A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Bible Translations

iStock-543572244Did you grow up in a church where only the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was preached and taught? “If it ain’t King James, it ain’t the Bible.” I’ve heard that a time or two!

Did you attend a Bible study where the group solely used the New International Version?

Have you ever visited a church and realized what you were reading in your Bible didn’t match what the pastor was reading (or the words on the screen)?

You may have already discovered there are many different versions of the Bible.

In fact, you might be surprised to know there are more than 450 translations of the Bible into English!

Maybe you read the version you were introduced to because it is all you know or simply the one you feel most comfortable reading. This is completely normal (and okay).

You may want to read a different version but feel overwhelmed by the various options.

Today, let’s take some time to talk about the different versions.

We’ll look at how the Bible you own today is different from the one Jesus read and why things have changed over time.

We’ll also help you learn how to choose the version that is right for you.

The Bible You Own is a Translation

The first thing you need to know is the Bible you own (or the one the pastor reads from at church) is already a translation, even if it’s the KJV.

It can be easy for churchgoers and Christians to mistakenly believe the words on the page are the same exact ones Jesus spoke.

Since most of us do not speak Hebrew or Greek, we are actually reading or listening to a translation of the Scripture.

In A Brief History of Bible Translations, the writer explains, “Translation of Scripture is older than Christianity itself. The Old Testament Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were brought into other common languages for centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ, and indeed were a great help to the early church.”

Plus, our Old Testament would have been Jesus’ Bible, but the modern-day term of Bible wasn’t used until 200 plus years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

When the first Christians were on the scene, there was no modern Bible.

When you factor all of this in and consider the first completed English translation of the Bible into English did not occur until 1382, you can begin to see why there are multiple translations.

Different Translation Methods and Philosophies

Since every modern Bible version we read is a translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, it is important to understand how these various versions were translated.

Essentially, the original language is either translated word for word of Scripture or by original context and thought.

According to Got Questions, “The KJV [King James Version] and NAS [New American Standard] attempted to take the underlying Hebrew and Greek words and translate them into the closest corresponding English words as possible (word for word), while the NIV [New International Version] and NLT [New Living Translation] attempted to take the original thought that was being presented in Greek and Hebrew and then express that thought in English (thought for thought). Many of the other translations attempt to ‘meet in the middle’ between those two methods.”

How the Bible You Read Became English

So how did the Bible you read get translated into English?

Well, there is a long and fascinating detailed history you can read in A Brief History of Bible Translations.

But, for today’s beginner’s guide, let’s break down the key points.

  • Scripture was translated from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic to Latin and eventually other languages, including Old English around the 10th
  • Around the 14th century, John Wycliffe felt “the Bible belonged to all the people of God, and it was out of this conviction that arose the effort to bring the Bible into the common English of the day.”
  • Following Wycliffe’s already out of date English translation came a man named William Tyndale who wanted to make the Bible readable by even the common English man.
  • In 1526, Tyndale’s English New Testament was published. However, this was so scandalous at the time that Tyndale ended up being arrested and executed.
  • Following his death, the first complete English translation of the Bible was produced in 1611.
  • In the years following, the KJV Bible first appeared with the final version that is still used today being published in 1769.
  • During the 20th century, numerous other English translations have appeared.

What About Differences?

With the number of Bible translations available, it is easy to spot differences.

As Got Questions points out, “If you compare the King James and New King James Versions with the newer translations (e.g., the New International Version, English Standard Version, Christian Standard Bible, New Living Translation, etc.), you will notice that several verses are entirely missing from the newer translations.”

If you should happen to see things such as missing verses as you look through different translations, don’t panic!

Got Questions explains, “No, the newer translations are not removing verses from the Bible. Rather, the newer translations are attempting to accurately present what the biblical writers originally wrote, and that means leaving out anything that was not part of the original text. Any content ‘missing’ in newer translations is believed by most scholars to not have been in the Bible to begin with.”

Matthew 5:44 is a perfect example of this.

KJV: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;”.)

NIV: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s the deal? Well, the King James Version was translated mainly from the Latin Vulgate, and the monks added the extra phrase. In the original Greek text, “…bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you…” did not exist.

The Reasons Why There are Several Different Translations

You may be wondering why there are so many different English translations.

If the original language of Scripture was already translated into English, why do we need so many different translations?

Here are the two major reasons:

  • Evolving English Language – Language changes over time. For instance, we no longer speak Shakespearean English. Many of us do not even understand it!

    Since the Bible is intended to be read and understood by everyone, then new translations are needed.

Here’s a great example.

From Psalm 23 (KJV 1611):

1  A Psalme of Dauid. The Lord is my shepheard, I shall not want.

2  He maketh me to lie downe in greene pastures: he leadeth mee beside the still waters.

3  He restoreth my soule: he leadeth me in the pathes of righteousnes, for his names sake.

4  Yea though I walke through the valley of the shadowe of death, I will feare no euill: for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staffe, they comfort me.

5  Thou preparest a table before me, in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oyle, my cuppe runneth ouer.

6  Surely goodnes and mercie shall followe me all the daies of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for euer.

Even the current King James Version was translated from old English into a current English translation in 1769. Aren’t we glad about that!

  • More Historical Documents – Over time, historians and Bible scholars have discovered more manuscripts to be considered.

    Our understanding of the original languages of Scripture is also better than before, which leads to better, more accurate translations.

How to Compare the Different Translations

If you are curious about Bible translations and want to delve deeper into Scripture, there are several ways you can learn more.

The Bible Translation Guide provides a chart that compares the most popular Bible versions according to the translation philosophy, intended audience, key verse comparison, and distinctive features.

As you begin to study your Bible, it is wise to compare verses and passages in different translations.

You can easily do this by purchasing a Parallel Bible that is essentially a Bible that includes three or four different translations allowing readers to make side-by-side comparisons.

Here’s one of my personal favorites: Parallel Bible.

With today’s technology, you do not have to purchase a Bible to make comparisons.

Websites provide easy Bible Translation Comparison Tools allowing readers to search a Bible verse and see the same verse in multiple versions on the same page.

I use Blue Letter Bible constantly.  

The Ultimate Goal

Ultimately, the goal of reading and studying the Bible is to grow deeper in your walk with Christ.

Thankfully, we have translations available today to make understanding Scripture much easier while retaining the original intent.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates
even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

– Hebrews 4:12 NIV

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