Are All Bible Translations Created Equal?

How do I choose a translation?

The question listed above is a good question, but it is one among many.

  • Why are there so many translations?
  • Which translation is best?
  • How do I know which translations are reliable?

This list of questions can go on and on and on, but our goal is to answer not only the first question, but to really get underneath why there are multiple translations, and why new translations are made on occasion.

Imagine you were speaking with a teenager and heard them say, “Yo, it’s chill, bro.”  Now imagine I asked you to translate those works into easy-to-understand English.  We could end up with a myriad of translations:

  • “It’s righteous, dude.”
  • “Hey, it’s all good.”
  • “No worries.”

There is always the potential of multiple translations.  Our goal is to answer how we get closest to the correct one.

Original Languages

The Bible was originally written in different languages than we speak now.  The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek spoken in the 21st century are far different than the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible.

Old Testament: Hebrew and Aramaic

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The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.  Only a few portions of the books of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic.

New Testament: Koine Greek

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This form of Greek was a common trade language brought in by Alexander the Great when he conquered the Palestinian area.  Isn’t it cool that God communicated in the common trade language?  He did not use a formal, difficult language, inaccessible to most people!

History of New Translations: Breaking Tradition with Truth

Translations are nothing new and neither are hesitations to newly introduced translations.  Until the time of Jesus, the original Hebrew had been authoritative.  Yet, during the intertestamental period (the 400 years between the OT & NT), the Old Testament was translated into the Koine Greek that the New Testament would be written in.  How was this translation received?  Ask Jesus, even he quoted from it in the New Testament (Matthew 26:52; Mark 1:14–15; 9:42–50; Luke 4:16–19).  So we see that even Jesus supports the translation of Scripture.

Jerome and the Vulgate

Over time, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint or LXX) gained ground and became the authoritative text of the early church.  Not many people knew Hebrew, but everybody knew Greek.  Until the early 5th century, the LXX remained at this level of prominence.  That is, until a man named Jerome came about and stirred things up.

As Latin became more of the common language, Jerome provided a Latin translation based on the original Hebrew rather than the LXX.  The church was not initially approving of Jerome’s work of translation.  Even Augustine objected to Jerome’s appeal to the original Hebrew.

Erasmus and the Greek New Testament

Over time, Jerome’s Latin translation came to be known as the Vulgate, and became the authoritative text of the church.  It became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic church.

A new name comes on the scene: Erasmus.  Erasmus was a humanist.  The motto of the humanists was ad fontes! (“Back to the sources!”).  Their goal was not to have translations of translations or to take people’s words for that they say.  They wanted to get to the original source of everything to get the most reliable answer.  What could be better for Bible translation??

Erasmus wanted not a translation, but the source: the original language.  He set out to gather as many early manuscripts as he could of the Greek New Testament.  Able to read and write Koine Greek, he then compiled a Greek New Testament.  The church blew up in anger and skepticism as to what Erasmus was doing, just as they had blown up in anger and skepticism against Jerome for translating their Bible that they currently used.  As James White notes, “When a new translation appears, a violent reaction erupts.”

Yet, Erasmus’s translation was not perfect.  As he did not have Greek manuscripts for the entirety of the New Testament, he had to translate certain passages from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.  Thus, portions of Erasmus’s work ­­­– though having good intention – were somewhat corrupted as they were a translation of a translation.  Over time, it became known as the Textus Receptus.

When phrases are translated once they can be misrepresented, let alone translated twice.  Consider these mistakes:

  • “Finger-Lickin’ Good” (English) = “Eat Your Fingers Off” (Chinese)
  • “Every Car Has a High-Quality Body” (English) = “Every Car Has a High-Quality Corpse (Belgian)

History of English Translations

John Wycliffe (1330-1384) was the first to translate the Bible into English.  He translated from the Vulgate in 1382.  Out of skepticism, the church judged this as a threat and made the English Bible a capital offense, punishable by death, in 1414.  As an example, they exhumed Wycliffe’s body and burned the remains at the stake.

Later, William Tyndale (1494-1536) translated the New Testament from the Greek original in 1526.  In 1536, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake.

Prior to Tyndale’s martyrdom, the first complete English Bible was published.  This was the Cloverdale Bible of 1535, published under Miles Cloverdale.

Early English Bible Translations
Date Work Description
1382 Wycliffe Bible First complete translation (handwritten) of the Bible into English based on the Vulgate
1526 Tyndale Bible First printed NT in English based on Greek
1535 Coverdale Bible First complete printed English Bible.  Relies heavily on Tyndale Bible, German versions, and Vulgate.
1537 Matthew’s Bible Edited by John Rogers.  Relies on Tyndale and Coverdale.  First licensed English Bible.
1539 The Great Bible Revised version of Matthew’s Bible by Coverdale.  Based on Tyndale, Hebrew, and Greek.
1560 Geneva Bible The NT is a revision of Tyndale, and the OT is revised based upon the Hebrew.  First English Bible with verse divisions.  Strongly Calvinistic footnotes.
1568 Bishop’s Bible A revision of the Great Bible translated by a committee of Anglican bishops.
1610 Douay-Rheims Bible Literal rendering of the Vulgate by Roman Catholics
1611 King James Version Translated by a committee of scholars

Types of Translations

There are two main types of translations as listed below.

