What Translations Are People Reading?

November 29, 2019

What is the best Bible translation? I like the reply that says, “The one that’s read.” I’ve read many different translations in my Christian walk, and, clearly the statistics indicate we live in a multiple translation environment, so as we attempt to teach, we have to take that into account. Translation differences can often lead to interesting investigations to help us better understand a passage. But I’m curious about what people are reading.

What are the most purchased Bible translations? The following list is from August 2019 and compiled by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

  1. New International Version
  2. King James Version
  3. English Standard Version
  4. New Living Translation
  5. New King James Version
  6. Reina Valera (Spanish)
  7. Christian Standard Bible
  8. New International Reader’s Version
  9. New American Standard Bible
  10. The Message

The Barna Group did a survey in 2018 of the most read Bible translations.

  1. King James Version 31%
  2. New International Version 13%
  3. English Standard Version 9%
  4. New King James Version 7%
  5. Amplified 7%
  6. Christian Community 4% (originally produced in the Philippines)
  7. New American Standard 3%
  8. New Living Translation 2%
  9. Revised Standard 2%
  10. Contemporary English Version 2%
  11. New American Bible 2%
  12. All others (1% or less combined) 9%
  13. Not sure 8%

Dr. Jack P. Lewis did a review of Bible translations called The English Bible from KJV to NIV*. Lewis had the knowledge of the languages, and the book is a detailed oriented book. But one of his concluding thoughts may help us in our multi-translation world.

While versions differ in translating specific statements, all of the available English translations present the basic duties toward God and man. By comparing one with the other, the person with no language training can be warned about going astray because of the peculiarities of one translation. He may be challenged to new ideas by reading a new translation. The religious problems of the world are not caused by people reading different translations; the most serious problem is that many read no translation!*

— Russ Holden

*Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible from KJV to NIV, p. 412.

Reflections on an Old Bible

August 5, 2016

When I was at my Mom’s house, I found the Bible I had as a teenager. It was a King James Bible that my grandparents had given me as I entered my teen years. Later, I purchased a NASB right before I headed to college. The complete NASB (Old Testament and New Testament) was first published in 1971, which coincides with my high school graduation and first year of college. So somewhere along the way this old Bible was left on a bookshelf at my Mom’s house.

It was fun to look through my old Bible after so many years. It’s a bit dilapidated. I may have been rougher on it than I should have been, however, Bibles are meant to be worn out. Our frequent use of them should take a toll on them. I once read that Bible publishers suggest that the life expectancy of a bonded leather Bible is about 10 years, 5 years for a hardback, and 1 year for a paperback.

I was interested in the notes that I had placed in it. Bible knowledge is not gained in a day. It takes a life time of study. The notes that I had made as a teenager were very basic. It contained scripture references that today I probably wouldn’t need any help finding. I had written down concepts that back then I probably understood very imperfectly. For example, I misspelled the word “Pentateuch” — a word that means 5 scrolls which is normally applied to the first five books of the Old Testament, and I don’t believe that 1 Timothy has 15 chapters the last time I checked. I was told not to write in a book as a child, which meant do not write in the school owned textbook, because someone else is going to use it. We should ignore that order when it comes to books we own. One important was of learning the content of a book is underling or highlighting passages and making marginal notes.

All these notes represent an effort on my part to learn. Learning always involves effort. We cannot be passive listeners and expect to gain much from the lessons we hear. I am afraid that a verse that is true of many is 2 Timothy 3:7 — “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (ESV). Listening to sermons and Bible class lessons is not like watching television. It should not be a passive experience. Our Bibles need to be open, notes need to be taken when appropriate, and our minds need to be engaged in active listening. Active listening searches for the main points, the evidence for the points advanced, and an evaluation of the truthfulness of what is presented. A biblical example of just this sort of thing is found in the case of the Bereans in Acts 17:11: “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (NASB).

Finally, in looking at my old Bible I remember that I had some teachers who really cared. They worked hard at teaching. I still have taped in that Bible a handout from one of my teachers. Teaching is more than filling a 45-minute period. We are doing something that may help shape the spiritual lives of our students. It is a great responsibility. We must be students of the Word ourselves in order to be good teachers. Likely, we will have to go beyond the printed prepared materials in order to give our students everything they need. Teaching requires the commitment of time and study, but it gives great rewards.

“You have heard the things that I have taught. Many other people heard those things too. You should teach those same things. Give those teachings to some people you trust. Then they will be able to teach those things to other people” (2 Timothy 2:2, Easy-to- Read Version).

