By Brian Barnhart
If you walk into a bookstore looking for a Bible, chances are you won’t find just one. You’ll likely find at least two or three ‘different’ bibles, possibly even more, and it’s common to find more than one translation or version.
Walk into a religious bookstore, you’ll likely to find more than just a few bibles. Religious bookstores typically have as many as 10 or more translations or versions.
If you search far and wide (including the Internet, etc), you might find as many as 100 or more versions.
Original languages of the Bible
Generally, the books of the bible were three different languages. Old Testament books were written primarily in Hebrew (with some Aramaic). Later, the Old Testament was translated into Greek, and referred to as the Septuagint.
Books of the New Testament were written primarily in Greek, with a small amount of Aramaic.
It wasn’t until the 1400’s that the Bible was translated into English.
Given this background of the Bible, a few questions may arise.
Question 1 -
Why isn’t there just one version (English translation)?
This is a very good and simple question. The answer is anything but simple. Consider the following points:
1) There are differences in the text used. In the case of the New Testament, three different texts are frequently used. The Received Text, the Critical Text, and the Majority Text. Differences in these texts can lead to different translations.
2) The approach to translation can lead to differences in Bible texts. Three common translation approaches are: Word-for-word (literal), Thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence), and Paraphrase. Note: The word “translation” is used frequently throughout this article when referring to different Bibles. However, the author makes no claim that thought-for-thought or paraphrase “Bibles” are true translations.
3) More than one word might be accurate in a word-for-word translation.
4) Ease of understanding (for the reader) can affect translation, making some translations easier to read and understand).
5) Bias of the translators (or bias of writers in the case of paraphrases)
Question 2 -
Does it matter which translation I use?
If you consider why there are different translations (as outlined above), it should be obvious that the translation used matters. For example, it seems doubtful that a truth seeker would want a translators bias (perhaps better stated “writer’s bias” in the case of a paraphrase) to influence his or her understanding of God’s Word.
Consider the following translation notes from chosen Bibles.(Words italicized by author). These statements give insight into the approach to translation used by the “translators”.
From Today’s English Version (TEV):
- “seeks to express the meaning of the Greek text...”
From The Amplified Bible:
- “The following four-fold aim expresses the original purpose of this translation:
1) It should be true to the original languages.
2) It should be grammatically correct.
3) It should be understandable to the masses.
4) It should give the Lord Jesus Christ His proper place which the Word gives Him.”
From the Contemporary English Version (CEV):
The translators of the CEV have not created new or novel interpretations of the text. Rather, it was their goal to express mainstream interpretations of the text in current, everyday English.
From the New International Version (NIV):
- The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers.
- At the same time they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation.
From the New American Standard Bible (NASB):
- When it was felt that the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom. In the instances where this has been done, the more literal rendering has been indicated in the notes.
From the New King James Version (NKJV):
- Complete equivalence in translation
- The NKJV follows the historic precedent of the Authorized Version in maintaining a literal approach to translation, except where the idiom of the original language cannot be translated directly into our tongue.
From the King James Version (KJV) translation notes:
- ...that, out of the Original sacred Tongues, together with comparing of the labours, both in our own and other foreign languages, of many worthy men who went before us, there should be one more exact translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English Tongue;
- And now at last, by the mercy of God, and the continuance of our labours, it being brought unto such a conclusion, as that we have great hopes that the Church of England shall reap good fruit thereby,
Note the variety in approach to translation as stated in the translation notes. Some translators felt that simply seeking to express the meaning of the Greek text was sufficient, while others felt that complete equivalence in translation was needed. In one case, translators felt fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers was the proper way to approach the translation task, while in another translation, the translators generally felt a word-for-word translation was the proper approach. What approach does the reader feel is proper? Does one wish to know, as closely as possible, the words written (as directed by the Holy Spirit) by the author? Or would you rather read a translator’s interpretation of that which was revealed by the Holy Spirit?
