Why are there so many versions of the Bible and which one should I read?
I was saved in 2012. In 2011, I was an atheist. I was always very quick to ask (what I thought was) a rhetorical question, “if the Bible is the Word of God, why are there so many versions?” So, why are there so many versions? And which one should you read?
When I was convinced about my doubt, I viewed the fact that there were so many versions of the Bible as evidence that there must have been some confusion about the Bible within the Bible community. I was, maybe only partially, correct.
I do offer something of a list with some explanation below. It is not an exhaustive one, it may only feel like it.
A Bible is like a piece of exercise equipment. Just buying it doesn’t improve you, but using it always does.
I hope that you will find the right Bible version. But I hope you find the right version so that you’ll read the Bible.
The Bible languages.
The Hebrew Bible, what Christians now refer to as the Old Testament, was written – as you might have guessed – predominantly in Hebrew. Though just under 300 verses in the prophetic books were also written in Aramaic.
Alexander the Great conquered the known world – just as Daniel had prophesied – in the early fourth century BC. Greece imparted their culture and language on all of their conquered territories and Greek was still the language of business, commerce, literature, and education in New-Testament times.
By 132 BC, the entire Jewish Bible and 14 other church texts which were non-canonical (not recognized as inspired books and therefore not included in the ‘canon’ of Scripture) known as the Apocrypha had been translated into Greek. That document is known as the Septuagint.
Though it is widely believed that Jesus and His disciples spoke Aramaic, the New-Testament authors wrote in Greek in order to reach as much of the Gentile world as possible.
So, by the time the original Greek New-Testament texts were written, they were already – at least partially – translated from the Aramaic that was spoken at the time.
The entire New Testament was completed by the end of the first century. When the New Testament was combined with the Septuagint, the Bible was a Greek document.
The Roman church.
By the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine I had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
As Latin was the official language of Rome, several Latin translations of the Bible emerged.
Seeing how unreliable these translations had already become, biblical scholar Jerome went back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts and completed a Latin translation known as the Vulgate.
Jerome was compelled by the Latin church to include the Apocryphal books, though this was against Jerome’s advice. Jerome completed his translation in the year 405.
Jerome’s version was not without its scholarly critics but the Vulgate held on as the official biblical text of the Roman church until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
For that thousand-or-so years, Bible translations were made from the Vulgate, rather than the original Hebrew and Greek texts. It was because of Jerome’s Vulgate that the church’s language and its services were conducted in Latin.
The Protestant Reformation.
Unfortunately, by the time of the Protestant Reformation, few commoners spoke, understood, or read Latin and the Roman church liked it that way.
There was widespread taxation exacted on all of the Roman territories by the church. Get-out-of-purgatory-free documents known as indulgences were sold by the church to the citizenry and the proceeds funded the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
The Reformation took hold in the form of protests against the tyranny of the Roman church – hence the Protestant name. As biblical scholarship of the original Hebrew and Greek texts took hold, the activities of the Roman church were exposed as being non-biblical.
Under the cover of secrecy, the Bible was translated into other languages, and Gutenberg’s printing press made these translations available in the time, quantities, and prices that were previously unheard of in handwritten copies.
Some of the earliest translations were copied from the Latin Vulgate. As scholars concluded the Vulgate was a corrupt translation, other translations emerged.
The biblical scholar Erasmus created a Greek/Latin parallel New Testament – the Latin translated from partial Greek manuscripts he had acquired – in 1516.
Martin Luther translated Erasmus’ work into German in 1522 and an entire German Bible – including the Apocrypha – by 1534.
By 1526, William Tyndale had produced an English New Testament, also from Erasmus’ translation. He was burned at the stake by the Roman church when he was captured ten years later for his translations.
Myles Coverdale completed the first complete English Bible – from Luther’s translation – in 1535. This became known as the Coverdale Bible.
Good Ol’ King Henry.
King Henry VIII hired Coverdale to publish the “Great Bible” in English in 1539 – so named for its enormous size.
King Henry had asked the Pope for permission to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. When the Pope refused the King’s request, King Henry married his mistress anyway, renounced the Catholic Church, and the Church of England – also known as the Anglican Church – was formed.
