When (and How) to Use Multiple Bible Translations

I want people who study the Bible to stop asking, “What’s the best Bible translation?” and feel free to use all the good translations we have. It’s what I called, last week, Ending Bible Translation Tribalism.

In my vision of the ideal world, Christians and Christian groups will still have their favored translations, but they will also make regular use of the many other good translations that God has permitted us to have. (And in this world fine milk chocolate would be very cheap and very good for you.)

I can’t assume that my little post ended Bible translation tribalism. You may still be thinking, “But not all translations are good! Translation X is flat out bad!”

The two major issues in English Bible translation today

The two major issues that cause Christians to call translations bad are 1) gender and 2) functional vs. formal equivalence. And it’s not just conservative Christians who feel uneasy about where major Bible translations land on these issues. Yes, conservative evangelicals often feel nervous about the apparently progressive views of gender taken by some new translations. They also often feel nervous about the apparently unwarranted liberties taken by those same translations, even beyond the matter of gender. But sometimes those who are not-so-conservative (I hate to use any tribal labels here; I’m being purposefully vague) feel a similar nervousness on the other side. They think that antiquated use of gender pronouns is distracting people from the Bible’s message, and that excessively literal translations are needlessly obscuring that message.

These issues really do matter. Christian scholars should keep debating them, pastors should stay abreast of those debates, and people in the pews should not be ignorant of them; how we translate God’s word is very important. It makes sense for denominations and parachurch institutions to favor Bible translations which fit their theological identity.

Bible translations and individual Christians

But for you, the individual Christian nursing your morning cup of coffee in your pool of quiet light and writing down study reflections in your Logos Bible software notes—these two major issues should not stop you from using the translations your tribe doesn’t favor. By all means, dig into the debate over how to treat gender in Bible translation outside your devotional time, and do it soon. Read what Grudem and Poythress have to say on the one hand; read what Moo and Carson have to say on the other. Dig into the debate over translation theory, too. Read Ryken. Get Mark Strauss’ Mobile Ed course on Bible translation.

But once you’ve become aware of the issues, don’t go rushing for your tribal banners and slogans. For the purposes of your personal Bible study you can set aside your suspicious feelings and go back to benefiting from all the good translations we have, no matter where they land on gender or translation theory. If you see a Bible treating gender in a way you don’t like, just keep reading. It’s not going to hurt you. If you see it treating the text more “loosely” or more “literally” than you think is justified, you won’t be scarred for life.

(I do want to clarify that I’m not here discussing—or dismissing—the issue of God’s “gender” in Scripture. You probably do not have in your possession, and Logos Bible Software does not sell to my knowledge, a truly “gender neutral” Bible translation, one which balks at calling God “Father” or Jesus God’s “Son.” No major translations go to this extreme. We are talking here about the narrower issue of whether “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee” seems to the modern ear to limit Isaiah’s words to men, as if women who stay their minds on God will not have perfect peace.)

If you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and pick up a Bible translation you formerly avoided, something wonderful might happen: You might learn something! As soon as you see the interpretive rendering in the NIV or NLT, something may click for you: you might see meaning you never knew was there. Or as soon as you see the way a more literal translation of 1 Corinthians 7, you may realize that the interpretation of “virgin he is engaged to” (NIV) you’ve assumed all your life is really a more complicated issue than you realized. That might force you to dig deeper in your study. And what is the harm in this?

I can see only benefit in using both major kinds of translations. Well, almost only benefit. It’s true that an interpretive rendering might lead you astray a little. Every once in a while I disagree with the way the NIV or NLT translates something. But this almost never happens because I think the translators got the Greek or Hebrew “wrong.” It’s usually because I think they chose a particular interpretation when the Holy Spirit inspired an ambiguity there, or I think they made the Bible sound casual or hip when I don’t think casual hipness was in the Greek. However, just as often a more literal translation could leave you in the dark about what a passage really means because the “Greeklish” is too obscure (see Col. 2:23 in the KJV, for example). I see the two kinds of translations as complements rather than as competitors.

When a Bible translation surprises you

What should you do, though, when you’re reading a translation—any translation—and you come across something that seems to contradict what you believe or what your particular Christian group has historically taught? Don’t feel threatened: investigate.

So you’re reading along in the CEV and you come across a passage that, given your experience reading more literal translations, doesn’t sound right. Ephesians 5:22 reads in the CEV, “A wife should put her husband first.” The more literal translations have something significantly different here: “Wives, submit to your own husbands.”

Grudem and Poythress object to the way the CEV translates Ephesians 5:22. They see here an attack on gender complementarity in marriage and call this a “highly weakened expression,” saying that “the CEV’s ‘translation’ harmonizes well with what many modern people might wish that the Apostle Paul said” but fails to “do justice to what he actually said.”

I am purposefully withholding my own opinion on this matter in order to make a different point: even if you feel as negatively toward the CEV as Grudem and Poythress do, what’s going to happen to you if you read “a wife should put her husband first”? Even If you feel that Paul was speaking to a very particular cultural situation and the CEV was justified in softening his imperative, what’s going to happen to you if you read the more literal rendering? Nothing bad, no matter what side you’re on, as long as you sincerely desire to obey God and you have a minimally adequate understanding of the two major translation issues we’ve been discussing.

Let’s say that one of these translations is “wrong.” For your purposes as a student of the Bible, even their error can be instructive for you. It raises questions you should be asking: why did this translation go a different direction than all the others? Is some piece of meaning missing? Is some piece added? When you hold up two Bible translations in comparison, it’s as if a spark jumps between them, illuminating the passage you’re studying. That happens even if one of them is wrong. And the spark is often brighter if you use a greater number of translations.

Even if a particular translation is wrong, in a multitude of counsellors there is safety. If you make a regular habit of quickly checking multiple translations (with the Text Comparison tool in Logos, for example), you’ll have a sufficient number of checks and balances. Translations really don’t tend to differ in massive ways; they tend to differ in nuances. It’s rare that one translation will go off completely in its own direction against the tradition of English Bibles that came before it.

Help me end Bible translation tribalism

I have done my best to end Bible Translation Tribalism, and I’m not done trying. I have now cast two drops of water into the internet ocean and am waiting to see what will happen. So far, social scientists are telling me that it will take what they call “a lot” more drops before the sea levels will rise and wipe out Bible translation tribalism. But if you will share this post on Facebook or Twitter, that counts as two drops. Will you? It’s a start.

[Tweet “Let’s end Bible Translation Tribalism!”]

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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.

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Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward