Why are there so many Bible versions today?
Andrew Wilson, Brisbane, Australia | Dunstable, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
This is a delicate subject to deal with because many Christians have a favourite Bible version. My purpose here is not to try to tell anyone which Bible version to use, but, instead, to try to explain some of the reasons why Bible translations differ. Certain Bible versions are better for certain purposes, and some versions sometimes make poor choices.
Inspiration applies to the text of scripture as it was originally written by the prophets and apostles who were ‘moved by the Holy Spirit’, 2 Tim. 3. 16; 2 Pet. 1. 21. God is not inspiring (i.e., infallibly supervising) the writings of Christian authors today, nor did He inspire the work of manuscript copyists, Bible translators or printers in days gone by. Our English Bible versions are inspired by God to the extent that they accurately correspond to and convey the original text of the Bible.
In this article, we shall deal with six reasons for differences between Bible translations.
The King James Version
Before that, however, we need to address some misconceptions about the King James Version which, in some quarters, are a source of strife and division. Some Christians believe that only the King James Version (KJV) is the inspired word of God. However, the prophets and apostles wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not in Elizabethan English. The Apostle Paul did not use the KJV. While we thank God for the great blessing the KJV has brought to many down through the centuries, and while it was indeed a masterpiece of Jacobean biblical scholarship, it has not been without mistakes.
Examples of early errors in the KJV include:
- the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ (the 1631 KJV) read, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’ (it left out the word ‘not’ in Exodus chapter 20 verse 14);
- the 1682 KJV read, ‘if the latter husband ate her’ (instead of ‘hate her’, Deut. 24. 3);
- and the 1795 KJV read, ‘Let the children first be killed’ (instead of ‘filled’, Mark 7. 27).
The KJV still contains mistakes today. For example, in 1 Samuel chapter 13 verse 21, it reads, ‘Yet they had a file for the mattocks’. In the days of the KJV translators, the meaning of the Hebrew word piym in this verse was unknown and they were forced to guess its significance, translating with the word ‘file’. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew lexicon (1906) even suggested that the Hebrew text had been corrupted here. However, archaeologists discovered the Hebrew word piym inscribed on weights, and realized it meant two-thirds of a shekel. Virtually all modern versions thus translate the phrase as ‘the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares’ ESV. In the New Testament, the KJV still contains a misprint in Matthew chapter 23 verse 24 where it reads, ‘strain at a gnat’ instead of ‘strain out a gnat’.
The KJV was not the original English Bible. Before it was Bede’s translation (8th C.), Wycliffe’s (1382), Tyndale’s New Testament (1526), Coverdale’s Bible (1535), the Matthew Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568). Even the KJV was attacked as a modern innovation, and its translators called ‘damnable corrupters’ of the word of God. The translators themselves claimed that they were not trying ‘to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one’ (Translators’ Epistle to the Readers).
If the KJV were the only true Bible, as KJV-only proponents argue, then what was the pure word of God, divinely-preserved for all time, before the KJV in 1611? Was it written in English or another language? Why did God take so long to give the world the only true Bible? If the 1611 KJV was inspired, why was it revised numerous times? The current KJV in use today is the 1769 Oxford Standard edition which contains approximately 75,000 changes to the 1611 KJV.
Reason 1 – Translation approach
There is always more than one way of translating from one language into another. Some Bible versions try to be very literal, and employ a word-for-word translation technique, while other versions are more flexible, and try to capture the sense of a verse. Paraphrases completely reword a verse in a fresh and punchy style, while an interlinear gives a very literal translation but makes no attempt to use readable English.
No English Bible version gives us a totally literal, word-for-word translation. For example, if we were to translate the first phrase of John chapter 3 verse 16 absolutely literally, it would read, ‘So for loved the God the world’. All versions try to translate the Bible into readable English. Thus, all English Bibles are found somewhere on a spectrum between more literal and less literal translations.
Reason 2 – Reader’s age
Bible translations can be compared by the reading level they are aimed at:
GNB, NLT 10-year-old
Most Christians agree that children should be able to read the Bible. The same is true for people whose first language is not English. If our desire is for beginners to understand the main message the Bible teaches – our need of salvation in Christ – then it is good to encourage them to read from versions that they can follow without getting distracted by too many unfamiliar words.
