Some Background to Modern English Bible Translations
There are a plethora of different Bible translations available for the Christian to choose from. Some are better and some are worse. All come from a devout desire to make the written word of God accessible to people of all cultures, languages, and walks of life. This is not meant to be an exhaustive overview, but is meant to be more of a snapshot of the available options.
The Revised Version of 1881 and the American Standard Version of 1901: With new archaeological and linguistic evidence available, it was deemed appropriate that the King James Version be revised and reworked. This lead to two versions being published: the Revised and the American Standard Versions in England and America respectively. These reflected both more modern speech and the most current linguistic scholarship of the day.
Scofield Bible: In 1909, Cyrus Scofield published the King James Version of the Bible with his own footnotes much in the same way as the earlier Geneva Bible had done. Scofield was a Congregationalist pastor but had been ordained in the Southern Presbyterian church (although he never served a Presbyterian congregation). Scofield was a dispensationalist in this theology, which set him apart from the Covenantal theology of his Reformed heritage. This becomes quite apparent when you begin to study his notes on the Second Coming of Christ. It is important that the Christian be aware of his biases before committing to the use of his notes. Regardless of your theological bias, Scofield’s theology has had a tremendous influence on the American church. His influence is can especially be seen in the Southern Baptist church and in the literature of the Moody Bible Institute.
Moffat Bible: Scottish theologian and Oxford professor, James Moffat completed his translation of the Bible in 1924. He also served as editor of a New Testament commentary series that utilized his translation. His translation never became widely circulated, but copies still turn up from time to time. While Moffat was not always orthodox in his thinking, his translation often grasps the literary intent as well as the meaning of the poetic books of the Old Testament.
Revised Standard Version: In 1952, the American Standard Version was revised in a somewhat less literal, but more readable form. The intent of this translation was to provide a more ecumenical translation that would be acceptable to Catholics and Protestants alike. The RSV and the later revision in 1989, the New Revised Standard Version, are probably the most widely used texts in mainline Protestant denominations.
New American Standard Bible: Another revision of the American Standard Version is the New American Standard Bible, published in 1960. This is probably the most literal translation of the original texts available today. It is the result of the work of 58 evangelical scholars from a variety of denominations so carries a good balance of literal translation as well as keeping doctrinal intent sound. This is one of the best study Bibles available today.
Amplified Bible: Because many words carry wider connotations in the original languages than in the English translation, in 1965, scholars were led to create the Amplified Bible. This translation includes in italics the various synonymous words that the original word implies. Readers then can insert one or more of these words to hopefully better convey the original intent of the text. While it can be awkward to read for personal edification and study, it has been often used by revival preachers who want greater emphasis on particular words in the texts from which they are preaching.
Today’s English Version (Good News Bible): In 1966, the American Bible Society published a new translation in contemporary English. This version intentionally uses colloquial language in its translation. In 1991 it was revised to become the Contemporary English Version. The CEV similarly uses colloquialisms and is written on about a 5th grade level to make it accessible to a broader audience.
New English Bible: This 1970 translation done in England carried a heavy British flavor. Its revision, the Revised English Bible, in 1989 removed many of these idioms, but still kept an English flair. It is a popular translation for public reading as it keeps much of the traditional poetic flair of the older King James Version.
Living Bible: In 1971, the American Standard Version was paraphrased to create the Living Bible. The New Living translation, published in 1996, was not a paraphrase, but a new translation although it kept much of the readability of its predecessor.
New International Version: In 1978, the New International Version was published which has turned out to be one of the most popular translations amongst evangelical Christians. It maintains a good balance between readability and technical accuracy. The latest revision of the NIV, Today’s New International Version, published in 2002, has created a stir in the evangelical churches who were loyal to it because it went to a gender neutral translation (see above).
Readers Digest Condensed Version: While this translation, published in 1982, sounds somewhat humorous to more mature Christians, this translation was headed up by Bruce Metzger, a respected Bible scholar, with the intent of making the scriptures more accessible to un-churched people. Better than half a million copies were sold of this translation, but leaves open questions as to the dangers that abound when you edit and condense the word of God.
New King James Version: Another 1982 publication was more well received than the Readers Digest Version. The New King James Version offers more contemporary language than the Earlier King James Version.
International Children’s Bible: This translation of 1986 was the result of the collaboration of translators that worked on the New American Standard Bible, The New King James Version, and the New International Version of the Bible. Their plan was to create a translation that is specifically designed for use by children. It is written on a third grade educational level and uses short sentences with easily understood language. Its revision, the New Century Version of 1991 was marketed more for adults, but kept the third grade reading level.
The Message: In 1993, Eugene Peterson published his own New Testament. While this is technically a new translation of the Ancient Greek, stylistically it is closer to a paraphrase as many thoughts are added to convey the meaning of the text and it is written to read like a novel. Peterson also dropped the verse notations from his translation which makes serious Bible Study more challenging. Many Christians enjoy reading this translation casually, but it is not meant to be a primary Bible for study and worship.
Holman Christian Standard Bible: Published in 2000, this English translation was commissioned by the Southern Baptist Publishing House and was produced by a team of 90 scholars from a variety of denominations. This translation tries to balance Formal and Dynamic Equivalence methods to create a readable but literal translation.
English Standard Version: Published in 2001, the ESV is an evangelical revision of the RSV. Its design was to provide an essentially literal translation without the “woodenness” that is found in many literal translations. Its language has much of the fluidity of the NIV, but it proves to be much more accurate in its translation. While it is an excellent Bible for study, it can be daunting particularly for younger Christians as it is written on an eleventh grade reading level.
Foreign Language Translations
With a vision to place a Bible in their native language in the hands of every man woman and child on the planet, groups like the Wycliffe Bible Translation Society are working at a feverish pace. Currently, there are complete Bible Translations in better than 500 languages worldwide as well as Bible tracts, which contain portions of scripture, in more than 2000 different languages. And the process continues. In some cases, translators must go into a region and create a written language for the culture before translation can even begin. It is a long and arduous process, but with the aide of computer communication and database technology, the missionaries that God has called into his service are spreading God’s written word even to the most remote regions.
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Admittedly, the flood of translations can be confusing and misleading at times. Yet, we are privileged to live in a culture where reliable translations are available to us as we have the resources to study more than one translation if we choose. All too often we take this privilege for granted. Don’t. Rather, as you are mourning the flood of less than perfect translations, pray for those who are diligently seeking to provide a complete Bible for cultures who have none. And pray that those translations, as well as the English translations that we are presented with, would be faithful to the wonderful God we serve.
The specific Bible that you choose for Bible study should be a good one, but the particular version that you choose is less important than that you fill your life with God’s word. There is no excuse for the Christian to be ignorant as to the scriptures, but many professed evangelical Christians are. Find a translation that you can understand and perhaps a reliable commentary (I recommend starting with Matthew Henry) to help you through tricky verses and to enrich your study. Then read it, study it, and fall in love with it.