Why 10 Translations May Be Better Than 1 Greek (or Hebrew) Bible

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A clever and provocative author wrote something clever and provocative recently about Bible translation:

We are accustomed to say things like “something got lost in the translation,” which it frequently does. But can anything ever be gained? Let me pose a question for you all, without attempting to answer it myself . . . .

Here is my question. Suppose you take an average Greek-speaking Christian in Asia Minor about 200 A.D., and you give him a copy of the book of Ephesians in Greek, which he reads ten times. Now take a modern Christian who knows both English and French. Give him ten different translations of the book of Ephesians, 7 in English and 3 in French. He reads each one of them once through. Who now has a better grasp of the message of Ephesians?

I merely pose the question and run away.

Well I’m slow, and as he runs away I’m stuck here holding the bag. I simply have to take up this challenge and answer this fascinating, stimulating, clever, provocative question.

10 Translations or one Greek Bible?

I am so torn here, but if a clever and provocative person were to make me cross my heart, hope to die, and choose who would know Ephesians better, I’d have to vote for the guy who reads multiple Bible translations in English and French. He will understand Ephesians, um, 23% better than the guy who just reads it in Greek.

Here’s why I vote this way: translations are the first line of Bible teaching, the first line of interpretation. And it’s a line extremely close to the baseline. Having ten translations is like having ten teachers who are focused, laser-like, on the Bible text, doing barely anything more than reading it with expression and feeling. (Have you ever gained a better understanding of the Bible just by listening to your pastor read it out loud? I have.) Their expressions and their feelings will differ for various reasons, and it is in those contrasts that the value of reading multiple translations lies.

Those contrasts occur because, while it’s easy to read your own language lazily, when you translate from one language to another, you are forced to slow down, to notice things and make choices. What’s the force of that participle? What’s the use of that genitive? Where does the sentence or paragraph break occur here? Where does the emphasis lie in this sentence? Which sense of this verb—there are two possibilities—did the author intend?

Yes, things can get lost in translation—but I believe things can be gained in translations, plural. Somewhere in the nexus of tiny interpretive decisions flying around and bumping into each other, translation to translation, understanding grows. If it didn’t, I would’ve stopped bothering to check other translations somewhere between now and 1999, when I first picked up a Bible with different Bible versions in parallel columns.

I don’t want to say that translations add something to the Bible, anymore than a pastor adds something by his teaching. But I can’t and won’t deny my experience here, however you account for it doctrinally: using multiple translations helps me understand the Bible better.

Which Bible Translation is Best?

People argue, incessantly, over which translation of the Bible is the best. After almost 20 years of using all the translations they argue about, I feel like offering these arguers a Bob-Newhart-style counseling session:

newhart stop it gif

Now, arguments over Bible translations are not entirely pointless. There are significant differences between translations, or I couldn’t write a post about the value in those differences. But the “which is best” argument is the wrong one to have. By focusing on an unanswerable question—best for what, for whom, for when?—we fritter away energies much better spent on just using our good Bible translations. (Incidentally, using them is the best way to gain an informed opinion about them should a clever and provocative person ever compel you to argue about them.)

In my personal, provocative-but-not-so-clever opinion, the greatest value of Bible software is how easy it makes it to compare and contrast Bible translations in multiple languages. That’s why I’m so utterly sold on the Multiview Resources feature in Logos Now, and why I use it all day every day, dedicating an entire external monitor to it. In a glance I can compare the Bible translations I find most useful.

multiview resources

Take heart, you who don’t read Greek and Hebrew. Reading the original languages is incredibly valuable, but you can mimic that skill and get much of the same value by comparing Bible translations in languages you can read. Had a little Spanish? Trot out your Reina Valera. French? Louis Segond. Urdu? Well, more power to you.

You have to be really sold on the value of a text to buy and read and repeatedly use different translations of that text. For Dante’s Divine Comedy, give me what is generally regarded as the “best” translation. I’ll probably be impatient with questions like “best for what?” I just don’t care enough. But we’re talking about the Bible here. God’s words. God’s words. We are privileged to have many good translations of those words, all of which—especially when you do use them all—are helpful for knowing what they mean.

