Does It Matter Which Bible Translation I Use?

 Photo by  Luke Palmer  on  Unsplash

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

Some scholars estimate there are up to 900 different English translations or paraphrases of the Bible. Nine hundred! Just looking at biblegateway.com (a great resource) will give you a glimpse at over 60 of them. With so many options, some pressing questions can surface. Let’s look at a few:

Why are there so many different ones?

There are two main answers to this question and it’s due to the same reasons so many different types of cars, houses, and clothes exist:

Reason 1: Advancements in research and technology make way for a better product.

That’s not to say English versions from decades (and centuries) past weren’t remarkable pieces of work. In fact, one could make the case that the Tyndale (and then King James) version of the Bible are some of the most remarkable literary feats of any period in time.

However (and I’m paraphrasing Andy Stanley), just because someone was a great surgeon in the 1600s doesn’t mean I would want them operating on me now. Newer translations of the Bible have more tools at their disposal, which in turn gives a better chance at translating some very old (actually, dead) languages from their original writing thousands of years ago into our modern day English.

Reason 2: There are different needs being considered from a consumer (reader) standpoint.

While on the surface, it might seem that a quest for accuracy is the only reason a new translation should be developed, there are other factors worth considering, such as making it easy to read. And what if a word has several possible English counterparts—or none? Different translators may fill those gaps by making different choices.

Do they all say the same thing?

The short answer is no, but the longer answer is “absolutely, where it matters.” Because of different approaches and purposes for a particular translation, no two English translations look alike (obviously… otherwise it would be just one translation!)

But themes, characters, literary styles, structure, narratives—all of those things that make our English Bible remarkable—are in tact in the vast majority of translations.

So will one version translate a word or phrase completely differently than another? Yes, sometimes. But those conflicts do nothing to the story of scripture. And those conflicts do not compromise the beliefs that the Bible was God-inspired when the authors originally wrote them.

Which translation should I be reading?

It depends what you’re looking to accomplish.  Translations fit within one of several categories: word-for-word, thought-for-thought, and paraphrased.

Word-for-word translations are good for doing line by line study. If you like digging into original meanings, these are great translations. They try to stay parallel to the original language as much as possible. In fact, there are Interlinear translations that allow you to see Greek and Hebrew words right above the English words. Other examples of word-for-word include the New American Standard and the King James.

Thought-for-thought translations are a little easier to read than word-for-word. They are close to a “word-for-word,” but will at times rework a sentence, or change a word, if it makes more sense to say it a certain way in modern English. A good example of this is the New International Version.

Paraphrased translations serve as a good supplement to regular Bible study, but these translations are not trying to stay true to the original text. Additional thoughts and statements are added in order to try and inspire behind the original text, with a modern twist. They’re great at provide a fresh perspective when looking at passages.

For a very good summary of how different translations are categorized, here’s a great resource.