The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written mostly in Greek, with a bit of Aramaic sprinkled in. Since the Bible was not written in English, it must be translated into English. Each translation is referred to as a “version,” like the New International Version (NIV) or the English Standard Version (ESV).
Bible Translations Have Been Around Since Before Jesus
People were translating the Old Testament into their own language long before Jesus was born. Several hundred years before Jesus, many Jews lived in Egypt and spoke Greek. This prompted translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. As a result, within the first two centuries of the Christian Church, a Syriac translation of the New Testament was produced.
As Church History continued to unfold, and the good news about Jesus spread into new regions of the world, new translations of the Bible emerged. Over time, the Roman Catholic Church took the Bible out of the hands of the common people. As a result, Bible translation slowed to a crawl.
The Impact of the Protestant Reformation and the Printing Press
Increased intellectual curiosity in the 1400s and 1500s also led to increased study of Greek. As a result, in 1516, Erasmus translated the New Testament into Latin. In Germany, in 1534, Martin Luther produced the first complete Bible translation into a modern European language.
The first complete English-language version of the Bible dates from 1382 and was credited to John Wycliffe and his followers. But it was the work of the scholar William Tyndale, who from 1525 to 1535 translated the New Testament and part of the Old Testament, that became the model for a series of subsequent English translations. All previous English translations culminated in the King James Version (1611; known in England as the Authorized Version), which was prepared by 54 scholars appointed by King James I… [It became the] principal Bible used by English-speaking Protestants for 270 years. About the time of the invention of printing in 1450, there were only 33 different translations of the Bible. By about 1800 the number had risen to 71. By the late 20th century the entire Bible had been translated into more than 250 languages, and portions of the Bible had been published in more than 1,300 of the world’s languages.
If the Protestant Reformers laid the charges for an explosion of English Bible translations, the invention of the printing press lit the fuse.
Why Bible Translation is Not Like a Game of Telephone
This (highly-compressed!) history of Bible translation sketches in a framework. To that framework must be added the debunking of a common misconception. Many people assume that Bible translation is like the game of “Telephone.”
In the game of Telephone, people sit in a circle, and then one person whispers a phrase into another person’s ear, and then that person whispers what they thought they heard into the next person’s ear, and so on, until the last person announces what was whispered in their ear—to hilarious effect. In the same way, many people assume that translators are making copies of copies, until the original words become distorted or lost. This is why some say the Bible has been changed and tampered with over time.
But Bible translators do not translate from translations!
As a rule, whether scholars set out to translate the Bible into Swedish or Spanish, they work directly from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Several New Testament manuscripts can be dated within a century or two of the “autographs” (e.g., the original, physical letter to the Philippians produced by Paul). As New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg points out in his book Can We Still Believe the Bible,
The original copy of a biblical book would most likely have been used to make countless new copies over a period of several centuries, leading to still more favorable conditions for careful preservation of its contents… So when Bart Ehrman writes “We don’t even have . . . copies of the copies of the copies of the originals,” he is almost certainly wrong. Second- and third-century New Testament manuscripts may well be copies of the very autographs, or at least copies of those copies.
When Bart Ehrman published Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in 2005, he did not offer new objections to trusting the Bible. But he did popularize them by reaching a broad audience who was unaware of the well-established counter-arguments.
For anyone interested in hearing concise and thoughtful arguments for the trustworthiness of modern Bible translations, a group of New Testament scholars have cooperated in the creation of “The Ehrman Project.”
For comprehensive answers to common objections like Ehrman’s, consider Craig Blomberg’s book, Can We Still Believe the Bible? as well as William Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible.
Which Version of the Bible Should I Read?
The good news is that it has never been easier to choose a Bible translation. Orthodox Christian scholars have produced many excellent English Bible translations. “Orthodox” refers to scholars who hold to the core of Christian beliefs—identified and preserved by Bible-believing Christians for thousands of years, starting with the ancient creeds.
Here’s a list of acceptable Bible translations in use today, in order of popularity:
- New International Version
- New Living Translation
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
- Christian Standard Bible
- New King James Version
- Reina Valera (the basic text most used by the evangelical Spanish-speaking church)
- New International Reader’s Version
- New American Standard Bible
It’s worth noting that not all so-called “translations” are deserving of the title. Wisdom and discernment are required, particularly whenever a new translation emerges. This article illustrates this danger.
