When I am invited to speak at a local church, I try to find out if they use pew Bibles, and if so, which version they have. I make an effort to be able to read and speak from the same translation my hosts are comfortable with. Sometimes I will use one of their pew Bibles in the pulpit so that I can refer to page numbers if I am likely to be skipping around a bit. The pulpit Bible I carry with me currently is in the English Standard Version, but often I work with the NIV or the New King James, and during my time at Dallas Theological Seminary I was trained for ministry using the New American Standard Version. I also have a Bible I call “Old Red” which looks like it has been dragged behind a truck from all the wear I have given it; it’s in the Revised Standard Version.
Why so many versions? Isn’t there just one Bible? The question often comes to us in the form of an old red herring that sceptics have used for many years: “if the Bible is just a guess at a translation of an old dead language, then how can we know it still means the same now as it did back then?”
The answer can be thought of as a problem in communication. Communication happens when someone’s original thought (call it the idea) is delivered into the mind of someone else. For example, if I fancy Chinese food for lunch (my idea), then I might say to my colleagues “I fancy Chinese food for lunch.” Simple. A statement of fact that exactly represents my idea. Glenn might then pass on my idea by saying “Terry’s up for sweet and sour chicken and rice.” Not quite what I said word for word, but carrying the same idea. Now if Scott were to say “Terry’s going to get chicken and rice, anyone interested?” that is not such a clear statement of my original idea. For one thing, it’s ambiguous: chicken and rice might mean Indian food. And it has also added something to my statement by making it a question and an invitation. It’s a poor communication of my idea.
The modern English Bible has not been passed through a series of translation steps – from Greek to Latin to Italian to German to French to English for example. By and large, Bible translators give their very best efforts to preserve the original idea of the documents they are translating from; documents in the original languages in which they are written. The authors of the Bible’s sixty-six books wrote in their own languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with a few passages in Aramaic), and the New Testament was written in a widely used form of popular Greek.
So people who are serious about preserving the original ideas in these texts take the time and make the effort to learn those languages and make their translations into English accordingly. And as different teams of scholars approach the task, different ways to express the ideas arise. English, like all languages, shifts and grows. Phrases change their sense, certain words become obsolete, other words take on new meaning. Bible translators try to keep up with these shifts in English (a moving target) as they express the original ideas (a fixed source). Some teams approach the process by striving to keep as close to the original wording as possible (sometimes called a word-for-word translation). The benefit is that this reduces the risk of ambiguity or accidental distortion of the original idea. The disadvantage is that in sentences where Hebrew or Greek doesn’t behave like English, the meaning can be very difficult to translate if you are tied to the form of the original. That can make for a “wooden” style sometimes. Careful wordsmiths can usually overcome the difficulty. Good examples of this kind are the New American Standard and the English Standard Versions.
Other teams have tried to express the sense of the original idea in a thought-by-thought way. They state the original idea in a way that keeps it intact, but try to express that idea in a way that is easier to read and comprehend. They want the original idea to have the same impact as the author intended, even if different words or phrases are used sometimes to achieve that goal. The classic example of this kind of translation is the NIV.
Taking this principle even further are the Bible paraphrases, such as the Message and the Good News Bible. The intention in these kinds is to tell the ideas of the original scriptures in a way that is completely connected to modern English, but perhaps not as a recognisable translation. For a translation the words and grammar have to be represented in some way. In the paraphrases this may not always be the case. Emotional impact and clarity of meaning in the English is given priority over adherence to the grammar and sentence structures in the original. They are very useful for big-picture reading, not so much for technical study.
So which one should you choose? Well, it doesn’t hurt to keep at least two kinds at your fingertips. I like the word-for-word versions because they stay very close to what I see in the original languages as I work. For this reason I spend a lot of time in the English Standard Version. The ESV has also proved itself to be very readable, but for more casual reading, just soaking in the scriptures, I sometimes enjoy the lightness and accessibility of the NIV and then again occasionally I immerse myself in the deep poetic cadences of the old King James. They are all works of great care and beauty, but they deliver God’s idea to us in differing ways, according to their own chosen intention. Choose a version that you enjoy reading – and then read it!