Features, Highlights

Why do Bible translations differ?

Unless otherwise noted, the italics and bold font in the verses below have been added to highlight differences. Abbreviations used for the various English translations are listed at the end of this article.

Why do Bible translations differ, and which Bible translation should I use? This article outlines several reasons contributing to differences between Bible translations.

1. Substance and style

Translators must decide how to convey the substance and style of each sentence. Compare these three translations of Judges 13:5.

NIV (1984): because you will become pregnant and have a son.

ISV (1995): because—surprise!—you’re going to conceive and give birth to a son!

KJV (1611): For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son.

The substance of the sentence is not in dispute. However, each translator’s decision on what style best conveys the substance results in observable differences. In the statement that promises the birth of a son, the ISV (“surprise!”) and KJV (“lo”) convey an element of surprise, each choosing an expression considered appropriate and comprehensible to their readers (in the 20th and 17th centuries respectively). The NIV omits any interjection that might highlight the surprise element.

Similar considerations underlie the different translations of Judges 14:18.

NIV: If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle.

GNB: If you hadn’t been ploughing with my cow, You wouldn’t know the answer now.

The NIV rendering has provided what has been called a “formal equivalence” of the meaning of the words. The Hebrew word for “riddle” used in the second line rhymes with the Hebrew for “my heifer/cow”. GNB abandons any formal equivalent to the Hebrew words for “my riddle” and introduces instead the very different “answer now” to create a rhyme with “my cow”. (This has been called “dynamic or functional equivalence” as opposed to a word-by-word “formal equivalence”

Should conveying the stylistic rhyming function take precedence over providing the formal substantive meaning of the words in the original? Bible translations differ because translators answered this question differently in different verses.

2. Modern sense and sensitivities

a) Modern sense: Ancient terminology

Translations differ on whether to express the Bible’s ancient terminology (formal equivalence) or substitute a (functional or dynamic) equivalent for the modern reader.

Matthew 14:25

NIV 1984: About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake.

NIV 2011: Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.

First century Roman terminology divided time from sunset to sunrise (approximately what is our 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) into four “watches” (6 to 9 p.m.; 9 p.m. to midnight; midnight to 3 a.m.; 3 to 6 a.m.). The 1984 NIV retains the ancient Roman terminology (“fourth watch of the night”) but the 2011 edition uses a modern phrase (“shortly before dawn”), as does the CJB (“around 4 o’ clock in the morning”).

b) Modern sensitivities: Gender-neutral language

In many 21st century societies, the use of gender-neutral language is considered a mark of sensitivity and respect for women. This is reflected in the fairly consistent adoption of gender-neutral pronouns in NIV’s 2011 edition.

Isaiah 33:15-16

NIV 1984: He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil—this is the man who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. His bread will be supplied, and water will not fail him.

NIV 2011: Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil—they are the ones who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them.

3. Idioms and puns

The way a translation resolves the tension between a formal (dictionary) or functional (dynamic) equivalent is obvious in the treatment of ancient idioms and word play (puns).

In modern English, we sometimes use “heart” as a metaphor or idiom for our feelings. “You have moved my heart.” Ancient Hebrew and Greek would more often use terms relating to one’s intestines (bowels) to convey feelings and compassion.

The 1611 KJV offers the formal or dictionary equivalent term “bowels” for the ancient Hebrew and Greek metaphor “intestines” in several verses. Here are some (for us, quite amusing) examples:

  • KJV Philemon 1:20 Refresh my bowels in the Lord.
  • The young lady in Song of Songs 5:4 longs for her lover, and says—in the KJV (and Hebrew)—“my bowels were moved for him”.
  • KJV Philemon 1:12, Paul says: “Thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels.”

Instead of the formal dictionary equivalent word “bowels”, most other translations choose a functionally dynamic equivalent such as “heart” for the verses cited above. The same Greek word for “bowels” is used in Matthew 9:36, and we may be thankful that on this occasion, KJV decided against the rendering: When Jesus saw the multitudes, his bowels were moved! (Instead, KJV tells us that Jesus “was moved with compassion.)

Amos 8:2 offers another example.

Amos 8:2

NAS: He said, “What do you see, Amos?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come for My people Israel. I will spare them no longer.”

NIV: “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. Then the LORD said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.”

NAS has used the formal dictionary equivalents to the Hebrew words for “summer fruit” and the “end”. What is lost in this translation, however, is the pun or rhyme that exists in these two Hebrew words (qaytz and qetz). NIV provides a dynamic or functional equivalent to the Hebrew pun by substituting the English words “ripe fruit” and “the time is ripe”.

4. Unknown idioms and words

Other translation differences occur because it is not known how ancient readers understood certain ancient phrases or idioms.

