Whether you prefer the NIV, KJV, or some other English translation of Scripture from the original languages, there is much disagreement regarding which version is the most reliable. Can you trust what your Bible version says?
[This post has been adapted from a recent lecture at a church to which this author had been invited to teach].
To these ends I speak to the reliable use of translated Scripture by Christians and not to scholars who rightly seek to split the fine hairs of historic accuracy. There is a valuable place for questioning the details, but ultimately, the most pressing issue for Christians has to do with whether or not we can rely on hearing the voice of God through our variegated translations.
By definition, a translation is simply a rewording from one language into another. Because the two languages are not identical (no surprise, that is why they are different languages), there are significant challenges when attempting to repeat the original as accurately as possible. Words often have different meanings, cultural phrases don’t always make sense when repeated with the same words, and the original intent of the author often involves huge assumptions.
As a result, translation is much like trying to describe apples by using oranges. In this attempt, there have developed two primary methods of translation for Scripture: formal equivalency and dynamic equivalency.
Formal equivalency is more commonly known as a word-for-word approach, whereas dynamic equivalency moves in the direction of a thought-for-thought comparison. In practice, what this means is that some translators attempt to preserve the original wording while sacrificing a degree of what is called readability. Translators who favor a dynamic process attempt to convey the author’s meaning while sacrificing a degree of linguistic accuracy.
When it comes to the translations we are familiar with, the KJV, ESV, and NASB, for example, are considered a formal, word-for-word representation from the original languages. The NIV, NLT, and NRSV are examples of the dynamic tradition. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks, but both are sincere attempts at conveying the words of God into our common English language.
As translations go, those are the two most common approaches, but there are other methods, like those which have produced “the Message” version. Because the thought-for-thought approach can eventually stray far enough from a close approximation and more toward a colloquial (common street language) expression, it stops being considered as a proper translation of Scripture and becomes identified as a paraphrase.
No where in Scripture does God ever decry the use of paraphrases of his word, any more than he criticizes the reliance upon a translation rather than the original languages. More to the point, you don’t need to know Greek to be a faithful Christian; and, you don’t need to restrict your reading of English translations to just formal equivalency versions.
God takes credit for the development of languages and he is quite capable of projecting his “breath” of truth in spite of changes in original wording. He has declared with authority, that “my word shall never disappear”. The fact that the original, spoken Hebrew language no longer exists is proof-of-point that God does not limit his preservation of his words just to originally understood languages. (The development of modern Hebrew is a great story for another time).
Nevertheless, there should be a clear recognition that the further a translation moves from repeating the words to interpreting the meaning, the greater the chance for errors to creep into the text. So for those who find that versions like the NLT or the Message are more understandable, they are encouraged to enjoy their reading with two words of advice.
The first is that we are blessed with a variety of translations at our easy access (especially for those with internet connection, who can link to hundreds of free translations in many different languages), and readers ought to avail themselves of comparisons with a formal equivalency version. Examples of these might include the KJV, NKJV, NASB, AMP, WEB, etc.
The second word of advice for dynamic version readers (like I am) is to refrain from establishing personal doctrines according to how a dynamic translation might present key scriptural texts. Again, here is a benefit to reading from both sides of the fence. Readability is very important, but nuances of truth ought to be more carefully established according to less subjective interpretation (dynamic methods) and closer continuation of original wording (formal methods).
A brief word about gender-neutral Bibles. Although clearly not a formal equivalency approach, changes from male pronouns and imagery to gender neutral wording takes the dynamic method beyond the boundaries of the thought of the original writer and thus turns such a Bible into a paraphrase, like The Message Bible. The same advice noted above for reliance upon dynamic translations should apply doubly so for paraphrases, as otherwise helpful as they might be in hearing from God.
That brings us to our next major issue with trusting our translation: the originals. Simply put, no original documents have ever been discovered. And of the thousands of early manuscripts that do exist, there are many differences that frustrate translators.
For the sake of blog-readability, we will further explore the history of our scriptural translations next time. I think you will be amazed at how the original apostles approached trusting scriptural translations in their day.
What translations do you rely upon the most and why?
A couple of responses, first, I’m glad you do so much research to unearth valuable truths for us. second, it was like a breath of fresh air when you reminded me God has made the languages and can speak to us through our native tounge just as clearly as he did for the jews. Most of my time has been in the NIV 1984, but after reading and talking with you about versions, I feel inspired to spend some time in another translation. Thanks.