Some faith traditions believe that any translation of the holy scripture strips it of its credibility. The belief is that only the words in their original form can possibly be holy, carrying their full divine message. Unlike other religions, Christians believe that their holy text can be translated from its original language without losing its inerrancy. This belief relies on the message remaining intact in spite of the actual, textual words used. With this stipulation in mind, translators have worked for centuries doing their best to work out the true essence of the original writings of scripture and put them into words that can be understood by the next generation.
A short history of the Bible
What many English speakers don’t understand is that their copy of the Bible is 100% translated text. The Bible is not simply a book, rather it’s a library, made up of several books, all written in different languages by different authors. Excluding the Apocrypha, the Bible is made up of 66 books written over hundreds of years in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Over time, the Bible was translated into Latin and was primarily read in this language up until the Middle Ages. Even though Latin fell from the lips of men as a spoken and written language, the Bible remained only in this language. This made it accessible to just the Roman Catholic clergy because they were the only ones who could speak and read it.
Unfortunately for believers everywhere, this was a bad thing. Since only a few had access to and knowledge of the Word of God, the Word became hidden from man. Eventually, through the efforts of people like Erasmus, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, and others, the Bible was translated into updated Latin and later to common German and eventually English. These men felt that not only can the Bible be translated into other languages, it must be. If every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented in heaven and salvation comes through hearing the Word, then clearly God intended for his message to go out to the ends of the earth in everyday language.
Considerations in translation
What these scholars learned in translating the Bible is that words have a tricky way of meaning multiple things. Also, when moving across languages, sometimes a word exists in one where an entire phrase would be needed to communicate the same idea in the other. This can leave the translator with a serious problem. Should they try to be as precise as possible in the actual definition of the words or should they try to communicate the message in an understandable way that is more like the way people speak? Also, what happens in one or two hundred years when the way people speak has changed so much that your translation sounds old and nobody wants to read it?
The answers to these questions lead us to the point we’re at today in America. There is a list of English Bible translations as long as my arm, each rooted in the original manuscripts. Thanks to biblical scholars working hard to keep up with modern language, we can read God’s Word comfortably and breathe in the richness of the story without having to get a doctorate in Ancient Greek or Hebrew.
But can you trust them?
One thing that would worry me is something I will call “translation creep”. If you translate a text from one language and then to another and then again, all using the previous version as the base for translation, you will eventually get to a point where the text no longer resembles the original writing. Think of this like a centuries long game of telephone. Fortunately, this is not what happens in biblical translation. Instead, the Bible has continually been re-translated from the same original texts and manuscripts, preventing it from experiencing translation creep.
Additionally, there are millions of copies of the Bible in existence today, and the side by side comparison between translations is often more like seeing two ways to say the same thing. This makes it extremely difficult to mislead people through tampering or misinformation within the text. Since a simple cross reference is within reach, tampering would be hard to get away with over a long period of time or across a wide range of people. If someone really wanted to mislead people about Christianity, the easiest way would be to get them to ignore the Bible altogether.
For this reason, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Bible and read it. Read it for pleasure. Study it for understanding. Neglecting to read scripture is the first step in forgetting who God is. Reading it is the first step to gaining wisdom.
Appendix: A short guide to choosing which translation to read
With so many versions out there, it’s helpful to understand what some of them are before deciding which one to pick up. Fortunately, the variety of methods for translation has led to some incredibly useful and captivating translations of scripture. Reading multiple translations of the same text can lead to much greater levels of understanding. Even paraphrases like The Message Bible (MSG) can be useful from time to time when the soul of a piece of text eludes you.
The most popular, and my wife’s favorite, translation is the New International Version (NIV). This translation is well rounded, with a very even blend of word for word literal translation and more commonly spoken words and phrases.
The King James Version (KJV), formerly the most popular bible in america, is the classic translation most people think of when the think about Christianity. This translation was commissioned in the 1600’s by King James and was modeled after Shakespearean English. It was intended to be a very elegant and accurate translation and it achieved that. However, it’s not easy for us to read today and comprehension is difficult.
My personal favorite is the New Living Translation (NLT). This version is a little bit lighter on the direct literal translation and a little heavier on the essential (essence) translation. This really makes the poetry of the Bible come alive.
My second favorite is the English Standard Version (ESV). This version was intended to be as word for word literal as possible. I find this version very useful for study and it was the translation I used the first time I read all the way through the Bible.
Recently, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) was updated again to become the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). Both are excellent choices and take a strong stab at literal translation with an eye to commonly spoken English. If you want a more readable version, go with the CSB. This edition came out in the last year and is among the most modern translations of Christian text.
If you really want to have some fun, The Scripture 2009 (TS2009) doesn’t try to decide between literal and essential translation. Where certain words don’t exist in English, this version leaves them in their original form! If you’ve ever wanted to do a word study or wanted to feel like a scholar, then this translation is for you. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to read for comprehension.
There are still others, I could go on. But the point is, the Bible is still alive today with updates being made as scholars and scientists discover more corroborating ancient texts or errors made in translations of the past.