This is part of a lesson I prepared for a Jr. and Sr. High Sunday School class some years ago. I present it here not as a complete discussion on English Bible translations, but as a starting point for those interested in the differences in modern English translations.
Since I was working with teens, we needed to start with the basics, and after agreeing (though not proving) that God DOES exist and agreeing (though not proving) that He WOULD reveal himself to us in some way, and after finding that IF a substantial number of events described in the Bible are historically accurate (if they are, then logically the first two fall into place), and setting aside the (extremely worthwhile) discussion of which ‘holy book’ was the ‘right’ one (since this was a Sunday School lesson at a Christian church) and focusing on the Bible, we turned our attention to which Bible is the “right” Bible.
That’s where this lesson comes in. I cannot vouch for 100% accuracy here, but the information presented is accurate for the sources I had and my experience both as a Bible student and the manager of a Christian bookstore (where my training gave me a great deal of insight on the topic). In places where this lesson is vague, it is by design, encouraging the reader to seek for themselves.
If this shows any bias, that is NOT by design and I would appreciate any feedback. It was never my intention to turn the reader toward any particular translation, only to provide some of the general facts behind the translation process in general and English translations in particular. So, without further ado, here it is.
Roots of the Bible (before English)
Approx. 1,400 BC: The first written Word of God: The Ten Commandments delivered to Moses.
Approx. 500 BC: Completion of All Original Hebrew Manuscripts which make up The 39 Books of the Old Testament.
Approx. 200 BC: Completion of the Septuagint Greek Manuscripts which contain The 39 Old Testament Books AND 14 Apocrypha Books. (This was the first “official” translation from Hebrew.) (The Apocrypha are a set of Hebrew writings that are very much related to the Bible, but were never considered “inspired” by those who decided what books should make up “the Bible”. They are still used by some groups today and as such are included in some Bibles available today.)
1st Century AD: Completion of All Original Greek Manuscripts which make up The 27 Books of the New Testament.
315 AD: Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, identifies the 27 books of the New Testament which are today recognized as the canon of scripture.
382 AD: Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Manuscripts Produced which contain 80 Books (39 Old Test. + 14 Apocrypha + 27 New Testament) – Latin becomes the official language of scripture used by the “institutionalized” church which eventually tried to suppress all attempts to translate scripture into English or any other language – even attempts to publish in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek).
The Bible in English
It’s important to know that translating the Bible into any language, other than those “approved” by the “institutionalized” church (as it existed at the time someone tried to create a translation), has always been met with opposition. Many books have been written on the history of the Bible and the author encourages you to refer to those published works. The purpose of this lesson is to examine the Bible as it is available to us today in English.
The original writers of the books and letters that make up the Bible wrote in the common languages of the people who would be the first readers of them. The original writings, or “autographs” as they are called, are lost to us (or at least, have yet to be discovered as far as we know). Instead, we have copies, or manuscripts, that have been made over the years. The manuscripts that exist today are copies of copies of copies. Early translators had fewer manuscripts available while modern translators have many more. Today, thousands of manuscripts that have been discovered, many are in Greek or Hebrew (depending on which testament they are from) but others are early translations from the original languages into Latin or other languages. As well as manuscripts we have quotations of the Bible from early Christian writers. In fact, we have so many quotes from them that if all manuscripts were gone, we could reproduce nearly the entire Bible just from those quotations.
However, none of these manuscripts and quotations are in English and must be translated. Translation is basically taking a word or phrase in one language and finding a word or phrase in the target language that means the same thing.
All translation from one language to another, whether it’s for the Bible or something else, especially when you are dealing with a language as it existed hundreds or thousands of years ago, requires a certain degree of interpretation. Most languages do not use the same sentence structure as the target language. Some words do not have an exact match in the new language. Some figures of speech or turns of phrase will not make sense in the new language. The translator must make a decision about what word or phrase to use in the target language.