The Best Bible Translations

OLSHA members, let’s end Bible translation tribalism. The consensus of evangelical people who know Greek and Hebrew and believe in the inspiration and absolute truthfulness of Scripture is that the following translations are useful, and nothing to be afraid of (as long as you have a basic sense of which ones are more “literal” and which ones are more “interpretive”). Make sure you own and use these in Logos:

The cheapest way to get these translations is to buy a base package. The Starter base package has most of them.

I also use older translations like the KJV and Tyndale, because I have access through my alma mater to the (very expensive) Oxford English Dictionary and can decode archaic vocabulary as necessary (this is another post for another day). I also use Spanish, French, Italian, German, and other translations occasionally, when I’m really intent on finding out what the democracy of translators has “voted.” I will also happily check Catholic versions such as the NAB and NJB; mainline Protestant translations such as the NRSV (honorable mention: RSV) and CEB.  I occasionally feel that I see Catholic or mainline bias coming through in those versions, but not often. And evangelical bias fills my bulleted list—I just happen to share that bias.

I also check the Vulgate and Septuagint frequently—and I am leaving out quite a number of other English translations that deserve honorable mention. But they won’t get it today.

An Encouragement

I don’t want to give anyone an excuse not to learn Greek or Hebrew. If you are called to any kind of Bible-teaching ministry and you have the opportunity to study these languages, you most definitely ought to.

I do, however, want to encourage people who aren’t called to that kind of ministry or haven’t had that chance to study the original languages of Scripture. I won’t make you promise anything, but I do want to provoke you to love and good works. You don’t have to be clever. Just make it a regular habit to use multiple translations of the Bible.

Our free Bible study training course is a great way to take the next step in your Bible study. Written and led by the Logos Pros, this course will give you essential Bible study skills to help you draw more insight from your study. Sign up below, or learn more about this free training!








mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Comments

  1. Great article, the one comment I might add in defence of our lonely 3rd century Greek is that he is closer to the world-view/culture of the original text and it’s meaning/application. We need help to discover/understand the cultural aspect in which the original intent is to be interpreted. Again Logos offers various tools to help in this :)

    • This is a good point. And I have read that cultural change was not typically as rapid in ancient times as it has been in the previous century. So we could assume that this third-century Greek is closer culturally to Paul and the Ephesian church than we are to the culture of the antebellum U.S. (or, in your case, the time of Queen Victoria). You give one big reason I was so torn in my choice.

      • Mark,

        How many languages do you have a comprehension on?

        Wow, that is impressive. I am also a polyglot. I comprehend four languages other than my own vernacular. That list of languages is; Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), French I kept up with it since high school and was the top student in my French class. Oh, don’t let me forget about Spanish and that is it. I am a generation x baby so, I am working on a late start on my Masters of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I just started my third semester. So, I have a ways to go. I had been in a position and it was not what God had called me too. He has other plans and it is something I am happy about. I have been called to be a professor and teach and pastor a church. Like the first “Apologist” were. I already know what I want to be my subject of concentration is Church History. I want to be able to teach electives and not be Church History all the time. I would like to teach multiple subjects while my expertise will always be in Church History. I have always liked learning History of America and of Chinese history. Chinese History could be done in one semester as to American history and Church History need two semesters. I want to, of course, like to do both. However, that is not what God called me too and it would be too much for me. To teach at a secular and seminary colleges and be a senior pastor of a small church. I have had the body confirm this these giftings in me and also, I have a strong conviction. I heard the Spirit. I know it is a long road to accomplish these long-term goals. I would have liked to have started earlier. However, I am happy to be in the process because I know God through that position I was in saved me and took me out of it. For His will and glory. I also know I am where God wants me at and I can’t be ever happier.
        I shared all of that some of where I am and a little about my life and testimony. Because I am learning I am learning elementary Greek and Hebrew a must as a Christian and for the program I am in which I am sure you know what I mean because you have been through the process of learning Greek and Hebrew. You are done with school and at work in your expertise. It is encouraging. I want to learn Latin, German, Russian, and Aramaic because I know there is great works, literature and Bibles from Originals to the most ancient of manuscripts to more modern texts. I would really enjoy reading works that inspired the Church Fathers. Like Sacratease, Plato, and Aristotle.
        Well, I agree what you shared, it is best to have various translations and if you know other tongues it gives insight to the passage. We read carefully, when we compare on a parallel different Bible translations on the screen of our computers (I have four screens for seminary and it helps with school work and my Logos studying). We do a careful comparison.We end up coming to the true meaning of a passage of those things lost in some trsnslations. Also, be careful of the literal and interpretive because we don’t want to preach or read something that what was not Gods true meaning for that passage. I hold firm to always hold fast to the integrity and right interpretation of God’s word was meant to communicate. When I don’t understand a passage I use study tools. The worst thing I can ever do is give a wrong interpretation of God’s word. That is my fear. Also, for myself not to be misleading.
        Thanks for sharing. I enjoy reading your blogs, but this one hit home with me. It spoke to me because it is what I agree with, it is something I also apply. I am a polyglot and I am in the process of learning more languages for the sole purpose of reading the Bible in those tongues I mentioned.

