Oftentimes people think that because there are so many versions, than the Bible must be continually changing and if the Bible is continually changing than we can’t trust it. However, after a close look, we realize just the opposite is true; the more translations we have, the more accurate it becomes. The word “versions” could probably be better (and more accurately) described as “translations” (therefore we will use these terms interchangeably). Even though the different translations are in English, as you’ll see in a moment, they each serve a different purpose.
To begin with, you may ask “why do we need so many English translations?” There are two reasons for this. The first reason is because we in the United States live in a rapidly changing society (possibly faster than at any other time in history). These changes affect our language, history and culture. Therefore, as translations of the Bible that were written during a different time period (like the King James Version written in 1611 AD) become difficult to read and understand from our worldview, new versions must be compiled to ensure we can understand what the authors wanted us to know. The second reason is that as archeological digs continue to produce more and more ancient manuscripts, we need to continually be checking to make sure we have the most accurate translation possible.
In order to understand the purpose of a translation, it is necessary to take a brief look at how the different translations come about. When a new translation is being prepared, it will follow one of two different schools of thought. The first one is called “formal equivalence.” This method focuses on a word-for-word translation from the original manuscripts. It does its best to preserve the original word order and sentence structure from the original manuscripts as much as possible. The second method of translation is called “dynamic equivalence.” This method focuses on thought-for-thought translation. It seeks to convey the original meaning the author was trying to get across while at the same time remaining readable. (To see a chart that shows all the different translations according to word-for-word or thought-for-thought click here). To get a better understanding of this concept, let’s compare the same verse using each of these two methods. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is a very good translation using the word-for-word method. In the NASB, 1 Kings 2:10 reads “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.” The New Living Translation (NLT) utilizes the thought-for-thought method of translation. In the NLT 1 Kings 2:10 reads “Then David died and was buried in the City of David.” As you can see the only difference between the two is “slept with his fathers” and “died.” Most of us Americans aren’t familiar with the phrase “slept with his fathers” as meaning someone died (in fact, because our language changes so fast, some people in America today may accidently interpret this to mean something of a sexual nature, even though it is clearly meant for something different). Yet to an ancient Jew that phrase was very well understood. The word-for-word method preserves the original wording while the thought-for-thought method uses a term that makes sense to us. The most important thing is that they both mean the same thing. Regardless of the translation used, we can clearly understand that David died.
You may be asking yourself about whether or not small changes like those discussed above have any bearing on the accuracy of the text. We must remember that anytime you translate something between languages, some things will not carry over. For example, the Spanish language has a future tense while English does not. Many English words have multiple meanings while some French words do not. The very nature of translation requires some small changes to be made. This is why in issues of the Bible, Scholars and many Pastors alike, study Greek and Hebrew so as to be able to look directly at the ancient texts and see exactly what was meant by the author.
Each of these methods has its own pros and cons. In times of general reading for pleasure and understanding the thought-for-thought method is appropriate. However, one should never use a thought-for-thought method to do a study of a particular word meaning or topic. For studies like that, one should use a word-for-word translation.