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Navigating the Maze

By Jon Pratt

Imagine visiting an American evangelical church in 1971. The pastor would be preaching from (and everyone in the pews would be following along in) a King James Version of the Bible. If we visited a Christian bookstore, we would find that every Bible study resource and commentary used the KJV. Indeed, those were idyllic days for pastors and lay people alike. There were no Bible version controversies, no questions about inclusion or exclusion of certain verses, and no “my Bible doesn’t say that” statements from Bible study participants. Public reading of Scripture was a common practice in all churches, and the only choices one had to make at the store when purchasing a Bible had to do with color and cover material (Moroccan leather or hardback?).

How times have changed in fifty years! Today there are well over twenty English versions from which a person may choose. Visitors to evangelical churches often discover that their own personal choice of translation differs from that used by the speaker of the morning. And even when people know which translation their church has chosen for preaching and memorizing, there will likely be a numerous array of versions represented in the pews on any given Sunday.

No longer are color and cover concerns at the forefront of Bible buyers’ minds. Now such questions as English language style, translation philosophy, and reading level dominate the purchasing landscape. Should I buy the best-selling NIV or should I go with the more literal NASB? Will my child understand the simple English of the NLT better than that of the CEV? These are just some of the issues facing believers when they seek to purchase a Bible.

So how are we to slog our way through the murky swamp of Bible translations? I suggest two different sets of criteria for making purchasing choices. The first set is short and simple: use the Bible your church has chosen as its official translation. Such a choice makes following along during the sermon or Bible study more profitable. In some cases you may want to purchase a parallel Bible that includes two to four translations in parallel columns enabling users to enjoy their personal favorite while still following along with the pastor or Bible teacher.

The second set of criteria relates to the Bible one chooses to use for personal use. There are three principles to consider. The first relates to the textual basis of the translation. This is the most significant difference between the KJV and modern versions. The Greek text of the KJV, while certainly acceptable in 1611, lacks the insight gained from the numerous Greek manuscripts which contribute to our present-day Greek Bible. Today’s Greek Bible relies on evidence gathered from over 5,800 manuscripts; in 1611 less than 100 manuscripts were consulted in the Greek text used for the KJV. When we compare the two Greek texts (from 1611 and today), we find over 6,000 differences. The vast majority of these dissimilarities are quite insignificant (i.e., word order, pronoun number, inclusion of the definite article, etc.), and none affects the teaching of any of our Bible doctrines. All translations produced since 1900 have been based on the better standardized text of today’s Greek Bible with the exception of the NKJV which opted to use the same Greek text used by the KJV.

A second principle concerns the English language style of the translation. Is the translation understandable to the typical English reader in 2021? Every language experiences a degree of change from one generation to another, and this is certainly true of English. For example, words such as “prevent,” “concupiscence,” “chambering,” “sod pottage,” and “ass” (all used in the KJV) have either changed meaning, fallen into disuse, or become inappropriate in the present day. While such issues as reading level, usage of theological terminology, readability, and treatment of gender language will all play a role in the decision-making process, understandability is essential if God’s Word is going to be properly interpreted by its modern readers.

The third principle deals with the issue of translation philosophy. A literal, nearly word-for-word approach (i.e., formal equivalence) seeks to preserve the grammatical structure of the original language and to represent each word of the original text with an exact equivalent word in the translated text. Such versions as the NASB and KJV represent this approach. On the other side of the spectrum are those versions which seek to give a “thought-for-thought,” dynamic translation (i.e., functional equivalence) whose goal is to translate the meaning of the original text into the translated text so that it has the same impact on modern readers as it had on the original readers. Versions like The Message and the Living Bible are good examples of this philosophy. There are dangers involved in both of these approaches. A formally equivalent translation, while being very literal, may fail to translate the actual meaning of the original (e.g., “touch” [KJV and NASB] in 1 Cor 7:1 actually means “sexual relations” in the idiom of the day). A functionally equivalent translation may suggest an interpretation of a passage that is only one of several possibilities (e.g., “work produced by faith” [NIV] in 1 Thess. 1:3 rather than the more literal “work of faith” [NASB and ESV]). Ultimately, the choice one makes here will be based upon the purpose one has in mind for Bible usage. A literal translation like the NASB may be more helpful for intensive Bible study while a more functionally equivalent version like the NLT might be more appropriate for use during family Bible reading.

Rather than being annoyed or intimidated by the huge array of Bible choices today, the Christian can rejoice that accurate, readable translations of the Bible are available. In fact I suggest that, with so many good options, we rotate the versions we use for personal Bible reading; you may be surprised to find fresh insights in other versions. Undoubtedly most will settle upon one particular version as their personal favorite and will also own a copy of the translation used by their church––these may even be one and the same. But let us not forget our main objective in owning a copy of the Scriptures: to know and love the Author. May we never let our discussion of Bible versions keep us from this goal.

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