But why are there are so many great translations? The answer, though not self-evident, is quite simple. There are two broad approaches to translation, on either end of a spectrum, that can be described as “formal” and “functional.” In his essay “The Bible in Translation,” Mark L. Strauss gives contrasting examples of how formal and functional versions translate the same passage.
- NKJV (formal): “Also I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities”
- NLT (functional): “I brought hunger to every city”
- ESV (formal): Behold, I send my messenger before your face…
- CSB (functional): See, I am sending My messenger ahead of you…
Rarely is a translation purely formal, or purely functional. Instead, each translation falls somewhere on the spectrum between the two. Functional translations can be easier to read, since they sound more natural to the ear. Formal translations can be easier to study, since they allow the reader to more easily spot repeated words in the original text. We see this get a bit tricky when it comes to poetry and the Psalms.
What About the King James Version of the Bible?
The King James Version is one of the crowning literary achievements of the English-speaking world, and has been rarely matched for its indelible beauty. Everyone should own a copy and should read it. However, when it was translated in 1611, the translators only had access to a miniscule portion of the ancient original-language manuscripts available to modern-day translators. For that reason, the KJV should no longer be recommended as one’s primary translation for daily Bible reading.
Additionally, a very small subsection of Christians today hold the untenable view that the KJV is the only acceptable translation. Trevin Wax writes:
“The King James Only controversy is essentially a conspiracy theory that claims that all modern translations of Scripture are based on tainted manuscripts and that their translators are driven by a liberal Protestant or Roman Catholic (or even one-world government) agenda. This theory manifests itself in various forms, some of which are more extreme than others.”
D. A. Carson has written a concise and helpful book refuting this conspiracy theory entitled The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.
Is There One Version of the Bible That’s Best?
The short and rather obvious answer is that each is helpful in particular situations. The ESV is useful for liturgical worship and Scripture memorization. The NIV is a great translation to preach from. The NLT is a great translation for reading through a Pauline epistle alongside a new believer. Websites now allow you to read a passage in multiple versions side by side.
Every Bible reader should feel empowered to read each of them, and select one they would prefer for daily reading. The ESV and NASB fall on the more formal side, the NLT and CSB fall on the more functional side, and the NIV falls somewhere closer to the middle. Regardless, it is harder to go wrong than one might think.
Use Multiple Bible Translations When Studying
Finally, if you are slowing down to study a particular passage of Scripture in greater depth, comparing a few other translations alongside of your translation-of-choice can be helpful for at least three reasons:
- Conflict: Where translations differ significantly, it indicates a less clear, or difficult-to-translate word or phrase.
- Confirmation: A more functional translation can shed light on a more formal translation.
- Clarity: A more formal translation can highlight patterns or repeated words or phrases in the original text that might be obscured in a more functional translation.
This might take you a little longer to read through books of the Bible, but it’s well worth it.
The Work of Bible Translation Is Never Finished
Blogger Tim Challies illustrates the progressive nature of Bible translation with the following story:
In August [of 2016], Crossway, the ministry that publishes the ESV, announced that “the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway.” In other words, the text had become permanent and would undergo no further changes for the rest of time. Controversy ensued and on September 28 [of 2016], Crossway reversed their decision. President and CEO Lane Dennis wrote, “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV.” Though I’m sure there were difficult meetings and tough decisions along the way, I believe Crossway should be pleased with the outcry. Here’s why: The ESV controversy shows that the ESV is not their Bible but our Bible.
Mark Strauss explains why Crossway’s reversal was probably the right decision by detailing the progressive nature of Bible translation:
The task of translation is never finished. This is because languages change over time and there are constant advances in biblical scholarship. Furthermore, the imprecision and ambiguity of language itself means there is always room to improve a translation in terms of its accuracy, precision and clarity. We are spoiled in the English-speaking world by the wealth of translations available. Let’s celebrate this wealth by taking advantage of multiple versions for our personal study and the public reading of the Word. And let’s pour our resources into finishing the task of translating God’s Word into every language of the world.