Many skeptics contend that given the myriad of Bible translations we have today, how can we be confident of what the original said or what the original meaning was? Let’s take a closer look at the trustworthiness of the various English translations of the Bible.
Firstly, translations are essential, because language changes. Words and their meanings evolve over time. Translations are necessary to ensure each generation has an accurate understanding of the Bible.
Secondly, the Bible was originally written in three different languages: Hebrew, a little bit of Aramaic, and Greek. Unless you’re fluent in all three of these ancient languages you’re going to need a modern translation to read the Bible for yourself.
There are essentially two approaches to translating the Bible into English. It’s helpful to visualize them forming two ends of a spectrum. At one end you have word for word translations. They’ll take a word in Hebrew or a word in Greek and they’ll match it with the English equivalent, where possible. These translations are word for word accurate but can become very technical, difficult to read and understand. At the other end of the spectrum are thought for thought translations. They won’t take the identical words but they’ll attempt to translate and communicate the underlying message or thought. Often these translations are easier to read and understand but the question is, are they accurately capturing and communicating the underlying thought. Both approaches aim to get as close to the original language as possible while faithfully conveying the meaning of the text for the reader.
It’s important to understand that the biblical languages are far more nuanced, so sometimes there are meanings that aren’t perfectly caught by English. It is therefore necessary and a great advantage to have a number of translations that employ one of these two approaches, or a mixture of both to more accurately and completely capture the meanings of the original Hebrew or Greek.
Here are some examples of various English translations and the approach they follow:
Formal equivalence (word for word): King James Version (KJV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and Young’s Literal Translation (YLT).
Dynamic equivalence (thought for thought): New International Version (NIV), and Contemporary English Version (CEV).
Mixture of both: English Standard Version (ESV), New King James Version (NKJV), New Century Version (NCV), New Living Translation (NLT), and Christian Standard Bible (CSB).
Paraphrase: New Living Bible (NLB), and the Message.
When studying the Bible it’s helpful to read the same section in a number of different translations, in order to build a more complete, accurate, nuanced, and robust understanding of what the Bible says.
Given the necessity and benefit of many Bible translations, it’s clear that rather than undermine the accuracy and reliability of the Bible, the various translations work together to provide us with a clearer and more complete understanding of God’s Word.
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Further reading recommendations
‘The Bible in Translation' by Bruce M Metzger
'Understanding Bible Translation' by William D Barrick
'The Challenge of Bible Translation' by Glen Scorgie, Mark Strauss, & Steven Voth
'The Complete Guide to Bible Translation' by Ron Rhodes
'Bible Translations Comparison (Booklet)' by Rose Publishing