Even the Plowboy Shall Know

January 31, 2014

I want you to mentally travel back in time to the 14th century AD. As we travel back in time, we notice that all of our English translations have disappeared. How’s your Greek, Hebrew, or Latin? Upon arrival in the 14th century, not only are there no English Bibles, but the religious leaders of the day regard allowing the “common man” to have a Bible to be a great danger. John Wycliffe produced an English translation in 1382 prior to the invention of the printing press. But the reaction to translating was so severe, that the Council of Constance in 1415 ordered Wycliffe’s remains to be disinterred and burned, and the ashes thrown on the River Swift.

In 1525, John Tyndale was the first to translate and produce a printed English New Testament. He was incensed by the prejudice of the religious clerics of his day. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells of Tyndale having a argument with one of these “learned” men:

Not long after, Tyndale happened to be in company of a certain divine, and in disputing with him he pressed him so hard that the doctor burst out into these blasphemous words: “We were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.”

Tyndale full of godly zeal, replied: “I defy the pope and all his laws;” and added, that if God spared him life, ere many years, he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.

Tyndale made good on this, but he had to leave England to do it because of opposition. And irony of ironies, the English Bible had to be smuggled into England in bales of cloth. Religious leaders burned copies of it, and Tyndale was later imprisoned and finally executed.

Your English Bible is a priceless possession. Not everyone has been so fortunate as to be able to read for themselves the Word of God. Regrettably, the dream that even the plowboy shall know scripture can be lost today, not for lack of a Bible, but for lack of a Bible reader.

Which Bible?

January 10, 2014

“Which Bible should I read?” The question is simple enough, but sometimes people ask the question with a subtext. The subtext goes something like this: there are so many different translations of the Bible, how does God expect me to sort this out? The subtext’s complaint then becomes an excuse for procrastination and inaction.

Informed Christians know that the Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew with a small portion in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. That means when there are controversies over meaning, the final appeal must be to the original languages. Yet, that does not rule out the importance of translations.

Translating the Bible into various languages has been done since earliest times (for example with the New Testament into Syriac and old Latin), but it received a greater emphasis beginning in the Reformation. Most people are not going to be in the position to learn Greek and Hebrew, yet we have a great interest in knowing what God’s word says.

So what are some good guidelines for choosing a Bible translation?

  1. Choose a translation done by a committee. Committee members serve as checks and balances on one another to prevent a bias from entering the translation. Most major translation have been done by a committee, and most modern ones have had committees composed of a spectrum of Christian groups. That doesn’t mean never read a translation by an individual, and it doesn’t mean that bias can never be found in a committee translation. It rather reflects the safest place to start.
  2. Be informed about translation philosophy. There are two basic approaches to translations: formal equivalence (more word to word) and functional equivalence (more thought to thought). Most translations can be described as formal equivalent or functional equivalent. Most translations will describe their approach in the preface. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Comparing the two approaches can be valuable. It is important to know which approach you are reading. I find formal equivalence helpful for close study, but when I was a new reader of the Bible, I found the functional equivalence helpful to my fledgling understanding.
  3. You can read more than one and compare. Although most of us will choose a primary translation for reading and study, we live in a world where it is easy to compare translations. Computers and mobile devices make this especially true. I’ve learned a lot through the years comparing the two kinds of translation approaches and different translations. Sometimes differences in translations make no real difference in overall meaning. Sometimes differences reflect possible nuances in the original languages, and sometimes differences alert the reader to problems of interpretation. But having read many different translations of the Bible, my overall impression is that they are all translating the same book. We may find verses where one translation is preferable to another, but the overall, big picture message remains the same.

According to a recent listing from the Christian Booksellers Association, these are the top selling translations by units sold:

  1. New International Version
  2. King James Version
  3. English Standard Version
  4. New King James Version
  5. New Living Translation
  6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
  7. Reina Valera 1960 (if you read Spanish)
  8. New International Readers Version
  9. Common English Bible
  10. New American Standard Bible

Although I would have preferences in this list, the reality is that you could learn how to become a Christian and what you need to be saved from reading any translation on this bestseller list. Just read it!

NIV 2011

February 18, 2011

The print edition of a major update to the NIV is expected to be released in March 2011. Electronic versions of this new edition are already available. The new edition is simply called the NIV. In order for consumers to know which edition they are purchasing, they will have to check the copyright notice in the front. The previous edition ended with a copyright date of 1984. The new one will have a date of 2011. Zondervan expects to move all of their NIV products to the new edition over the next two years. After the release of this new edition, the 1984 edition of the NIV and the TNIV will no longer be published.