In some cases, a word is “transliterated”. A transliterated word is not translated at all but is presented in the new language with a spelling that phonetically pronounces it. Many words in the English language as it exists today are from other languages and sound almost the same as they do in the original language. The word “baptize” is the most obvious example that you will see in the Bible. The word did not exist in English until translators chose to transliterate the Greek word “baptizo” rather than find a word that represents it’s true meaning. (Side note: the earliest non-biblical source for the word baptizo is in a recipe for pickles. The cook is directed to baptizo the vegetables in boiling water, and later to baptizo them into jars of vinegar.)
In most cases, translators will try to find an equivalent word or phrase in the target language. There are basically three ways to translate something. While no translation is exactly one way or the other, the following are the basics of the translation philosophies.
The methods we will discuss are “form-driven” or “formal equivalence” (word for word or literal), “meaning-driven” or “dynamic equivalence” (thought for thought) and “paraphrase” (in someone’s own words). You might also hear the term “functional equivalence”, which might be considered somewhere between dynamic equivalence and paraphrase, but for the purpose of this lesson, we’ll stick with ‘broad strokes’ to make this as understandable as possible.
To explain the differences, consider the following example.
Let’s use this transliterated (spelled how it’s pronounced) Latin text as our original:
Velox frons vulpes volpes tripudios super ignavus canis.
Now a real original may be handwritten and have other issues, but let’s assume we can read this clearly and are certain of what it says in the original language.
A form-driven translation might read like this:
The expeditious tawny vulpes gamboled traversely the dilatory canine
Now we can read it in English, but while accurate, it may not be the best translation for everyone. A word for word translator strives to find the best word to communicate the meaning in the target language while keeping as close to the original’s word order as possible. Reading can sometimes be difficult since the best word in the target language may not be a commonly used word to most people who speak that language. Proponents of the form-driven method say that accuracy in preserving the words themselves should be of utmost importance.
A meaning driven translation would read like this:
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
Very clear to read and gets the meaning across. Meaning-driven translations fall somewhere between a literal translation and a paraphrase but strive to keep the meaning of the words that were originally written. Proponents of this thought-for-thought translation method say that subtle meaning of words in the original may actually be better communicated using a meaning-driven method, while a word-for-word method might be technically correct it might lose the “color” and “flavor” of the meaning.
A paraphrase might read like this:
That speedy fox, the brown one, you won’t believe it, but he jumped over that dog that was sleeping.
That might be a little wordy, but you get the idea. Paraphrases can be very free and can drift from what was originally written. While not very useful for study (in this author’s opinion), paraphrases can bring light to texts that can otherwise be rather dull. Paraphrases are usually the work of one person and represent that person’s opinion of what the text says.
Here’s a real example of the differences using the well-known verse, John 3:16:
English Standard Version (+)
(Literal, Form-Driven or
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten
Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have
Good News Translation (++)
For God loved the world
so much that he gave his
only Son, so that everyone
who believes in him may
not die but have eternal life
The Message (+++)
This is how much God loved the world:
He gave his Son, his one and only Son.
And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed;
by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.
There is also the question of which “originals” we have available today are “best” or “most accurate”. This is a complicated issue that can not be easily explained.
The manuscripts that we have today can be divided into “families” based on the differences between them. These families can vary as much as 26% according to the scholars who study them. But while that sounds like a lot, this takes into account EVERY difference, whether it be a misplaced drop of ink or an unreadable word that was smeared or otherwise damaged. Without going into the process of producing manuscripts, it’s enough to know that any differences that exist from one document to another have no bearing on who God is or how we are to respond to Him. The places where there is a difference in meaning can be figured out using a science called “textual criticism”.
Textual criticism is a complex science that can be best explained as using multiple manuscripts (which are copies of copies of copies) to figure out what the original most likely was. The issues under consideration are the age of the manuscript (how many years it’s been since the original was written), the number of manuscripts of a certain type, where it was found geographically, and most importantly what the manuscript actually says and comparing problem areas with other areas that are not problems. Textual critics then take what they believe the original said and compile it into a new “manuscript”.
