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What About Bible Translations?

There are a lot of different translations of the Bible in English.

A lot.

Over 100 modern translations intended for public use exist, not to mention a host of scholarly translations and partial translations. There are even heretical translations that have been made for the express purpose of leading people into cults! How should we navigate such a morass of information to decide which translation to use for Bible Study? Thankfully, we have great information about where translations came from, what types exist, and a list of a few versions of each type that we can use to learn more about the incredible message of God's revelation to mankind.

Translating Ancient Languages

The Old Testament was originally written primarily in Hebrew, with some small portions in Aramaic. The New Testament was written entirely in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient Roman world. Translation from the ancient languages requires a lot of work and care because many words translate imprecisely from those languages into English, and their grammar does not conform to modern usage. Furthermore, the ancient cultures used literary devices (such as idioms) that made sense to them, but would be unfamiliar to an audience today.

Types of Translations

So, the question is, how should we translate the Bible? Should we simply translate it as close to word-for-word as possible while adjusting the grammar to modern English? Such an approach would be straightforward, but would also require the audience to study about ancient cultures and contexts.

Should we instead try to help readers by making the text as close to modern English as possible? We could devise roughly equivalent idioms and metaphors to what is found in the original and try to smooth out passages to help readers to better understand the intent of the Biblical authors. This approach would lose some of the original cultural and linguistic context of the Bible, but it would allow the audience to understand what they are reading without as much deep Biblical knowledge.

These questions about translations are part of the reason why there are so many English versions of the Bible. How much the literal text is adopted into modern usage drives where a translation sits on this spectrum:

  • Formal equivalence translations are akin to a literal word-for-word translation; they don't really worry about changing the ancient literary elements into modern equivalents.

  • Dynamic equivalence translations are like a meaning-to-meaning translation; they still seek to give an accurate translation of the text, but they try to do so while also serving the modern audience by providing roughly equivalent modern idioms and so forth when the need arises.

So, which one should you use? That depends a lot on your context. I prefer to use formal equivalence translations in teaching and in personal Bible study because I have experience with the tools I need to help me dig deeper or to explain the context of certain passages for students. On the other hand, if you are teaching children or youth from families that have very little Biblical background or if you are a new student of the Bible yourself, a dynamic equivalence translation might be helpful in making Scripture accessible. Just remember that for deeper context of more nuanced or complicated passages in the Bible, deeper study may be required.

As a side note, there is a third "translation" category called paraphrases. Paraphrases aren't really translations; they are an attempt to make the text entirely accessible to readers by rewriting the original text into modern prose, with modern idioms, metaphors, and even modern thinking that the paraphraser believes will best serve their audience. Obviously, this type of Bible version is easiest to understand, but is the most suspect of containing the bias of the editor that may or may not accurately reflect the actual meaning of the Biblical passages.

Trustworthy Translations

Here are a few of the top translations that can help you get started:

Formal Equivalence (Literal) Translations

KJV — King James Version

NKJV — New King James Version

NASB — New American Standard Bible

ASV — American Standard Version

RSV — Revised Standard Version

Dynamic Equivalence Translations

Today’s English Version

NEB — The New English Bible

NIV — New International Version

ESV — The English Standard Version


The Message

The Living Bible

The Amplified Bible

Translations and Bible Study

The absolute best way to understand the nuances of what God's Word says is to engage in exegesis, the arduous task of drawing out the author's intended meaning through analysis of various contexts such as historical, cultural, and linguistic through the study the original languages. Exegesis is very time-consuming and requires a great deal of intense research and is an essential task of preachers and church leaders.

As a second-best option for general, personal study, it can be useful for students to have several different translations in front of them for reference when they study God's Word, with at least one of them being a formal equivalence and at least one being a dynamic equivalence translation. In this way, students can benefit from the work of many scholars as they work through and wrestle with the text to get a higher quality sense of what God's Word has to say in difficult or complex passages. While this method does not answer all questions perfectly, it has many advantages over simply opening Scripture and surface-reading it for understanding.

Paraphrases aren't really all that useful for deep, personal Bible study. My personal opinion is that they can be best employed when reading Biblical narratives, but that they should not really be consulted for anything of a doctrinal nature, such as what is found in the New Testament epistles, unless they are only consulted as a sort of commentary on the text. Paraphrases simply have too much potential for the preconceptions and doctrinal biases of the editor to leak in, polluting the comprehension of God's Word with ideas or colors of understanding that are not in the original text.

Translations in Bible Quest

Bible Quest can be used with any translation of the Bible. Most of the material and tools contained in the program can apply to any version that parents and teachers find most suitable for their classrooms. This would include any of the Empower and Expedition Phase tools and nearly all of the Equip Phase tools. The only exception at this time are the verse songs. Because Bible Quest uses verbatim Scripture set to music, each song must be translation-specific.

Currently, Bible Quest only has Scripture songs from the King James Version (KJV) and the World English Bible (WEB) available. The King James Version (KJV) is one of the best-known English translations in the world, completed in 1611 under the authority of King James of England. KJV songs also automatically come in any Bible Quest kit as a digital download in mp3 format.

The World English Bible (also known as the WEB) is a free, updated revision of the American Standard Version (1901) and has similar sentence structure (in my opinion) to the KJV, with a few distinctive elements, such as the decision to keep "Yahweh" in the text rather than translating it as LORD as many translations do. It is one of the few public domain, modern-English translations of the entire Bible, and it is freely distributed to the public using electronic formats.

Verse Songs (from each week's "WHAT?" Equip Phase material) can be easily adapted to any translation of the Bible.

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