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Why are there so many different Bible translations? And which Bible should I read?

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Why are there so many different Bible translations? And which Bible should I read?

William Tyndale lived over four hundred years ago. In his day, the church would allow only its leaders to read and interpret the Bible. It also refused to let the Scriptures be translated from Latin into the language of the people.

God gave Tyndale a deep desire to give the people a Bible they could read for themselves, but he was unable to convince the church to do this work. He therefore began the enormous task of translating the Bible into English himself.

Tyndale worked feverishly from dawn to dusk, six days a week, for eleven years. He taught himself Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament. All during this time the church opposed his work and even placed a bounty on his head. He finally completed the New Testament in 1525. Since printing had been invented recently, this became the first English New Testament to be printed and distributed widely.

Tragically, in 1536 he was captured and executed before he could finish the Old Testament. Courageous to the end, as he stood before the gallows he prayed, “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England.”

Within three years God answered his prayer, for in 1539 King Henry VIII instructed all publishers to permit “the free and liberal use of the Bible in our native tongue.” And in 1611 the authorized version of King James I was published—the King James Version still in use today.

Here’s the irony: the King James Version is 90 percent the work of William Tyndale. The king’s scholars employed almost entirely Tyndale’s censored work of a century earlier. God used the sacrifice of this man to give us a Bible we can still read and understand today. In fact, the King James Version remains the most popular Bible translation to this day. If you’re like many people, your first copy of God’s Word came mostly from the pen of William Tyndale.

In this article, we will look at the work of modern Tyndales.

  • Where did today’s translations of the Bible come from?
  • Why are there so many?
  • Which is right for you?
  • Which commentaries and other study helps will help you most?

These are important questions for all who want to unlock God’s word for themselves.

The story of the English Bible

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Since most people are unfamiliar with these languages, we must rely on a Bible that has been translated into English. For this reason, a good Bible translation is your most essential tool for understanding God’s word.

Fortunately, there are scores of such translations available today. In fact, the Bible is the most translated book in the world. Where did our English versions of the Bible come from?

Long before Tyndale published his English Bible, scholars were working to give their people a Bible they could read. The first effort of this kind was made by seventy-two Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, the common language of their day. This translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint, for the “seventy” who did its work. It is sometimes abbreviated “LXX,” the Roman numeral for seventy. This version was completed by 100 BC.

It is important to know that this Greek Old Testament was the popular Bible of Jesus’ day. When the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they usually quoted the Septuagint. Most versions today still mainly follow its order of the Old Testament books.

One other early translation deserves our attention: the Latin Vulgate. In the fourth century, a scholar in the Catholic Church named Jerome wanted to give the people a Bible in Latin since this had become the common language of the day. So he made this “common” translation. “Vulgate” stands for the “vulgar” or “common” Latin he used. It is ironic that long after Latin passed from the scene as a common language, the church still insisted that this “common” Bible be used. Later, the first attempts to give the Bible in “common” English were based on Jerome’s “common” Bible.

The story of the English Bible begins with the introduction of Christianity into Great Britain, probably around the third century AD. The first British Christians made rough translations of the Bible into the Anglo-Saxon language, completing the gospels and some of the Old Testament by the ninth century.

Versions of other parts of the Bible were made up to the fourteenth century. Then John Wycliffe (died 1384) and his followers made the first effort to translate the entire Bible into the people’s language. Wycliffe was a scholar at Oxford. It was his heartfelt belief that the people should have a Bible they could read for themselves. He began this work and his followers completed it. However, the official church rejected his work, and him with it.

In fact, his remains were exhumed after his death and burned along with his books. But Wycliffe’s movement to make the Bible available to everyone could not be stopped. His version, known as the Wycliffe Bible, was the first complete Bible in English. It was translated from poor manuscripts, however, and was never widely available. The work of making a better translation and distributing it effectively was accomplished later by William Tyndale.

In 1535, Miles Coverdale published the first complete printed English Bible. The first English Bible approved by the king was the Matthews Bible in 1537, a version that relied heavily on the Tyndale and Coverdale Bibles. The Taverner Bible of 1539 was the first Bible to be printed completely in England. The Great Bible of 1539 became the first English Bible authorized by the king for use in the churches.

The most notable effort between Tyndale and the King James Bible was the Geneva Bible of 1557. It employed the best scholarship of any English Bible to that point. This Bible was also the first version in English to include verse divisions. It featured maps, tables, chapter summaries, and section titles as well. As a result, the Geneva Bible became the household Bible of English-speaking Protestants. It was the Bible of Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and the pilgrims.

