Why Are There So Many Bible Translations?

This is the third in a series of three based on a teaching series on Bible translations which I recently taught on Sunday nights. For the first post on “The Necessity and Purpose of Bible Translations” click here. For the second post on “The History of Bible Translations” click here.Some translations exist for a specific agenda . For example, the New World Translation was specifically translated by Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny the deity of Jesus Christ. Another example of a translation with a specific agenda is the TNIV which was translated in order to replace masculine references in the Greek text with gender neutral terms in the English. Some translations are seemingly being made in order to make money.

But there are two major reasons for the variety of translations that are available today: textual issues and translation issues. I will deal with the translation issues momentarily, first though I would like to address the textual issues that have resulted in the different translations that are available today.

The English translation of the New Testament in the Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries (including the KJV) were all based upon the Textus Receptus or the “Received Text” that was compiled by Desidirius Erasmus from about six different Greek manuscripts. In the late 1800′s, as the result of the abundance of new manuscript evidence (which was in fact older than what Erasmus used), new translations in English were desired which took into account the new but older manuscripts. That’s why in the last 100 years there has been an explosion in the availability of English Bible translations similar to the explosion of new translations in the 16th and 17th centuries. Instead of being a sinister plot, it is an altogether natural and understandable development. Just as Erasmus work with the Greek text of the New Testament resulted in a desire for English translations based thereon, the new Greek text of the late 1800′s resulted in new English translations that took into account the new findings. The KJV and NKJV are the only major translations available that are based upon the Textus Receptus. All other modern translations are based upon the Greek text that has incorporated the new findings of the last hundred or so years.

The other major reason for the number of English translations available today is due to translation issues. There are two major different philosophies of translation. One is called formal equivalence. The other is called dynamic equivalence. It is the difference between a “word for word” translation (formal) and a “thought for thought” translation (dynamic). Among the major English translations available today, the KJV, NASB, NKJV and ESV were all translated based on the philosophy of formal equivalence (“word for word”) and the NIV, NLT, TNIV, GNB and CEV were all translated based on the philosophy of dynamic equivalence (“thought for thought”). In the last twenty years the emphasis in Bible translation has been in the area of dynamic equivalence.

Now before we jump to any conclusions about the superiority of one method over the other, let me suggest that it is not as simple as it may seem. For example how would you translate figures of speech like: “He’s pulling my leg.” from English into a language where “pulling one’s leg” means only someone is literally pulling on your leg. Would you translate that word for word or thought for thought? When someone says “thank you”, the English response is: “You’re Welcome!” But in Spanish the response is: “De Nada!” which literally means “of nothing”. How would you translate it? What if you’re listening to the radio and you hear the football announcer say of the quarterback: “He really put some mustard on that throw.” Would you translate it word for word or thought for thought? Any time you translate from one language to another you have to deal with this issue. All translators have had to make these decisions, even the KJV translators. For example, in Isaiah 15:3 the KJV says, “And in their streets every one shall howl, weeping abundantly.” But the Hebrew phrase is literally translated “descending into weeping.” Another example is in Hebrews 7:3 where Melchisedek is described as being “without father, without mother, without descent”, the Greek phrase is literally “without pedigree”. In Exodus 4:10 Moses is recorded as saying, “And Moses said unto the Lord, I am not eloquent.” but the Hebrew word is literally translated “a man of words.” 3 John 14 says “And we shall speak face to face.” but the Greek literally translated would be “mouth to mouth.” In the Old Testament, in many places which speaks of God becoming angry, the literal Hebrew phrase is “God’s nostrils enlarged.” So all translations (even the KJV) translate some phrases which contain figures of speech in a “thought for thought” manner, otherwise they would not be understood in the English language.

“Thought for thought” translations like the NIV are very readable. This is their main value. However, I believe these translations sacrifice accuracy and precision for readability!

Therefore, I think the best translations are those which strive for as close to word for word literalness as possible. This translations include the KJV, NKJV, NASB and ESV. Here are a couple of reasons why I believe this:

One of the most helpful things I’ve ever done in my own personal Bible study was to read through the Bible in a translation other than the King James. The reason this was so helpful to me is simple. I know the language of the KJV. I can anticipate the next word in the sentence. Therefore, it was easy for me to mindlessly read Scripture because of its familiarity. Reading through the Bible in a different translation, however, forced me to focus on the words of the text. This dynamic together with the increased understandibility of the English language and grammar resulted in a more fruitful encounter with the Word of God. I would recommend a similar approach to anyone. Choose from one of the good translations mentioned above a translation different from the one you are most familiar with and read through it. You’ll be glad you did!

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3 comments

  1. Interesting thoughts. I may have to try your suggestion of reading through the Bible in a different translation.

    I have always preached exclusively from the KJV, partly because that is how I was raised, and partly because the majority of the people I preach to use it.

    I do not believe God is limited to the KJV. In fact, the comparisons I have done between the KJV and the NKJV as well as the NASB seem to uphold your position.

    I would like your opinion as a fellow SBC pastor on the HCSB. I am unsure of the necessity of it, and I wonder if it is healthy for a denomination to have its own translation.

  2. Dear Pastor Weaver,
    This subject is not new to me(kjv vs other versions) and I feel like you have missed the real problem aligned with production of new versions. By a proliferation of new bibles of different versions on the maarket the KJV is being swallowed up by them–being pushed off the sales shelves. The KJV is trustworthy and proven for 400 yrs the uncontested champion. Now, due to men like your ilk, the above is happening. I have to look at you as mentally drugged, anti-truthetic, or simply quite simple minded. I do not say the things in a vengeful, angry manner, although it may sound so. I am just being honest and open with you. I having studied Riplinger’s book first and done comparisons myself find biblical renderings that do damage in my humble opinion to the doctrines of the church and the power of the wordings. So said, I would like to hear your response. Thank you, Tommy Thompson

  3. Mr. Thompson,

    Thanks for your comment. Bible sales is not a heavy-weight championship. The issue for Bible translation has always been to get the Bible into the language of the people. If you are with a people group who speak 17th century Shakespearean English, by all means use the KJV! I haven’t run into people who speak that way, except for maybe when they pray. I’m not sure why you would want a response from a “mentally drugged, anti-truthetic, or simply quite simple minded” individual, but I think my posts on this subject speak for themselves. I suggest that you read more widely than Ms. Riplinger (whom I have also read). James White’s The King James Only Controversy is a good place to start. And as for your comparisons: the issue is what did the original Hebrew and Greek text say, not how a translation compares to the KJV.

    Blessings,
    Steve

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