The path to this updated version has been bumpy and controversial. Two previous editions met with criticism — the NIVI released in Britain (the “I” stood for inclusive) and the TNIV (the “T” stood for “Today’s”). The debate centered on gender inclusive language. Most modern translations (e.g., NKJV, NASB, and ESV) attempt to be somewhat gender neutral. The question is the extent to which this may legitimately be done. For example, sometimes “brothers” may include women, but not always. The new NIV frequently uses “brothers and sisters” where the Greek has “brothers.” But there are situations where it may be difficult to know whether women should be included. For example, the new NIV has “believers” for “brothers” in Acts 14:23 for the group that travelled with Peter to Cornelius’ house. Controversy also erupts over changing singular masculine pronouns like “he” to plural pronouns like “they.”

“Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. ” (John 14:23, NIV 2011, my emphasis)

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. ” (Revelation 3:20, NIV 2011, my emphasis)

We end up with singular pronouns being mixed with plural pronouns referring to the same person. Other passages to notice are that Phoebe becomes a “deacon” in Romans 16:1, and women are told not to “assume authority” rather than “have authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12. These are passages that are likely to spark discussion.

The new NIV has responded to some of the criticisms of the NIVI and TNIV and pulled back a bit from those editions, but it remains to be seen whether it is enough to avoid controversy and gain the same level of use. Readers of the Bible need to understand how to distinguish the previous NIV from the new one and the nature of some of the changes. Readers of “thought for thought” translations like the NIV are wise to compare with more “word for word” translations to see if we indeed have God’s thoughts and not just the thoughts of a translation committee.

How Tall Was Goliath?

October 28, 2010

David defeats the much larger Goliath with a shepherd’s sling. The story is well known, and it seems like this is a simple question: how tall was Goliath? In most of our Bibles, 1 Samuel 17:4 reads “six cubits and a span.” A cubit is the measurement from the elbow to the tip of one’s fingers (approximately 18 inches) and a span is about half a cubit. That gives Goliath’s height as 9 foot 9 inches.

That measurement has at least the problem of precision. I suspect that if we went around measuring people from elbow to finger tip, we might find some variation in numbers. The truth is that ancient measurements were not standardized. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary cautions:

It is almost impossible to translate ancient measures precisely into modern metrological terms. Regardless of how precisely stated, most modern equivalents have a margin of error extending to ±5 percent or even greater, and ancient measures were never able to achieve either the degree of precision or of standardization that characterize modern measures. (6:899)

In other words, the measurement is not as precise as saying 9 foot 9 inches sounds to us. To make matters worse, I would suggest that it was a measurement taken on a battlefield and not the precise kind of measurements of the doctor’s office or the coroner’s autopsy table. All of us have probably had the experience of stepping things off to get a rough idea versus getting out a tape measure and getting a more exact measure. Even rough measurements serve a purpose. The height of Goliath may be a rough measurement, but serves the purpose of designating Goliath as a formidable opponent.

In addition, what was measured? Are we looking at a measurement from Goliath’s foot to the top of his head or could it include his footwear and helmet? The tallest man in the modern period was Robert Pershing Wadlow who was 8 foot 11.1 inches. That gets us close to Goliath’s height, although 10 inches short. But given what has been said about precision of measurements and questions about what was measured, we may be much closer to Wadlow’s height than we might at first think. But there is an alternate reading for Goliath’s height.

The reading of “six cubits and a span” is from the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were Jewish scribes who copied and preserved the text from the 7th to the 10 centuries A.D. The other witnesses that we have to the text of the Old Testament include the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Septuagint was translated between 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The Dead Sea Scrolls date between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D.

The Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls give “four cubits and a span” for Goliath’s height in 1 Samuel 17:4. That would make Goliath’s height 6 foot 9 inches. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, also records the account of David and Goliath in his Antiquities of the Jews (6.170) and also gives “four cubits and a span” as Goliath’s height.

Does that mean the Bible has errors? The short answer is no. Conservative Bible believing people who claim that the Bible is without error are referring to the original autographs. The autograph is the text as it was originally penned by the inspired writer. We acknowledge that small textual variations have occurred with hand copying. None of these textual variants would change doctrine. We have enough textual evidence to be certain about what was written.

In other words, the real question is which number did the author of 1 Samuel write “six cubits and a span” or “four cubits and a span.”

How tall would David have been? David would likely have been about 5 foot 2 inches given the average stature of the time period. A Goliath at 6 foot 9 inches would have been an imposing opponent. Think about the arms length advantage that height would give when fighting with a sword. (By the way, that height could make it into the NBA too — the average height is around 6 foot 7 inches.)

