The Bible – Translations and Trust, Can We?

Something that comes up every-so-often in my world is questions over the Bible.  They usually fall into three categories:

A. Can we really trust the Bible?  “Science keeps throwing out ‘evidence’ that the Bible really true.”  And we all know that the lost, anti-God (yet strangely religious – the religion of “Secular Humanism”) Bible-haters in the media are all too happy to jump on every bandwagon against the Word of God that comes along! (See Camels and Genesis as an example.)

B. Can we really trust the Bible?  There are so many “different Bibles” – how can they all be right?

C. Which Translation is the “real” Word of God?

Let me begin this entry with a few disclaimers for the sake of disclosure –

I believe that the Bible is the very word of God, literally “breathed out” by the Holy Spirit through men, selected by God for the purpose (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and that the Bible, in its original manuscripts is absolutely perfect and infallible.  I also am a firm believer in the Five Solae, which begins with Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone is the measure and standard for faith and practice.

I also must disclose that I am not a “translation snob” – meaning that I am not a King James Only (or any other translation) adherent.  But I will go into more detail later in this post.

So – to address the three main avenues of questions listed above, I will step through them one-at-a-time.  Please understand, a blog post just cannot be comprehensive or even begin to address every issue.

A. “Science” – For every supposed answer from science to disprove the Bible, there is archeological evidence that proves the validity of the biblical record.  Time and again, finds reveal previously unknown facts that indeed are recorded in the Bible.   Kings and others of note that many “scientists’ denied there was any evidence of, have been “found” in archeological artifacts.   Even entire cities believed by many Bible-deniers to be fictional, have been found – exactly where the Bible recorded them to be.  As to the recent hoopla over how supposed testing of fossils of camels somehow disproves the Genesis account, here is a much better rebuttal than I could have generated in this limited setting: Camel evidence proves God and Bible.  What it often comes down to is how evidence is interpreted.  If one approaches finds with a clear and overriding presupposition, it isn’t a surprise when you interpret supposed evidence to match your presupposition.  Further, there is always a question of IF evidence is really what it is claimed to be in the first place.  But in short – “science” as a field, has tried for centuries to disprove the Word of God – enormous resources have been expended on the effort, and it all has been an utter failure.  Indeed, the more genuine science is, the more it should cause us to have awe and wonder at the God of Creation who spoke it all into existence, ordering all things according to His perfect will!

B. So Many Translations – Indeed, if you walk into any Christian bookstore, you will likely find more translations/versions that you have fingers and toes (and this is just English translations)!  It is no wonder this question comes up.  To complicate the issue, there are groups who are so dogmatic and unwavering in their “choice” of translation, who attack and alienate those who do not strictly adhere to their “superior” choice of versions (the greatest of these being the King James Only crowd).

The thing to remember – the number of translations does not, by itself, take away from the truth that God’s Word is true, reliable, and sufficient.  But we also have to understand that every English translation on the shelf of the Bible has a background, purpose, and yes – even an agenda.  What is amazing – while there are translations (and paraphrases disguised as translations) that really do desecrate the Word of God, there are people who the Lord has used even some of the less reliable versions to change hearts and lives.  I believe this is a reflection on the real power of the Word of God, particularly when empowered by the Holy Spirit!

But this all goes back to – the Bible, in it’s original manuscripts (Hebrew, Koine Greek, and Aramaic) indeed was accurate – and God has, just as He promised, preserved His Word through time for our benefit.

But that brings us to the final (and likely largest part of this post):

C. Which Translation?  I have been asked this question many times.  This can be a tricky question, or it can be quite simple.  Unfortunately, when you are dealing with people’s previous experiences, what they have heard from others, and their own ability (and willingness) to listen, it rarely in practice, is simple.  I will not present an extensive English Translation history here, as there are many resources available online and in print that are presented by those with much more knowledge and information than I have.  What I want to do is present some facts and some information, and of course – my view, and then leave it in your hands to do with what you will.

Translation – the rendering of something into another language or into one’s own from another language. (

What this dry definition fails to mention, is that there is a very real “art form” to the act of translating.  Many language do not easily translate from one language to another.  Whether it be that there is no direct equal in the recipient language, or the very common and often dramatically different grammar rules and practices, translation is more than simple word substitution.  This is particularly true with biblical languages.  Hebrew, which uses a completely alien (to the English speaker) alphabet, writing format, and radically different grammar, makes translation a major endeavor.  Biblical (Koine) Greek, while still using a dramatically different grammar, at least shares some similarities with the English language.  Unfortunately, grammar is not one of them!  So just the originating language itself presents major obstacles in the act (or art) of translation.

Another reality we must face when dealing with biblical translation – “WHY?”.  I mean this as a nice way of asking what is the purpose or agenda of this translation effort?  Every single translation ever done of God’s Word, regardless of language, has had an “agenda”.  For some, like the Tyndale Bible, the main objective was to get the Bible into the hands of the common man, and are represented by men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale.  For others, particularly troublesome in some of the more contemporary translation efforts, the work has not necessarily been so altruistic.  Some have come out of a desire to change or mold doctrine to fit a particular slant, or worse – have been more about financial profits than making God’s word accessible.  And this plays heavily into the next set of facts.

Bible Translation Methods.  There are two primary concepts in translation – Word for word (Formal equivalent, or simply “literal”), and Dynamic Equivalent (thought-for-thought).  As mentioned before, translation is an art form.  Language often do not easily transition to another language without confusion.  Just try out the ever-improving tools on the internet for translation.  While they are getting slowly better, overall the quality of translation from say Spanish to English, or English to French (which share some grammar and a common alphabet) still is awkward at best.  Try translating between very different language (Russian to English is particularly entertaining!).  It looses a lot in translation.  Now, ponder on translating something as eternally important as the Bible!  We already face the truth that no “original manuscripts” have been found.  We have copies, of copies, of copies – generally in fragments on very delicate parchment or papyri.  Further, in the case of the Greek manuscripts, there is no punctuation, in all capital letters, and with no space between words.  So even for the highly-trained expert in biblical languages, we can see that there is a great challenge before the translator.