        A.Chiang

        • It did not break up my own paragraphing. I did not put a space between the paragraphs. What I did was I indented. The first line of this writing is there, but after that, I indented instead of paragraphing by double space. It looks like one long paragraph. My apologies. I know this thread does not allow for your own style.

          • Larry Craig says:

            As long as you are able to do so many languages, you might want to add French and Syriac. There are a lot of good things in French which will never be translated into English, and when you study the Hebrew text, reference is often made to the Syriac text, which can shed light on the Hebrew. either an ancient reading or a different way to understand it.

  2. Sascha John says:

    Hi Mark
    I would agree with you…if this Guy read Greek would be from today, but Greek-speaking Christian in Asia Minor about 200 A.D would know much more about Meaning of the Words, the Life in the Roman Empire, he would certanly know Ephesus and could ask in the Church of Ephesus what there Grandparents think about this, he could see how the Church understood the Letter…with other Words he would’nt need all the other Teachers 2000 Years later who try to explain would he allready know, he just life 140 Years after Paul wrote the Letter.
    Little Hint from Church History ;-)
    Sascha

    • Yeah, and wouldn’t it be cool if he didn’t need textual criticism of any kind because he had direct access to the very letter written by Paul!

      I personally don’t come from a tradition which places a great deal of value on historical theology; we assume the results of the major early ecumenical councils along with the rest of evangelicalism, but we don’t tend to give a great deal of weight to how the Church has understood the Bible. However, in this case, we’re talking about Ephesians, a doctrinally intense book. Especially in the first three chapters, I’m seeing things that a long history of theological exegesis has helped illuminate; I’m not seeing a great deal of material that would be especially illuminated by firsthand cultural knowledge.

      I do see some in the book: “Don’t be drunk with wine.” What’s wine? That would be nice to know firsthand. To know the makeup up a soldier’s armor—breastplate, shod feet, sword, etc.—would help in picturing what Paul’s after in chapter 6. And what are “hymns and spiritual songs”? Hopefully our third-century Christian would still know; we don’t know now with great certainty. “Inheritance” is a concept he might understand better. So are “strangers,” “aliens,” “citizens,” “prisoner,” “captives,” “bondservants,” “masters.”

      But choosing a paragraph at random even from the paraenetic section of the book, I get something that seems pretty pancultural to me:

      Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

      (Ephesians 4:25-32 ESV)

      “Sealed” may be the only cultural concept in that paragraph which it might help to know firsthand. Otherwise, the history of the church’s use of this passage, and of its discussion on the whole Bible’s story, of principles of exegesis—I tend to think that these things illuminate the book rather than drown it.

      I don’t like it when bloggers back off their assertions and claim to be only stoking discussion. I’ll stick with my opinion. But I did claim only 23% superiority. =) This is a discussion worth having.

      • Sascha John says:

        I don’t even know from witch Tradition I came ;-). Thanks for making this Clear. I totaly agree with you. My Point was that the Christian from AD 200 would understand the Greek Text better, because he lived in the Time and know what there are talking about. We have to find it out.

        I agree with your Point today better read 10 Translation as 1 Greek NT.

        Sascha

      • “I personally don’t come from a tradition which places a great deal of value on historical theology; we assume the results of the major early ecumenical councils along with the rest of evangelicalism, but we don’t tend to give a great deal of weight to how the Church has understood the Bible.”

        So, would it be correct to assume that you–traditionally–place a great deal of value on the interpretive metric of modern linguistic scholarship in understanding the Bible? And, would it be fair to further extrapolate that–in the context biblical interpretation–you favor the weight of modernity over history?

