Bible: Why are there different translations of Scripture?

Bible: Why are there different translations of Scripture?

For centuries the Eastern church had the Bible only in Greek. The Western church had the Bible only in Latin. Since most people were not fluent in these languages, they were unable to read the Bible themselves. One of the great developments of the Protestant Reformation was to return the Bible to the people of the church.

The Reformers wanted the people to have the Bible in their own language. Martin Luther and John Wycliffe are just two of the men who risked their lives to translate the Bible into German and English. William Tyndale was charged with heresy and condemned to death because he translated the Bible into English. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, he “was tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire,” simply because he wanted people to be able to read the Bible.1

Today many translations of the Bible are available. At least part of the Bible has been translated into at least 2,454 languages, at least one of the two Testaments exists in at least 1,168 languages, and the full Bible is available in at least 438 languages.2 The amount of money and effort that has been invested in translating God’s Word is simply amazing. Subsequently, every time we pick up a copy of the Bible in our own language we should have a deep sense of awe and gratitude.

During the past four centuries there have been hundreds of English Bible translations, and dozens are actively used today. They fall into three major categories.

  • Word-for-word translations (also known as formal equivalence translations) emphasize the patterns of the words and seek “as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. . . . Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”3 The result is a striving for the precision of what the Bible says, much like one would expect in other important communications, such as legal documents, marriage vows, or contracts.

Word-for-word translations have advantages for studying because of their closeness to the original, though they sometimes become a bit stilted stylistically because the biblical languages use different patterns of gram- mar and expression from English. Arguably the best contemporary word-for-word translation is the English Standard Version (ESV). The King James Version (KJV) is also a word-for-word translation, and remains the best-selling English translation. It sounds very reverent to many people, but it is difficult for some people to read because it uses old English. Other good word-for-word translations in modern English include the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

  • Thought-for-thought translations (also known as dynamic equivalence or functional equivalence) attempt to convey the full nuance of each passage by interpreting the Scripture’s entire meaning and not just the individual words. Such versions seek to find the best modern cultural equivalent that will have the same effect the original message had in its ancient cultures.

A favorite thought-for-thought modern English translation, the New International Version (NIV),  is  also the  most  popular.   Others include the New Living Translation (NLT) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV).

  • Paraphrased translations put the emphasis on readability in English. Therefore, they pay even less attention to specific word patterns in an attempt to capture the poetic or narrative essence of a passage. Examples of paraphrased translations include The Message (MESSAGE), The Living Bible (TLB), and The Amplified Bible (AMP).

All faithful translations try to achieve a balance of four elements:

  1. Accuracy to the original text as much as possible.
  2. Beauty of language.
  3. Clarity of meaning.
  4. Dignity of style.

While some translations are better than others, it is important to note that translations have various strengths and weaknesses and that the student of Scripture benefits from enjoying multiple translations. Furthermore, rather than fighting over translations, Christians should praise God for every good translation and trust God the Holy Spirit to use them to transform our lives as we enjoy them.

Nonetheless, it is preferable to use the English Standard Version or another good word-for-word translation as your primary study tool, while also using other translations as secondary resources for your studies. The English Standard Version is perhaps the best version for accurate Bible reading, studying, teaching, and preaching. Noted theologian and ESV general editor J. I. Packer reflected, “I find myself suspecting very strongly that my work on the translation of the ESV Bible was the most important thing that I have done for the Kingdom, and that the product of our labors is perhaps the biggest milestone in Bible translation in the past fifty years or more.”4

Lastly, while Christians should enjoy multiple good translations, they must be careful of corruptions. Corruptions are “translations” of Scripture that clearly seek to undermine the very teaching of Scripture. These translations are very poor and should not be used as credible translations for study. These include the Jehovah’s Witness translation called the New World Translation, which was written in large part to eliminate the deity of Jesus Christ. This is in no way a translation but rather a terrible corruption of Scripture deceptively masquerading as God’s Word.

Do you have a nice copy of a good Bible translation?

1John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2007), 234.
2United Bible Society, “Statistical Summary of Languages with the Scriptures,” 2008,
3The Standard Bible Society, “Translation Philosophy,” 2009,
4Crossway, “The ESV Bible Reaches Five-Year Milestone,” September 26, 2006, http://www.crossway. org/page/news.2006.09.26.