Bible Translations: Are they really Trustworthy? Part 3

11 09 2009


In the first two blogs on Bible translation, I have dealt with such questions as how we got our current Bible, the translation process, revelation, and inspiration (Bible Translations I).  We then looked at how we got our current canon of 66 books, preservation of the Bible, and transmission (Bible Translations II).  In this article, I want to look at how we can get the most out of our current English translations through understanding different Bibles that are available to us today.  Choosing the Bible translation that is right for you can be difficult.  I’m hopeful that my blog will be helpful in your understanding and evaluation of our current modern translations.


If you were to enter any Christian bookstore today, you could be overwhelmed by the plethora of Bible translations available.  While there are literally hundreds of Bible translations, there are three versions that account for probably 90% of all the Bible sales worldwide.  They are: the New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Version (NAS), and the much loved and respected King James Version (KJV).  These three translations are very accurate, readable, and faithful to the original languages of the Bible.


English Bible translations tend to be governed by one of two general translation theories. The first theory has been called “formal-equivalence,” “literal,” or “word-for-word” translation. According to this theory, the translator attempts to render each word of the original language into English and seeks to preserve the original syntax and sentence structure as much as possible in translation.  The second theory has been called “dynamic-equivalence,” “functional-equivalence,” or “thought-for-thought” translation.  The goal of this translation theory is to produce in English the closest natural equivalent of the message expressed by the original language text, both in meaning and in style.


Word for Word Translations


Word for Word translations make a special effort to translate each word from the original languages as accurately as possible.  The philosophical perspective of Bible translations through word for word translation was the guide of Bible translators up to the middle of the 20th century. 


These translations are excellent for word studies and accuracy, though the poetic style and nuances of the original languages can sometimes be lost.  Probably the most well loved and popular versions available today would be the New American Standard Version (NAS), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the New King James Version (NKJV), which I currently use the most often at Mountain Springs Church.


New American Standard Version (NAS)


Originally translated in 1971; updated in 1995, the NAS was produced by 54 evangelical protestant scholars sponsored by the Lockman Foundation.  This version is very literal in vocabulary and word order, although the criticism has been that the English seems a bit stilted at times.  Of all the literal word for word translations, I believe the NAS to be the most literal of all.  I like this translation and it is the favorite of my wife.


English Standard Version (ESV)


The ESV is the newest literal translation on the market today.  It is growing rapidly in popularity among the reformed crowd.  I was recently at a conference where this translation was hailed as the best word for word translation available today. This excellent translation was published in 2001 by Crossway and developed by a team of 100 scholars with the goal of accuracy and readability.


New King James Version (NKJV)


In 1982, the old King James Version (KJV) was updated with more modern english. Although the choice of words make it easier to read, it still maintains the beauty of language with its unique poetic style and 17th century sentence structure.  This is my personal favorite as a study and preaching Bible.  I find the word for word translations to be accurate most of the time and the ease in word studies to be on the level of the NAS.


Thought for Thought Translations


In the category of thought for thought translations, the primary purpose of scholars has been to keep the meaning of the languages of the original authors and translate it into the same pattern of thought in the readers language.  In deciding on a thought for thought Bible, you might want to consider the grade level of the reader.  The most popular thought for thought Bible would be the New International Version (NIV) which is written on an 8th grade level, the New Century Version (NCV) written on a 4th grade level, the Contemporary English Version (CEV) written on a 5th grade level, New Living Translation (NLT) on a 6th grade level, and Today’s English Version (TEV) on a 7th grade level.


New International Version (NIV)


The NIV is considered to be the most popular translation of the Bible today.  It is most admired for its straight forward and accurate style.  Completed in 1978, it was the product of 115 evangelical scholars from all over the English speaking world.  Over 150 million have been sold since 1978, making it by far the best selling translation today.  Its language is easy to read and its accuracy very well respected.


New Century Version (NCV)


The NCV reads like a newspaper.  It targets the 4th grade reading level and is an acceptable balance between literalism and paraphrase.  Some paraphrasing is used to avoid words no longer in common use.


Contemporary English Version (CEV)


The CEV is a new translation published in 1995 and was originally intended to be a children’s translation.  Thus, it is quite readable and easy to understand.  It is excellent for the unchurched and non-native speakers of English.


New Living Translation (NLT)


The NLT is a completely new translation of the Bible first produced by in 2005.  It contains more than 60,000 notes by the translators to help readers understand the process of translation.  This version seeks to retain the easy reading style of such thought for thought translations as the Living Bible and splits the difference between the paraphrase and the literal translation.


Today’s English Version (TEV)


Completed in 1976, the TEV was translated by Robert G. Bratcher and six other scholars.  Over 118 million have been sold and this translation is very free-flowing and fairly accurate.  This translation tries to avoid traditional biblical vocabulary and looks at the passages of the Bible in more nontraditional ways.  Excellent for non-christians and the unchurched. 


Which Translation?


I believe that all the translations we have looked at above are accurate, readable, and produced by fine scholarship.  I would recommend all of the above.  The question for the reader in selecting a Bible translation is one of purpose.


If you are interested in a serious study of the Bible, including grammar, vocabulary, and word studies, I would highly recommend one of the three word for word translations of which I have just written.  If, on the other hand, you are using your Bible for more devotional reading, or reading to your children, you may want to consider one of the mentioned thought for thought translations.


All of these translations are excellent.  Let me encourage you to pick up the Bible translation you love and then love it!  Love the Bible!  Read it, study it, and memorize it.  The purpose of reading the Bible about God is that we might come to discover, love, and obey the God of the Bible!  Go for it, jump in.  Have fun.


Carpe Diem Gloriae Dei,