Even with these practices, there are still ongoing debates about where the true word of God “exists”. You will hear arguments about “King James Only” and “Byzantine is better than Alexandrian” and “the received text is the only one we should use”. You might even hear arguments against the practice of textual criticism. You will have to make your own decision in these issues, but keep in mind that these arguments are dealing with what most textual scholars consider to be minor differences in the manuscripts, none of which have any bearing on how God has revealed himself or how we are to respond to Him. (†)
There is also much discussion regarding the motives of the people and teams involved in creating this translation or that one. Human nature leads us to believe that people are generally good and that those working on a project like Bible translation have the best of intentions. And while I personally feel that scholars and linguists who work on translations are, for the most part, sincere, there are, without doubt, many translations that have been produced by book publishers with the sole intent of making money, and therefore the translation might not be as accurate as it could have been.
It is the opinion of this author that MOST if not ALL English translations available on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore do not stray significantly from the King James version, the earliest translation most widely available to ‘common people’. To do so would offend their target buyers (American evangelical Protestant Christians) who’s theology is mostly shaped by the KJV, and would result in fewer sales. As a result, there are significant translation errors that have been ‘carried forward’ from the KJV to protect the ingrained beliefs of potential buyers.
If these matters are of concern to you, I highly encourage you to look into them. My opinion on the matter is “buyer beware” and it is still the best practice to use many translations through the course of your Bible study including and especially newer Public Domain translations that have been created not with sales in mind but accuracy.
When you take all these things together, – different translation methods, different “originals”, textual criticism, possible motivations of translators, publishers, and sellers – it’s no wonder we have so many different English translations. So what’s the difference? Which one should I use? The following chart gives you an overview of some of the most popular English versions of the Bible that are available today, how they are related, and other pertinent information to help you make a decision as to which one is best for you. This list is by no means all-inclusive but includes most translations that can be found on the shelves of your average bookstore. The reader is encouraged to dig deeper than the information provided here.
It’s important to know that there is no perfect English translation. Every translation we have today is the work of humans and in spite of our best efforts, humans make mistakes. Any translation from one language to another involves the translator using his opinion at some point as to what is the best word to use and sometimes that opinion may not be the best one. While it is possible for us to learn Greek and Hebrew, even to make our own translation, there is still no way to be sure what you are translating is exactly what the original author intended.
It is the opinion of the author that a true student of the Bible will study multiple translations and not depend on any single English Bible. Subtle differences in wording and phrasing between translations can reveal to you, in a way you can understand, what the true word of God is. I would also highly recommend looking into studying the manuscripts. There are many resources that can give you some insight into the original languages and what they say.
This chart includes the very earliest English translations as a point of reference. They are not commonly available through retailers, though you can find them in many libraries and probably through some specialty retailers or via special order. They are included to provide the best, most accurate picture of where our modern translations come from. The versions you are most likely to find on the shelves of your Christian bookstore start with the “American Standard” and down from there. (You might find a KJV-1611, but be aware that this is literally 1611 English and has little resemblance to our modern English in terms of spelling and readability.)
Comparison of English Bible translations**
|Name||Type (closest)||Based on (earlier version)||By whom||Which originals||Other information|
|Wycliffe||Literal||from Latin||John Wycliffe||Latin Vulgate||Circa 1382|
|Tyndale||Literal||from German, some from Wycliffe||William Tyndale||Luther’s German translation of the Latin Vulgate||Circa 1526 – Much of Tyndale’s original wording and phrasing survives in today’s KJV.|
|Coverdale||Literal||Tyndale||Miles Coverdale||Vulgate, Erasmus’ Greek (from 1100s)||1537 – First Bible printed in English, first “Authorized Version” (By the King of England)|
|Matthew||Literal||Coverdale and Tyndale||Thomas Matthew||See Tyndale and Coverdale||“Grandfather” of the KJV, very little changed from Matthew to KJV|