  1. Dynamic/functional equivalent: thought-for-thought

Among these types of translations would be the The Message, New Living Translation, or even New International Verson.  The goal of these translations is to make the text more “readable.”

  1. Literal/formal equivalent: word-for-word

Among these translations are the New American Standard, English Standard and Amplified translations.  The goal of these translations is to keep the text more “literal.”

Types of Bible Translations

Dynamic/Functional Equivalence Literal/Formal Equivalence
“And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 (ESV) “So the word became human and made his home among us.  He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.  And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only son.” John 1:14 (NLT)
“Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.” 1 Kings 2:10 (ESV) “The David died and was buried with his ancestors in the city of David.” 1 Kings 2:10 (NLT)

A new concept of “optimal equivalency” has arisen in the translation of the Holman Christian Standard Bible which has been revise and updated into the Christian Standard Bible.  The goal of this is to find a happy medium between the functional and formal equivalency.  It is to be both “readable” and “literal.”  Greg Gilbert notes:

“Every translation of the Bible has to aim, to one degree or another, at both accuracy and readability.  Some translation committees take it as their mission to heavily privilege accuracy and necessarily sacrifice readability to a certain degree.  Other translation committees set out to produce a version that is eminently readable, but that decision necessarily means the translators will have to rearrange some of the original language’s word order so that the sentences will sound ‘right’ to an English-language ear.”

For a good laugh, go a check out these translations:

  • The Cotton Patch Bible
  • The Word on the Street

New Age Translations and Changing Scripture?

Language is alive.  Language is always morphing and changing.  This is occurring consistently and at a rapid pace.  Consider the language of Beowulf (below), which is considered to have been written as early as the 7th century.  Though it is English, it is Old English.  Do you recognize it?

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Or we could consider the language of the Wycliffe Bible, translated into English in 1382.  Take a look to the left to see a portion of the gospel of John (below).  Can you make out any words?

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Our current Bibles will be as foreign to English speakers in 1,000 years as these are to us now.  New translations are normally made or old translations are updated not to change the text, but to update the language into which it was translated.  The legacy of the ESV finds its root in the 1611 KJV, then the 1885 RV, then the 1901 ASV, then the 1952 and 1971 RSV.

New Age Translations and Eliminating Scripture?

Since the translation of Jerome’s Vulgate and Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, many manuscripts (over 5,800) have been discovered of the Greek New Testament.  These manuscripts date much earlier and provide much more reliable text.

In the new manuscripts, which are from much earlier, certain verses are almost unanimously missing.  The only conclusion is that these verses were not part of the original and that they were later additions.  Texts such as the beginning of John 8 and the end of Mark are bracketed off in our Bibles because they are almost unanimously not found in the earliest manuscripts.

Because of this, the new age translations are accused of “eliminating Scripture” and thus subtracting from God’s Word.  In reality, the evidence points to the fact that it is really the other translations that were adding to God’s word.

Almost every verse that is accused of being deleted is a copy from another text.  Consider this list:

  • Matthew 17:21 (borrowed from Mark 9:29)
  • Matthew 18:11 (from Luke 19:10)
  • Matthew 23:14 (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47)
  • Mark 11:26 (from Matthew 6:15)
  • Mark 15:28 (from Luke 22:37 or Isaiah 53:12)
  • Luke 17:36 (from Matthew 24:40)
  • Luke 23:17 (from Matthew 27:15 or Mark 15:6)

Other verses simply seem to have been added at some point in time.  They just “appear” in later manuscripts.  Consider these and see if there is a footnote about them in your Bible:

  • John 5:4
  • 1 John 5:7

From Texts to Translation

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Some use an eclectic text and others use a single text for translation

  • Eclectic text: collects the best readings from many manuscripts
    • RSV, NASB, NRSV, NEB, NIV, GNB, REB, The Message, NLT
  • Single text: single text is used for the entire translation
    • KJV, KJII, NKJV

Choosing a Translation

When it comes to choosing a translation, we should cry along with Erasmus “Back to the sources!” (ad fontes!).  We need not read the original languages, but our translations should be based on the original languages and not on a translation of a translation.

I will suggest two methods of using translations:

  1. Deep Study: word-for-word
  2. Personal Devotion: thought-for-thought 

Outside of this, I will offer two practical pieces of advice:

  1. More translations is better
  2. A translation from the original languages is best

The Job is Not Done

There are still millions of people and thousands of languages without any word of Scripture.  What a tragedy this is!  The Wycliffe Bible Translators are actively working to solve this problem.  As of October 2018, there are over 250 million people speaking 4,011 languages that have no word of Scripture translated into their language.

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