New Christians are often surprised and confused to discover there are several different Biblical translations. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. For centuries, it has needed to be translated in order for the global community to understand its message. Even experienced Christians have a difficult time sorting through the differences. So, which translation is best? In this episode, we talk through the different types of translations and strategies for discerning which is most helpful.


Which translation is the holiest?

Tim: When you first started reading the Bible and you got into translations, somehow you thought King James Translation was the holiest. Which, we all laugh at it now, but it’s something you had in your head. It would be useful to just talk about exactly what the whole circumstance is.

Mark: Well, and I actually think, for me, that was first because you think of Moses and the old movies, ten commandments, that’s how people talked in Biblical times. That sounds funny, but that’s our modern, Westernized picture of Christianity, so that’s where I started. And then I moved from there into New King James and listen to ESV, English Standard Version, which is more modern language. And then, honestly, this question started coming up for me, well, there’s all these translations. I started reading Blue Letter Bible, which gives you–

T: Which gives you like 20 different languages.

M: Right? All these different languages. You’re going back to the Aramaic and the Greek and  the Hebrew, and then you realize, “Well, I’m reading this Bible, but the actual definition of this word is not exactly correct to what it was in the original that we have because there’s no exact translation.” So what that introduced to me is this idea, “Well, okay, so is the whole thing just a whole fallible, mess?” You’ve got all these different translations. Which one should I be reading? Which one is real? Is one the real Bible? 

T: Then you can move up or down one level and say, “What is the language? And how fallible is language?” And it’s so imprecise, and what is it anyway? And all I’m getting are pictures from it, and he’s got a different picture, so it’s actually a very spiritual thing.

M: Well, and then we’re saying, “But that’s the Word of God.”

T: But that’s the Word of God.

M: The authoritative word of God. So what is that? 

Categories of translations

T: What is that? Here are the categories, I’ll start with the categories. There was the original thing that was written, and that was written in a specific language to a specific audience. And mostly, the Bible was written either in Hebrew or in Greek. Now, there’s some Aramaic sprinkled in there in the Old Testament. It’s also possible that some of the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew. But all we have surviving are Greek manuscripts. So you have the original, let’s start with that. You have the original. And then the original got copied, and so you had copies. Now, the Hebrews were unbelievable at their coping and they were meticulous, and it was an incredible pains they took to keep it accurate because it was the holy word of God. And they kept it that way, which is why it’s so accurate. What is it, like 99.5% or something like that?

M: Yeah, how do we know the copies are so good?

T: Well, because we have so many of them and they can compare them. And now there was a lot of skepticism that elevated significantly in the Twentieth century and they found the Dead Sea Scrolls and all of a sudden this huge time gap was filled. And it validated the original manuscripts. So, the skeptics started choosing other paths rather than the reliability of scripture, and that was a pretty big deal. So you’ve got the original, and you’ve got copies, and then you have translations. And there are two ancient translations that come to mind that are important. One is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. So in Alexandria, the Jews there were Greek-speaking, and they wanted something they could read of their Bible, the Hebrew Bible, and they translated the Old Testament into Greek. That’s called the Septuagint. The Septuagint, I think is named that because they had 70 scholars translate it.

Joey: I think that’s right.

T: And that exists til today. I find that very useful because I can trace Greek words from the New Testament and see how they used them in the Old Testament and it gives me a connection to how the Hebrews thought when they translated Hebrew into Greek. I find that to be really fascinating. And then you have the Latin translation of the New Testament. And that was pretty ancient. Do you know when that was done? Jerome? Wasn’t he the one that did the Latin translation?

J: I don’t remember. Vulgate? I don’t remember the year.

