Why Are There So Many Different Translations of the Christian Bible?

There are many translations of the Bible ranging from the most literal translations to quite paraphrased versions. There is a necessity for them all.

May 15, 2024By Joshua Witworth, BA English Literature, Certified Private Pilot

translations christian bible


When going to church on Sundays, it is extremely common for the pastor to read a Bible verse in one specific translation — such as the New International Version or The Message — then use a different Bible translation, such as King James Version or American Standard Version for a different verse. This can lead to some confusion for the congregation because there are so many different versions of the same book. This is a common issue that scholars have dealt with for many years. The differences boil down to whether the translation of the Bible is a literal word-for-word translation or a paraphrased thought-for-thought translation.


Why Isn’t There Just One Translation of the Bible?

jerome in his study translation of the bible
Jerome in his study, by Pieter Coecke van Aelst the Elder, c. 1530, Source: The Walters Art Museum


Brandon Farris is a content creator who has a YouTube series in which he searches for a random recipe online and uses Google Translate to translate it into a different language. Then he takes that new translation and brings it back to English. He continues this process five or six times and then tries to follow the new recipe, which, as you may suspect, results in a complete mess of a dish. One time, he ended up sautéing water.


Although this is a silly explanation, it illustrates the point perfectly: Translating from one language to another is a VERY difficult process and can result in contextual errors.


It is also extremely difficult for people to read the same text and draw the same conclusions. In the United States, there are wildly differing opinions on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which is written in the native language of the majority of Americans.

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It’s easy to see how a text that dates back 2700 years in places and began as an oral tradition, could be interpreted differently. Scholars are not known for being the most agreeable type either.


jordan daniel singer scribes translation of the bible
Scribes, by Jordan Daniel Singer, 2022, Source: the Text & Canon Institute Phoenix Seminary


To give an example, Marcus Aurelius’ journal was published as a book called The Meditations and has been translated numerous times. Here are three separate translations of the same passage, as pointed out by Ryan Holiday in his Daily Stoic email, and sent out on November 13, 2023:


Gregory Hays: “What’s left for us to prize? I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for. That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do…And teaching and education…So that’s what we should prize. ”


Robin Waterfield: “What’s left to value? This, in my opinion: acting or refraining from action as dictated by the way we’re made. And here our occupations and crafts show the way, since it’s the aim of every craft that what it makes should fit the purpose for which it was made…And what else is it that tutors and teachers strive for? So that’s where value lies.”


Meric Casaubon: “What is there remaining that should be dear unto thee? This I think: that in all thy motions and actions thou be moved, and restrained according to thine own true natural constitution and Construction only. And to this even ordinary arts and professions do lead us. For it is that which every art doth aim at, that whatsoever it is, that is by art effected and prepared, may be fit for that work that it is prepared for…What else doth the education of children, and all learned professions tend unto? Certainly then it is that, which should be dear unto us also.”


marcus aurelius
Bust of Marcus Aurelius, 170-80 CE, Source: The French Ministry of Culture


These are all the exact same words, written in the exact same language, but translated very differently. Yet, they all draw on the same idea and hit the same general thought. They were writing at different times, so they wrote for a different audience in terms of language.


This is the exact issue that has affected the Bible. Without even getting into the logistics of who decided what is and isn’t scripture, there is an interpretation issue. As Greg Gilbert points out on Crossway.org, the major conflict comes from how literal the interpretation needs to be. There are some translators that vote for a more “word-for-word” translation as the best option to get the most accurate Bible; whereas, others posit that a more “thought-for-thought” translation is better suited to the modern people due to its readability.


Difficulties with a Literal Translation of the Bible

martin luther translation of the bible
Martin Luther Translating the Bible, Wartburg Castle, 1521, by Eugene Siberdt, 1898, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Languages are beautiful. The only problem is that they are culturally variant. The United States doesn’t have a national language but is known to predominantly speak English because the nation was founded by Great Britain, where they also speak English.


Both countries speak English but have variances for the same words. In the United States, we don’t have the letter “u” in the word “color.” This specific instance is due to the United States trying to separate the nation from the perceived oppressive Monarchy of ruling Britain.