|Great Bible||Literal||Coverdale||See Coverdale||Second “official” English Bible, first authorized by King to use in churches. Virtually no difference from Coverdale’s original work.|
|Geneva Bible||Literal||Coverdale||Committee of scholars, including Coverdale himself||See Coverdale||1557 – Bible of the “common” people of England and the early immigrants to the “new World” – Used by Shakespeare, Bunyan, and the Pilgrims. First edition with verse numberings|
|Bishop’s Bible||Literal||Great Bible and Geneva Bible||Bishops of the Church of England||Coverdale – some reference to Greek and Hebrew||1568 – Produced by Bishops in an attempt to remove the heresies they felt the Geneva Bible was promoting.|
|King James (1611)||Literal||Bishop’s, Geneva, and consulting manuscripts where available||King James and Church of England||Westcott and Hort, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus||Did not receive widespread acceptance at the time, but through many revisions has become a popular version still used by modern readers.|
|American Standard||Literal||King James (1885 revised)||Church of England||See King James||1901 – First Copyrighted version|
|Revised Standard||Literal||American Standard||International Council of Religious Studies (US and Canada – multidenominational members)||See King James||1952 – First Bible widely accepted by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant congregations|
|Amplified||Literal with alternate meanings||American Standard||Lockman Foundation||See King James||1955 – Can be difficult to read, alternate meanings are presented “inline”|
|Living Bible||Paraphrase||American Standard||Kenneth Taylor||See King James, but Taylor did not use any original language manuscripts||1971 – The first time a paraphrase version was published. A very free-form paraphrase representative of the culture of the time.|
|New American Standard||Literal||American Standard||Lockman Foundation||OT – Biblica Hebraica – compiled by Rudolf Kittel, NT – Eberhard Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece||1971 – Update of American Standard with new manuscript evidence, still carries traces of old English|
|King James Version (1885 revision)||Literal||Bishop’s, Geneva, and consulting manuscripts where available||Scholars and Bishops working under authority of King of England||Revision of King James to be in modern readable English – consulting Textus Receptus and Masoretic Text||1885- “Last” revision of the “old English” King James version.|
|New King James||Literal||King James||Nelson Publishers||See King James||1979 – Essentially a modern English update to KJV (“you are” instead of “thou art”, for example)|
|New Revised Standard||Literal||KJV, Revised Standard, American Standard||International Council of Religious Studies||OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia – with reference to Dead Sea Scrolls, NT: Greek New Testament – United Bible Society 1966||1979 – Update of American and Revised Standard version. First translation to make use of Dead Sea Scrolls and other modern manuscript discoveries.|
|New World Translation||Claims literal||Not explained, but basically, King James||Jehovah’s Witnesses||Unknown, but probably same and KJV||Revised 2013 – Distributed by Jehovah’s Witness church to members and prospective members. Some claim it is biased toward JW teachings.|
|New American (not to be confused with American Standard)||Mostly literal||Not explained, but based on previous English Bibles published by Catholic church||Catholic Church||Latin Vulgate with reference to modern manuscript discoveries including Dead Sea Scrolls||Used and distributed by Catholic Church for members in the USA.|
|Today’s English (Good News)||Thought for Thought/Paraphrase||Not explained||American Bible Society||OT: Biblia Hebraica (1937), NT: Greek New Testament (UBS, 1975) and other modern manuscript discoveries||First Bible to claim to use the thought-for-thought translation message. Intended audience were those who speak English as a second language, but adopted by the general public.|
|New American Standard (1995)||Literal||American Standard||Lockman Foundation||See NAS (1971)||Modern update to NAS (1971) and American standard)|
|New International Version (updated 2011)||Between Literal and thought-for-thought||New translation, but with nods to Good News Bible||International Bible Society/Zondervan||From the preface: OT Masoretic Text and Dead Sea Scrolls and others, NT “Best current Greek New Testaments”||Originally published 1978, most common English translation in use today|
|New International Reader’s Version||See above||NIV||Zondervan||See above||Lower-reading-level version intended for younger readers|
|Today’s NIV||See above||NIV||Zondervan||See above||Gender neutral version of NIV, using “mankind” or “people” instead of “men” where appropriate.|
|New Century||Thought-for-thought||Similar to Good News||World Bible Translation Center||From a translation prepared for the deaf – Biblia Hebraica, Greek New Testament (UBS, 1983)||Gender inclusive, marketed to teens|
|International Children’s Bible||Thought-for-thought||Not explained||World Bible Translation Center||see above||Children’s version of New Century, claims to be first ‘new’ translation for preteens|
