Why Are There So Many Versions Of The Bible?

The Holy Bible is an essential book for all true Christians. It is the basis of our Christian doctrine and life. If we walk into any Christian book store, we will find a dedicated section for the Bibles. Without question, the Holy Bible is a best-selling book. 

Describing the uniqueness of the Bible, Josh McDowell says: “According to the United Bible Societies, the Bible (or portions of it), has been translated into more than 2,200 languages! Although this is only about one-third of the world’s 6,500 known languages, these languages represent the primary vehicle of communication for well over 90 percent of the world’s population (www.biblesociety.org). Worldwide, no other book in history has been translated, retranslated, and paraphrased more than the Bible.1 

The Holy Bible remains to be the most translated work to date.

The question is not about its popularity, but why should such an important book like the Bible have many versions? Is it because the bible scholars and translators saw that previous versions as inaccurate? Was there a need for different versions?

I want to present two reasons for different versions of the Holy Bible.

Every believer must benefit from their bible study, and for that purpose, we can use a combination of different versions for clarity.

1. The Development Of The English Language2
One of the reasons for different versions is that the English language has undergone many changes. The English language is very dynamic; it changes over time. For example, John Wycliffe was the first to translate the Bible into English, and it was the Middle English script, which was in use from A.D. 1150 till A.D. 1500. After this period, the Middle English script became obsolete.

There was a vowel shift in the 13th century, called the Great Vowel Shift, which ended in A.D. 1550. As a result, the Middle English script was no longer in use. The following script that came into use was Early Modern English, popularly known as Elizabethan English. The script used in the KJV Bible was Early modern English.

After Elizabethan English, it was Modern English. The KJV, once a monument of the English translation, lost its relevance among 21st-century English readers because the readers prefer to read in the language that is most understandable and relevant to them. 

2. The Philosophy of Translation
It is not without reason for the existence of so many versions of the Bible. Any Bible student needs to understand the philosophy of translation theory behind these versions. Without this, we may misjudge the reason behind many versions and end up criticizing them rather than using them for more clarity.

There are three approaches to Bible translation, and behind each of the approaches, there is a philosophy of translation.

Formal Equivalence focuses on a more literal form of translation. The philosophy behind this translation is to render a word-for-word translation of the original language and preserve the original’s grammatical structure. The versions like NASB, ESV, and KJV3 fall into this category. This translation is useful for a more in-depth and verse-by-verse study of the Bible.

Dynamic Equivalence focuses on a thought-to-thought translation and is not concerned with the original grammatical structure. The philosophy behind this translation is to convey the original thought or the meaning. This form of translation tends to become interpretive and clarifies the reader. The versions like NLT, GNT, TNIV, and CEV fall into this category. We can use some of these versions but with caution. Because some of their interpretations do not accurately reflect the original text and few versions have taken great liberty to make it gender-inclusive, like TNIV.

Optimal Equivalence is a moderate translation. More popularly known as a mediating version. This work strikes a balance between a Formal and a Dynamic Equivalence. NIV, CSB, and NET fall into such a category.

The reader must use various tools to study and interpret to arrive at the correct meaning of a passage.

Then there are Paraphrases like the Living Bible or the Message Bible. They are not translations because they are not based on the original languages but rather are rephrasing the original words into contemporary language. Generally, one person does them, and the entire work depends on his understanding of the Bible. The Paraphrases are not loyal to the Original text. Therefore, paraphrases are not helpful. It is always better to use good commentaries for more clarity than to depend on these paraphrases.

What Should We Do With These Many Versions?
The goal of translation of the Bible is to reproduce the original language’s meaning into another language, and the goal of different versions could be for clarity. Every believer must benefit from their bible study, and for that purpose, we can use a combination of different versions for clarity. The reader must use various tools to study and interpret to arrive at the correct meaning of a passage. For example, a literal translation does not give us much clarity. On the other hand, a thought-for-thought translation can become too interpretive and sometimes are not accurate because it provides us with the perspective of the translation committee. Therefore, combining these translations and comparing them can help a Bible student arrive at a better meaning of a passage.

The bottom line is we must make the best use of better translations and be sincere and diligent students of the Bible.

1 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, pgs. 8-9
2 More on this refer to Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, pgs. 541-555.
3 Many Bible scholars like Daniel Wallace, James R. White, Robert Plummer, and others do not encourage exhaustive use of the KJV Bible. Its New Testament is not based on the best of the manuscripts.