        • My tradition does tend to favor modern linguistic scholarship over historical theology, yes. I wouldn’t say that that means we (or I) favor the weight of modernity over history. I think that’s a different matter. Because I don’t think modern linguistic scholarship is doing anything—at its best moments—is doing anything more than labeling and therefore formalizing intuitive reading practices that the church has always had at its disposal. Calvin, centuries before Saussure, was doing precisely what the church today—at its best moments—does with the Bible. Many centuries before that, I see Augustine doing almost the same thing (in addition to some other things with the Bible I’m not so eager to defend.

          I’ve got a pretty standard evangelical viewpoint on the relationship of theology to exegesis to church history to ecclesiology. Nothing you can’t find in the standard evangelical works. Barely worth remarking upon.

          • Thank you for the clarification. The reason I pose these questions is because–in my experience–I’ve noticed that there is a propensity in modern scholarship to preface exegetical and interpretive positions with deprications and/or dimunitions of past scholarship. Many of these “positions” held by contemporary scholarship can be shown to be anecdotally idiosyncratic or paradoxically ambiguous. “The Law of the LORD is perfect…” We are not; nor are our calculative methods. Therefore, I attempt to be judicious in my pronouncements of what is “better.”

          • I’m guilty of this myself, I confess. Reading Calvin and Augustine helped me a great deal.

          • I am culpable as well, my Brother. You are a man of great integrity.

            Grace and Peace,

            Louis

  3. Tommy Bosworth says:

    To rework a famous reply from B. B. Warfield, “What! Better than ten translations with Greek?”

  4. never thought of looking at it that way before now.
    interesting and challenging.

  5. when I am asked my opinion about a certain Bible translation, I generally look up some passages where I think most English translations miss it. And most English translations do miss it. And if I have ten translations and don’t know Greek, I will accept the majority view as the correct one. But I know some Greek, and I know that that is not the case.

    I’m going to go with the guy who knows Greek.

  6. 1. More information is needed. When you say 200AD, do you mean early 200AD or did this person make it into 300AD?

    2. If so, was he able to and did he have occasion to make the 475 mile trip from Ephesus to Alexandria? Maybe 210-240?

    3. If 1 + 2 are accurate, it is possible he could have met Origin, and having
    been instructed in ἀποκατάστασις, the poor man (who like most of that ERA held to Chiliasm) was driven mad and began to speak Modern Greek. :-)

    Oh, and was he Greek, whereas he “thought in Greek” or simply a Greek speaker? That’s why we poor Greeks can’t get that Erasmian thing right, although I can deal with some Boothian. (Never mind, I must remember not to make comments when I need to drive to work on slippery wet snow and drive home on ice.

    Such complex issues…:-) Excellent article and Tommy, this quote is precious:

    “To rework a famous reply from B. B. Warfield, “What! Better than ten translations with Greek?””

  7. Cheryel Lemley-McRoy says:

    Yes, but what about Hebrew idioms and euphemisms? For instance, Matthew 6: 22. The original language says, “good eye”. Good eye is a Hebrew idiom for generosity. I checked all the online translations. The New King James Version got the translation correct. However, the Complete Jewish Bible was the only one that included an explanation of the idiom, so that the reader could understand what Jesus was actually talking about.

    • It’s not a given that “good eye” would have been a transparent idiom to a reader of Κοινή Greek in Asia Minor in the third century. This is a good example of how translations can aid interpretation. Reading the more literal ones—like the KJV or NASB—can tip you off that you’re dealing with an opaque metaphor. Reading the more interpretive ones—like the NIV or NLT—can tell you what the scholars behind those translations think that metaphor meant. I don’t recommend that people stumble blindly into whatever ten translations they happen to find. I think every more or less educated English-speaking evangelical Christian ought to know where the translations I listed above lie on the continuum between dynamic and formal equivalence.

      • Cheryel Lemley-McRoy says:

        You’re correct, Mark. The Greeks were not familiar with Hebrew idioms, and so transliterated them. After the Bible was translated into Greek and Latin, the Hebrew and Aramaic was largely abandoned. Protestant seminaries stressed learning Greek; the Catholic seminaries, Latin. It wasn’t until the late last century that there was a renewed interest in the original languages. Going back to the original languages has revealed much about the Bible that was lost for so long. If pastors today studied biblical Hebrew, they would have a greater insight into the Bible.

