I think the best way to do figure out what a confusing passage means is to compare English bible versions. We have lots of them, and they’re usually good. Some have different goals, and they’re translated with these goals in mind.
In this post, I want to provide a brief overview of some common English bible translations that I think are helpful for Christians. Along the way, I’ll give some brief answers to common questions about bible translation. Here goes . . .
Why so many English versions?
There are many reasons. First, Christian translators and scholars are eager to always improve English translations; to fashion a new and better translation that speaks to the “common man,” and all sorts of other spiritual stuff. That’s good.
Also, Christian publishers want to market their own materials using their own proprietary translation. Who can blame them? It’s easier for Crossway, for example, to have its own translation, rather than potentially having to pay to use somebody else’s translation in the books it publishes. So, while the translators and scholars have noble goals, what’s even more true is that these scholars wouldn’t ever get the chance to fashion their new “ultimate” English versions unless a publisher thought it’d be worthwhile to sell the finished product.
Each major Christian publisher has commissioned and produced its own translation.
- Zondervan has the NIV.
- Crossway has the ESV.
- Broadman & Holman have the CSB (formerly known as the HCSB).
- HarperCollins has the NKJV; Thomas Nelson actually produced the thing, but it was bought by HarperCollins.
- Tyndale House owns the NLT.
I could go on, but you get the point. But, the providential end result is that we have a lot of English bible versions. They’re usually all good. You should make use of them.
What are the differences between translations?
Generally, there are two issues readers should be aware of; NT textual basis and translation philosophy.
New Testament textual basis
There are basically three options for bible translators and scholars to use when it comes to the New Testament; (1) the Textus Receptus, (2) a Byzantine text, or (3) an eclectic text.
The Textus Receptus is a compiled, printed Greek text which began life in 1518 as an edited, printed compilation of perhaps a half-dozen Greek manuscripts containing the New Testament. The earliest of these dated from the 10th century. This printed edition was revised several times, but it continued to be based on very few Greek manuscripts. This is the first printed Greek New Testament, and its dominance lasted nearly 400 years. You can still buy a copy of one version of the Textus Receptus today, from the Trinitarian Bible Society. The KJV, NKJV and Modern English Version (MEV) are based on the Textus Receptus.
The Byzantine text platform is an edited, compiled, printed Greek text based on the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. However, most of these Greek manuscripts date from the Middle Ages, which means they aren’t very early at all. There are at least three printed, compiled Greek New Testaments based on the Byzantine text, all of them published within the past 40 years. There has never been a major English bible translation done from the Byzantine text, so don’t bother looking for one.
The eclectic (or critical) text is an edited compiled, printed Greek text based on a whole host of factors, from early manuscripts and later ones, too. It doesn’t strictly favor earlier Greek manuscripts or later ones, but in practice the earlier manuscript copies are often given more weight. It evaluates differences in Greek manuscripts on their own internal and external merits, and chooses the reading which makes the best sense. Different editions of this critical text have been published for over 100 years. Every major English bible translation (except the KJV, NKJV and MEV) is based on this eclectic text.
Some Christians passionately believe in the Textus Receptus, and the KJV whose New Testament comes from that Greek text. They may tell you all other Bibles are perversions. They’re wrong.
What are the differences between these different Greek New Testaments?
There are lots of spelling variations of different words, which are usually meaningless. There are lots of other meaningless odds and ends. The most striking differences are in (1) the longer ending of Mark, (2) the section from 1 John 5:6-8 which reads “and these three are one,” and (3) the story of the woman caught in adultery.
The Textus Receptus has all three of these. The printed Byzantine texts usually don’t count the “and these three are one” bit from 1 John 5:6-8 as being original, but have the other two. The eclectic printed texts don’t include any of these, because they aren’t in the earliest Greek manuscripts.
These are very complicated issues, and there are other less significant differences, but these are the most noteworthy. In fact, if you pay attention, I guarantee you’ll see notes in the margins of your Bible in the New Testament which read something like “other, later manuscripts include . . .” This isn’t a secret.
For some excellent information about this entire subject (which scholars call “textual criticism”), see these wonderful short lectures by Dan Wallace; look under the “textual criticism” heading.
It’ll be very challenging to write about this in a few paragraphs, but I’ll give it a shot. Modern English translations ran a whole gamut, from very literal to very free with their translation philosophy. This chart should make things clearer:
You may have been told that more “literal” translations are more accurate. You may have even been told that “thought-for-thought” translations are “liberal.” No. No. No. No.
