No Christian would argue over whether or not the Bible is an essential part of our faith. We study it, memorize it, and live by it. We know it to be the Word of God – literally God-breathed as its authors penned what the Holy Spirit inspired them to write. It can be trusted to be true, and we can rely on it to speak into our lives. But there’s just one problem – translation. Over the course of the last two thousand years (even longer for the Old Testament), the Bible has been translated into multiple languages. In the English language alone, there are literally hundreds of translations.
Why so many? And can we really trust these translations to be accurate?
As I browsed my local Bible bookstore recently, I was amazed at all the different versions of the Bible I could purchase. It wasn’t simply a choice between NIV or King James, there were a lot of new translations that I’d barely even heard of. On top of that, each version had their own set of “specialty” Bibles – versions for moms, teens, men, athletes, veterans… it was almost too much to take in.
So how does one choose the right Bible translation?
First of all, there are three main types of translations out there. (And many translations use a combination of these three techniques.)
Word-for-word: This type will give you a clear indication of the precise words, but it can be choppy or harder to read due to grammatical differences in our languages. Also, words have a tendency to vary in meaning… especially when the words in question were used over 2000 years ago half-way around the world. So even the most literal word-for-word translators must assess the author’s original thought in order to come up with a comparable English word. That being said, these translations do their best to be as true to the original text as possible. (Examples: NASB, ESV, KJV)
Thought-for-thought: These translations use the original manuscripts and attempt to translate the author’s original meaning into our everyday language. The translator has to spend time trying to assess what the author’s original thought was, which can be difficult due to cultural differences (2000 years is a long time ago!) They are much easier to understand than word-for-word translations, but as the reader, you have to place a lot of trust in the translator’s ability to know what the authors truly meant by their words. (Examples: NIV, NLT)
Paraphrase: This type of translation can be really eye-opening and fun to read. But even more so than thought-for-thought translation, it can be easy to insert one’s own thoughts into the text. I personally love reading paraphrases, but I must always keep in mind that it is a paraphrase, not an exact translation. (Example: The Message)
Theologian N.T. Wright put it best when he wrote, “But, as with all translations, even within closely related modern European languages, there are always going to be places where you simply can’t do it word by word. To do so would be ‘correct’ at one level and deeply incorrect at another. There is no ‘safe’ option: all translation is risky, but it’s a risk we have to take.”
Translators certainly have their work cut out for them. The languages of the Bible are complex, to say the least. In many cases, we simply don’t have enough English words to do the job justice.
So what then are we to do?
Read more than one translation. Many of us fall into the habit of having a favorite translation that we rarely veer away from. It’s okay to have a favorite translation. (I certainly do!) But we should be careful not to stick to one translation alone. No translation is perfect. And if we’re going to firmly grasp what the author’s original intentions were, we need to be willing to look at other translations. Personally, I try to read from all three types of translations… especially when it comes to more difficult passages.
Use the resources available to you. There are TONS of free resources online to help you in your Bible study. I personally use Bible Hub, BibleGateway, and Blue Letter Bible to name a few. I can look things up in multiple translations, read the definitions of key Greek and Hebrew words, and even dive into some well-known commentaries to gain a further understanding of God’s Word. With all of today’s resources, you don’t have to have a seminary degree to study the Bible like a scholar!
Rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance. The Bible describes itself as alive and active for a reason. It gains this life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Before reading, pray. Ask God to guide your studies. He will be faithful to never lead you astray.
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