Why Are There So Many Versions of the Bible?

I have been asked recently and am often asked why there are so many versions of the Bible.  I thought I would just throw up a blog post here for everyone to see and get my perspective on the matter.  The answer is really two fold.

1. There are many versions of the Bible because it is a translated book.

The Bible was written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.  Most of us are unfamiliar with these languages and therefore need a translator of some sort. (By the way this is why often times you hear different “versions” of the Bible referred to as “translations”).  It would be rather weird and expensive for us to get a translator every time we sat down to read or hear the Bible.

So we have “translations” or “versions” of the Bible.  Someone somewhere (usually several scholars working together) produced a “translation” of the Bible into English. Generally speaking they all say the same thing.  However, translation is a tricky business.  Words are not always equal and sometimes translators struggle to put a Greek or Hebrew thought into coherent English and some choose some words over others.

Then you also have to account for the audience for whom you will be translating.  I sometimes have to “translate” what I am saying in English to my less articulate 5-year-old.  When it comes to the Bible, translation theory also plays a big part.  Are translators going for a “word for word” translation or a “thought for thought” translation… in other words which has more importance, the actual words of the Bible or the thoughts/ message, or both?

So in large part we have several “versions” or “translations” of the Bible because translators are going for different things. The New American Standard (NASB)  folks are going for a more conservative “word for word.” The New International Version (NIV) folks are going for a “thought for thought” kind of translation.  Then there are versions like The Message and the New Living (NLT) that are more like “paraphrases.” A paraphrase is like a retelling in simpler language.  Like when I retell my thoughts to my daughter in a way that she will understand them.

2. Translations are Copyrighted.

The second reason that there are so many versions of the Bible is quite simply publishing companies copyright their translations.  Rightly or wrongly whoever produces a translation of the Bible owns rights to that translation and can control how it is printed and used.  Rather than pay money to use another publishing company’s translation or jump through the hoops of securing rights to use another companies translation on a project, many have assembled a team of scholars and developed their own translation.  For example The Message (Nav Press), The New Living Translation (Tyndale) and the New Century Version (Thomas Nelson) though different versions of the Bible are all geared toward the same type audience.

The fact that their are a variety of translations of the Bible isn’t really a bad thing.  In fact it can be helpful to read two or three translations of a passage to get a good grasp on the meaning of a difficult passage of scripture.  I hope this helps.

Personally I use the English Standard Version (ESV) the most, but I do have copies of several other translations as well.

2 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Versions of the Bible?

  1. Josh

    Why do you consider NLT a “paraphrase” if it titles itself as a translation? Aren’t they different? I would think the NLT is more like the NIV (a thought-for-thought based translation) than The Message.


  2. pastorjonathan1

    Great comment Josh. Actually both the NLT and the Message are technically “translations.” Both have drawn from the original language. All translations generally use a little of both “word for word” and “thought for thought” theory in translation. The Message and the NLT however are on the more extreme edge of “thought for thought” translation, The Message going a little further on the idiomatic level as well.

    The Message and NLT are more like a “Thought for simpler thought” translations. Not only is their a translation of thought, but an attempt to reduce that thought to the simplest expression possible for a given audience. In my estimation that’s a paraphrase. For example “righteous” would be rendered “right with God” on certain occasions. The thought is “righteous,” the paraphrase explaining “righteous” is “right with God.” The full extent of righteousness isn’t just being right with God. There is actually more to the original thought, but it has been reduced to it’s simplest element.

    If I were to translate my Greek New Testament for my daughter it would be a paraphrase. The Greek style in which it was written, though common for it’s time, would still be intellectually above my 5-year-old’s head for a straight translation. I would have to reduce the thoughts for her to understand and I might have to explain some cultural nuances. So in essence I would be translating twice. Once to get the thought for myself and second to put it on my daughters level. The second part, the reduction, is called paraphrase. I’m “rephrasing” the thought so she can understand.


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