Which answer is correct? That is obviously a judgment call. I think the shorter height reading is likely correct. The ESV gives the higher number in the text and the lower number in the footnote. The NET Bible reads “ close to seven foot tall” and explains in a footnote the alternatives.

A skeptic might say 9 foot 9 inches is an impossible height. I think there are solid answers for all kinds of skepticism. We have seen that even with the traditional number of six cubits and a span, it is not as precise as we might at first think. In other words, even the traditional number may in reality be closer to the height of known individuals. And it may be that the reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint reflect the original reading. This may be just one more case where additional information helps.

A Criticism of Functional Equivalence

September 24, 2009

Functional equivalence in Bible translation attempts to elicit the same meaning of the original in language forms that are natural to the receptor language. Formal equivalence attempts to be as literal (word for word) as possible. A great emphasis in functional equivalence occurred in Bible translation for third world countries. In some cases, these languages had no written alphabet, dictionary, or grammar. Translators were undertaking a tremendous task.

From these third world experiences, functional equivalence procedures began to be applied to translations in English. The past half century has seen greater use of functional equivalent methods, but the approach is not without critics.

Leland Ryken in his book, The Word of God in English,* points out a number of fallacies to this approach. One fallacy strikes at the heart of translation issues. It is the fallacy that all translating is interpretation.

Ryken notes a failure to distinguish linguistic interpretation from thematic interpretation. By linguistic interpretation, Ryken means the choice between what word best translates the original term. Translators may have to choose between wilderness or desert to describe the area of Israel’s 40 years of wandering. They may choose between descendant or seed to render the Hebrew term zerah.

Word choices like this do involve interpretation, but functional equivalence frequently goes beyond this into what Ryken calls thematic interpretation of the meaning of the text. For example, note the following two versions of 2 Peter 1:20.


Formal Equivalent/ESV Functional Equivalent/NIV
knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.

The NIV has given us an interpretation of this verse. It has specified the “someone” in the passage. This is a case where I think the interpretation is correct. However, someone could come along and say, “This is not what Peter said, and I don’t think it is what he meant.” We would have to resort to the more literal translation and make our case.

In addition, this raises the issue that translators may make the wrong thematic interpretation in various passages. Thematic interpretation gives rise to much greater variation in translations. It is a case of readers beware.

*The Word of God in English is available as a free PDF download at http://www.esv.org/translation/woge.

The Gender Neutral Language Controversy

September 10, 2009

The NIV has been in the news this past week. Plans are underway for a revision of the NIV to be published in 2011. The plans include the discontinuation of the TNIV, which was first published in 2002. The biggest battle over the TNIV, and the greatest concern over revision of the NIV involves gender neutral language.

To be honest, the Bible is not an egalitarian book. In other words, feminists will never be satisfied with the Bible as written. To illustrate, one only needs to look at the Inclusive Bible’s handling of Colossians 3:18-19: “You who are in committed relationships, be submissive to each other. This is your duty in Christ Jesus. Partners joined by God, love each other. Avoid any bitterness between you.” That is a rewrite of Paul and not a translation. The Bible affirms the equal value of males and females, but it does allow for differences in gender roles.

English usage has become more gender sensitive in recent decades, although usage has not solved all issues. The third person singular personal pronouns are still he or she.

Most modern translations (e.g., NKJV, NIV, and ESV) attempt to be somewhat gender neutral. When words like all, anyone, or everyone occur even thought they have masculine grammatical gender in Greek but there is no word for man in the text, they are rendered in a more gender neutral way – “all” instead of “all men.” The occurrence of man when it is understood generically of human beings is often translated persons or human beings instead of man.

Romans 3:9

“for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” RSV

 For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. NKJV

 We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. NIV

 Matthew 5:15

Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. RSV

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. NIV

But the question arises; can we go too far in the pursuit of gender neutral language? That has been at the heart of the controversy over the TNIV, and it will be one of the issues in the NIV revision. I think it is possible to go too far. Two areas have been of principle concern. First, we should not remove reference to males in historical passages when those references are present. Some translations have. Notice the following examples:

 Acts 1:21

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us  NIV   (TNIV)

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of those who had been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us.  NIVI  

 1 Timothy 3:2

the husband of one wife  RSV

married only once  NRSV

The second concern has to do with the third person singular pronoun. The TNIV and the NRSV substitute third person plural pronouns for third person singular pronouns. In other words, they change “he” to “they.” Problems arise especially in the Old Testament. We can obscure Messianic references doing that. For example:

He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Psalm 34:20, ESV

he protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken. Psalm 34:20, TNIV

This is an important issue. How does your translation handle gender language? The preface of some translations will tell you. Comparison with other translations may be helpful.

Aren’t These Translations Dangerous?

September 3, 2009

When I was a teenager, someone at my home congregation made available some copies of Good News for Modern Man. I read the New Testament all the way through for the first time in this little paperback. I’m sure that in other congregations there may have been tracts warning of the errors of this modern version and recommending people stay away from it. This leads to a legitimate question. Aren’t these translations dangerous? 

My experience as a Bible reader suggests that we can over blow the dangers. I was in a greater danger from not reading the Bible. Bible illiteracy is the great danger of our society. (And by the way, the publication of many different translations has not stemmed that tide.) If I hadn’t found something easier to read, I might have given up or simply have failed to grow in faith. That little paperback led to a growth in my devotional life.  I was strengthened by milk for stronger food.

I think several factors militate against the flaws in some translations. I was not reading the Bible in isolation. I had mature Christian people around me. These people were more knowledgeable that I was, and I could ask questions. In other words, my church family helped guide my reading.

I was also aware of multiple translations. I wasn’t just relying on Good News for Modern Man alone. At that point, I had a King James Version to compare with, and it wasn’t too long that I also had a Revised Standard Version and a New American Standard Bible. In other words, I was aware that I was reading a translation. I’ve learned over the years that no translation is perfect because translating is a human activity. That is why the final court of appeal in religious discussion is the Bible in the original languages. But I’m extremely grateful for access to the Bible in my native language.

One further fact needs to be noted. The Bible is an amazingly resilient collection of books. Most of our teachings are not based on one passage alone. Even when a translation throws us a loop with a questionable translation, other passages may keep us from going the wrong direction. The Bible is its own best interpreter.

The functional equivalent translation (meaning for meaning) is designed for easy access to the beginner and the person with few reference books to consult. My own pilgrimage suggests that those translations are not necessarily harmful and may be helpful. But I think their proper use is as a stepping stone. Careful Bible study in English is best done with a formal equivalent (more literal) translation (e.g., NASB, NKJV, and ESV). If you have only been reading a meaning for meaning translation, I would encourage you to try a more literal translation especially in careful study.

Translators Are Traitors

August 28, 2009

The title is an Italian proverb. It’s a reminder that translating from one language to another often evokes strong feelings. Strong feelings are especially involved when the translation is the Bible. One story from church history illustrates this. When Jerome’s Latin Vulgate was read in one North African church for the first time, a riot ensued. Of course, the Vulgate went on to become a standard translation for more than a millennia and is still used today.

Many of us can remember a time when most people would have been reading from the same translation – the King James Version (although Roman Catholics at that time would have been reading the Douay-Rheims). Now different translations are the norm.

I want us to be Bible readers, but I also want us to be wise students as we deal with the situation of multiple translations. Accuracy is important. It does matter to me whether I’m reading God’s word or the faulty opinion of a translator. The final court of appeal in translation issues is the Bible in the original languages, which is why I study Greek and Hebrew. I realize that not everyone has the time or inclination for that, but many helps exist in English to go back to the original. It is not an impossible task.

Having read the Bible in multiple translations, the good news is that translations agree more than they disagree. You don’t have the impression that you are reading different books. Where they disagree, often they are bringing out different possible nuances in words. Noting differences and studying them can lead to fruitful discoveries.

Two different approaches to translating are used, and it is important to know which approach was used in the Bible you are reading. They are formal equivalence and functional (or dynamic) equivalence. Formal equivalence attempts to be a literal as possible. It attempts to match as closely as possible the forms of the original (word for word, verb for verb, noun for noun, etc.) with the forms of the receptor language (the language of the translation, which in our case is English). Functional equivalence attempts to elicit the same meaning of the original in language forms that are natural to the receptor language.

The extreme end of formal equivalence is found in an interlinear. The English gloss under the original language in an interlinear is extremely difficult to read except for checking a word. Formal equivalence translations can be difficult to read so that we fail to get a meaning or we get the wrong meaning because the language is unnatural to us. The extreme end of functional equivalence is unduly free. Unduly free means that the translator misrepresents the original. I think some paraphrases definitely fall into the category of unduly free. All functional equivalent translations may have places where they have been unduly free. It is important to know what kind of translation you are reading. If it is formal equivalence, you may find some phrases that are harder to understand than normal English. If it is functional equivalence, you may have something that is not faithful to the original.

 What is the English Bible reader to do? I hope to sort some of this out in a series of articles. What should you do now? Keep reading the Bible, and read the preface of the translation you are using. Find out what approach the translators are using.