A Guide to Bible Translations

A brief guide to Bible translations

There are a lot of Bible translations out there, probably more in English than any other language. In some ways it’s embarrassing, like the thousands of Christian denominations. Why can’t everyone just read the same translation? There are some surprisingly good reasons for the many English Bibles and some disappointing ones too.

I’m going to get a little more technical in this installment, but it’s important information, so bear with me.

In part, the variety of translations are a reflection of the variety of source texts. Before the invention of the printing press, every Bible was copied by hand from an older copy. Letter shapes and vocabulary changed over time, writing faded, manuscripts were lost, and some were even deliberately changed. Some amount of error and variation was inevitable. Today, there are thousands of ancient manuscripts that can be used to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, but they almost all have minor variations in the text. A number of factors will influence which original a translator uses for any particular passage: readability, historical and linguistic analysis, contextual clues, and theological bias, for example.

Some translations include additional passages or even entire books. For example, Catholic Bibles include the Macabbees, Esdras, and other books that Protestant Bibles do not. Some ancient manuscripts contain passages that are missing from others, and there is always debate about whether the passage was added to one manuscript or removed from another. This is especially true for the Gospels. For example, Matthew 17:21 is present in the Tyndale (1500s), Rheims New Testament (1582+), and the King James Version (1611+) which are based on the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts available in the 16th century, but is missing from the New International Version (1973), the Holman Christian Standard (2004), and the English Standard (2001) Versions which are based on older Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that were only discovered within the last century.

There are two important points to consider about the use of older source manuscripts for translating the Bible:

  1. Older doesn’t necessarily mean better. There were false cults and poor copies two thousand years ago, just like today. Translators need to be very careful to be aware of all the possible factors involved in selecting source texts, not just the age of the manuscript.
  2. The oldest manuscripts we now have of any Biblical texts date to about the 2nd century BC and they differ very little from manuscripts that were created a thousand years later. The differences that exist are almost entirely due to individual letters or spelling variations. There are exceedingly few differences that have any impact on the theological meaning of the text. This is one of the most remarkable characteristics of biblical manuscripts and, by itself, makes the Bible unlike almost any other religious text in the world.

Some English translations have been based on Latin or Greek texts that were themselves translations from Greek or Hebrew. For example, the Wycliffe and Coverdale Bibles were both based on the Latin Vulgate and the Brenton English Septuagint is based on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. These kinds of translations can provide an interesting historical perspective on how Greek and Latin speakers might have understood the Scriptures in the early centuries of the Christian church, but they’re more likely to obscure the original meaning  of the Bible than to illuminate it.

Another reason for making new translations is the evolving nature of English. The King James Version is barely readable for most English speakers today, and the meaning of enough words have changed over that time that some passages have completely changed meaning. For example, in modern English the word “replenish” means to restore something that has been depleted, like refilling a water glass, but that’s not what it meant when the KJV translators rendered Genesis 1:28 to say “replenish the earth”. Back in the 17th century, it just meant to fill it up. It’s the difference between refilling a glass and filling it the first time. It helps to have a Bible written in the same language we use every day, which only makes sense, since much of it was originally written using the same vocabulary and grammar that ordinary people used at home and in the market.


You’ll have to subscribe to get the rest of this article, which includes more reasons for creating new translations, a description of translation styles (formal vs dynamic equivalence) and special-purpose Bibles, a short list of today’s popular translations, some thoughts on the King James Version, and recommendations for selecting or rejecting which Bibles you use in your personal study.


May God speak to you daily through his word,

Jay Carper

P.S. My favorite Bible study tool is e-Sword, phenomenal software created by Rick Meyers to facilitate access to Bible commentaries, dictionaries, translations, and other resources. It lets you quickly switch between multiple translations and even to see them side-by-side. Inclusion of dictionaries lets you look up the meaning of Hebrew, Greek, and English words in every verse. On the computer I’m using right now, I have 16 different translations, 2 Hebrew dictionaries, 2 Greek dictionaries, several encyclopedias, and 13 commentaries. Once you have the software installed, you can use the built-in tools to download and add dozens of translations, both free and paid, in dozens of languages. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you don’t have it, you can download e-Sword for free at http://www.e-sword.net/.

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