Question 3

Why are there differences in translations?

Many of the questions about the Bible are related to translations:

  • “What translation do you use?”
  • “What is the most accurate translation?”
  • “What’s your opinion about ______ translation?” 
  • “Why is there a difference in this translation? 

We should not take these questions lightly. Translation differences have caused too much division in the body of Christ, and the simple fact is that this is an area where it’s easy for people deeply committed to the authority of Scripture to jump to conclusions. There was a recent post on social media about a translation that “leaves out the following scriptures”, followed by a list and exhortation to check it out. Of course there was a grain of truth in that post, but there was absolutely no context to explain why some verses are disputed, nor was there an acknowledgment that any solid translation that omits those verses will include them in a footnote. And we’ve all heard the joke about the woman who, when asked about her Bible translation, emphatically declared that if her traditional English translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it was good enough for her!

Textual Criticism

First, a word about textual criticism. The word “criticism” can throw people off but it is really an academic term that refers to the study of ancient documents to determine the accuracy of a word choice. It’s a necessary step in the translation process when the originals are not available, as is the case with the Bible. From the first translation textual criticism has been part of the church’s approach to the Bible.

Note: there is a branch of textual criticism with the goal of breaking down the Bible into parts that the researchers deem “authentic” and parts deemed “inauthentic”. This is called “higher criticism” and its practitioners frequently approach the Bible more as literature than the inspired word of God. Thus, this type of criticism has bred unbelief and the elimination of many passages as “inauthentic”, despite their presence in the ancient manuscripts. A summary of higher criticism is found here, but here we use the phrase “textual criticism” to refer to the necessary task of studying ancient documents for accuracy in translation of the inspired word of God. The term “textual criticism” as used in some of the links provided is not criticism in a negative sense, but simple applying critical thinking skills to evaluating the word of God.

Textual criticism is invaluable because of the vast number of copies of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. This summary is rather technical (this is, after all, a science) but even a quick scroll down the page will show you why there needs to be rhyme or reason to the decision-making process. We could have no faith in a translation that depended on the translator’s personal whims!

When all the variations in manuscripts are compiled, four major “families” emerge (Holman 104-105 & this link):

1. Byzantine (or Majority Witness) – comprise 80% of the available texts. These texts stem from the Byzantine Empire and flourished throughout the Middle Ages. Geographically these came primarily from the Eastern Mediterranean. The earliest documents in this family are from the mid to late fourth century. While this family has the most representation, many of them are from later years and where differences in other texts occur, most of these texts agree only with each other. This is the text captured in the first printed Greek New Testament (Erasmus in 1516), and on which the King James Bible and New King James Bibles are based. While there is an understandable “majority rules” tendency among many, there are also highly legitimate reasons to question these texts. These reasons include the likelihood that earlier versions copied closer to the original were less likely to include errors, and the demonstrated tendency of scribes to incorporate any questionable passage out of a reluctance to accidentally omit a verse of legitimate Scripture. As a result this group has the most texts that are in question based on their absence in other families.

2. Alexandrian manuscripts are primarily out of Egypt and represent about 5-10% of the available texts. Most modern translations, includes NASB, NIV, and RSV, are based on these manuscripts. The earliest of these manuscripts dates to about 180 A.D. Many of its readings that vary from other texts are supported by internal evidence within the manuscripts. These texts are less consistent with each other than the Byzantine. These texts are more likely to not have the questioned texts commonly found in the Byzantine.

3. Western manuscripts, comprising about 5% of texts, were found in the Western Mediterranean. These commonly have the questionable texts. No entire translation is based on Western manuscripts, but they are used as a reference point.

4. Some scholars also recognize a “Caesarean” manuscript stemming from Caesarean but this classification is disputed.

It is important to note that, while many variants in the passages do exist, most are simple spelling or grammatical matters, word order, etc. Only about 2-5% of the text is seriously debated. No major doctrines are affected, because the Bible has a “built in redundancy” where every major doctrine is repeated throughout many chapters, books, and even testaments. For example, one disputed verse is 1 John 5:7-8. The Byzantine text as translated by the King James Version reads: For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. Most modern translations, based on the Alexandrian, read: For there are three that testify:the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. Although the verses differ because of the underlying source text, the doctrine that is in the disputed passage – the Trinity – is reflected throughout Scripture, from the first chapter of the Bible. Also, no entire books or even chapters are disputed; the largest sections are 12 verses in Mark (16:9-20) and 12 verses in John (7:53-8:11). If you are learning about these textual differences for the first time, there is absolutely no need for your faith to be shaken! 

Translation Theory

When scholars approach the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, they have to draw some conclusions. Some of their questions they ask in developing their theories include:

  • Should we trust the older texts or the texts with the most copies?
  • Does a literal word-for-word translation, or a thought-for-thought approach, or even a paraphrase, most accurately reflect the meaning of the original language? 
  • Where there are textual differences, is there internal evidence indicating why the change occurred? 
  • Is one reading more difficult to explain,  (such as an apparent contradiction) and therefore possibly something that a scribe would have tried to “fix”? 
  • Does one reading best explain the origin of the others? 

