Why so many translations of the bible? Join me as I discover some of the reasons and find out why it matters.
Do Prophets Care Why There Are So Many Translations Of The Bible?
Prophetic people sometimes get painted with the same brush by more conservative Christians. They say that prophetic people put too much emphasis on potentially ambiguous prophetic utterances and not enough on the authority of scripture.
I think that charge is frequently stated by those who don’t understand prophecy or prophetic people.
Most of the prophetic people I’ve ever met love God’s word nearly as much as they love the Lord himself. However, I have also met a few people who, unfortunately, gave their Bible-loving evangelical friends every reason to mistrust them.
I want to do my part to put that right today. Not by critiquing either side of that argument but by encouraging you to read your Bible, whether you are prophetic or not.
I’ll do that by:
- sharing a trip that changed the way I look at the bible.
- taking you through a simple tutorial on biblical Greek.
By the end, we’ll answer a thorny question that new believers frequently ask: Why are there so many translations of the bible?
Disclosure: I’m NOT a Bible scholar or expert in original languages, Biblical Studies or Bible translation. Today, I’ll share only what I have picked up from teachers, preachers and personal experience of the Bible over the years. I do so in the hope that I can help ordinary Christians to understand their bible better and encourage them to read it in a new light.
Why So Many Translations Of The Bible? Word And Spirit
Ever since I became a Christian, I’ve been a firm believer in the importance of both the Word and the Spirit.
What I mean by that is that we need the Bible (God’s eternal Word) AND the direction of Holy Spirit to live effective Christian lives.
If we try to emphasise one over the other, we can end up in a world of hurt:
- If we go all-out listening to God and learning the gift of prophecy but don’t back that up with bible reading and study, then we can head off in unintended directions. God speaks in many ways but the Bible is still the foremost source of revelation.
- However, if we read the scripture without seeking revelation from Holy Spirit, then it becomes dry words on a page and will fail to impact our lives.
I’ve always loved the Bible and God’s living presence and have always sought both as part of my prayer times.
I once visited Wycliffe Bible Translators, where my eyes were opened to how the Bible is translated into modern English. What I learned there consolidated my view of word and spirit, allowing me to model it in the 4 Steps Prophecy School.
Wycliffe Bible Translators’ Open Day Explains Why Are There So Many Translations Of The Bible
Wycliffe Bible Translators is an organisation dedicated to translating the Bible into every language of the world. One reason why there are so many translations of the Bible is that there are so many languages.
When I attended their open day, I learned about the (frankly amazing) work they do. They explained how they translate the Bible for different people groups. Sometimes, they even have to learn the local language from scratch before they can begin!
The process may take many years, but people’s lives are transformed as a result.
Here are a couple of infographics that explain their calling far more eloquently than I ever could:
On the open day, they also talked about issues they encounter when they attempt to interpret the Bible for certain ethnic and cultural groups.
Here are two:
- Some small tribes live so far inland they have never seen a large body of water, like a lake, let alone the sea. How do you translate the word “sea” in the Bible into language that they could understand?
- One ethnic group the translators encountered prized lies and betrayal as good character traits. When those people read their first Bible, Judas Iscariot became their hero! The Wycliffe translators realised they had to find a way to explain that this wasn’t a good thing!
Why So Many Translations Of The Bible? Biblical Insight
The Wycliffe translators gave me powerful insight into the English Bible. More than that, it gave me a hunger to understand my own bible better.
I invested in Logos Bible software which helped a lot, but it brought to light another question:
Why are there so many translations of the bible in english?
Why Are There So Many Translations Of The Bible In English?
English is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world today.
Approximately 20% of the world’s population speaks English. Many of them are not native speakers and there are many dialects, so that could help to explain why there are so many English translations of the Bible.
However, if you go into a more detailed Bible study, you’ll discover there’s more to it than meets the eye…
Meaning and Interpretation
As I got more interested in the Bible I started attending a local bible study group.
Here, a friend introduced me to the concepts of exegesis and hermeneutics, as well as to something he called “cheat’s Greek”. Let’s see what they are.
This seemingly high-brow term is used to describe the process of understanding the meaning of the Bible.
Exegesis looks in detail at the text and drills down to the individual words. It takes recourse to the original language but also checks the context to deepen our understanding.
It really asks the following questions:
Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation.
It asks questions like:
What you may not realise is that we do hermeneutics all the time:
Every time you read the Bible (or any other book, for that matter), you interpret it for your own situation, according to your own culture, upbringing and personal biases.
This comes naturally most of the time, but we don’t think we are doing it. In fact, I do it, you do it, so does everyone else.
Importantly, so do those who translate the bible for us.
Original Languages, Interlinear Bibles And “Cheat’s Greek”
At the mention of “original languages” you may be worried that we’re going to get too complicated at this point. But fear not!
We’re going to be using my friend’s “cheat’s Greek” which involves an interlinear bible.
