Acts 21:39 –
KJV – But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.
GNT – Paul answered, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please let me speak to the people.”
The King James uses certain words that would not be used in English communication today. The GNT uses “an important city” instead of “no mean city,” uses “please” rather than “I beseech thee,” and uses “let me” instead of “suffer me.”
It seems rather obvious that the average new convert to Christianity would have a difficult time understanding some of the wording found in the KJV. In terms of being able to communicate God’s Word to modern people, newer translations like the GNT are very important. I think it’s important for translators to maintain the balance of using modern language while still preserving some “theological” sounding words that are necessary to accurately communicate Christian truths. For instance, some people have advocated for replacing words like “grace” and “justify” from the Bible with more common English phrases like “undeserved love” and “make righteous.” While this may be warranted in some contexts, theological words like “grace” carry far more history, connotation, and nuance than modern equivalents like “undeserved love.”
The dynamic nature of language has led some to go so far as paraphrasing the Bible, retaining the “meaning” of the words while using modern phrases and deviating from the original wording of the ancient text. The popularity of paraphrased Bibles has contributed to the large number of Bible translations.
3. Societal norms and values change, which leads to “updated” translations. This one goes hand-in-hand with point 2. As cultural expectations shift, the change eventually is reflected in our language. The most glaring example of this phenomenon is the recent trend of Bible translators using “gender inclusive” language. For instance, the New International Version, originally published in 1984, was edited an re-released in 2011 with updates in language and inclusivity. Many of these changes amounted to words like “brothers” being changed to phrases like “brothers and sisters” in hopes of sounding more inclusive to females.
Some of these changes may be warranted, such as when the original text actually is meant to include both genders, but there are times when the change is questionable. For instance, see the change in Acts 6:3 between NIV 1984 and 2011 –
NIV 1984 – “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”
NIV 2011 – “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”
We know from historical context and the rest of the New Testament that women would not have been involved in the choosing of the men as described here. The change here appears to be for no other reason than political correctness. Whether or not these “updates” are warranted, these kinds of changes are another factor that leads to more and more Bible translations. Well-established Bible translations are constantly being edited and re-published for reasons like this.
4. Translator bias finds its way into many translations. As with any two languages, there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between Greek words and English words. There are times when the immediate context of the verse does not adequately inform the correct translation, and the translator must look to the rest of Scripture for clarity. However, this becomes increasingly problematic when the translator does not hold to a “Scripture interprets Scripture” philosophy. Pastor Jordan Cooper, in his review of the Modern English Version, emphasizes this point well –
There is one place, however, where the MEV completely mangles a text: 1 Peter 3:21. The text reads: “Figuratively this is like baptism, which also saves us now. It is not washing off the dirt from the body, but a response to God from a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The text is now completely incomprehensible. The first half states that baptism saves, but the second states that it is a human response to God for cleansing the conscience. Compare this to the NKJV which states: “There is also an antitype which now saves us–baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
In the NKJV, baptism is part of what constitutes a good conscience toward God. In the MEV, it’s a response of having a good conscience. The first half of this text demonstrates where the MEV is a much easier read than the NKJV, but the second half is theologically incomprehensible, and grammatically confusing. [Full article here]
In this case, the translator of the MEV had their personal convictions influence the way they translated the text. Because the translator does not believe that baptism actually is effective for regeneration, they translated the text in a way that downplays baptism’s significance in the spiritual wellbeing of the Christian.
Biases like these can be found throughout the most controversial texts of the Bible. Some translators unfortunately refuse to let the text speak for itself, instead importing their own convictions into the translation of the text. If you want to see more examples of this, compare translations of verses like 1 Timothy 2:12 that outline the roles of men and women. Some translators will soften the clear message of these verses to make them more appealing to readers who don’t hold to traditional stances on the roles of men and women.
The amount of denominational bias in translations is what leads many to undergo their own translation of the Bible. However, in crafting a new Bible translation, the same kind of bias occurs once again in different forms, and so the cycle continues. This is one of the many reasons it is helpful to have access to multiple translations when studying a portion of Scripture.
If you look back at the four point I listed, they all have something in common. All four of them have to do with the imperfection of mankind:
- Humans have made mistakes in copying the original manuscripts.
- Humans, unlike God, change often. So does our language. This causes issues when we are trying to convey unchangeable truths with a changeable tongue.
- Human nature is selfish. When certain things in the Bible aren’t stated the way we expect them to be, we naturally want to change it.
- Humans constantly seek self-gratification. If we believe something about Scripture, we will want a translation of Scripture to articulate that same belief back at us. This leads to bias in translation.
Nevertheless, God is gracious to His people and has promised to preserve His Word, telling us that it will never be lost, despite the sinful humans hands that handle it so often. Take heart and listen to God’s promises:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35)
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (1 Timothy 3:16-17)