There is no one “right” answer to these questions. There are legitimate reasons for the different translation theories. For example, let’s look at the “word for word” vs “thought for thought” question. Anyone who has learned a second language knows that sentence structure and word order varies between even similar languages. A literal “word for word” translation would be unreadable for anything other than scholarly purposes. Don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself in the Interlinear version of Genesis 1:1-2. The English translation appears in its most literal form possible under the Hebrew.

Obviously, then, even the most literal translations do some sort of “thought for thought”- type approach, because as you proceed through Scripture judgment calls have to be made about where certain words are placed. For example, different versions of Revelation 13:8 exist, not because of any textual differences but because of different approaches to the placement of the phrase “before the foundation of the world.” Does it modify “lamb slain” or “names written in the book of life”? Or is it one of John’s famous “double meaning” words, intended to apply to both? This is a decision translators make.

You and I are not Bible translators. We cannot be expected to determine our own translation theory. So what’s a Bible-believing Christian to do?

Choosing a Translation

First, be aware of the translation theory behind your preferred version of the Bible. Most of the time that is found in the front matter of the Bible. Before buying a new translation, I always read the translation notes. This will explain which text family they used, or whether they looked all all the available text families. It will tell whether the translators leaned toward a word-for-word, thought-for-thought, or paraphrase approach. These notes will also tell how disputed passages are handled. Any legitimate translation will include the disputed passages in some way, either in the footnotes or in brackets within the primary text.

Second, see who was on the translation team. Some paraphrases are written by one individual; this should be clearly noted, as well as whether the individual is paraphrasing from an English translation or attempting to translate from the original language. Personally I am wary of translations by only one individual. There is too much at stake; the collective wisdom of solid believers can protect a well-meaning individual from errors. See what you can learn about the team. Are they all from the same denomination? That doesn’t mean the translation will be bad, but you will want to be aware of any theological biases that might appear in their translation choices. Make sure the team includes language scholars as well as pastors or theologians. (Be wary of translations used solely by cults, however. Some of these were translated by one individual with limited knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. Often these translations will have no notes or insist theirs is the only correct one.)

Third, don’t feel like you have to be a one-translation person. There are so many resources online. You can own a primary translation but consult many others for study or where your translation calls a passage into question. Remember that God inspired the original text but every translation is done by humans who are imperfect. I know some people question the need for more translations – and I agree there is a point where it is unnecessary – but since language changes, it is important that we are communicating God’s eternal word in a way that people can understand at the heart level. (Just try reading Wyliffe’s first English translation and you will understand why updates have to occur!)

Fourth, whatever translation you choose, please be respectful of others who prefer different translations. Individuals with high views of the inspired word of God do not intentionally “leave out” or “add to” Scripture by their translation choices. Many factors go into the decision, including familiarity with the text, the person’s reading level, and much more. My father prefers the King James not because he thinks it’s the best translation, but because he wants to honor the many men who died in order to bring an English translation to fruition. Please apply Romans 14 and give liberty to others in their translation choices.

Finally, always, always remember that God’s word is eternal, written in the heavens. He inspired His word, He protects it, and most importantly, He wants you to understand it. You don’t have to know a single bit of this information for God’s word to speak to you. He is looking at your heart, whatever translation you choose.

Some Translations to Consider

While each individual believer must allow the Holy Spirit to guide the choice of translations, these suggestions are given to stimulate your thought, not to say “these are the only/best translations” or challenge your pastor/elders’ authority in teaching from a particular translation. It’s always a good suggestion to consult a wide variety of translations, especially now with so many easily available online.

English Standard Version (ESV): The Bible my pastor uses, so I take this one to church and use it as a default when preparing lessons for our women’s study.

New American Standard Bible (NASB): The study Bible I cut my teeth on. It’s the one most marked up and the one I use for inductive studies.

New International Version 1984 (NIV 1984): The Bible I use for memorization. While it’s less literal than ESV or NASB, it has the great benefit of being very readable and primarily in Active Voice, so it’s easier to memorize.

King James Version (KJV): The first Bible I read through and the one I grew up on. Besides being a great reference because it’s based on a different translation theory, it also has the great benefit of using “ye” making the plural “you” obvious in the New Testament, and also contains passages that my mind defaults to such as the Christmas Story in Luke 2.

Amplified Bible (AMP): Based on the Byzantine text, this Bible is a great quick look at the range of Greek or Hebrew meanings in a passage.

New English Translation (NET):  I love this Bible – it’s my current read-through text. It contains over 10,000 translators notes that explain why they made the choices they did. They utilized all the textual families so it is pretty detailed. It’s available online for free but I love my hard copy. The only thing I don’t like is that it really isn’t very poetic in some of the places where poetry is called for, so it’s less readable in some portions. But this translation has challenged me in many areas by putting translations I’m less familiar with (and explaining the choices). In my opinion it’s a must-have for any serious Bible student, at least as a reference point.

The Living Bible: This is a complete paraphrase, but it’s the Bible I use when preparing Bible stories, because it really does read just like a story. I don’t teach from it, but it makes telling the story as a story rather than a series of verses a lot easier.

Finally, if I could add one translation, it would be the New Living Translation (NLT). So often when I refer to this one online it brings out some of the heart meaning of the text. For example, its translation of Isaiah 53:12 speaks deeply to me, accurately translating the word most commonly translated “transgressors” as “rebels”.

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Dockery, David. Holman Bible Handbook. Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.

Bible 101 is used with permission of Surpassing Glory and Rosa Floyd