All the copies

T: Then after that, you had translation in all different kinds of languages. And it’s really cool. If you can go to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, I highly recommend it. It’s a phenomenal Museum. It will give you tremendous encouragement that goes beyond all the things we’ve been saying, the veracity of the Bible and its impact on humanity, positive impact on humanity. But one of their displays is a room that has every single language, including Samoan sign language, and their goal, they have a consortium of organizations whose goal is to get every single language translated. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t remember how much longer that’s gonna take, but it’s years. So, every language ultimately is gonna be translated. So that’s those categories–you’ve got original, copy, and translation. So now, within translation, there are several different kinds of approaches. The first is, which text are you going to consider to be dominant? And there are two basic approaches, the most and the oldest. And King James was most, that was the popular thing. What do you have the most of? And I actually think that’s the best approach. If you think about, I had one and it got copied 10 times, and then each of those got copied 10 more times, so now I have 100 copies and each of those got copied 10 times and now I have 1,000. Three copies in and somebody makes a mistake. Okay, so now each of those gets copied 10 times, I have 10,000, and I’m gonna have 9,990 correct and 10 wrong. And that math continues to propagate–

M: It creates a more and more stable environment.

T: Yeah, as that math continues to propagate, the one you have the most of should tell you that that’s probably the most accurate.

M: Right, that makes sense.

T: And in modern times, it’s flipped. People have decided the oldest is the best. I would say if you have 9,990 that are one way, and four that are the other way, or one that’s the other way, that probably means that it was recognized as defective, put in a trash can and never worn out. 

M: It didn’t get copied.

T: And that’s why it’s so old, it’s because it wasn’t worn out.

M: And nobody copied it, because it was wrong.

T: It didn’t get copied. That’s probably what happened. But in my view, the reason the old has become the dominant one is that it creates jobs for scholars. Scholars tend to be the ones that do all this stuff, that’s my opinion. Now, fortunately, so far, it makes almost no difference. 

M: And you say It makes almost no difference because they’re basically the same, even if there are some that are different. 

T: Basically the same, you left out this phrase and this one and that one, and it doesn’t change the meaning, so far.

J: Just to highlight this point, at the Museum of the Bible, they have some copies where mistakes are made. One of my favorites was a copy that said “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of not.

T: It left out not.

J: Yeah. But to Tim’s point is, if you’ve got one that says that, some guy’s like, “Excuse me, this is what this says.”

T: “Oh here’s an old one, we get to do this now.”

J: But if you have thousands and thousands, it’s easier–

M: That makes sense.

J: It’s easier to track down the mistake and say, “Okay, we’ll take this one out.”

M: Those scribes had a sense of humor back then.

J: Yeah, some guy was just like “Yeah.”

Older vs. Majority

T: So that’s one decision that’s made, which text do we rely on? Now, some of them do both. What they’ll do is that they’ll say like the majority text, I think New King James does this, they use the majority text, but they put a little note in there and you can click the notes, if you have like an interactive Bible or they can click the note and it’ll say NUA or whatever, some say so and so. So it’s flagging you that the older manuscripts say something different. 

J: You might have a footnote in your Bible that says, “Older manuscripts don’t have these verses.”

T: And a lot of times it’ll have it where one gospel will have it and the other one doesn’t, that type of thing. It doesn’t change any meaning, but that’s one question. The second question is when we’re gonna translate. So we’ve now decided, let’s say we decided we’re gonna use majority text, now the question is, what approach are we gonna use for the translation? And here are the possibilities I know of. One is completely literal. That means we’re gonna take every Greek word and insert an English word, and there’s one translation like that that I know of, and I use it, Young’s Literal Translation.

M: That’s gotta be hard to read.

T: Well, I call it the Yoda translation because in Greek, they didn’t do the verbs and the nouns the same way we do. You know? “Strong am I.” It’s got everything, but you get a sense of what they’re actually trying to say. Okay, but I don’t read that. That’s not my native tongue. So that’s literal. And then you get the next kind of closest, that is King James and New King James. And I think ESV is this way, I’m not sure. But for sure King James, New King James and NASB are all this way.

M: NASB is what? 

T: New American Standard. They say, “We’re gonna get as close as we can to word for word and just adjust for grammar.”