|Contemporary English||Thought-for-thought||Not explained||American Bible Society||Not explained||Version meant to be read aloud for children|
|The Message||Paraphrase||Not explained||Eugene Peterson||Not explained||Peterson is a Bible professor turned pastor and had studied the original Bible languages for many years. The Message is meant to be read like a novel and not to be used for regular study|
|Holman Christian Standard||Like NIV, publisher describes it at “Optimal Equivalence”||New translation||Southern Baptist Convention – Holman Publishers||OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th ed., NT: Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed. and UBS Greek New Testament, 4th corrected ed.||Claims to be the first Bible of the Information Age, technology was used extensively in producing this translation|
|New Living Translation||Paraphrase||Living Bible||Tyndale||OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1937, NT: UBS Greek New Testament, 1993 and Novum Testamentum Graece, 1993||Based on Kenneth Taylor’s paraphrase, but utilized original language sourced to be suitable for study|
|English Standard||Literal||New Revised Standard||Good News Publishers||OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd ed., 1983), NT: NT Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed. UBS), Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.)||2001, revised 2011 – Follows tradition of King James and Revised Standard. Newest discoveries of manuscripts have been utilized as well as updating the language for the modern reader.|
|New Life Version (not to be confused with New Living Translation)||Thought-for-thought||Not explained||Christian Literature International, Gleason and Kathryn Ledyard||Not Explained||1969- An effort to bring the Bible to those who barely speak English. The vocabulary is composed of only 850 words.|
|God’s Word||Thought-for-thought||Not explained||Lutheran church, Rev. Giessler||OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, NT: Novum Testamentum Graece (26th ed.)||Claims to be the first Bible reviewed by English experts at every step of the translation process.|
To get a good overview of English translations I very highly recommend the site http://biblegateway.com. It allows you to compare versions side by side and has a LOT more versions than those listed here, including some public domain versions.
You can access information about any translation from their page https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/. From there you can click on the translation name, then choose the “About the…” tab to see what the publisher has to say about the translation.
† There are many excellent books that have been written on the subjects of manuscript differences and textual criticism that can give you a much more detailed view of the issues than what we have room for here. An excellent one to start with is “A User’s Guide to Bible Translations” by Dewey – Intervarsity Press © 2006.
**Most references to original manuscripts and translation styles are from the forwards in the published Bibles themselves. Other sources may tell you that Bible A translators used Manuscript family B, but since these sources vary in what they say, I am depending solely on what the translators had to say for themselves. Information on manuscripts, their sources, and their differences are available from many sources and are not included in this introductory study.
Quotes are cited within the text.
Types (Literal, paraphrase, etc.) that are mentioned are from personal reading and research in comparing the texts and personal study in Geek and Hebrew. I am by no means an expert in those languages and depend heavily on dictionaries and software resources in arriving at the conclusions I have listed. I use Vine’s Dictionary, the Logos Bible Study Software original language tools (Logos Research Systems, Inc.), and eSword (freeware).
+ Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, are copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
+++ Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
++ Scripture taken from Good News Translation – Second Edition is Copyright (c) 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by permission.
Other sources include:
A User’s Guide to Bible Translations, by David Dewey – Intervarsity Press © 2006
Study articles from The Archeological Study Bible (NIV) – Zondervan © 2006 see copyright information in the published work for information regarding authorship and other information on the study articles.
Stations of the Book (http://www.drgenescott.com/stns.htm) – Dr. Gene Scott
– University of Los Angeles
Why I use the NIV Bible (http://www.anointedlinks.com/why_niv.html) – Graham Pocket, freelance.(There are many great links from here regarding the differences between the NIV and KJV.)
Christian Web Site (http://www.botcw.com/bible/parallel/) – this is a great tool for comparing the Greek text as it exists in different manuscript
families as well as seeing how different English translations have rendered the original. Here you can see what the differences really are.
Bible Gateway (http://www.biblegateway.com/) – complete online versions of many translations, includes the ability to look up passages in multiple versions.