The uncertainty in Psalm 35:13d is not the formal (or dictionary) English equivalents to the Hebrew words. Those can be rendered simply, as with the KJV, “my prayer returned into mine own bosom”. But what does it mean to say that one’s prayer has returned to one’s own bosom? We do not know. The translator, therefore, must either do as KJV has done (i.e. make no attempt to clarify) or provide modern readers with a reasonable guess, as in the following translations.

  • NIV: my prayers returned to me unanswered
  • ESV: I prayed with head bowed on my chest
  • HCSB: and my prayer was genuine
  • TNK: may what I prayed for happen to me!

5. Punctuation

The most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew and Greek Bible did not include punctuation marks. Translators sometimes differ in their judgement as to where to include, for example, an English comma or question mark.

In Acts 26:28, was King Agrippa telling Paul that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian (KJV, NAS, NJB) or was he asking a rhetorical question to the effect that he was nowhere close to being persuaded (NIV, ESV, NRSV)?

Acts 26:28

NIV: Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

NAS: Agrippa replied to Paul, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.”

Similar differences occur in the Hebrew Bible over the question of question marks.

Hosea 13:14

NIV: I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death.

NAS: Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death?

Differences over where to place a full stop or comma also account for translation differences. In Romans 9:5, does Paul equate the Christ as the God who is over all things?

Romans 9:5

ESV: To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

RSV: to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.

6. Textual Variants

The materials on which the original texts of the Bible were recorded have perished. By God’s providence, several ancient copies have been preserved up to our day. When comparing these ancient hand-written copies with one another, it is hardly surprising that there are—what we would call—typographical differences. The term that scholars use is “textual variants”. These variants (or variations) mean that a translator must decide which variant to translate! Textual variants are, therefore, another reason that Bible translations differ.

For example, was joy increased (NKJV) or not increased (KJV) in Isaiah 9:3?

Isaiah 9:3

KJV: Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy.

NKJV: You have multiplied the nation And increased its joy*;

NKJV translators have included a footnote for modern readers: * Following Qere and Targum; Kethib and Vulgate read [not increased joy].” This footnote informs us that there are textual variants for this verse, and NKJV translators have opted to translate the variant as found in the ancient texts referred to as the Qere and Targum. In contrast, KJV translators opted for different variants found in other ancient texts referred to as Kethib and Vulgate. In this particular verse, the vast majority of English Bible translations have opted for the same textual variant as the NKJV, i.e. the joy has been increased!

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:28–31 of two sons who respond, and act, differently to their father’s request, provides a very interesting variant.1 Whilst the main point of the parable is unaffected (viz. active obedience is more important than the confession of one’s lips), there are variants in whether it is the first or second son who finally obeys. Compare the different translations offered by the 1977 and 1995 translators of the NAS.

Matthew 21:28-31

NAS 1977: A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ “And he answered and said, ‘I will, sir’; and he did not go. “And he came to the second and said the same thing. But he answered and said, ‘I will not’; yet he afterward regretted it and went.

NAS 1995: A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ “And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. “The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go.

7. Which Bible translation should I use?

Every translation provides a valuable service to readers unable to read the ancient Hebrew and Greek Bible. One main reason why translations differ has to do with whether they aim to provide readers with more formal, literal translations or more functional, less literal equivalents. (Sections 1, 2 and 3 above have offered some examples of these differences.) The differences caused by textual variants (section 6 above) may also guide your choice of translation. Some translations include more footnotes to alert the reader to these textual variants; other translations aim at readers not likely to have much interest in knowing this extra information.

So, which translation is best depends on the need one hopes to meet. Translators usually indicate their translation principles in the Preface and Introductory Notes. As a (very) rough guide, I would characterise the following translations in order of being more formal (literal) to more functional (less literal): KJV, NAS, ESV, NIV, GNB, MSG.

A (also very) rough guide for footnotes (from less to more) would be MSG, KJV, GNB, NIV, ESV, NAS, ISV, NLT.

More important than the question of which translation to read is the habit of actually reading any available translation of the Bible.

Abbreviations used for different Bible translations

CJB : Complete Jewish Bible
ESV : English Standard Version
GNB : Good News Bible
HCSB : Holman Christian Study Bible
ISV : International Standard Version
KJV : King James Version
MSG : The Message
NAS : New American Standard Bible
NIV : New International Version
NJB : New Jerusalem Bible
NKJV : New King James Version
NLT : New Living Translation
NRSV : New Revised Standard Version
RSV : Revised Standard Version
TNK : Tanakh (New Jewish Publication Society Translation)

The views expressed in this article are personal and may not reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. A full version of the article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters?layout=edit&id=270

1 It may suggest that some copies of the Bible included a stage of reproduction through an oral tradition rather than a completely hand-written process. But that is another debate!

Bishop Dr Gordon Wong was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2020. He served as President of the Trinity Annual Conference from 2013–2020.