M: So that it’s easy on the English reader’s ear. 

T: But we’re gonna try our best to show it as if they had written exactly what they wrote, but written in in English, they would have done this. That’s called word for word. The other end of the spectrum would be paraphrased. 

M: And is there a Bible that’s written in paraphrase?

T: The Living Translating translation is paraphrased. Do you know any others? 

J: The Message.

T: The Message is paraphrased. And it’s like, “I’m gonna take this, understand it, and then restate it in my own words and put it down there.” That’s the other end of the spectrum. 

Which should I choose?

M: So if I’m a new Bible reader, which should I choose?

T: Well, I think all of them have value, but it is useful to know what it is you’re looking at. And if you’re reading a paraphrase, I would say a paraphrase is pretty close to reading The Bible Says. The Bible Says is us who write that speaking collectively about what we think that’s saying, and then putting the text in there, the exact text, so you know the difference between us and what the exact text is saying, We use New American Standard, which is more precise.

J: Yeah, I think for a new Bible reader, it’s kind of a give-and-take. If you want to try to look at it kind of the most literal, but have it makes sense, I would recommend NASB. That’s what I use when I’m trying to do that. But if you do that, it’s–

T: Stiffer.

J: It’s harder to really get your pallet used to what you’re looking at. I don’t know that I would recommend going all the way to a paraphrase like The Message or something, but maybe something like the NIV would be helpful.

T: NIV, New International Version, is, I would call it a literal paraphrase. They call it thought for thought, so paraphrase is my words. And NIV is, “We’re gonna try to give you the same thought in our words.” And I actually don’t like that one because it portrays itself as a word for word, and I think it’s a little misleading. So I actually would say that’d be my least favorite category.

M: So would you say that the right version depends on the person and their style and where they’re at?

T: I would say if you get to something where you are saying, “Wait, that’s important for me to understand”, then go over here to the literal ones and start digging into the literal and try to get to the language behind it. If you’re digging in and say, “I need to understand that”, once you say, “I need to understand that,” then go to the closest to the source that you can. But if you’re just getting the flow, like you were saying it, like, let the water stream over you and stuff, using the paraphrase is fine. Just know that it’s a paraphrase so that if something triggers you and say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, does that make any sense?” and you’re gonna dig in, then you just know, “Well, I’m getting this from somebody else’s words, so let me go dig in and see what I really think that says.”

Dig in and research

J: Yeah, I think more important than which translation you choose is understanding which translation you choose. So if you know that you’re getting into a paraphrase, then that’s fair enough. Yeah, so I think just knowing it. Like Tim was saying at the beginning of this, the language thing is difficult. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for the last few years, and I’ve discovered that there’s a certain line when you’re learning a new language where it’s like, “I can’t keep thinking about this in English and finding Spanish words for it. I’ve got to start thinking about this in Spanish” because the word-for-word thing, you just can’t translate that way. They just don’t have not only the same cadence, but just the euphemisms and things, it’s different. So I don’t think any of this is a sign that is not true or unreliable, it’s just a reality of the translations. And I think what Tim just said is what I would recommend. Even when you see something you love, maybe, especially when you see something you love, I would encourage you to spend some time in multiple translations at different points of your life or different days or different seasons, and don’t fall too in love with one set or the other. They do all have their value.

T: I use the Blue Letter Bible and one of the tools they have is you can click on a verse and it gives you resources. And one of the things you can click on is Bibles and it will give you about 10 different translations, and they call it a “parallel Bible.” You can actually go down and look at every single translation and see how they dealt with that and what the difference is. Usually, they’re not much different, but occasionally there’ll be one that has a different take. And you can dig into that take and see. One of the things that I have found is that when something doesn’t seem right in the Bible like “Whoa, what is that?”, I have found that when I dig into those, that’s where the richest veins are.

J: Yeah, if you think about Ecclesiastes, that word that we’ve talked about before is translated as “meaningless.” 

T: Or “vanity.”

