Bible Translations: Wisdom in Choosing the Right One

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Bible translations cause fights. As if we needed more of those in the church right now. I want to bring peace to Christian conflicts over the KJV, ESV, NIV, and other good evangelical English Bible translations—to End Bible Translation Tribalism. 

I’ve taken aim at an argument that has often taken aim at me, the idea that Bible translations should strive to be literally accurate. I argued that this is a massive oversimplification of the issues involved in translation.

But in this column, I want to acknowledge that it isn’t entirely wrong. There is a ditch on the other side of the Bible translation road.

We might call that ditch a “specious and arbitrary lucidity” (as one writer put it) that seems to give rise to a “soft bigotry of low expectations” (as one politician put it—about something totally different).

The English Bible, going back to William Tyndale, is supposed to be for the plowboy. And I’ve known lots of plowboys, salt-of-the-average-Joe Christians. A lot of them read the King James Version from childhood through adulthood.

I am the first—literally the very first—to say that this situation is not ideal. The English of the KJV is a dead English, an English no one speaks or writes anymore. And the problem with continued use of the KJV isn’t just that it contains dead words, words we don’t know such as besom, chambering, and bolled. The problem is that the KJV contains what I call “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know, words we don’t realize we’re misunderstanding, such as halt, remove, and offend. How can people look up words they don’t realize they’re misunderstanding?

And yet. I have known many loving Christian people who grew in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and who did it while reading the KJV. I was such an one. It’s remarkable what spiritually hungry people can sink their teeth into. To this day, if I’m asked to preach and I get to choose the translation I preach from, I choose the English Standard Version—in part because I have a beautiful edition of it that was a special gift to me from a mentor, and in part because I feel it is the natural heir to the KJV.

It strikes a similar balance between literal and not-so-literal translation choices. It expects readers to rise to some challenges. And they do. In the millions, they do. Not-so-literal translations sometimes, I feel, forget what readers can achieve when they’re digging for treasure. 

Let me give one hopefully representative example. A literal translation of Romans 3:21 would start with, “The righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law.” This is the opening to what I consider to be the single most important paragraph in the Bible.

And in it Paul uses a phrase that he uses five times total in Romans, a phrase that was mildly ambiguous when Paul wrote it, as it is today: “the righteousness of God.” Is this righteousness a quality of God or a quality God gives us? To this day, that key phrase is a major point of discussion and debate. And if translations use a non-literal rendering, readers won’t even know there’s a debate to be had.

The New Living Translation indeed translates the line this way: “God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law.” I happen to believe that this is clearly the right interpretation of the verse, so I am not upset. And some languages simply don’t permit ambiguity here, so it can’t be inherently immoral to translate the phrase unambiguously, to pick an interpretation (I borrow this point from the brilliant missionary translator David Brunn’s One Bible, Many Versions). This rendering is faithful and useful, in my judgment. 

But the KJV tradition has proven, I think, the utility of a mostly-but-not-slavishly literal approach. Even the often less literal New International Version stuck with “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21. Choosing the right Bible translation for any given person or task calls for personal and—I’d encourage—pastoral wisdom.

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This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is Senior Editor for Digital Content at Word by Word, the official Logos blog. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also a host for Logos Live and is an active YouTuber.

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