An interlinear bible is one that shows the English words next to the original Greek (or Hebrew).
Thankfully, you can find them easily online such as in this example from Romans 8:15 on BibleHub.com:
The above verse may look complex, but it’s not as bad as it looks!
The main thing to look at with cheat’s Greek is the middle 3 lines:
One Greek Word To Many English Words
As you can see, sometimes one Greek word translates into multiple words or a short phrase. That’s because there’s no direct equivalent to that word in English.
So one of the choices interpreters have to make is which English word or phrase is appropriate in that specific context.
But there’s more.
Word Order: Like Yoda, You Will Speak!
There’s no punctuation in the original Greek. There are:
If you read the English words in the order you see them in the interlinear, they don’t make much sense. And if you read them aloud, you’ll end up sounding like Yoda!
So interpreters have to work out what order of words will make most sense to the modern reader.
Transliteration is a letter by letter “translation” of the Greek characters into their equivalent in the English alphabet. This helps us to understand the Greek word and gives an indication of how it can be pronounced.
It's this transliteration that you may hear Pastors speaking as part of their teaching on a bible passage.
Continuing with the Romans 8:15 example, they might draw your attention to the Greek word pneuma which means “spirit”. In this verse, “spirit” means the Holy Spirit.
Your pastor might also say that pneuma is the root word from which we get modern words like “pneumatic”.
Pneumatic tyres are pumped full of air to inflate them and enable them to do their job. There are lots of similar English words that use the same root (pneumatic, pneumonia, etc) to represent “air” or “breath”.
In the same way, Jesus ‘breathed on them [his disciples] and said, “receive the holy spirit”’ (John 20:22, emphasis mine). The word for spirit is again, our new friend pneuma.
You see how it works?
Different Translations For Different Purposes
Of course, different scholars understand and interpret the language of the bible in different ways. That’s why most major new translations are put together by groups of scholars who check each other’s work.
Something else that changed the way I think about the Bible is a book that was recommended to me:
How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon D. Fee. It’s now in its fourth edition and still going strong (affiliate link)!
Something that the author explains extremely well is the answer to the question we’ve been mulling over: Why are there so many translations of the Bible? And why are there so many published in English?
The simple-sounding answer is that they are for different purposes.
It turns out there are different kinds of bible translations, beyond the interlinear we already discussed. These boil down into 3 main types:
Literal (Formal Equivalence)
A literal translation attempts to translate the Greek and Hebrew word-for-word, as far as possible.
This includes bibles such as the King James Version (KJV) published in 1611 and the New King James Version (NKJV), it’s modern counterpart.
Formal equivalence has the advantage of being very close to the original language but, as we have seen above, may be harder to read.
A paraphrase attempts to interpret the bible into modern text and make it as readable as possible.
The Message by Eugene Peterson is one popular example.
Sometimes in a paraphrase, accuracy of translation may be sacrificed in order to make the text understandable. And in some versions, the author may not refer to the original language but rely on other modern publications.
Free translations sometimes lead to oddities, such as King Saul going to “the bathroom” in a cave! (1 Samuel 24:3, The Living Bible)
However, one thing that Paraphrased Bibles are very good at is to portray emotion and feeling.
Dynamic Equivalence (Functional Equivalence)
If literal versions and paraphrases are opposites of each other, Dynamic Equivalence is an attempt to bring them together.
The New International Version (NIV) uses Dynamic Equivalence: instead of translating the original text word-for-word, the authors interpret “thought-for-thought”.
The emphasis is still on the individual words, where that is possible. However, if there is no direct English equivalent, they take the concept and find the most meaningful phrase.
In other words, Dynamic Equivalence finds a balance between accuracy and readability.
Which Is The Best Translation Of The Bible?
By now, you may be asking “which is the BEST translation?”
My answer, in short: all of them! That’s because:
I recommend you have at least 2 bibles, preferably 3, and have one from each of the above categories. That way you can compare and contrast between them.
Translations Of The Bible
Here’s a handy table with a few of the most popular Bible translations:
Dynamic Equivalence translations
King James Version (KJV)
New International Version (NIV)
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
New English Bible (NEB)
Good News Bible (GNB)
Revised Standard Version (RSV)
English Standard Version (ESV)
The English Standard Version (ESV) is probably somewhere between Literal and Dynamic Equivalence. See their Translation Philosophy for more detail.
Your Turn: Why Are There So Many Translations Of The Bible?
There are a host of reasons why so many translations of the Bible are available today.
We’ve explored just a few of them together but my prayer is that you’ve come away enlightened and with a renewed passion to read the Bible for yourself.
I hope you’ve also seen how it’s helpful to look at more than one version of the Bible and to go back to the original language.
If that’s you and you’re wanting to get more out of your Bible study, then you can’t go wrong with a copy of How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.
You can buy the book from here (affiliate link).*
* If you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, then I may receive a small commission from the sale. It won’t cost you anything extra but you can feel good about helping to support this website!