It gets more intense than that though. Even within the United States, you will get specific verbiage directly related to geographic location. People in New York City will say words that don’t necessarily mean the same thing in Alabama, and the inverse is true too. It’s not often a New Yorker will say “y’all” or an Alabaman will say “schlep.”


Although contextual clues will ensure these people will be able to understand each other, there are broader examples of words that don’t directly translate. Even though Spanish is also a Romantic, or Latin-based, language, the word “sombremesa” doesn’t have a direct translation into English. This word isn’t necessarily needed in English due to differences in cultures. It can be translated to mean “the time spent after a meal just leisurely hanging out and chatting.” But in Britain and the United States, this isn’t a cultural norm, so that’s not a word that’s needed.


william tyndale portrait translations of the bible
William Tyndale, 1592, Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


2 Timothy 3:16-17 in the NIV says, “(16) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, (17) so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” which is often interpreted to mean that the Bible in and of itself, is, at a minimum, divinely inspired. The New International Version, is often cited as a middle-of-the-road translation.


If you read the same verse in the 21st century King James Version it says, “(16) All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, (17) that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for all good works.”


The 21st-century King James Version is an updated version of the original King James Version that was published in 1611. It’s been distilled from the original language to be as readable as possible — and it’s a much less accurate word-for-word translation of the Bible.


Dr. Peter J. Glurry wrote in a short blog post for the Text & Canon Institute of Phoenix Seminary, “The simple answer is that we have errors in our manuscripts because God never promised to keep them out.” Dr. Glurry is saying that the initial words or text may have been divinely inspired, but the scribes who interpreted and translated these words may not have been as precise. Which, in turn, means there may be some errors along the way.


sodom and gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah Afire, by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, 1680, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Additionally, when it comes to literal translations of the Bible, there are new archeological discoveries and other contextual clues that may give us a whole new meaning to what was originally stated. A perfect example of this is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah laid out in Genesis 19:1-22 when the mob is threatening to assault two Angels. This is commonly referred to as a tale in contention of homosexuality.


However, if you take into context the later account in Judges 19:22-26, where a similar situation happens and someone’s home is surrounded by a mob, you end up with a different understanding of the story. In the Genesis account, Lot offers up his daughters to protect himself. In the Judges account, a concubine is offered, and she is sexually assaulted and left for dead.


If you take both of these accounts into consideration, you learn that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was not directed at this single occurrence, but multiple wicked acts, including the attempted assault on someone’s guest.


pile of dictionaries
A pile of dictionaries, by Langenscheidt, Source: Wikimedia Commons


To add to all of these difficulties, you have to take into consideration the continual evolution of language. This is something that has happened throughout history, and we can see it today. After all, what is a “yeet”? And how does “bet” mean “ok cool” or “hot” mean attractive?


Technology and the evolution of sociology naturally lead to the development of new phrases. It’s difficult to track the emergence of new terms and phrases because, although it’s always changing, the purpose of a dictionary isn’t to tell you the direct definition of a word but to report on the common usage over time.


Some words are extremely difficult to define, yet everyone knows what they mean. The quickest example is to have a layperson attempt to define “apple” or “furniture.” Some things in a language everyone knows because they’re basic, but when you try to attach a definition to them, it gets too complex.


If you look at the Dictionary.com definition for furniture, it reads “the movable articles, as tables, chairs, desks or cabinets, required for use or ornament in a house, office, or the like.” This means, that the definition also includes vases or the empty cup on your desk branded with the college you went to that you keep pens in.


It makes so much sense that scholars disagree and argue about the inherent definition of words. So if a word-for-word translation is so bad, is a thought-for-thought look better?


Problems with Thought-for-Thought Translations of the Bible

wycliffe reading translation of the bible
The First Translation of the Bible into English (Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the New Testament to His Protector, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in the Presence of Chaucer and Gower, his Retainers), by Ford Madox Brown, 1847, Source: Artsdot.com


On the opposite side of the spectrum from the literal word-for-word translation of the Bible is the thought-for-thought translation. The best-known are The Message and the 21st-century King James Version. They are considerably distilled versions of original Hebrew and Greek texts.


As highlighted by Biblica.com, a word-for-word translation is extremely valuable for individual study, but it doesn’t lend itself to broader worship. There are those that believe the broader thought translation is better as it is much easier to understand and results in a larger group of people comprehending the meaning.


