Which version of the Bible should I read? This is one of the most emotive and controversial subjects Christians face. Knowing how the Bible is translated into English from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek will better equip us to make an informed decision. There are three main factors which influence Bible translation:

1. Choice of Manuscripts

We have considered how the Holy Spirit inspired men to write the words of scripture. We have seen how the original manuscripts were copied and circulated. Over time, small scribal errors crept in to the various copies and the originals were lost.

Today, translators have two broad categories of manuscripts from which to choose. These are the ‘majority texts’, and the ‘earlier texts’.

The vast majority of ancient manuscripts are all very similar. Some translators prefer to use these as the basis of translation because the fact that there are so many of them attests to their reliability and authenticity. Ancient scribes trusted these manuscripts and copied them over and over again. The KJV and NKJV are based largely on these documents.

There are a smaller, but significant number of documents which vary from the majority. These are generally believed to be older, and therefore were copied nearer to the time of the originals. The argument in favour of these manuscripts is that in being copied fewer times, there was less chance of scribal errors creeping in. The ESV and NIV lean heavily on these texts.

As an example, compare Revelation chapter 1 verse 5 in the NKJV with the NIV:

‘To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood’ (NKJV).

‘To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood’ (NIV).

Most of the surviving Greek documents we have use the word lousanti, washed. But a small number of earlier manuscripts have the verb lusanti, freed. It is easy to see how a scribal error crept in, but since both meanings are true, it is difficult to be sure whether the letter 'o' was accidentally added, or if it was inadvertently omitted.

The process of textual criticism helps translators determine which manuscripts most likely reflect the originals. It involves studying multiple manuscripts, comparing scripture with scripture, and considering context. If the translation team cannot agree, they sometimes put the one they feel is most likely in the text, and the alternative in a footnote.

2. Philosophy of Translation

The goal of Bible translators is to communicate clearly the original Hebrew or Greek into English which is both natural and accurate. Often this involves striking a balance. Generally speaking, a more formal translation such as the NKJV will favour a literal, word-for-word translation, even if the result sounds a little stilted in English. A freer translation, such as the NIV, tries to convey the meaning in more natural English, even if some of the nuances of the original are lost.

For example, compare Philemon verse 20 in the following versions:

‘Refresh my bowels in Christ’ (JND).

‘Refresh my heart in Christ’ (ESV).

‘Give me this encouragement in Christ’ (NLT).

Paul literally used the Greek word for bowels, because in ancient thought the bowels were the seat of the emotions. But today, we think of emotion as being centred in the heart, so the ESV gives a ‘dynamic equivalent’ translation. The NLT simplifies things even further by paraphrasing the meaning without using body parts or even the word ‘refresh’. It does convey the overall meaning, but the details are lost. This makes a freer translation easy on the eye for bedtime reading, but a more literal translation is indispensable for serious Bible study.

3. Changing Language

Language changes over time, and eventually revisions may be needed. Outdated language sounds odd, can be distracting, and sometimes even conveys the wrong meaning. Compare, for example, James chapter 2 verse 3 in the KJV with any modern version. Whatever translation we personally prefer, thought should be given to what we use publicly. When addressing the assembly, it is important to respect the convictions of church leaders. When communicating with children or engaging in evangelism, we should consider the impression our choice of version makes on our hearers.