Greek New Testament Texts
When participating in bible studies, someone will occasionally refer to the “original Greek”. Usually “original Greek” really means Greek Text. The process that “created” the Greek texts in use today went something like the following. Paul, Luke, or James etc. wrote a letter (probably only one original). The letters were read and copied (by hand) to facilitate circulation and teaching. These copies are referred to as manuscripts. With time and use, more manuscripts were needed and were made (hand copied from other manuscripts or perhaps the original).
Not all manuscripts (in many cases manuscript fragments) that remain today agree 100%. This is due to copying error, damage to earlier manuscripts, and, possibly, deliberate error (doctrinal error occurred in the earliest days - Acts 20:29 “savage wolves”).
Greek texts are commonly used today to study the bible in Greek and are also used to translate the bible from Greek to English (or other language). These texts are not the “original” letters (none are known to exist) or manuscripts, but are a made by comparing existing Greek manuscripts and manuscript fragments (which number in the thousands) and combining them into a Greek text. Basic differences between the manuscripts (and fragments) have led to several “different” Greek texts. These Greek texts, while different, agree over 85% of the time.
Three of the most prominent Greek texts in use today are the Texus Receptus (TR) or “Received Text”, the Critical Text (CR) or Alexandrian Text, and the Majority Text (M). A few notes regarding these Greek Texts are outlined below.
Critical Text - Based on Alexandrian Text
- Used for most translations in the last 100 + years (RV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, NIV)
- Made primarily from 2 very early manuscripts - Co. Vaticanus & Co. Sinaiticus, two of the earliest known manuscripts
- These two manuscripts disagree with each other many places, and Sinaiticus has many omissions when compared with Vaticanus.
(Also referred to as Received, Traditional, or Byzantine Text)
- Used to translate KJV and NKJV
- Relatively few manuscripts supporting the Textus Receptus were known at the time of the KJV translation, but many more TR manuscripts were discovered later.
- This text basically represents a consensus of the majority of existing Greek manuscripts
- There is relatively good agreement between manuscripts in this group
- Many of the Majority Text manuscripts are later (newer, not-as-old) manuscripts
- The Majority Text is very similar to the TR, and attempts to correct some readings that have little support.
Some Popular Translations of Today
Below are some popular Bible translations that exist today. Comments on the various translations are based on research, verse comparisons, use during Bible studies and, of course, the author’s opinion.
- King James Version (KJV)
- Probably number 2 in sales (2001)
- First published in 1611
- Not the first translation into English
- Proceeded by:
Wyclif ~ 1384 (translated from Latin to English)
Tyndale ~ 1525
Coverdale ~ 1535
Matthews ~ 1537
The Great Bible ~ 1539
Taverner’s Bible ~ 1539
The Geneva Bible ~ 1560
The Bishop’s Bible ~ 1568
- Has been revised several times, the last in 1769
-Translators used the Received Text
- Many consider it harder to read and understand than more recent translations
- Some incorrect translations, for example: “Easter” in Acts 12:4, and “God forbid” in Romans and other books.
- Generally regarded as an accurate translation.
- Has withstood considerable scrutiny and the test of time
- Beautifully and elegantly translated in many places (Psalm 23)
New International Version (NIV)
- Number 1 in sales (2001)
- Web site survey (obviously unscientific) poled visitors to vote for the most accurate bible translation. Results:
1) NIV (by a wide margin)
2) and 3) NASB and KJV (don’t remember the order)
- First published ~ 1973
- Translators used the Critical Text
- Touted as the best balance between accuracy and readability.
- Biased against “works” as having any part in the christian’s salvation
- Another word (usually ‘deeds’) appears every place the word “works” normally occurs in the book of James.
The word “works” carries a certain urgency and responsibility with it, whereas the word “deeds” tends to imply convenience and casualness.
- Uses the phrase “sinful nature” in place of “flesh” over 20 places, primarily in Romans and Galatians. The phrase “sinful nature” does not appear in any of the other common translations (such as KJV, NKJV, NASB, or NRSV). Use of this phrase is extremely dangerous and disrespectful to God. “Sinful nature” implies that God created man with a desire to sin. If created with a desire to sin, why should God hold our sinful desires or “sinful nature” against us? God created man in His image (Gen 1:26, Rom 1:20-28). Is God’s image a sinful one?
