Understanding and Using the Church’s Bible Translations

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This article is part of a series on “How to Get More Out of Your Bible Reading.” Discussion questions and exercises are included for using this content in a class or group setting. A PDF chart that illustrates some of the key content in this article can be downloaded here: Bible Translations.

Class Prayer: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP)

Discussion Question(s): What do you look for in a good Bible translation? What have you heard about modern Bible translations?

The Bible is God’s word and has authority over the church; however, “the Church is a witness and a keeper of holy Writ” (39 Articles of Religion, XX). Without the church, you would not have a Bible to read. The Bible was written by God through the church, as the Spirit carried along church leaders like apostles and prophets. The books that are divinely inspired and belong to the canon were identified by the church under God’s providential guidance. Finally, the Bible’s original languages were translated by the church and made accessible by the church in print and online. A better understanding and use of the church’s Bible translations will help us to be better Bible readers.

1. Understand the Process of Bible Translation

AUTOGRAPHS

The original documents of Scripture, with the actual words written by Paul, Moses, and the other biblical authors, are called autographs. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and some Aramaic), and the New Testament was written in Greek. The Hebrew and Greek autographs were inspired by God and are without error (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). However, they are no longer in existence; instead, we have thousands of partial or complete copies.

COPIES

Scribes made copies of the autographs and then copies of copies over hundreds of years. We have over 5800 NT Greek manuscripts alone, far more than any other classical work. While there are many differences between these copies, most are minor (e.g., spelling differences or word order) and none affect any major Christian doctrine. See the short introduction to “Variances in Greek New Testament Manuscripts” by Philip Brown.

Manuscripts continue to be discovered. In 1946 and 1947, copies of nearly every book in the Hebrew Bible were discovered in the Judean Wilderness. These copies, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, “date to roughly 250 BC–AD 50, with most having been copied in the century around the turn of the millennium. They are thus the earliest substantial copies of the Hebrew Scriptures in existence today. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest complete copy of the Hebrew Bible (the Leningrad Codex) was from AD 1008” (LBD).

CRITICAL TEXT

Manuscript copies must be compared to determine what the original text most likely said. The discipline that compares copies to determine the original is textual criticism. Reconstructions of the original text, called critical texts, are extremely close to the original. Modern critical texts take into account newly found manuscripts and are superior to older critical texts (e.g., the textus receptus used by the KJV translators). See “Greek New Testament Editions and English Bible Versions,” where Philip Brown explains that “we have no question about 85% of the words originally inspired by God in the NT, and no question about 99.9% of the meaning of the text of the NT.”

TRANSLATION

From a critical text, the Hebrew or Greek is translated into English by a translator or translation committee. Since no two languages are exactly alike, this can be challenging. Some translators take a more formal or “word-for-word” approach, trying to preserve the original structure and words as much as possible. Very formal translations can be clunky and hard to read, while a completely literal translation is incoherent. Other translators take a more functional or “thought-for-thought” approach, focusing on how to best express the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek in our English. These translations are clearer and easier to read, but do more of the interpretive work for you and may sacrifice meaning. A good translation is accurate, readable, and beautiful.

2. Choose a Reliable Modern English Translation

Since the English language changes over time, new translations are necessary and are in many ways more accurate than old translations. The KJV was a good translation in its day and should be read and highly regarded for its historical and literary value; however, the KJV was never meant to be the last English translation. There were many English translations before the KJV, such as the Wycliffe Bible (1388), Tyndale’s NT (1526), Coverdale Bible (1535), Great Bible (1539), Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishops’ Bible (1568). The KJV or Authorized Version was itself revised many times: the original 1611 version is almost unreadable in places, and we use the 1769 revision today. There have been many translations since the KJV: for example, the ERV (1885), ASV (1901), RSV (1952), NASB (1971), NIV (1978), NKJV (1982), NLT (1996), NET (1998), HCSB (2004), ESV (2001), and CSB (2017).

Having a variety of English Bible translations on a spectrum from more formal to more functional is a great gift to the church.

The KJV-only position ignores new manuscript data, disregards the gifts of Bible translators today, and hinders discipleship by placing an unnecessary barrier between ordinary Christians and God’s word. I recently came across The King James Bible Word Book, a KJV dictionary with “over 800 terms of the KJV that have either fallen into disuse or have taken on a dramatically different meaning.” Most Bible readers won’t take the time to use such a dictionary (nor should they have to), and so they will be misled time and time again as to the actual meaning of Scripture.

For example, a generation was misled to fear eating and drinking eternal “damnation” to their souls because of the KJV translation of 1 Corinthians 11:29. I have family members and friends who didn’t take communion for decades and still feel anxious about it. The English word “damnation” has changed its meaning over time, and is now a poor way to translate krima, which means judgment—in context, the judgment of the Lord’s discipline, not final damnation (see “If I Take Communion Unworthily, Will I Drink Damnation to My Soul?”). The KJV translation of 1 Corinthians 11:29 and many other verses was good in its time, but it’s now outdated and inaccurate given today’s English.

When choosing a translation, prioritize the accurate and readable modern English translation that your church recommends.

When choosing a translation, prioritize the accurate and readable modern English translation that your church recommends. My personal preference is The English Standard Version (ESV), especially for its beauty. Since “the words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy,” it’s a good choice for someone who is making the switch from the KJV.

3. Compare Multiple Bible Translations When Studying Scripture

Having a variety of English Bible translations on a spectrum from more formal to more functional is a great gift to the church. It’s the product of church members using their spiritual gifts to serve and bless other church members, especially those who don’t know the biblical languages. In a short video on “Choosing a Bible Translation,” BibleProject asks, “Which [translation] should you read?” and answers,

In short, read as many as you can, because no one does everything, because they’re designed for different purposes, and many translations will give you a well-rounded understanding. … Keep in mind that no Bible translation can perfectly represent what’s in the original language, because no two languages are identical. So pay attention to when translations differ, and try to read as many Bible translations as you can.

You can buy a parallel Bible or simply compare translations online. When you look up a single verse on biblegateway.org, such as John 3:16, you can click “John 3:16 in all English translations” at the bottom of the page to view the verse in over 50 English translations. Step Bible from Tyndale House allows you to set several translations alongside one another and highlight a word to see how it’s rendered from the Greek or Hebrew.

Finally, pay attention to the translators’ notes in each version. The NET Bible (Full-notes Edition) has over 60,000 translators’ notes and is an invaluable study resource. Daniel Wallace, NT editor and textual critic for the NET Bible, explains that since all translation involves interpretation, the NET Bible lays out various interpretive options and explains the translators’ choice. Study Bibles such as the ESV Study Bible also include notes on translation and interpretation.

Discussion Question(s): Which Bible translations have you used? What did you like about them? What didn’t you like?

Group Exercise(s)

  • Compare selected Scriptures in a variety of word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations (see handout: “Comparing Bible Translations,” available upon request). Observe as many similarities and differences as you can. What interpretive questions does this raise?

For Further Study

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.