Some translations seek to render the Greek word order as closely as humanly possible, believing this is the best way to translate. The NASB is the best example. This translation is so faithful to the original word order, and is so fearful of making any interpretive decisions, that it reads a bit like cardboard. In some places, it is very difficult to understand.
Other translations seek to make things clear. They’re willing to sacrifice a nearly word-for-word equivalence in order to make the idea crystal clear. The NLT is the best example. A child can read this translation with no problem. I know adults with low reading levels who benefit greatly from this translation.
Which one is best? All of the above. Let me give you an example; look at these samples from a wide variety of translations. They march in order from more “word for word” to “thought for thought.” Pay particular attention to the portions I highlight and underline, and watch how the sense changes between translations, from rigid English to freer, looser and clearer English:
- NASB: “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
- ESV: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
- RSV: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
- Mine: “Always keep your whole way of life pure among the unbelievers, so that as they speak evil about your pure way of life as though you’re criminals, because of your good deeds (which they’re watching) they might give honor to God when He arrives,” (1 Pet 2:12).
- NIV: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,” (1 Pet 2:12).
- NLT: “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world,” (1 Pet 2:12).
I focused on three aspects of this sentence; (1) “Gentiles,” (2) “speaking evil about you,” and (3) “the day of His visitation.”
This word could mean “Gentiles,” or it could mean “nations” (i.e. pagan nations). How should it be translated? If you believe Peter wrote his letters to primarily Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps you’d keep “Gentiles” or “nations.” The terms have a particularly Jewish flavor to them, especially in light of the OT. A Jew would get it.
But, if you don’t believe Peter wrote to majority Jewish Christian congregations, how should you render it? Does “Gentiles” really do the trick? Is that what Peter was literally getting at? They could live like demons among Jews, but if a Gentile comes along – be good? Doubt it. Peter seems to be referring to “unbelievers.”
Should it be translated it as “unbelievers?” The NLT went with “unbelieving neighbors.” The NIV and NEB chose “pagans.” The NET went with “non-Christians.” Phillips chose “surrounding peoples in your different countries,” which is clearly an attempt to retain the “nations” sense of the Greek. Lattimore chose “the heathen.” Most other English translations, which are often more essentially literal than these, went with “Gentiles.” Which one is better? Which one is clearer?
I think we need to make a distinction between meaning and clarity. The rendering “Gentiles” or “nations” is more technically accurate. But, the translation “unbelievers” is (I believe) much more clear. If something is clearer, is it not, in reality, more accurate?
Note that, in the list of translations (above), the reference to “Gentiles” drops after the first few entries. That’s because translations that trend (more or less) towards “thought for thought” realize that “Gentiles” is meaningless to the uninitiated; thus you have options like “unbelievers,” “non-Christians” and “pagans.” They realize that Peter seems to mean “unbelievers.” Which one is best? Both of them!
The Greek syntax is tricky here. The NASB renders it faithfully (“so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers”), but let’s be honest – that’s a really hard sentence to understand. What on earth does this even mean? I’d rather read an inter-office memo about break-room etiquette than this.
The NASB is deliberately not trying to smooth things out; they want to stick to a woodenly literal translation. In my own translation, it’s obvious I think Peter is saying these unbelievers are slandering Christians because of their holy life, so I translated it that way (“so that as they speak evil about your pure way of life as though you’re criminals“). I have grammatical reasons for doing this, and they aren’t important now.
The point is that, as you go down the list, you see a change from wooden literalness to a drive for clarity. You might not agree with the NLT here (“even if they accuse you of doing wrong“), but at least you know exactly what they think it means. The NASB leaves it to you to figure it out, which isn’t a bad thing.
The day of His visitation
What does that even mean? In the list (above) you see the different translation philosophies very clearly. The NASB rendered it faithfully from Greek, but didn’t try to make it clear. The NLT, on the other hand, went all in for one particular meaning (“give honor to God when he judges the world“), but that isn’t literally what the Greek says. It’s probably what it means, but it isn’t what it says. Which is best? Both.
Hopefully, this crash course in translation philosophy has been helpful to you. The point is that translations are different, and you can learn a lot by comparing a few good ones.
Which translations should you compare?
Here is the short list of the ones I use. You could use others, but I’ve found these to be very helpful. You can find most of them at biblegateway.com.