- Contains careless translation errors
- Easy to read and understand. Perhaps this leads more people to read their bibles, and read them more often. It is much better to read the NIV translation of the bible than to not read the bible at all!
- Reasonable translation in most places.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
- Relatively recent translation ~ 1963
- Translators intended this Bible to be a very accurate word-for-word translation
- Translators used the Critical Text
- Slightly harder to read and understand than recent thought-for-thought and paraphrase versions
New King James Version (NKJV)
- Relatively recent translation ~ 1980
- Intended to be an update of the KJV into current English
- Translators used the Received Text
- Slightly harder to read and understand than recent thought-for-thought and paraphrase versions
- Reads like the highly regarded KJV in many places
- Very thorough textual notes (may not be in all versions)
Verse Comparisons of Selected Translations
Below is a comparison of five verses from selected Bible Translations. Not all Bible Translations are included. Those included represent the translations owned by the author. The verses chosen were selected to demonstrate traits common to the various translations.
11 Translations of 1 Samuel 15:33
(KJV) And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
(NKJV) But Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women." And Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
(ASV) And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before Jehovah in Gilgal.
(NASB) But Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal.
(RSV) And Samuel said, As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
(NRSV) But Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
(CEV) But Samuel said, "Agag you have snatched children from their mothers’ arms and killed them. Now your mother will be without children." Then Samuel chopped Agag to pieces at the place of worship in Gilgal.
(TLB) But Samuel said, "As your sword has killed the sons of many mothers, now your mother shall be childless." And Samuel chopped him in pieces before the LORD at Gilgal.
(NLT) But Samuel said, "As your sword has killed the sons of many mothers, now your mother will be childless." And Samuel cut Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal.
(Amplified) Samuel said, As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
(NIV) But Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women." And Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal.
Everyone except the NIV translators agreed that Agag was chopped, hewed, cut, or hacked into pieces.
12 Translations of John 16:31
(KJV) Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe?
(NKJV) Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe?
(ASV) Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe?
(NASB) Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe?
(RSV) Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe?
(NRSV) Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe?
(TEV or Good News) Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe?
(CEV) Jesus replied: "Do you really believe me?
(TLB) “Do you finally believe this?” Jesus asked.
(NLT) Jesus asked, "Do you finally believe?
(Amplified) Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe- do you believe it at last?
(NIV) "You believe at last!" Jesus answered.
Instead of translating Jesus’ question, the NIV translators chose to have Him answer it.
12 Translations of 1Cor. 11:16
(KJV) But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
(NKJV) But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
(ASV) But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
(NRSV) But if anyone is disposed to be contentious--we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
(RSV) If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
(NASB) But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
(NIV) If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice--nor do the churches of God.
(TEV or Good News) But if anyone wants to argue about it, all I have to say is that neither we nor the churches of God have any other custom in worship.
(NLT) But if anyone wants to argue about this, all I can say is that we have no other custom than this, and all the churches of God feel the same way about it.
(CEV) This is how things are done in all of God’s churches, and that’s why none of you should argue about what I have said.
(TLB) But if anyone wants to argue about this, all I can say is that we never teach anything else than this--that a woman should wear a covering when prophesying or praying publicly in the church, and all the churches feel the same way about it.
(Amplified) Now if anyone is disposed to be argumentative and contentious about this, we hold to and recognize no other custom [in worship] than this, nor do the churches of God generally.
In this passage, the first four translations (KJV, NKJV, ASV, and NRSV) seem to differ with the remaining eight translations with respect to the connection between “contentious” and “custom” (or “practice”). Many Bible students disagree on the meaning of this passage. In this verse example, we can see how a thought-for-thought translation or paraphrase might shed light on a passage that can be difficult to translate word-for-word.
12 Translations of James 2:14
(KJV) What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?
(NKJV) What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
(ASV) What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? Can that faith save him?
(NASB) What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
(RSV) What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he hath faith, but has not works? Can his faith save him?
(NRSV) What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
(NIV) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
(NLT) Dear brothers and sisters, what's the use of saying you have faith if you don't prove it by your actions? That kind of faith can't save anyone.
