Exploring Hope: Why many versions of the Bible?

If you go into a bookstore and make your way to the Bible section, you'll see countless English translations: ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, CSV, NEB, NLT, etc. But why are there so many versions of the Bible?

First, it's important to know that the 66 books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek. Therefore, translations seek to bring these languages into modern English in a way that is accessible, intelligible, beautiful, and true to the original meaning.

Second, it's important to know that most of the differences between these translations come down to translation philosophy. There are three common translation philosophies:

  1. Formal equivalency: Sometimes called "word-for-word" translations, these Bibles try to stay as close to the original language as possible. They take each word of the original language and look for an equivalent word in English. Translations like the ESV, NASB, and KJV use this philosophy. However, it isn't perfect. Languages are different, and sometimes it's impossible to do an intelligible word-for-word translation into another language. For example, in the original Hebrew, the phrase "his anger burned hot" literally means "his nose burned hot." But no respectable translation would render the text like this because English readers wouldn't understand the idiom.
  2. Dynamic equivalency: Because of the limitations of formal equivalency, other translations use a philosophy commonly called "thought-for-thought." In other words, rather than seeking an English equivalent for every word in the original language, it tries to capture the thought of each clause and sentence in smooth, readable English. Translations like the NIV and NEB use this philosophy. However, though they are often easier to read, they are further away from the language of the original text and can sometimes import the translator's interpretation.
  3. Paraphrase: Rather than translating the words or the thoughts of the original text, paraphrases give a very loose rendering of the original meaning. In my view, paraphrases are more like biblical commentaries. For example, one of the most famous paraphrases is called the Message. It was created by pastor/theologian Eugene Peterson. Using his own wording, he tries to capture the message of the Bible. When you read the Message, you aren't getting a simple translation of the original language; you are getting Eugene Peterson's interpretation and application of the original text.

While much more can be said, how should we evaluate these translation philosophies?

  1. Give thanks to God! We are blessed to have so many translations in English.
  2. No translation perfectly captures the nuances or the interpretive possibilities of the original language. Therefore, when studying the Bible, I encourage people to consult numerous translations, comparing the different renderings. This is an excellent way to gain a deeper understanding of the original meaning.
  3. I generally prefer formal equivalent translations. I preach from the English Standard Version (ESV) and believe it is a faithful rendering of the original text, keeping the majesty and feel of Greek and Hebrew while also being accessible to modern readers.

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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