King Henry named himself the head of this church and funded the widespread reproduction of the Scriptures in English, and we got the first ‘legal’ English Bible.
In 1560, the church of Geneva, Switzerland commissioned the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible with an Old Testament that had been entirely translated from the Hebrew. The New Testament was translated from Tyndale’s work.
It was written with the help of Protestant reformers John Calvin and John Knox and completed in 1576. Knox’ and Calvin’s contributions were centered in the annotations, thus making the Geneva Bible the first study Bible. It was also the first Bible to include chapter and verse assignments (as in John 3:16).
In 1579, the Geneva Bible became the first Bible printed in Scottland where a law was passed mandating its purchase.
The Geneva Bible became the preferred Bible of sixteenth-century English Protestants and – contrary to popular belief – was the Bible brought to America by the Puritan Pilgrims on the Mayflower. The King James Version would, however, be the first Bible to be printed in America.
In 1582, the church of Rome gave in to the inevitable and created their own English translation known as the Doway/Rheims Version. Though they stubbornly held onto the corrupt Vulgate as its source document in the translation.
Good Ol’ King James.
In 1611, King James I commissioned an “Authorized Bible” be printed in an effort to unify the churches of England and Scottland. He banned the further printing of the Geneva Bible and – though it took several decades – the King James Version (KJV) went on to become the most popular English translation.
Though similar to the Geneva Bible, the KJV omitted the study notes, thus making it easier for King James to remain the head of the church of England with less critical challenge. Calvin’s teachings were among the first to emphasize Jesus Christ as the only true head of the church.
The King James Version of the Bible remained largely unchallenged as the authoritative English translation until the 19th century. It went on to become the most widely printed book in history by that time.
It wasn’t until England’s updated printing of the English Revised Version (ERV) in 1880 that anyone was willing to consider an English Bible other than the KJV. Interestingly, this would be the first of many versions to be printed without the Apocrypha.
Then what happened?
Not to be outdone, the Americans printed their own version, known as the American Standard Version (ASV) in 1901. It would be updated in 1971 and called the New American Standard Bible (NASB).
Though the NASB was very similar to the ERV, it has gone on to earn the respect of Protestant scholars everywhere as the most reliable word-for-word translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. It has, however, garnered some criticisms due to its strict faith to the original languages making it more difficult to interpret.
In 1973, the demand for more digestible translations ushered in the production of a “dynamic equivalent” known as the New International Version (NIV). This version wandered from a literal translation toward an easier reading level. Though the NIV never really won over the scholarly purists, it did manage to become the best selling modern-English translation of the Bible to date.
In 1982, an attempt was made at modernizing the KJV and the New King James Version was born. The Elizabethan language was updated and an attempt was made at leaving the rest unchanged. Due to the name, it managed meager popularity, but never quite caught on.
My personal favorite.
In 2002, a version of the Bible was created to stand in the gap between the accuracy of the NASB and the readability of the NIV. This is my – and my church’s – Bible of choice; the English Standard Version (ESV).
Alright, you caught me. I only brought you current to my favorite version. There are others. And there will most certainly be more.
Older manuscripts are found often, and as they are found, we sometimes learn of passages that were not found in the earlier translations. These variations are pointed out in the Bible’s footnotes and can be met with different reactions. That is for another post.
Let me end this post (finally) by helping to narrow your choices. In searching for a Bible version, you must find a balance between the more formal translations; those that attempt the most loyalty to the original texts, and the more functional; those that attempt a greater ease of reading.
The caution in striking this balance is if you get too close to the formal – in an effort to stay loyal to the originals – you may cause interpretive challenges.
If you get a too-functional version, what you become better able to understand may be too far from the original, inspired, Word of God to be of much use.
I do recommend the use of functional versions when necessary, up to and including paraphrases such as The Message, to better understand. But I would only use them as a guide in understanding a more faithful translation.
Do some research. You can read – and sometimes listen to – various versions at websites like www.biblegateway.com or their mobile app. There are also apps from Bible.is and, of course, the "Bible" app. When it is all said and done, decide on a version and read it.
Recommended Resource: Grasping God's Word Duvall, J. S., & Hayes, J. D. (2012). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. The History of Christianity, Justo L. Gonzalez (2010). New York, NY: Harper Collins.
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