However, there is a danger if translators use a less literal and more easy-to-read approach. While some paraphrases help convey the meaning of the Bible in an interesting way, if we believe that all the words of scripture are inspired by God, we will want a more literal translation for our normal reading and study. The Bible does not always speak in words suited to ten-year-olds, but often deals with complex ideas using technical vocabulary and intricate arguments. Children’s evangelism is important, but it is not the only reason that God gave us His word.
Reason 3 – Antiquated language
A third reason for differences between Bible versions is that translations made in previous centuries will contain archaic and obscure words that are no longer understood in the same way today. ‘Publican’, Luke 18. 10; ‘conversation’, Eph. 2. 3; ‘prevent’, 1 Thess. 4. 15; or ‘communicate’, Heb. 13. 16, mean something different nowadays to what they did in the KJV, while words like ‘besom’, Isa. 14. 23; ‘sith’, Ezek. 35. 6; ‘collops’, Job. 15. 27; and ‘bruit’, Nah. 3. 19, are not used anymore.
C. S. Lewis wrote about the need for updating language in his introduction to J. B. Phillips’ translation, ‘The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed’.
Reason 4 – Ambiguity in meaning
Another reason for differences in Bible versions is because there is often more than one way to translate a particular word or phrase from the original Greek or Hebrew. The original languages also have subtle distinctions and shades of meaning difficult to render in translation. For example, in Acts chapter 17 verse 22, when Paul addressed the Athenian philosophers, he called them ‘too superstitious’ KJV, or ‘given up to demon worship’ JND, or ‘very religious’ (most modern translations). The word can be translated in a good or bad sense, and all three translations are possible.1 However, it is unlikely that Paul commenced his speech by openly insulting his hearers. That is hardly the way to win hearers’ respect or attention. Thayer suggests Paul addressed them with a ‘kindly ambiguity’.
Reason 5 – Translation agendas
Another reason for translation differences is doctrinal biases. Hebrews chapter 1 verse 8 reads: ‘But to the Son He says: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”’. But in the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation, this verse reads, ‘God is your throne’. There is no compelling reason for this strange translation other than a desire to remove a clear reference to the deity of Christ.
The 2011 New International Version (NIV) has come in for criticism because it replaces masculine terms with ‘gender-neutral’ expressions. Thus, ‘brothers’ is translated as ‘brothers and sisters’, ‘man’ as ‘mortals’, ‘father’ as ‘parent’, ‘son’ as ‘child’, and ‘leading men’ as ‘leaders’, Deut. 5. 23. This was done to make the Bible more acceptable in our modern egalitarian culture, and in keeping with the view of certain editors of the NIV that men and women should both occupy positions of public leadership in the church. This is allowing an interpretational agenda to override translation.
Reason 6 – Underlying text
One last reason for differences between Bibles is the use of different underlying Hebrew and Greek texts. In the Old Testament, most English versions differ very little, using the same standard Hebrew Masoretic text, and usually only show textual variations in their margins or footnotes.
But in the New Testament, the situation is more complicated; our English versions are based on different underlying Greek texts, a subject that is beyond the scope of this article. However, we have an ‘embarrassment of riches’ when it comes to evidence for the New Testament text (we now possess over 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts). We can be virtually certain that the true readings have been preserved among this surviving evidence. Furthermore, no doctrine is endangered by any textual variant, because doctrines are repeated in many verses not suspect of scribal corruption. Textual variants do not undermine the inspiration of scripture, although they are sometimes significant for interpreting the Bible at certain points.
No English Bible translation is perfect. We need to be diligent in studying scripture and discerning in our use of different Bible versions, comparing translation against translation and seeking to understand the original Hebrew and Greek words underlying them. Thankfully, today we have an abundance of resources for this task.
1 The Greek word deisidaimon in Acts chapter 17 verse 22 includes within it the word for demon, but this was a word the Greeks used for gods generally (the word ‘gods’ a few verses before in verse 18 is daimonia, ‘demons’, and in Acts chapter 25 verse 19 deisidaimonia just means ‘religion’). Possibly, Paul could also have been emphasizing the idea of fear (deisi-) to indicate a superstitious attitude.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Commended by the assembly at Bexley, Sydney, Australia, in 1994, and together with his wife, Gillian, has sought to serve the Lord in New South Wales, Australia, and then London, UK. Involved in evangelistic, children's and Bible teaching ministries. He now resides in Brisbane, Australia.