The above question cannot be answered without first honestly reflecting on the sheer number of English Bibles available today (for an overview of many of these translations, please read Xristian.org's A Guide to the Many English Bible Translations). Those at Xristian.org must admit that there are far too many English1 translations currently being marketed, their shear number raising more doubt and confusion than confidence and clarity. One need only take a trip to the local Christian bookstore to realize all of the choices out there - choices that leave uninformed individuals a bit baffled.
Nevertheless, there are several legitimate reasons for having more than one English translation of the Holy Bible:
Variations in the English Language
The English language changes over time. Individuals do not speak the same today as they did four hundred years ago. In fact the Oxford Dictionary of English (British) added some 3,000 new words to their dictionary in 2003 alone. Some words were adopted because of advances in technology ("cyberslacker," "website," or "sars"), others because of changes in fads or culture ("eeyorish," "badabing", or "reality tv"); and others because of adaptations from foreign languages ("adobo," "creme," or "mojito"). None of these perfectly valid words would have been known by translators or readers in generations prior to the twentieth century. Just the same, words are regularly dropped from the English language every year as they become antiquated and less familiar to readers. For instance, the 1611 KJV rendering of Genesis 25:29-30 begins "And Jacob sod pottage…." Those reading this translation some 400 years ago may well have known that "sod" meant "to cook" or "to boil," but many of today's readers would be forced to look up the meaning of "sod" before understanding Genesis 29-30. Modern translations (NIV, NAS, NKJV) faithfully clarify the meaning of this verse. Consequently it is only natural to find updated translations of the Bible to make it easier to understand by today's reader.
The English language also varies geographically. There are different connotations and meanings of words by location and dialect. In fact, several of the above-mentioned 3,000 newly adopted words in the Oxford Dictionary of English (a British publication) were taken from "American" English ("nerd," "geek," "bad hair day," and "24/7"), which had already formally adopted these words years before 2003. Certainly, then, it is natural that there are multiple English translations based upon the different dialects of English around the globe.
Purpose of Translation
It is well known by the student of any foreign language that there is more than one adequate way to translate sentences into any other language2. The best way to translate a foreign language depends on the audience for whom the translation is to be made and ultimately the purpose of the translation.
While a literal translation (formal equivalence) is normally preferred, often a less literal translation (dynamic equivalence) is more appropriate. For example, if an audience is not familiar with Spanish culture it may not be best to translate from the Spanish, "Cada quien tiene su manera de matar pulgas," the literal English, "Each has his/her way of killing fleas." This sentence might best be translated using a similar idiom in English that is better known by those readers, such as, "There's more than one way to skin the cat." In fact, if the intended audience is of a low level education (or unfamiliar with idioms), one might best translate this sentence, "There is more than one right way of doing things." The Bible is not reserved for only those holding the highest academic credentials and should be made readable by all.
Additionally, the intent of use of the translation can influence how literal a translation is. Those studying the Bible (individually or sentence by sentence) typically prefer as literal a translation as possible. They want to understand precisely what the original author wrote and do the homework to understand what it means. However, a literal translation can be choppy and make for rough public or pulpit readings. In these cases the text can be smoothed by using synonyms or inserting conjunctions so that it better flows when read out-loud. An example of such a "paraphrasing" can be found in Luke 9:44, where the verse is introduced by a few literal translations as, "Let these words/sayings sink down into [your] ears" (KJV/NAS). While this is a perfectly acceptable translation, today's readers rarely use such expressions and might better relate to a less literal but perfectly fine translation, "Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you" (NIV). Neither translation is wrong, both are perfectly faithful to the original text, and the intended use would dictate which one to use. There is absolutely no doubt in either translation over what the original author intended to communicate.
Generally, there is more subjectivity involved in producing less literal translations. However, non-literal translations can still be faithful to the original meaning while proving easier to read for many people. Ultimately it is a good idea to read a couple reliable translations of the Bible and consult the original language of Hebrew or Greek (using an interlinear Bible and a lexicon: http://www.studylight.org/isb/) to better understand the Bible on a verse by verse basis.
Most important to the reliability of today's Bible, however, is the Hebrew/Greek text behind it. If the documents behind the translations are incorrect, then the translation will necessarily be incorrect. So, how reliable is the Hebrew and Greek3 used by translators and to what extent do any variations affect today's overabundance of English translations?
Although the original autographs by the initial inspired authors are not available today, the Bible is supported by literally tens of thousands of manuscripts copied as early as the second century4. There are over 5,600 complete and partial5 Greek manuscripts alone that support the New Testament writings. When the KJV translation of the Bible was produced in 1611 using the Textus Receptus, many of the now known manuscripts were not then available. On the other hand, most of the modern translations factor in the archaeological finds of the last four centuries and utilize earlier and more geographically diverse6 manuscripts. Of these recent finds, most significant are the early Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus.
While some charge that there are 200,000 or more variants in all of the manuscripts supporting the New Testament, this number reduces drastically as one digs deeper into the details. Of the 5,600+ manuscripts no one would reasonably argue that all 5,600 are different renderings of what the original author intended. In fact, most of the claimed variants are double and triple counted (and then some), so that the "same" scribal slip of a letter produced in the second or third century is carried through hundreds of years of manuscripts. Removing such expansive and inflated accounting reduces the number to about 10,000, where the majority of these are trivial variations (even misspellings), which have no impact on the meaning of the sentence or verse. That means the Greek text behind today's Bible is over 98% accurate. And, it is fair enough to say that even the last 2% of the relevant variants would have no impact on a single critical Christian doctrine.
Factoring in recently found ancient documents can result in slightly more accurate readings of what the original authors wrote by inspiration. Despite the refinements in translation though, one would do ok reading from an older translation which was produced before the more recent textual discoveries. No significant doctrine would be impacted and the intended meaning of the text would be generally on target when all is said and done. In fact, many modern translations will provide marginal notes where textual disputes are known. Typically the reader is left unimpressed by the alternate readings, as they do not change the message of the Bible.
Again, the textual variations in the manuscripts on which many of today's English Bibles are based are minor and do not drive the plethora of translations on the market. The number and diversity of translations are instead driven by translational differences that meet the diversity of the English language and that also meet different end uses of the Bible. Xristian.org's A Guide to the Many English Bible Translations summarizes the differences in several major versions of the Bible and helps to outline the strengths and weaknesses of each translation. Which translation is used by you, the reader, is not nearly as significant as the fact that you are reading A copy of the Bible.
1 The Bible has been translated into over 2,000 languages across the globe, spanning the means of communication of over 90% of the world's people. Because the gospel is to go forward to all nations and peoples, this article is NOT a commentary on the number of translations, but rather on the number of ENGLISH translations available. Those at Xristian.org hope that one day the Bible is available in all of the estimated 6,000+ languages of the world.
2 When it comes to Greek, the English language can hardly to it justice. Greek is a precise and deep language that carries much more information behind each sentence than identical words in English can convey.
3 In some rare places of the Bible, Aramaic is actually the original language.
4 Including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the dating could be as early as the first century B.C. However, this article will focus on the manuscript evidence for the New Testament, since it is the foundation for Christianity and often under scrutiny when it comes to consistency of the English translations of the Bible.
5 Many of the manuscripts do not contain entire books or epistles of the Bible and are "fragmentary." However, there are key manuscripts that are "complete" and which give overwhelming testimony to what the original authors wrote.
6 In addition to the Byzantine text-types behind the KJV, now well known are the earlier Alexandrian text-types.
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