What are the differences between the different Bible translations? How can we know whether a translation is accurate?
This is an important question many people have asked as they begin their walk of faith. It’s actually quite natural to be a little confused as to why so many versions of the Bible exist and not having a helpful explanation could lead some to think there’s no way to know the truth. First of all, we should understand the nature of Bible translations and why there are so many of them.
It’s hard to believe, but for about 1000 years, the Latin Vulgate reigned supreme from about 400-1400 A.D. The first English translation of the Bible was published by John Wycliffe in 1380 A.D. The invention of the printing press (1450 A.D.) and “the return to the original languages” fueled by the Renaissance inspired the quest for more reliable translations. Ultimately, the Reformation of the church in the 1500’s opened the floodgates of biblical translation due to the desire to translate God’s Word into the language of the people.
One might ask though: “I get the reason for translating the Bible into many languages, but why so many English translations?” Why is the King James Version not enough and why the need for more modern translations like the NIV, ESV and NRSV to name a few? The answer is actually quite simple. Language changes over time. As much as one might love the lofty, sacred sound of reading the Bible in Shakespearean-like prose with its archaic thee’s and thou’s, modern English speakers speak very differently today. Even modern versions of the KJV have had to update the usage of Old English words to their modern day English equivalents.
Other significant issues have to do with the discovery of older manuscripts and advances in digital imaging, which allow the modern day textual critic to place an electronic magnifying glass on the ancient text. Take for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the 1950’s. They are virtually a literary time capsule of ancient biblical texts that take us back to roughly 200 B.C.
Bible versions like the King James Version relied on the most ancient texts known at the time of its translation. Modern translations like the ESV, NIV and the NRSV attempt to provide a more accurate translation based on the most ancient manuscript evidence available in more recent times. This often leads people to ask, which then is the most reliable modern English translation?
Honestly, I think this is the wrong question. Perhaps, we should ask: which is the best translation for…? The reality is one can preach the main tenets of the Gospel faithfully using any modern translation. People are not getting more or less saved based on the preferred translation of the Bible used by any particular preacher. Contrary to popular “tongue in cheek” belief, the ESV is not the Extra Spiritual Version and the NIV is not the Not Inspired Version. Both are just as effective translations in matters of faith.
Personally and for more practical purposes, I use different Bible translations for different activities. I use the NRSV in much of my scholarly endeavors because I like the “more literal” renderings of the biblical text. I love the readability of the NIV and the NVI (Spanish Nueva Version Internacional), which I use for preaching bilingually. I constantly refer to the ESV text because it’s the preferred translation of the majority of my students.
Last, but not least, I like the freshness of the New Living Translation for my devotional reading of Scripture. When you have been reading the Bible for a long time, it is refreshing to read the text in a new light that sheds new insights into the Word. In a sense, having more than one go to translation in hand is actually more helpful because it helps the contemporary English reader to compare different reliable versions that inspire reading the ancient text with fresh eyes and fall in love with God’s Word over and over again.
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