(CEV) My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you?
(TLB) Dear brothers, what's the use of saying that you have faith and are Christians if you aren't proving it by helping others? Will that kind of faith save anyone?
(TEV - Good News) My brothers! What good is it for someone to say, “I have faith,” if his actions do not prove it? Can that faith save him?
(Amplified) What is the use (profit), my brethren, for any one to profess to have faith if he has no [good] works [to show for it]? Can [such] faith save [his soul]?
This verse example shows the bias against works that exists within many of today’s “translators”. Rather than use the word “work” or “works”, they resort to other, gentler, words or phrases.
12 Translations of 1 Peter 4:11
(KJV) If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God;
(NKJV) If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.
(ASV) If any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God;
(NASB) Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God;
(RSV) whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God;
(NRSV) Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God;
(TEV or Good News) Whoever preaches, must preach God’s words;
(CEV) If you have the gift of speaking, preach God’s message
(TLB) Are you called to preach? Then preach as though God himself were speaking through you.
(NLT) Are you called to be a speaker? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you.
(Amplified) Whoever speaks, [let him do it as one who utters] oracles of God;
(NIV) If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.
In this verse, nearly all the translations stress the need to be very careful with God’s word, His revelation. Apparently the NIV “translators” believe that strictly adhering to God’s word (speaking as the oracles of God) is somewhat optional, stating only that it “should” be done.
And the best translation is…
the KJV according to many. Others believe the ASV is the best, being both relatively old, and accurate. Many say the NASB, is the even more accurate than the ASV, and therefore is the best. Perhaps most believe the NIV is the best, believing it to be both accurate and easy to read.
All of the popular translations have areas of weakness. Hopefully some of them have been clearly pointed out in this article. The author most often uses the NKJV, but also makes considerable use of the KJV, ASV, and NASB during study.
The NIV is not recommended, simply due to obvious bias and errors as pointed out in the verse comparisons. Paraphrases are also not recommended due to compromises made in making it exceedingly easy to read. Bias would seem to be nearly inevitable when making a paraphrase Bible.
Bibles devoted to or “created” by a certain denomination should also be avoided. The New World Translation is an example of such a bible. Jesus died for his church and His will is final and unchanging (John 12:48-50, Jude 3). The door is closed to new teaching and revelation.
Additional Features of Many Bibles
Many Bibles published today contain more than just the translated Word of God. These additional “helps” are designed to assist the reader in understanding and studying the Word of God. However, one must keep in mind that these “helps” are uninspired, and perhaps did not undergo the same scrutiny as the translated Word. Listed below are brief summaries of a few of the common “helps” included in many of the Bibles published today.
- Arranged by verses in the bible, they reference other bible verses that use the same word or phrase.
- Typically located in it’s own separate column (such as the center), separate from the actual bible text.
- References in parentheses  usually refer to a reference with a similar thought or phrase.
Alternate Translation Notes
- When translators didn’t agree on which English word to use, or thought another English word was just as accurate, a second (or more) word(s) will be given.
- Differences in Greek texts are also noted in this manner in some Bibles. Alternate readings will be listed separately with reference to the Greek text (such as M, TR, or CT)
- Alternate translation notes are also used to indicate an alternate literally translated word.
- The concordances included in many Bibles allow the reader to “look up” verses using a selected English word
- Very helpful in finding a verse in the bible when you know part or all of a verse but don’t know where it is located.
- A person or person’s comments on scripture(s), or entire book(s) of the bible. Since these represent opinion, they should be studied with caution.
- Many study bibles have these along side or under the scriptural text, or at the beginning of the books.
It’s already been pointed out that all of the popular translations have areas of weakness. That’s why so many bible students use more than one translation. This article was written to help the bible student to understand the differences in many of the Bibles in common use today, in what ways they differ, and what to look for when choosing a Bible.
[Editor’s Note: Thanks to our brother and friend Brian Barnhart for this good article on a subject we don't hear much about. We hope all readers will continue to study all Bible topics with open minds, willing to conform to God's Truth. Thanks for reading! - Mark J. Ward email@example.com]
Email the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
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