In 1991, William J. Chamberlain published a book called “Catalogue of English Bible Translations: A Classified Bibliography of Versions and Editions Including Books, Parts, and Old and New Testament Apocrypha and Apocryphal Books.” Now I know what you’re thinking; your mother read that to you as a child, so what’s the sense talking in about it even more?
Just in case you weren’t read that book while you drifted off to sleep in your childhood bed, let me tell you that it’s almost 1,000 pages. There are 151 categories of English Bibles listed. Some are well-known translations (at least by the early 1990’s), and some are one-off, privately owned works. But the point stands—there is an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to the availability of the Bible when it comes to the English-speaking world.
What I want to do today is to think through with you how to make the best use of the riches of English Bible translations. This is a practical post on the things everyone should know about Bible translations.
Read the Preface or Website
The best thing you can do is to read the Preface to 4, 5, or 6 of the more well-known translations today. If you don’t have ready access to a few translations, you can find the same information on their websites. Check out the NIV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, NLT, and even the KJV.
In the Preface or relevant section on their website, you’ll find a section on “translation philosophy.” It’s here that the translators will give you an overview of why they made the decisions that they did. They’ll explain the translation of specific (or controversial) words. They’ll explain conventional approaches to translation, such as the name for God, or how “Lord” gets translated depending on where it falls in the Old or New Testament.
The Greek word doulos could be translated 3 ways into English, depending on the context. It literally means “slave,” but doulos could mean someone owned as property, someone working off a debt through years of free labor, or something reflecting more of an employment situation like a servant. There is also the theological implication that Paul says we are doulos to Christ. Context makes the difference, and the various translations will make different choices. Reading the translation philosophy makes a big difference in how you interpret a passage.
When selecting a translation, there is some wisdom in simply selecting one and sticking with it. I was recently speaking with a friend who teaches a foreign language. In her continuing education, she takes classes where the lectures, books, and discussion are completely in the foreign language. She’s studying esoteric things like the usage of third-person-plural in 3 different nations. By all accounts, she’s an expert. What’s interesting is that she mentioned how she still thinks in English. She can speak and read all day in a foreign language, but her mind operates in her native language.
Something similar is at work in Bible translation. As you grow accustomed to a translation, it’ll inform the way you think. You’ll memorize passages in that translation. You’ll use the word choices that translation does. If you’re doing some hardcore studying of a passage or book, then having 2 or 3 translations might be some help. But in your ordinary reading, I’d recommend sticking with the one you have (or at least sticking with the one you choose).
Printed vs. Digital
I have the Bible on all my mobile devices. It’s super handy to have some notes and the Bible side-by-side on the screen of an iPad. If I need reminded of a passage quickly, having it on my phone is great. But there’s some good to come from regular use of a printed Bible.
There are four general categories of printed Bibles: reading, footnoted, cross reference, and study Bibles. All of them have their benefits.
Reading Bibles are usually just the text of the Bible with no extra notes. Some of them don’t even include chapter and verse markings. These are helpful for really soaking in the Word of God without any distractions.
Footnoted Bibles have some basic notes on the pages. I recommend footnotes because translators can include simple explanations in real time. For instance, a word-for-word translation of an idiom in Hebrew might be nonsense in English (do you think an Israelite in the time of Moses would understand what “out of left field” means?). A translation team might leave the word-for-word phrase in the text but include a footnote of its meaning. Or, for example, if a translation always uses the different versions of “slave” for doulos based on context, they might include a footnote reminding you of what they said in the preface. Or, a footnote might show the range of meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word to help clarify how it's used in context.
Cross reference Bibles are essentially footnoted Bibles, but to varying degrees they will include other passages in the footnotes that speak to the same idea noted in the text. For instance, if a passage is speaking about the covenant made with David, the footnoted cross references will list out for you many, if not all, of the other places the covenant with David is mentioned, both Old and New Testament.
Study Bibles are great for a little extra explanation of what’s going on in the text. Some are just detailed footnotes, some include articles, and some include explanations of certain doctrines. Some might be written entirely by one person, and some might be written by a team of people. No one is an expert on the entire Bible, so I generally recommend a study Bible written by a team of people.
It’s worth noting, very briefly, some of the major differences between the most popular translations out today.
Some translations aim toward a “word-for-word,” or formal, style. For example, if the Greek sentence has 12 words, the translators will try to make sure the English sentence has 12 words in the same order. The problem is that word order means far less in Greek than it does in English. Sometimes, changing the word order is what makes the English sentence make sense.
The opening prayer of Ephesians 1, in Greek, has over 200 words. That’s…1 sentence. That’s nearly impossible to communicate in English, though it’s possible in Greek. Even if word-for-word translators try to keep it one sentence, they necessarily have to add punctuation that’s not there in the Greek to follow English conventions as best they can. The philosophy behind these translations is to let Bible teachers and preachers interpret the difficult passages for you. While there’s some wisdom in that, ordinary people need to read the Bible, too.
Some translators choose a “thought-for-thought,” or dynamic, style. Basically, they prioritize the conventions, grammar, and idioms of English over those of Hebrew and Greek. They will switch out phrases that would be meaningless to English speakers with those that are close in meaning. They will break long sentences down into more conventional lengths for English. This philosophy will naturally be a little more interpretive than a “word-for-word” approach. But with a good Bible with footnotes, much of the threat of pre-digested interpretation is staved off.
“Word-for-word” and “thought-for-thought” translation is a continuum. No translation is purely one or the other. For example, the NASB is often propped up as the gold standard of formal, or word-for-word, translation. However, Greek convention would permit using the present-tense of a verb when retelling a story that took place in the past. It was a way of bringing the reader into the story. However, this would also mean that present-tense and past-tense would be mixed when telling a story. Mixing verb tenses is a big no-no in English. The NASB changes present-tense to past-tense in these instances so the English makes sense. And to indicate when they do that, they italicize those verbs. Every translation makes those kinds of concessions.
All this is to say that no one has an excuse for not reading their Bible regularly. Don’t have one? The church will get you one. Do you have several? Pick one and start. There has never been a better time to be alive when it comes to translation choice.
Take up, and read!
Check out the translation philosophies below.
KJV (it may look funny, but it’s linked from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary)