Quite often our church secretaries get phone calls from new people or vacationers in our area who are interested in attending our church, and sometimes the conversation goes somewhat like this: “What Bible version does your pastor teach from? Does he use the Authorized Version?”
Now by that statement, the caller is trying to find out if our church is a King James Only church or not. And the simple answer is, we are not. There is a multiplicity of Bible versions used in our church. Our pastor, associate pastor, and other elders all teach from the New American Standard Bible, but there are many who come who use other versions.
Now that doesn’t mean we have anything against the King James Version (KJV). In fact, I grew up using that version of the Bible, because it was overwhelmingly the most common version available at that time. And many people, particularly our older saints in the congregation, still use it because of their familiarity with it. But the KJV’s solitary status among translations has diminished drastically over time.
Step into any Christian bookstore today and you are immediately confronted with an abundance of English Bible translations. The King James Version is still there, but now we have the New International Version (NIV), the New Living Translation (NLT), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Holman Christian Standard Version (HCSV), the New English Translation (NET), the Contemporary English Version (CEV) and many more. In fact, I understand that at the present time, in the English language, there are 25 different versions of the entire Bible and 40 different versions of just the New Testament.
Among those twenty-five different English translations of the Bible that are available, many are revisions of existing translations. Others are new translations that are attempts to make the Bible more readable, by making the language simpler. Here is a listing of the grade reading level of the various Bible versions:
- KJV – 12th grade
- NASB – 11th grade
- NKJV – 8th grade
- NRSV – 8th grade
- ESV – 8th grade
- NIV – 7th grade
- HCSV – 7th grade
- NLT – 6th grade
- CEV – 4th grade
In other words, if an individual is a college graduate, but still can’t understand his NIV, the problem is not the reading level of the Bible; the problem is either that he isn’t really a true believer whom the Holy Spirit is indwelling and leading to an understanding of the truth; or if he is a believer, he isn’t applying his heart and mind with diligence to study and understand it.
The question naturally arises, why does this situation of having so many versions exist? There are a couple of reasons. First, there are different texts that are used in the translations.
First, there are Bibles which are based on what is known as the Majority Text. The translators of those versions followed the principle that whatever the majority of manuscripts say is the correct translation. Thus, those versions are based on many manuscripts, but many of them were copied over 1,000 years after the originals. Most of those manuscripts were simply copies of a copy, rather than being a copy of the original. The Bible versions which follow the Majority Text view include the KJV and the NKJV.
Second, there are Bibles which are based on what is known as the Critical Text. The translators of those Bible versions followed the principle that whatever the older manuscripts say is more reliable because there is less chance for scribal error or revisions because it is closer to the original manuscript. Thus, those versions are based on fewer, but older manuscripts; many written within the first four centuries after Christ. The Bible versions which follow the Critical Text view include the NASB, NIV, ESV, HCSV, NET, NRSV, and CEV.
Another reason for the plethora of translations is that there are different translation philosophies at work. One view holds to what is known as formal or literal equivalence; that is, the translators attempted to translate from the original language into another while retaining as much as possible the exact, original forms of the first language. The Bible versions which use that methodology include the KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and the NRSV.
Another translation philosophy is known as dynamic equivalence. This philosophy attempts to translate the text from the original language into another with a goal of translating the intention or meaning of the original without regard to the exact forms of the first language. The Bible versions which use that methodology include the NIV, NLT, CEV, and the NET.
Perhaps it would help to give an example of the difference between functional and dynamic equivalence. There is an idiomatic expression in the Spanish language which says, “Otro gallo nos cantará.” It literally is translated as: “Another (or different) rooster will sing for us.” We have an English language idiomatic expression which is the functional equivalent, which is: “That’s a horse of a different color.” However, the dynamic equivalent would be: “That’s another matter all together.”
So, dynamic equivalence does not literally translate the original language, but it does give you a translation that hopefully conveys the same meaning. However, it does require that the translator interpret for the reader what the original writer meant by what he wrote rather than simply translating it literally and then letting the reader interpret for himself what the writer meant.
There is a very heated battle about whether literal equivalence or dynamic equivalence is more appropriate for Bible translation. However, I believe there is a place for both, and their advantages and disadvantages should be carefully understood.
The English language is changing as all languages do. All languages are in a continuous state of flux. For example, the KJV uses a word which I’m sure every reader in 1611 understood: “concupiscence.” However, that word is no longer commonly used in the English language today, so virtually every modern translation, including the NKJV translates the word as “desire” or “lust.”Because of changing language, all translations will eventually be out of date. The advent of the internet and all its related applications has created a greater state of flux than in the past. So English languag Bible translations need to change as well.
However, there is a tendency among evangelicals is to exalt one translation over another. I completely understand that everyone has their favorite version. I have my own. I use the NASB in teaching, but I often read and consult with the ESV and the NET when I’m studying. In fact, I use an electronic organizer (PDA) to keep track of my schedule and in it, I have those three English text Bibles, as well as the New Testament Greek text.
But some people go too far and insist that one version is the only version anyone should use, and the version they invariably choose is the KJV. In fact, there is a whole movement within evangelicalism—particularly in the South—known as the King James Only movement.
Those folks basically teach that God only honors and accepts the KJV, as if He re-inspired the English Bible in 1611. They have vast conspiracy theories and have written countless articles and books trying to prove their point. Perhaps the best known such book is titled New Age Bible Versions by Gail Riplinger. Ms. Riplinger was a major in Industrial and Environmental Design in college. As such, she did not study Greek or Hebrew or the principles of translation.
There are a couple of points the KJV conspiracy theorists miss. First, William Tyndale gave us the English Bible about 90 years before the KJV was published, so why isn’t it considered the real true and genuine English Bible and not the KJV?
Second, the KJV was never authorized by King James. His name was put on it by the translators because they knew it would bring his favor to them. But he never officially authorized it, so it is not actually the “Authorized” Version.
Third, no sound seminary professor of the original languages holds their view. They understand that for each word in the Hebrew or Greek text, there are often many choices of how to translate that word. For example, instead of translating the word “hate” in that way every time, we might also use synonyms such as “despise” or “abhor” or “dislike.”
Fourth, language is not so precise that it must be translated exactly as it was in 1611. We don’t even speak in that type of language today. Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe all things. As one writer has said, “If the KJV is the only inspired Bible, Jesus should have said, ‘Go into all the world, make disciples, and teach them to read 17th century English so they can read the official Bible version.’”
It is incredibly sad that we evangelicals will fight over which one of our English text versions is the “correct” Bible to use, while there is a world going to hell without any portion of the Bible in their own language.
My position is that we should recognize the incredible privilege we have in the English speaking world to have so many Bible versions and we should use those privileges accordingly. While I personally prefer a version that follows the formal or literal equivalence approach, my feeling is that you should use the Bible you have. Read it, study it, learn it.
Use a Bible you can understand. If your reading ability is poor, use a dynamic equivalence translation; if your vocabulary is more comprehensive and your reading ability is better, use a formal equivalence translation.
Dynamic equivalence translations are good for those who know little or nothing about the Gospel or the Bible. Formal equivalence translations are good for those who understand biblical concepts and want to focus more carefully and on the exact details and wording of the text.
Recognize that the multiplicity of translations can increase our confidence in the Scriptures. Use this bounty of wealth to your advantage. There is a sense in which every translation falls short of perfectly communicating the original text underneath it. More importantly, there is a sense in which every translation is the Word of God and accurately communicates its sense. Be aware of what is out there and how the translations differ, but more than that, trust the one you have and listen for God’s Word to speak to you from its pages.