So you sit down to begin translation.  The most obvious beginning point would be to work through whichever set of manuscripts you are going to work from (thankfully, many have already assembled collections and published texts that you don’t have to figure out word divisions), doing what you can to directly translate from word-to word.  Here is an example found in a book I use regularly – (Concordant Greek Text, Concordant Publishing):

Can you figure out what very famous passage this is from?  Even if you read the English interlinear, you might be confused.  This is what it would look like to purely translate “word-for-word”.  Now that you have the words translated (as best as you can), you then are tasked with making this readable to your target audience.  This is where things get tricky.  As you rearrange the words to fit English grammar, you risk not only losing or altering the meaning, but you may very well see that words you selected in the direct translation just don’t work too well.  Nevermind that a significant portion of scripture (most evident in the Old Testament) is in a poetic form that directly impacts the meaning of the text.  Never mind the cultural differences over the 2000+ years that make a simple turn of a word have a very different connotation today.  So the translator’s task is to make the translation functional and accurate – and hopefully carry through the meaning of the text as well.  But that leads to the other extreme of translation – the “thought-for-thought” method.  Where the actual words are not as important as trying to convey “meaning”.  But is it not obvious how dangerous this can quickly become?  Who gets to decide the meaning?  What basis is that decision made?  And here comes the “agenda” we mentioned before. Are you approaching the translation with a set of presuppositions that you are trying to “prove”?  Are you under pressure from an employer (or in the case of the Authorized King James Version), under penalty of death if the translation doesn’t match the existing set of doctrines and guidelines given?   

Which brings us back to the necessity of grasping how a translator (or translation team) approaches the texts.  It is this writer’s view that the more literal the translation is, generally the better.  There is great danger in processing through what one thinks a passage means, then recording that thought as the concrete Word of God.  We also need to understand that the English language has changed (and continues to change) every day. I have a great deal of respect for the King James Version of the Bible.  I believe, in it’s time, it was practically a miracle in how well it was translated.  But even if one were to overlook some issues with both the source manuscripts and the guidelines established for the translators that included some very clear agendas, the language itself has changed in many ways as to actually alter scripture’s meaning in our contemporary understanding.  The idioms used, the actual words use, and so much more present a difficulty, even for the relatively educated English speaker.  I spent the first several years of my ministry preaching exclusively from the KJV, and I have never regretted that.  But I also learned that the process of clarifying what that translation said, in light of the meaning of words today, often was a time-consuming and sometimes confusing for the listener process that got in the way of simply proclaiming what God was saying and how it applies in our lives.

So how do you decide what translation to use?  I suggest several things to consider:

1. If you are currently actively engaged in a local church, what translation does your pastor use? You might take a little time to have a personal visit with him to discuss this.  Using the same translation as the one who you will regularly hear preaching from will help you in your growth and understanding.
2. What is the translation philosophy for a particular version?  Were the translators more concerned with accurate, word-for-word translation, or were they focused on thoughts?  I would strongly suggest that word-for-word translation should be the first priority.
3. What is your reading level?  Yes, even our ability to read can play a part in selecting a translation.  I have grown to really like the NASB (New American Standard Bible), as it is among the most literal, word-for-word translations.  But it is on the 11th-12th grade reading level (much like the KJV, but in contemporary English).  Some people have a hard time with the language used in the NASB, which is one of the many reasons I particularly like the ESV (English Standard Version).  Indeed, the ESV has become my primary preaching and teaching Bible, because it is still quite literal in its translation method, retains much of the poetic format and structure found in scripture, and yet has a somewhat smoother (in most cases) reading flow than the NASB.  As we progress from there, we find the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible – published by Holman Bible Publishers, a division of Lifeway – the publishing arm of the SBC), which reads similarly to the NIV (1984 Edition), but is slightly more literal in translation method is yet another step more readable, but does rely more on translating thoughts. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the translations that lean ever more greatly on “dynamic equivalent” – thought-for-thought.  And with that comes confusion and even changes to what the Bible actually says.  Here are a couple of helpful charts that help to see where, relatively, common Bible translations fall in relation to translation methods and philosophy:

Notice that to the far “right” side of both illustrations, you find “Paraphrases”.  The most popular today of paraphrases is The Message.  It is important to understand that this “version” is not a translation, but is the work of a limited number of people, who have digested and written what they feel the scriptures are saying, all in very contemporary simplified language.  Unfortunately, this has brought about what serious Bible scholars often view as a real problem.  Over-simplification has caused the text to lose a great deal of meaning.  Further, the opinions and views of the publisher are very evident.  My strong suggestion to you is to avoid this “version”.  If you really need a much simpler-reading version, take a look at the “New Living Translation”.  While it is dramatically “thought-for-thought” in production, and it does take some liberties in its simplification and some questionable decisions on gender, it is better than most on the easy-reading side.  While I would not recommend it for serious Bible study, for devotional use (as long as you are willing to look at the same passage in a more literal translation), it can be a positive tool.

And while I could continue on with this post, I will leave it here – KJV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, NIV (84), NLT… the translation won’t matter if you don’t actually read it, pray about it, and apply what you read to your life!  As a pastor, I want those in my congregation to read and apply God’s Word every day in their lives – and to that end, I am less concerned with WHICH translation, and more concerned that they are using it!

If you have any question – or would like to discuss this further, please leave a reply, or contact me.

Have a blessed day…. 

Have you read your Bible today?

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