M: “Vanity”, yeah.

J: So if you’re two verses into Ecclesiastes, and you see this “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless” that might hit you like “That doesn’t make sense.”

T: That doesn’t sound right.

J: Yeah, if you didn’t look and you see that word actually translates to “vapor” much more accurately, then that unlocks a whole different way of thinking about it.

Free resources

M: So I’d say it’s important for new readers to read something that you can read comfortably, that makes you want to keep reading. Because that’s the key, we talked about “just do it, however you do it.” So look at a bunch of them. And one of the beautiful things about the Bible is you can find everything you just described online for free. It’s not like you have to go to the bookstore and pick up a bunch of books or go to Amazon and buy a bunch of books. There are all kinds of resources. There’s what you’re putting together. 

T: The Bible Says.

M: I use Olive Tree Bible

T: Yep, and Blue Letter Bible. All are great resources. Is Olive Tree Bible free too?

M: Yeah, the basic app is free. Okay, so these are things that you can use on your iPad, use on your phone, and they’re free. And when you’re ready, when you want to buy a Bible, and I recommend everybody have a hard copy Bible. I have got a bunch of them on my bookshelf now. I love them. There’s something about leafing through the pages of the Bible and having my marker in the Bible, but I also use electronic, because if I’m gonna dig in and I wanna look at different versions and translations, it’s hard going from physical book to physical book. The key is to find what you like that keeps you reading. I would say that’s the most important perk to the Bible.

T: Well, and also it’s important to remember that language is ultimately imprecise. If you start trying to figure out what language is, you’ll run into a dead end pretty quickly, because nobody knows what it is. It’s actually a spiritual thing.

J: I mean, I use the Word every day. I say, “I love Kylie.” Well, what does the word “love” mean? I’m trying to express something that’s ineffable, it’s just impossible. So love is this beautiful, magical word, but it really is imprecise if I’m talking about the depth of what I’m experiencing.

T: And the written word is giving us a shadow of the living Word.

M: Right.

T: And that’s ultimately what we’re doing. This Bible that we’re dealing with is not a magic potion that we’re trying to figure out so that we can control things. It’s an opportunity to have an intimate relationship with an eternal being that has masked Himself from us, I think, so that we can still have choices. If God suddenly–well, He tells us, if we saw His glory, we would actually die, so that’s a problem. But even if He did it in such a way that we could still live, we would have no choice but to bow down. And so He’s masked Himself, so that we have this choice, but he’s also made Himself overtly apparent if we wanna see, and that’s what the Bible is, I think. It’s our opportunity to see, and I believe this. If you go to the Bible wanting to see, you will. And if you go to the Bible wanting to self-justify, you will, and you will not see.

The bird watcher

M: Yeah, I think that’s reasonable. I’ve had a couple of friends who were wrestling with faith subsequent to me coming to faith, and one of them said to me “I’ve heard you say that you’ve seen God acting in your life. And I’ve never felt that, I’ve never seen that.” And I asked him if he’s ever looked for it. And he was in a very serious situation, he was in the hospital facing a brain cancer diagnosis, and those are pretty serious discussions we were having, and he just kinda stared at me when I said that, and I said to him, “You know, it’s like if you were a bird watcher and you carry your auto-guide with you, right? And you walk outside,” we were in the hospital and I said, “If I walk outside this hospital door maybe I’d notice there were birds, maybe I wouldn’t know what they were, I wouldn’t really pay any attention to them because I’m not a bird watcher. I’m not looking for them. If I was a birder, if this is my hobby and my passion, I probably have my guide in my back pocket, it’d be all tattered, and when I walk outside, the first thing I would do is notice the birds. I’d look them up in my guide like, ‘Oh look, there’s a whatever it is, right?’ And I’d make a note of it. God is the same in our lives. When we’re seeking God, when we open the Holy Bible and we’re looking for stuff in there, you’ll find that stuff because you’re seeking it. If you’re not seeking it, you’re not gonna find it.”