This idea is furthered by writer Don Stewart in his piece on translations of the Bible. Stewart says that the variance in interpretations and translations ultimately helps legitimize the Bible because they all are saying the same basic thing. The fact that there are so many copies of the same documents reporting the same stories adds to the credibility.


titivillus scribe demon
Titivillus, patron demon of scribes, who introduced errors into their work, 14th century, Source: Wikiwand


The opposite goes for when a person tweets something on X (formerly Twitter) about some obscure movie fact that they heard from their cousin’s friend who was an assistant to the set designer for the film, it doesn’t seem very legit. However, if this person says this, then an actor in the film says the same thing in an interview with a big magazine such as Cosmopolitan, then it’s going to have a lot more credibility.


But if that actor isn’t a very credible person and is known for spouting off nonsense, then it won’t have much backing. But if that noncredible actor says it, and it gets backed up by more people who also worked on the film and the director comes in and says it happened on the commentary of the film, then it’s considered true.


The likelihood of every person recounting this fictional fact in the same manner is slim to none. Each person will have their own take on the event. But it doesn’t make it untrue if Tim on the set remembers that there was a lucky cat on set with orange fur, while Sarah the actor in the film knows that it was mainly white with orange on it. That doesn’t mean either person is wrong, just that they had different experiences and the film had a lucky cat on set. What matters most about the fact is that it happened. It didn’t have to happen in a specific way to be “more accurate.”


codex alexandrinus
The Gospel of Luke, from Codex Alexandrinus, 5th century CE, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Part of the difficulty in deciding the word-for-word translation is that there are multiple manuscripts out there. The translator will have to decide which manuscript they will use and then justify why they’re doing that.


For the Bible, translators have had to decide between Byzantine manuscripts and Alexandrian manuscripts. Byzantine texts take the majority of the original texts and create a cohesive interpretation of what the majority says. Alexandrian texts, on the other hand, used the texts written within a specific timeframe. The issue of doing this is in the determination of the legitimacy of the text it creates. This area is where a word-for-word translation has the advantage.


east of eden
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, first edition cover, 1952, Source: Wikimedia Commons


While doing this determination and distillation of the text you may end up with massive differences such as those outlined in John Steinbeck’s magnum opus East of Eden. In the novel there is a pivotal scene where the characters are discussing the Bible and one of them says he went to the original language to interpret a single word.


The specific quote discusses the different translations of the Bible when Lee says,  “Don’t you see? . . . The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”


The thought-for-thought translations can lead to some confusion as to what the correct intention of the author was. With the idea that the entirety of the Bible is the “Word of God,” it’s important to get it right. Otherwise, you’re preaching a falsity.


In the scene laid out by John Steinbeck, the speaker is giving people a choice and establishing free will rather than predestination. This is a major point of contention in theological debate and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to come to a conclusion on it.


ladies listening to sermon
The Sermon, by Gari Melchers, 1886, Source: The Smithsonian American Art Museum


Another difficulty in doing a thought-for-thought translation of the Bible based on the multiple genres that make up the Bible. As explained by Minister Orpheus Heyward, the multiple genres of the Bible matter when trying to glean the desired understanding of a passage.


In terms of the thought-for-thought translation, some of the context will be lost due to the genre needing different readings. Some things in the Bible are meant to be read as songs (Psalms), metaphors, proverbs, and literal history. Sometimes these different genres don’t translate well into other languages and may become too confusing when trying to do a thought-for-thought translation. It may cause the translation to lose its impact.


Considerations for a Proper Translation of the Bible

jesus preaching to crowd
Jesus preaching to a crowd, woodcut, by Hans Wechtlin the Elder, 1508, Source: The Welcome Collection


As you can see, there are a lot of difficulties when working on proper translations of the Bible. The translator will have to figure out which one best fits their goal.


New Testament scholar Dr. Gurry was interviewed by Dr. Brian Arnold on the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast created by the Phoenix Seminary. In it, Dr Gurry lays out five important questions that translators must consider when they’re doing their translation. He also gives a little information on how the answers to these questions affect the outcome of the translation itself.


