Exploring Hope: So many Bible translations

If you ever go to a bookstore and look at the Bible section, you'll be surprised by the vast number of translations – NIV, KJV, NLT, CSB, ESV, NKJV, NRSV, NASB — just to name a few. And if you’re new to Christianity, it may feel bewildering. It could even make you doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible. You say, "If there are so many translations, then certainly we can't trust the Bible, right? No one can even decide what it says." However, as understandable as this sentiment is, it’s quite mistaken. Let me explain.

I want to give you a very brief introduction to the world of Bible translation. To begin, why so many translations in English? Well, that topic is too vast for a brief article in an online publication. But in short, there are so many translations because translation committees have different philosophies.

Some translation committees opt for what is called "formal equivalence” — or “word for word” translation. The basic idea is that the translators take the original Greek or Hebrew texts and try to maintain the original sentence structure as much as possible. If there is a word in Greek or Hebrew, they’ll try to find a word in English that corresponds. In other words, it’s super literal.

Conversely, other translation committees opt for what is called "dynamic equivalence.” This is where they focus on translating thought for thought, rather than word for word. The advantage of this strategy is readability. They’re generally not as clunky as more literal, word for word translations.

But which is better, formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence? Well, there is not a right or a wrong answer to that question. For certain types of Bible study, it's better to use a more literal, word for word translation. For example, as I preach through books of the Bible verse by verse every Sunday at Hope Presbyterian in Garnet Valley, I use the ESV because it is more literal. I am confident that my congregation is confronting, as much as possible, the thought process of the original author. However, if I were ministering to young children, I might use a thought for thought translation, like the NLT, because of its readability and clarity.

But in the end, should the differences between Bible translations weaken or strengthen our trust in the Bible? Well, I am convinced that it should strengthen our confidence. If you are studying a passage of Scripture, you don't have to rely on one translation committee's opinion. Instead, you can compare countless translations and decide for yourself, even if you haven’t had the blessing of learning Greek and Hebrew.

So I would recommend reading multiple translations. Be like the Bereans who "received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11 ESV). Or you could say, “They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth (Acts 17:11 NLT).

For further reading, check out this article by Daniel Wallace.

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About Will Stern

Originally from Colorado, Will Stern is the pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Garnet Valley. He majored in violin performance for his undergrad and taught violin for a number of years before being called into ministry. He studied theology at Duke University and Westminster Theological Seminary.

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