Scripture 101 – Translations

“It’s all Greek to me”

Since the books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew and Greek, for ordinary folks like you and I to be able to read and understand the Bible, they needed to be translated into languages we speak.  In 1526, William Tyndale published the first English translation of the Bible.  It was controversial at the time (for reasons of politics, tradition and religious tension from the Protestant Reformation), and Tyndale was actually executed for it.

Yet there is a sad irony in this – because the church in England at the time was using the Latin Vulgate — itself a translation of the original languages into the ‘vulgar’ or common language of the people of the Roman Empire, dating back to the late 4th century.

In fact, many of the Jews of Jesus’ time were reading their scriptures (our Old Testament) in a Greek translation of the Hebrew known as the Septuagint, because Greek was the common language of the Mediterranean world  – thanks to Alexander the Great, which is another story entirely.

The point being — there is a long history of translating the Bible into the languages being spoken by people today in different parts of the world.  Christians have not insisted that people learn ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek in order to read God’s word for themselves, but that through translating the Bible, we can read, study, and encounter God for ourselves and as part of the church community.

Why so many different translations?

If you’ve ever tried to buy a Bible, you probably noticed a bewildering variety of translations and types – an acronym soup of NRSV, NIV, KJV, ASV, NLT and so on…  What’s going on?

Well, the challenge is that words and ideas don’t always translate directly into one another.  Grammar and sentence structure can be different, idioms and puns don’t make sense if they’re translated literally.

Some Bible translations try to translate word for word in as literal a way as possible, even if it makes it difficult to read and follow.  Others (to a greater or lesser degree) try to capture the meaning of the original text, while putting it in language and sentence structure that is easier to read and understand.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.  Sometimes a paraphrase translation like the Message by Eugene Peterson can help shed new light or clarity on a hard to understand passage from Paul.  Or a very literal translation will include some details or connections that we might otherwise miss with a different style of translating.

For more information on the different perspectives in translation:

How do I find the right one for me?

So which is the “right” one?  …the one you will read and can understand.  As with so many things, don’t get hung up on finding the perfect translation or arguing over which one is better.  Start somewhere — and build from there.   More literal translations are generally better for study.  Other more dynamic or paraphrase translations may be more helpful at times for devotional reading.  God speaks through all of them; because the Bible is not an end in itself, but to draw us deeper in relationship to God through Jesus.

The deeper answer to the question of which Bible translation is best for me, is to realize that it can be helpful to have a few different kinds of translations at hand.  Looking at them side by side will sometimes highlight things that otherwise might get overlooked, and where words get translated differently can point to important words that might be difficult to translate from Hebrew or Greek into English.

Thanks to the internet – it’s easier than ever to access multiple translations quickly. is a great free website that allows you to not only look up passages in all the major translations, but to compare passages in different translations.  (This is also not a bad way to get a sense of which Bible translation may be most helpful to you!)

The American Bible Society has a list and brief description of some of the major English translations today: