WHY ARE THERE SO MANY BIBLE VERSIONS?

A.B. Melchizedek
5 min readApr 22, 2023
Photo credit: Meredith Gould

There are a number of reasons for the many Bible versions we find today but the chief among them has to do with translation approach i.e. the question of how to translate from the original Hebrew/Greek source to modern English.

Even among the various languages we have today, there are expressions that do not perfectly translate or align with the English language. For example, in Chinese, the question (and native speakers, please do not crucify me at this juncture, this is based on my residual knowledge from the one year I tried to learn Mandarin to impress some of my Chinese friends), “how old are you?” is “Ni duo da?”, problem is this literally translates to “How you big?”. If I asked a traditional English speaker, “How you big?” they would think I am asking about their height at best and at worst, (for the more dirty minded) they might think I am asking about the size of something else.

So the judgment call a translator must make is this, do you translate word for word from the original source? i.e. literally or do you translate in terms of the idea that is being conveyed? i.e. sense for sense. Some translators hold to the view that the word of God as appears in the original sources are sacred and so should be conveyed exactly as is while others would hold the view that the whole point of the words being revealed was that it should be understood so they would choose the sense for sense approach.

Just to link it with our Chinese example from earlier, do you translate the phrase as “How old are you?” or “How you big?”.

Now this judgment call is further complicated by the fact that even within languages words could have one meaning when taken literally and another when understood as an expression. This is especially true for idioms, e.g. if a person “Kicks the bucket”, does it mean they died (as an idiomatic expression) or does it mean a bucket was left lying around which the person kicked. While this, more commonly would apply to idioms, it could also apply to everyday speech as well, say if you ask a person, “how are you?” for instance, do you mean, “How is your welfare?” or the more philosophical question, “How ARE you in essence?” i.e. “how are you existing at this point in time?”

There will also be some further judgment regarding how best to interpret certain words in the absence of the original speaker/author to clarify. For example, within the English language, certain words are spelt in the same way but could mean different things. “Present” for instance. Do we mean “present” as in a gift? or as in “to give to someone”, the verb form of presentation? or as in “now, not future”. In the same vain, some ancient Hebrew words or expressions could be rendered slightly differently.

If my English language analogies sound far-fetched, it is only because we live in a time-line in history where these phrases are commonplace so we have the unspoken contexts around words.

If these nuances exist within modern languages and the English language itself, imagine this problem in trying to translate not only words but sentences, ideas, expressions, idioms, figures of speech from an ancient language to modern understanding without the benefit of cultural context?

This translation approach debate is the maternity ward where a lot of Bible versions are delivered. They reflect various translational spectrums from the end of strict adherence to every word (e.g. Young’s Literal Translation) to an extreme sense for sense rendering of the sources (e.g. Message Bible).

The second key reason for the different versions of the Bible is that they are based on different manuscripts. For example, there were early translations of the New Testament into Syriac, Latin and Coptic so bearing in mind the nuance earlier discussed (sense for sense vs word for word) for the translation from Greek into those languages, the same would have to be done again from those languages into English.

Now this begs the question, if what we have are translations of translations can we trust the Bible at all then? How can I trust my translation?

There are two main reasons why it is still reasonable to trust the translations we have today. First, the variations among the various translations have no impact on the core teachings and doctrines of Christianity. There is no disagreement on the gospel, the deity of Jesus Christ, the resurrection from the dead, salvation through Christ alone, the trinity, the second coming of Christ e.t.c.

So if you take out the longer ending of Mark, the story of the adulterous woman in John 8, 1 John 5:6–8, the core doctrines of Christianity and Jesus Christ are not changed in any way. The message, which is at the heart of the Bible, that God in His mercy and in satisfaction of His own Just requirements sacrificed His Son Jesus Christ, the Lord, for the salvation of mankind because of the depths His love towards them still rings clear.

The second reason we can trust the Bible translations is that there is transparency around the interpretations. The translators let you know in the preface that words in Italics are not in the original manuscript and were added to bridge the gap between languages, in footnotes, they explicitly let you know what the text of other manuscripts say or whether a passage or a word is missing in some other manuscripts, they also inform you of possible other interpretations of the text. This makes it clear that there is no intention to deceive or suppress the minor variations in manuscripts on the part of the translators, it is thus reasonable to assume they are careful, honest well-meaning men doing their best to handle what they believe to be the word of God with all reverence. It would appear their priority is that the reader fully understand the word of God rather than follow how they choose to translate it.

Another reason for different versions is the fact that language changes very quickly. Expressions come up and become obsolete quickly thus meaning even the English translations need updating to bring the message to the understanding of a newer audience with their lingo. So in the King James Version for instance, James mentions “Gay clothing”, Paul talks about “being stoned”, these are expressions with very different meanings to the ones intended in 1611 when they were written.

Hence the King James version has a New King James Version, the American Standard Bible has a New American Standard Bible. Then you have the Amplified and Message Bibles which make that their entire aim.

In conclusion, the translation approach, source material and evolution of the language account for the multiplicity of versions. Yes, there are a few fringe versions which are outliers (e.g. the Passion translation and the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures) but the vast majority are transparent and honestly attempted translations. The variances in translation do not detract from the core teachings of the Christian faith and such variances would be expected given the reasons discussed in detail above.

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A.B. Melchizedek

Crusader for the truth of the gospel and the logical coherence within the context of the scriptural worldview.