- NASB. Extraordinarily literal. This is the most literal version in English today. It’s a favorite for preachers who prefer very close exposition and study. This means it’s not a pretty translation, but it is accurate.
- KJV. More literal translation. Old-fashioned, beautiful. May be hard to understand.
- RSV. More literal translation. Revision of the old ASV, which in turn was a revision of the KJV. The old standard for mainline Protestant denominations in the middle of last century. It retains “thee/thou” when bible characters address God. It’s normal English, but has an indescribable air of elegance. It’s beautiful. This is the translation I use.
- ESV. More literal translation. A revision of the RSV. Elegant, modern English. Very solid choice.
- NKJV. More literal translation. A 35-40 year-old revision of the KJV. Modern English. Clear. Solid choice.
- CSB (Christian Standard Bible, formerly HCSB). Literal translation. This is a completely original translation, commissioned by the Southern Baptists. It’s a good choice. It was completely revised and the update launched last year.
- NIV. Trends towards thought-for-thought. About 40 years old. Probably the best-selling English Bible of the last few decades. If you want clarity, combined with a commitment to stick close to the Greek text, this is it.
- NET (New English Translation). Thought for thought. This is not a well-known version. Produced by a team of scholars largely concentrated at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was produced for free distribution on the internet. This is an extraordinary translation, and any Christin who reads it will find it beautiful, accurate and enriching. I love this translation.
- NEB (New English Bible). Thought for thought. This is a mid-century British translation. It isn’t well known today. It’s a very nice translation, and their choices are often bold and striking. I like it.
- Phillips. Thought for thought. John Phillips was an Anglican preacher who started his own translation of the New Testament in the London underground, during the Blitz in World War 2. He later completed the entire New Testament by the mid-1950s. His translation is excellent, thought-provoking, and rewarding. He aims for clarity for the reader.
- NIrV. (New International Reader’s Version). Thought for thought. This is a sub-set of the NIV, designed specifically for children. My 7-yr old son uses it. It is a very good, very simple and very accurate translation. My son reads his bible aloud during our family devotions, and I am always impressed with how the translators got the meaning across in simple prose, in a way that is faithful to the Greek text. This is a very good translation.
- NLT. Very thought for thought. This is probably as far as you can go without falling off the cliff into paraphrase. This is a very free bible version, which makes extraordinarily bold translation choices. You may not agree with the NLT, but you’ll always know what the translators thought the phrase meant. They aimed for clarity, and they achieved it.
Should you use a paraphrase, like The Message?
No. Paraphrases are completely unnecessary, and are very nice incubators for heresy and foolishness. There are plenty of thought-for-thought translations on the market (e.g. NLT, NrIV) that are very, very, very easy to understand.
A translation actually considers the original language, the grammar, the syntax, and renders it faithfully. A paraphrase is one guy’s restatement of a passage in a deliberately simplistic manner. It’s not anchored to the actual words of Scripture, so it’s very dangerous to count on a paraphrase.
For example, this is how The Message renders 1 Peter 2:12:
Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.
Pardon me while I retch. Unbelievers are not “natives.” Peter said these unbelievers are slandering Christians, making them out to be criminals and evildoers. That is completely gone. Poof. They don’t have sin; they have prejudices. There is no mention that these unbelievers are watching the way you live your life. God is reduced to the guy at the party who made a pizza run, and will be cheered when he returns (“Dude! Where’s the pepperoni!?”). Eternity, coupled with God’s righteous and wrathful judgment on Satan and all who refuse the Gospel, is reduced to “the celebration.” Eternity is now a frat-party.
This is foolish, unnecessary, and cheap. You don’t need a paraphrase, and you don’t need The Message.
So, what’s the point? If you read something in your bible, and you’re confused, I want you to reach for a different bible translation. Don’t ask Pastor Google or Pastor Bing, or even (heaven forbid) . . . Pastor Yahoo. Just look at another bible translation. Have a short list of go-to comparison translations, with a whole spectrum of translation philosophies. Keep a NLT, ESV and NIV handy, for example.
For some more on all this, see this wonderful article by Mark Ward, entitled “Which Bible Translation Is Best? All the Good Ones.”
You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew. You have a whole host of good resources in English bible translations. They’re each different. They each have different translation philosophies. But, they’re all good. Use them, use your brain, think about the text, and it’ll become clear.
Happy studying. Ciao.