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The Bible Translation Debate: How to Choose a Bible

Updated on April 13, 2020

There is a lot of, mostly unnecessary, debate over the issue of Bible translation in the English speaking world. There are so many points to this debate we could not possibly think of tackling them all in this short article. What I will attempt to do is just give a very basic rundown over just a couple points of conversation in this debate and then give some pointers on choosing a Bible translation for yourself.

1. Lets's cover the issue of manuscript tradition:

Because the text of the Old Testament has a significantly smaller leg in this debate we will spend this time working through the New Testament only.

The issue of manuscript tradition refers to the Greek manuscripts, or copies, of the New Testament that are used when translating the Bible into English, or whatever other language. There are two manuscript traditions typically cited in this conversation, the first is what is generally called the "Alexandrian Text" and the second is the "Majority Text." The Alexandrian Text is a much smaller collection of manuscripts that go much further back in history towards the original books and letters of the Bible, while the Majority text is, as the name suggests, the majority of manuscripts, typically from later dates. These manuscripts have been collected, categorized, critically analyzed to best determine the text of the original autographs and then used to translate into another language. This process of grouping manuscripts lead to the two most used editions of the Greek New Testament as the basis for translation: the eclectic text and the Textus Receptus. The eclectic text, also called the critical text or modern text, uses whats called "textual Criticism" and takes all the manuscripts available and uses various methods of examining the manuscripts in order to locate additions, omissions, skipped lines, spelling mistakes, and other mistakes that arise from copying the text of two thousand years to create a finished product that they believe faithfully gives the original words of the New Testament text. The Textus Receptus (Latin for "Received Text") is an older, published edition of the Greek New Testament that used many of the same principles of textual criticism but was limited to a smaller handful of manuscripts within the majority text tradition only.

There is way to much in the conversation about which manuscript tradition is better but I want to mention just a few misconceptions about both of them. First, the eclectic text is not just the Alexandrian text type as it is typically referred, although it does generally put an emphasis on the readings from the Alexandrian text. Second, the Textus Receptus, although very commonly called the majority text, is not a collection of the whole majority text type. As mentioned before, it is a small "stream" of the majority text and does differ in places with majority text readings. Third, the differences between these two text traditions are small and do not effect any major or essential doctrine of the christian faith, one can read and understand the whole council of God from both text type!

2. Let's cover the issue of translation philosophy:

This section will be much smaller than the last, but there are two major philosophies for translating the text, called formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence (one can argue there is a third method called paraphrase but we will not specifically argue this as it can also fall under a more loose dynamic equivalence). Formal equivalence attempts to be as "word for word" as possible when translating between languages. It strives to keep sentience structure and words as close to the Greek as they were as one can. The pros of this philosophy is that, because of the closer, more literal wording and structure, it is able to preserve details and specific writing style that the author intended when conveying his point to his audience. The cons of this philosophy is that it can result in a translation that is more difficult to read do to less natural word structure and figures of speech who's meaning is lost in translation. Dynamic equivalence attempts to be more "thought for though" when translating between languages. Instead of the focus more on structure and exact wording it tries to convey the meaning of the text. The pros of this is a more readable text and figures of speech that are changed into an "English equivalent" that portrays the meaning of the original idiom. The cons can be that if the text is "too dynamic" it can make the author's point obscure by removing the structure or word association he was using.

To end this section I will again mention a misconception about the topic. the biggest misconception, in my experience, is the idea that a particular translation is "completely formal" or "completely dynamic." Although a translation will typically seek to emphasis one of these translation philosophies they will, almost always, utilize both. To what degree a translation uses each style will very but a completely formal translation will be extremely difficult to read and a completely dynamic one result in incorrect translation due to being dynamic where the more literal rendering conveyed the meaning already.

Now that I've provided some of the substance in the debate over Bible translation I want to give some pointers on how to choose a translation for yourself. Although the first point I will give is my greatest point the rest are not necessarily in any order of importance.

1. Find out what does your Pastor/Church use.

To start I want to suggest that you consider what translation is used by your pastor and at your church. Your pastor is your earthly shepherd, he is God ordained as one who watches over you spiritually and should be a first resource for you for question of Bible translation. Outside of pastoral leadership this point is important on a practical level to. Unity in Bible translation can be practically helpful in a church in regards to teaching, public reading, and scripture memorization. Although the varies translations are just different renderings of the same truth it can be extremely helpful to be on the same page. I do understand that many churches use a variety of translations and even the pastors and teachers will interchange translation on a periodic basis, if that is the case for you I hope the following pointers can be helpful.

2. Find a good balance between formal and dynamic translation.

Translations under the category of formal equivalence are the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV) to name just a few. Translations under the category of dynamic equivalence are the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), the New International Version (NIV), and the New Living Translation (NLT). If you feel strongly that a formal or dynamic translation best renders the words of scripture than pick a translation under the respective category. My personal favorite translations are the ESV and CSB as I believe they keep the best balance of formal and dynamic equivalence to convey an accurate, faithful reading of God's word.

because no mention of the Bible translation debate is complete without mention of the King James Bible I will write on it briefly. The KJV was translated between 1604 AD and 1611 AD and revised in 1769 which is the standard text in the KJV today. It was a wonderful translation of God's word that has been a primary translation for many Christians throughout the past 400 years. I love the KJV, it's text is beautiful and it is a rich part of the history of the English Bible; but I do want to voice some concerns if this is your primary choice for your Bible. I am not trying to necessarily get anyone away from the KJV but I do hope these concerns will be worked though for any King James reader. The first concern is that due to how old the KJV is, there was been many advances or changes to the English language that make the KJV a little more difficult to understand. I am not just talking about archaic words because it's easy enough to recognize a weird word you've never seen and look up it's meaning. The major concern here is of completely normal and commonly used words who's meaning has changes in some way. One example just to make my point is from 2nd Timothy 2:15 where it reads "rightly dividing the word of truth." The ESV renders this phrase as "rightly handling the word of truth." This is one example where a common word with an altered meaning over time can go unnoticed and lead to a misunderstanding of Scripture.The second is a smaller point but worth mentioning. The king James translators, though brilliant, were not aware of certain aspects of Greek grammar that have resulted in a small handful of places where the text could be rendered better. I will just cite Titus 2:13 where it says "and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ." The New King James, for example, reads "and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." the change is small but does impact the reading in a way that can question whether this is referring to one person or two.

Some readers may be interested in thoughts on King James Onlyism, the very small circle of Christians that believe, for a variety of reasons, that the KJV is the only version of the Bible we out to read with any of their more radical minds calling other translation a word of Satan. All I will say on this topic is that I believe that the text of scripture, and the history and evidence of our manuscript history does not support or suggest this idea.

3. Use multiple translation.

After all this stuff on picking a translation am I now saying "forget it all" and use all of them? No, but am saying that outside your preferred translation use other translations to see their how they render a passage. This can be very helpful and clarifying when studying a text. We are blessed with many (too many) versions of the Bible in English, and although I do believe we can stop making new ones and redirect those efforts to getting the Bible into other languages, we should make good use of what gifted translators in the body of Christ have put together for our edification.

There is so much more that can be said about every point made in this relatively short explanation of picking a Bible translation, but I hope it was a help and a blessing for everyone who took the time to read. God Bless!


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