  8. Because we believe that the inerrancy of Scripture refers to the Bible written in its original manuscripts, I believe the best Hebrew and Aramaic OT and Greek NT is much better and preferred to any English translation.

    That being said, for people who have limited knowledge of the original languages, they are still better off reading and comparing several good English translations.

    • I agree with your first paragraph—if I get to answer the implied question, “Much better for what?” The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are much better for exegesis, for commentaries, for teaching. I think what I’m after in my post is that translations may be more helpful, or at least more helpful than commonly acknowledged, for actual understanding for the great majority of people who read the Bible. Without the gifted “teachers” of Ephesians 4, we wouldn’t have good translations at all. In that sense, knowledge of the original languages is far more important than the presence of multiple translations. That knowledge is foundational, essential. But most people who have studied Greek and Hebrew, in my experience, could not read vast tracts of the Bible without the help of existing translations. For those people—and for those many more who can read no Greek and no Hebrew—what is more important for their actual Bible knowledge? What contributes the most to their sanctification? The Greek New Testament or their English translations?

      Of course I am NOT advocating that we pick one or the other! This is a both-and situation! Let’s have as many people reading Greek and Hebrew as possible! But let’s be real about what Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic) are actually providing for most of us: refinement of knowledge gained from translations, not direct knowledge unencumbered by translation.

      Happy for wiser people to weigh in here; I may be missing something big! I don’t want to mislead. But this is how I see it.

  9. Mark, if I spoke my mind here, I’d be brushed off as being an extremist, so let me just ask a few questions myself and you decide if you need to rethink your position.

    #1. If, ““something got lost in the translation,” which it frequently does”, is actually true, then why in the world would you make the “translation” your default choice?

    #2. You error when you say, “translations are the first line of Bible teaching, the first line of interpretation. And it’s a line extremely close to the baseline”. It doesn’t come close to the baseline, it comes close to the Greek text. Why not just say the truth? Also, this statement is only said by those who do not know Greek or Hebrew. So, where does that leave you?

    #3. Those who actually do the translating for a modern version would give their right arm for the knowledge of the “average Greek-speaking Christian in Asia Minor about 200 A.D.”, but they can’t get it! But this does not matter to you.

    #4. This is the point that make my blood boil. You could make your 21 century reader of English and French read “every” translation of the book of Ephesians 100 times and he would still not know what that 200 A.D. Greek reading Christian knew. The reason why is simple. It’s the same reason why American Christians have been dumbed down and pulpits are allowed to preach watered down sermons. Reading “translations” only lets you know what the translators knew. It’s like reading commentaries instead of reading the GNT for yourself, you only learn what the commentator knew. Whoopie! I have a feeling that 2 Timothy 2:15 doesn’t mean what it did when it was written.
    I could go on with this but I just wonder how many have read this far. What we need to do as mature Christians is to encourage more Christians, more pastors, to use all the tools available to them, not dumb them down.

    • It’s part of my job to occasionally boil blood (to stoke interest in what I write), but not to sow discord among brothers. So let me see if I can bring some light and decrease some heat.

      1. Because something gets gained in translations, plural. And note carefully that I didn’t make translations my “default choice” for all circumstances. As I clarify in some comments, I don’t recommend an either-or but a both-and. By all means, read the Bible in Greek and English and French and Spanish and German.

      2. Yes, the baseline is the Greek text.

      3. On the contrary, it matters a great deal to me. But see another comment I made in this thread about the amount of cultural knowledge good interpretation of Ephesians actually requires.

      4. But are you confident you know more about Greek or Hebrew than the translators?

      I am 1,000% with you: use all the tools available to you, whoever you are, and go get more tools if you can! I think the upshot of my post, as it is clarified even in my own thinking by my passionate interlocutors (and more power to them!), is that the people in the pews have an embarrassment of riches they have never had before: multiple good translations—and that they should use them. Pastors should use them, too, of course, just as they should use Greek and Hebrew. If you heard me preach, or heard either of the two pastors I’ve had for the last 18 years, you wouldn’t believe that I’d recommend dumbing anything down! If anything, I’m guilty of the latter. I was formed on 70-minute expository sermons.

      I appreciate the interaction. I really don’t think we disagree as much as you might believe. As another commenter picked up, the 23% figure was meant to communicate a level of tongue-in-cheekness, a subtle clue that I was stoking interest in an edifying question rather than taking an absolute position.

      Happy to hear your thoughts.