Christians often ask why we have so many Bible translations. Good question! To give an answer we need to address both the nature of scripture and the science of biblical translation.
Paul tells Timothy scripture is God-breathed. That’s a great descriptor. The books of the Bible were written by many people from many cultures and time periods. God inspired these authors so that, in spite of their tremendous diversity, their message would be unified. That message is God’s revelation of God’s self. By nature that revelation is perfect. God’s Word is, of course, Jesus himself (Jn. 1). All scripture points to Jesus (Jn. 5:30). Scripture is God-breathed meaning it’s God’s own voice reaching out to his people. Because of that find, scripture does not depend on you or me for its authority or truthfulness. It is true whether we believe it or not. And, as such, it demands and deserves our reverence and submission to it in every area of our lives.
This is important to note because as we move to translate or understand the text, invariably our own biases and opinions will cry out to us. A good translator seeks to identify those, as much as possible, in order to stay true to the original intent of the text.
Remember the Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. God used real people to communicate his Word in a way that could be understood back then. Languages and cultures continually change; and so the words we use to understand God’s Word change too. Think about it. English words didn’t even exist when the Bible was being written! Though the words we use change, God’s Word does not (1 Pt. 1:25). This is why we will always have new Biblical translations coming out.
This brings up two important points about understanding and applying scripture. First, read it in community. No one person can comprehend a book of such infinite wisdom. You will need other people to help you see your blind spots. Or to make sure you aren’t glossing over sections you don’t like or don’t understand. The second principle is to read history. Church history, specifically. Ours is not the first generation to wrestle with the scriptures. Not by a long shot! Reading historically and cross-culturally will give you eyes to see scripture in a much fuller sense. If you think the Bible is great now, you’ll be blown away by how much richer and deeper and truer it can be!
Thankfully, God’s Spirit is active preserving the Word just as he was active breathing out the Word. Even so, scholars work very hard to translate the scriptures in a way that preserves their original content while making them understandable to you and me. There are three different principles translators use when they do their work.
Formal equivalence is the practice of translating word by word as literally as possible. The English Standard Version (ESV) in our sanctuary exhibits this technique. Formal equivalence seeks to honor the supernatural quality of scripture. In short, the individual words matter, because they are God’s words. The downside is translating in such a way can be cumbersome to read and some ideas may be unnecessarily lost in translation.
Functional equivalence is the practice of translating ancient words to read like we would say the same thing today. I used to be a trumpet player in Italy. One day, before a big audition, my friend said to me as we parted, “In bocca al lupo!” The formal equivalence of that idiom is “In the wolf’s mouth!” Confusing? A functionally equivalent translation would tell you my friend was wishing me “good luck”.
The third practice is known as free translation. We typically call this a paraphrase. A translator seeking a free translation will do his/her best to understand the overarching idea. Then that idea will be put into contemporary language in whatever way the translator thinks will communicate that idea the best. Going back to my Italian example, a free translation of “In bocca al lupo” might be, “Break a leg!” Or in vernacular, “Kill it!”
So which version is best? My favorite answer to that question is, “The version you’ll read!” In my opinion the New International Version offers a good balance between staying true to the original words and contemporary readability. I also prefer that version because it’s what I am most familiar with. Your views and preferences might vary from mine. For daily reading, I use the NIV. But it’s a good idea to have both a more formal version, such as the ESV, and a paraphrase handy for study.
To learn more, the best resource I know of is “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. The continuum I’ve described and the graph below have been distilled from that book.