The first question to consider is, “Who is the intended audience?” The translator must consider who they are trying to translate for in terms of age and maturity. That maturity is not just a literal maturity, but a spiritual maturity too. Education level is also of prime importance.


This all matters in terms of how the Bible will be translated. For example, are they translating for a Spanish child or a Biblical scholar from England? These sorts of questions will determine how in-depth the translation must be, as a thought-for-thought translation would likely work better for the child whereas, the Bible scholar would likely prefer a more literal word-for-word translation of the Bible.


The second question to be considered is: “Will this be a fresh translation or a revision of a former translation?” This will alter the translation significantly. For example, a translation of the original Greek and Hebrew text will have to set itself apart by having a different translation or take on specific words than other current in-print translations.


king james i portrait
King James I, by John de Critz, 1605, Source: Museo Del Prado


On the other hand, a revision can maintain the integrity of the already completed translation but make it more readable or else interpret it for the desired intent. A translation of the original King James Version from 1611 may be done to make the words more understandable to a modern audience while keeping the beauty of the original.


Thirdly, what text will the translators translate? Someone may want to go all the way back to Tyndale’s translation or Martin Luther’s translation in German. Regardless of the choice, it will matter for the end result.


It could be a translation of a newly discovered text that they want to add to the Bible, which would naturally result in a very different understanding. By adding in, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the context of another book in the Bible might be wildly different.


Fourth, how do you handle culturally specific terms? Early in this article, a reference was made to how even within the United States there are cultural differences in how people talk and the words they use.


printing books renaissance
Printing Books, by Philipe Gale, 1590-3, Source: The National Gallery of Art


With that in mind, it makes sense that there would be some difficulty in deciding how to handle situations that don’t really translate well. These need to be handled in a specific way to get to the desired goal of being understood correctly by the target audience.


The final consideration for a translator is how much will the translation explain. This is important for the sake of footnotes. Will the translation just say the word-for-word translation or will it dig into what it means? Are there going to be notes added to it explaining what’s going on?


These are important considerations to get to the most effective translation of the Bible possible. People need to know what they’re reading and what it means in a more modern context. That way, to harken back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, people don’t assume that Lot offering up his daughters was done maliciously.


Which Is the Best Translation of the Bible?

the coverdale translation of the bible
The Title Page for the Coverdale Bible, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1535, via Wikimedia Commons


It’s been hinted at throughout the article, but a common follow-up question people have as to why there are so many different translations is “which one is best?” Hopefully, it has been conveyed well enough that there isn’t really a “best” translation. They each serve a specific purpose and are useful in their own way. But there is a “best” when speaking in more specific terms.


The kind of cheating answer, but nonetheless the absolute truth, is that the “best” is going to vary depending on the goal you’re trying to achieve. If you go to a modern church service, the general guidelines offered for a well-written sermon are: Include a main headline with three points and one to three subpoints to back up the initial point.


To help support their argument, pastors will often use multiple translations of the Bible for a single sermon. They will utilize the one that is written in the most comprehensive way to support their point. Sometimes the New International Version will word a verse more befitting the end goal than say the King James Version. Or maybe even the readability of The Message will help illustrate the point the best.


translation of the bible new international version
New International Version of the Bible, by Hoshie, Source: Wikimedia Commons


All of this really boils down to achieving the desired outcome. If you’re interested in a general overview of the Bible, you may want to turn The Message or an NIV translation. But if you’re trying to dig deep, then you will likely want the American Standard Version to get a more literal translation and to support you digging deeper into the original language the specific verse was written in. Doing this might result in a greater understanding of the author’s intent and, depending on your religious beliefs, a more clear understanding of what God truly believes.


That said, collect as many or as few translations as you want. After all, you can likely find every single version for free online.

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By Joshua WitworthBA English Literature, Certified Private PilotJosh is a career aviator and writer with a passion for seeking the deeper meaning in life. Having traveled the world as a flight attendant in early life, Josh got a unique perspective on the diverse views on things, so he seeks the greatest truth and the “why” behind everything. He utilizes his unique background of a Liberal Arts degree combined with his Southern Baptist upbringing gives an insight that is hard to find. One of his greatest joys is discussing the combination of philosophy, theology, and history with his Pastor father and anyone else that will listen.