Following the Geneva Bible came the second version authorized by the king for church use: the Bishops Bible of 1568. This became the seventh Bible to appear in Britain in less than five decades.

In the space of fifty years, the English people found themselves with an unfamiliar problem: instead of having no Bible in their language, they had to choose from at least seven different versions!

Which one of these should the church read from in worship? Which was best for personal study? To solve this problem, King James I of England convened a committee of fifty scholars in July of 1604. Their charge was to make a new English translation of the Bible from the original languages, giving the people a version everyone could use.

Seven years later they completed their task. The famous King James Version, the most popular English Bible of all time, was the result. From 1611 through the nineteenth century, this was the Bible of English-speaking Protestants everywhere.

Why are there so many versions of the Bible?

For nearly three hundred years, the King James Version held first place in popularity. However, this situation changed greatly in the last century. The movement toward contemporary versions began with the Revised Version in England in 1885 and its American counterpart, the American Standard Version of 1901.

From then to today a host of modern Bible versions have become popular. Leading a Bible study in my first church staff ministry, I happened to use a translation other than the King James. After one session, a deacon stopped me in the hall. “Why aren’t you using the King James?” he demanded. “If it was good enough for Peter and Paul, it’s good enough for you!”

Perhaps he thought Peter and Paul lived to 1611, or perhaps he believed that King James was one of Jesus’ original disciples. However mistaken his knowledge of history, his feelings were real—and popular. Many Christians today want to know why there are so many new versions.

Making new translations of the Bible may seem to be a recent development, but in fact it’s not. Nearly as long as there has been a Bible, there have been changes in manuscript study, scholarship, archaeology, and language. Barely one hundred years after the New Testament was written, Origen of Alexandria was devoting years of his life to gathering and studying the versions of the Bible that existed even then. As we have seen, the King James Version is based on other translations and versions of God’s word.

Four factors have contributed to the important role modern translations play in today’s church.

First: New discoveries in biblical manuscripts.

In recent centuries, better manuscripts have been discovered–entire New Testaments six hundred years older than those available to the King James translators, as well as fragments that are nine hundred years older. Old Testament manuscript discoveries have been no less spectacular. The “Dead Sea Scrolls,” Old Testament manuscripts found in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea, are dated from 100 BC to AD 70, a thousand years older than those available to the King James translators.

Second: Improvements in scholarship.

This work of revision is not new. In fact, the process affected even the King James Version. Not many people know that this version underwent five such revisions. The 1611 version was revised in 1613, with over three hundred changes made from the original edition. Further revisions were made in 1629 and 1638. In 1653, the Parliament passed a bill permitting further revisions when necessary, although nothing more was changed until 1762. In 1769, yet another revision was done, producing the edition of the King James with which we are familiar today.

Third: Findings in archaeology.

The more we learn from papyrus and other ancient documents, the better we can understand the language and literature of the ancient world.

Fourth: Changes in the English language.

For instance, the KJV of Luke 19 says that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus “for the press.”

Modern versions have continually sought to use the latest vocabulary in communicating God’s truth. Thus the New English Bible of 1970 is now the Revised English Bible of 1989. The Revised Standard Version of 1952 is the New Revised Standard Version of 1990. As language changes, so will our translations of God’s unchanging truth. These different versions of the Bible are part of God’s work to get his word to us.

How do I choose a Bible?

Know the different methods of Bible translation.

The literal approach seeks to render the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic into English as directly as possible.

This is obviously a valuable way to translate the Scriptures, except that occasionally this approach can miss the meaning of an idiom by rendering it so precisely. If I tell a Cuban congregation that it is “raining cats and dogs outside” and my translator tells them that “cats and dogs are falling out of the sky,” he has rendered my words literally but missed their meaning.

Excellent examples of the literal approach include the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, and the English Standard Version.

The free approach, by contrast, seeks to translate the ideas of Scripture into English but takes liberties with the literal words as necessary.

Sometimes called a “paraphrase,” this approach is a good way to understand the sense of the Bible but will not always give you the meaning of the words themselves. Good examples include The Message, the Living Bible, and the Phillips translation.

The dynamic equivalence approach takes the middle road, seeking to translate the Bible as literally as possible but rendering idioms into English in a “free” manner when necessary.

The New International Version is the most popular example of this method.

A good approach to biblical translations is to use a version from all three approaches. If you read the New American Standard or English Standard, alongside the NIV and The Messageyou would study the Bible with the aid of excellent English translations.

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