There is an alphabet soup of Bible translations available today, from the KJV to the NIV and the NASB to the HCSB. This has led some critics to conclude that because there is so much variation between translations, no one really knows what the Bible says.
This attack on inerrancy is misplaced. Keep in mind that the Bible’s autographs, or original documents, are inerrant – not subsequent copies and translations. Even though there are dozens of English translations that differ in varying degrees, we are highly confident that the source documents from which these versions came – more than 25,000 New Testament manuscripts alone – are accurate representations of the autographs.
A more practical question for Christians today is, “Which translation of the Bible should we use?” To answer that question, let’s look at four types of translations, then match our intended use with the translators’ intended goals.
This eight-part series addresses common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 7: There are so many translations of the Bible that it’s impossible to know which one is right.
It’s true there is an alphabet soup of Bible translations available today, from the KJV to the NJB and the TNIV to the HCSB. This has led some people to ask, “Which version is right?” and others to conclude that because there is so much variation between translations, none of them is correct. Keep in mind, however, that the autographs, or original documents, of Scripture are inerrant – not the subsequent copies and translations. Just because there are dozens of English translations that differ in varying degrees from one another, we have a high degree of confidence that the source documents from which these versions come are accurate representations of the autographs.
Andreas J. Kostenberger writes: [T]he task of translating the Bible from its source languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) into a receptor language such as English involves many issues related to the nature of language and communication…. The goal, of course, is the production of an English version that is an accurate rendering of the text written in such a way that the Bible retains its literary beauty, theological grandeur, and, most importantly, its message” (“Is the Bible Today What Was Originally Written?” found in www.4truth.net).
General translation classifications
There are four general classifications of Bible translations: formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, optimal equivalence, and paraphrase.
Formal equivalence. Often called a “word-for-word” or “literal” translation, the principle of formal equivalence “seeks as nearly as possible to preserve the structure of the original language. It seeks to represent each word of the translated text with an exact equivalent word in the translation so that the reader can see word for word what the original human author wrote” (The Apologetics Study Bible, p. xviii). Advantages of formal equivalence include: (a) consistency with the conviction that the Holy Spirit inspired not just the thoughts but the very words of Scripture; (b) access to the structure of the text in the original language; and (c) accuracy to the degree that English has an exact equivalent for each word. Drawbacks include sometimes awkward English or a misunderstanding of the author’s intent. The only truly formal equivalence translation is an interlinear version that tries to render each Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word with an English equivalent without changing the word order. Translations that tend to follow a formal equivalence philosophy are the King James Version (KJV); the New American Standard Bible (NASB); the English Standard Version (ESV), and The Amplified Bible (AMP – a word-for-word translation that features additional amplification of word meanings).
Dynamic equivalence. Often referred to as “thought-for-thought” translation, dynamic equivalence attempts to distinguish the meaning of a text from its form and then translate the meaning so that “it makes the same impact on modern readers that the ancient text made on its original readers” (The Apologetics Study Bible, p. xviii). Strengths include: (a) a high degree of readability; and (b) an acknowledgement that accurate and effective translation requires interpretation. Drawbacks include: (a) the meaning of a text cannot always be neatly separated from its form; (b) the author may have intended multiple meanings; and (c) difficulty in verifying accuracy, which may affect the usefulness of the translation for in-depth study. Examples of translations that tend to employ dynamic equivalence are the New International Version (NIV); the Contemporary English Version (CEV); and the Good News Translation (GNT – formerly Today’s English Version [TEV] and Good News Bible [GNB]).
Optimal equivalence. Optimal equivalence as a translation philosophy recognizes that form cannot be neatly separated from meaning and should not be changed unless comprehension demands it, according to The Apologetics Study Bible: “The primary goal of translation is to convey the sense of the original with as much clarity as the original text and the translation language permit. Optimal equivalence appreciates the goals of formal equivalence but also recognizes its limitations” (pp. xviii – xix). The theory is to translate using formal equivalence where possible and dynamic equivalence where needed to clarify the text. The main advantage of optimal equivalence is the combination of accuracy and readability. The only drawback is that some people prefer either a more formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence translation. Translations that employ optimal equivalence include the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB); the NET Bible; and God’s Word.
Paraphrase. Paraphrased versions of the Scriptures are loose translations that are highly readable and contemporary but lack the accuracy of word-for-word translations and at times add meaning beyond what a thought-for-thought translation would allow. “These translations place primacy on clarity and are willing to skip some of the finer nuances in the text to make sure the reader is getting the main point of each verse,” notes Ray Clendenen, associate editor of The Apologetics Study Bible. Examples of paraphrased translations include The Living Bible (TLB) and The Message.
Today the Bible is translated into more than 2,000 languages, covering more than 90 percent of the world’s people – and 1,000 new translations are in the works, according to Rick Cornish. As far as English translations go, there are good reasons for so many of them. “One reason relates to the original language,” writes Cornish. “As more manuscripts are discovered, scholars learn those ancient languages better and correct previous misunderstandings. A second reason is the changing nature of modern languages. What made sense in one generation makes less sense in the next and eventually, no sense or the wrong sense” (5 Minute Apologist, p. 73).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips