A Guide to Modern Versions of the Bible

New King James Version • New American Standard Bible • English Standard Version • Revised Standard Version • New International Version • New Living Translation • New English Bible

By Dr. Herbert Samworth

If you had been looking to purchase a Bible fifty years ago, your choices would have been between the King James Version and one or two others. However, today you are faced with shelves and shelves of Bibles that command their own section in your local Christian bookstore. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of available options. Which one should you acquire? What factors should be taken into consideration before making your decision?

We will look at a short list of seven of the most popular versions of the Bible that are available today. But why these seven? First, these versions, with one exception, include only translations that use the most current versions of the Hebrew and Greek texts as the bases for the translations. Second, the translation work on the Bibles listed has been done by a committee, not by just one person. Experience has demonstrated that in a multitude of translators, as well as counselors, there is wisdom. Third, we must also state that only translations have been selected for inclusion. Paraphrases of the Scriptures have increased in popularity in recent years but they tend to be the work of an individual. Finally, all of the versions and translations that will be noted are for Protestants and Evangelicals. While there has been an increase in English translations for Roman Catholics, they have not been included in this list.

METHODS OF TRANSLATION

Before we look at the various versions, a reminder is needed concerning how the translation of the Bible is done. The translator of God’s Word has an awesome responsibility. On the one hand there is the concern to be faithful to the original source languages. The Scriptures were originally given in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. This necessitates a thorough knowledge of the original language in both its culture and context. In addition, in the case of the Scriptures, there is an additional difficulty because there is both a chronological and cultural gap between the world of the Bible and the world of the twenty-first century.

The translator also has the responsibility to communicate meaningfully the author’s message to the reader in the reader’s culture and context. Therefore the translator must be skillful in the understanding of the receptor language and be acquainted with his audience.

If the items noted above were the only obstacles, the task would be daunting in itself. However, we must add another factor to the translation process. That is the factor of the theory or method used in the translation. There are two basic theories of translation although there may be a great amount of overlap between them.

The first is known as the formal or verbal equivalence translation theory. In this method the translator selects a word in the receptor language that is the equivalent to the one found in the source language. If this principle is applied in a slavish manner it can result in an awkward literalistic translation. However, if done in order to assure meaningful communication, the result is a translation that effectively communicates the original sense of the source language.

The second translation theory is called the functional or dynamic equivalence method. The translator attempts to reproduce in the receptor language the thoughts and ideas of the source language in equivalent concepts. While this may result in meaningful communication, there is the danger of distorting the meaning or sense of the source language.
It is important to state that the two theories of translation are rarely accomplished perfectly. However, one or the other will predominate in the translation.

THE LIST

The NEW KING JAMES VERSION: This is the only translation that does not use the latest critical editions of the Greek and Hebrew texts. The Textus Receptus remains the primary textual base of this translation. Perhaps some of the history of this King James Version, also known as the "Authorized Version," will be helpful to the reader.

 

WHAT IS THE TEXTUS RECEPTUS?

The Textus Receptus (TR), or "Received Text," is the term used to refer to the first printed editions of the Greek New Testament as they appeared from 1516-1633. Most prominent of these publications are editions by Erasmus, Robert Stephanus, Theodore Beza, and the Elzevir brothers. These editions all drew from a mix of available Greek manuscripts and became the text basis of the Bible for centuries. But throughout the nineteenth century, scores of manuscripts, dated earlier than those used by the TR scholars, were coming to light, and the age of the "critical text" had begun. By 1882 the Wescott-Hort Greek New Testament had supplanted the TR as the standard edition of the Greek text.

 

There is no doubt that until recently the dominant version of the Bible in the English language has been the King James Version. Originally printed in 1611, it has undergone several revisions, although minor, during its history. It has been praised for the majesty of its language and beauty of expression. However, with newly discovered editions of the Greek texts and subsequent translations, the King James Version began to decline in popularity. Changes have taken place in the English language that rendered the Shakespearian language and cadence of the King James outdated. Complaints were voiced that its language was unintelligible to an increasing number of people.

However, among certain groups the King James Version has retained its popularity. Some have gone so far as to adopt what has been called a "King James only" mentality. Thus the King James Version is not only considered to be the best translation of the Scriptures but the only acceptable one. This position has escalated to the point where there are some who believe that the translation of the King James Version was providentially guided by the Holy Spirit and the translation is without error. Even the original texts of the Hebrew and Greek can be corrected by it. Although this is an extreme position, many people, especially of the older generations, are convinced that no other version is worthy to dislodge the King James Version from its dominant position.

In an attempt to safeguard the position of the King James, Thomas Nelson published what is called the New King James Version. The translators of the New King James emphasized their concern to continue the same tradition as the King James Version. However, the translators have updated the English in a more contemporary manner while seeking to preserve "for today’s readers the spiritual treasures found especially in the Authorized Version of the Holy Scriptures."

The New King James Bible would be a good choice for someone who is looking to retain the elevation of language and diction found in the original Authorized Version.

All the remaining versions surveyed use the critical editions of the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Text. We will note them in a spectrum, beginning with those that use the formal translation theory to those that are translated using the dynamic equivalence theory.

The NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE has received high marks for its fidelity to the original meaning of the original text while being criticized for its cumbersome English. This version can be traced back to the first translation made from the Westcott and Hort text in 1881-85. This translation was called the English Revised Version and was printed in 1885. The translation committee included members from England and the United States. The American committee disagreed with a number of choices selected by the British committee but agreed not to publish them for sixteen years. In 1901 the American Standard Version (ASV) was published which included the changes made by the American committee. It proved to be an accurate, albeit literal and somewhat cumbersome, translation. In the 1960’s an updating of this version was undertaken by the Lockman Foundation which holds the copyright. The Foundation was distressed that the use of the American Standard Version was "fast decreasing from the scene." In the words of the Lockman Foundation, they felt "an urgency to rescue this noble achievement from an inevitable demise, to preserve it as a heritage for coming generations, and to do so in such a form as the demands of passing time dictate."

The New American Standard New Testament was published in 1963 and the entire Bible in 1971. The NASB continues the rigid verbal equivalence translation as found in the ASV. In its favor it can be stated that it reflects the wording of the original languages and is a good version for Bible study. However, it also shows the defects of the ASV in that it is not as readable for devotional and worship purposes. Later editions of the NASB have sought to correct its wooden style by removing archaic words and improving its vocabulary and style.

The ENGLISH STANDARD VERSION is the latest translation to be issued from the press. It is too early to tell if it will be successful but initial sales have been very encouraging. The ESV claims to be "an essentially literal translation, emphasizing word-for-word precision." Thus it is to be considered a formal translation. The ESV also has an interesting history. It is an updating of the Revised Standard Version (see below). The Revised Standard Version has never been accepted by the evangelical community because of its association with the World Council of Churches and translations that appear to deny the virgin birth of Christ. While the RSV has not been popular among Evangelicals in the United States, it has been received with a greater appreciation in England.

The strength of the English Standard Version is its combination of formal adherence to the text of Scripture and beauty of language. It is also in a position to benefit from the controversy surrounding the gender inclusive policies being followed by Today’s New International Version. In addition there appears to be a waning of interest in the functional or dynamic equivalence theory of translation. If one is looking for a balanced combination of scholarship in translation and fluency of language, one might consider this version.

The parent to the English Standard Version was the REVISED STANDARD VERSION. First published in 1946 in the New Testament and 1952 in the Old Testament, it has received mixed reviews. Several unfortunate translations of key verses have tainted it with charges of liberalism and the fact that the copyright is owned by the National Council of Churches has reinforced the negative image. This is rather unfortunate because, on balance, the version is an admirable attempt to balance fidelity of translation in a formal manner and beauty of language.

The Revised Standard Version has been updated to include changes in the text base and to update language. This version has also received criticism for its inclusion of the Apocrypha that makes it more acceptable in ecumenical circles and gender inclusive language. Despite these criticisms, many are convinced that this version is the most up to date in biblical scholarship.

The fifth version of the Bible that we wish to consider is the NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. This Bible and the two that follow are translated according to the functional or dynamic equivalence theory.

The New International Version project was undertaken because of dissatisfaction with the Revised Standard Version. A committee was formed in 1963 to prepare a new translation for the conservative/evangelical community. Additional support for this translation came from the International Bible Society and the Zondervan Publishing House.

The New Testament was printed in 1973 and the Old Testament followed in 1978. As stated above this translation was done in the dynamic equivalence method and this limits its use for Biblical study and word analysis. None of this has hindered its acceptance because the New International Version has become a best seller and is the most popular version today both in evangelical and the larger Christian circles.

Controversy has dogged this translation, however. Several years ago there were plans to produce a gender neutral edition of the NIV. Strong conservative pressure prevented these plans from going forward and an agreement to cancel the edition was signed by both parties. However, within the last several months, this agreement was formally disavowed by the International Bible Society and an edition called Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was announced. This edition will use "inclusive language." The announcement raised an outburst from the conservatives who also were parties to the original agreement. As of this date the controversy continues and whether or not this edition comes to the market remains to be seen.

The plans to produce this version have opened again the whole question of Bible translation and the correct manner of doing it. While it is regrettable that this issue has divided many evangelicals, there is the real possibility that the long term effect will be for good because Bible translation theory, the implied catering to contemporary and cultural pressures, and the marketing of various versions that are part of Bible production will now be examined with greater scrutiny. Hopefully, this will result in a greater emphasis being placed on the importance of a translation that is both faithful to the text in all areas and its readability. However, a good translation must also lead further to the reading, studying and application of the Scriptures to the life of the individual.

Another version that has captured the attention of the Evangelical community is called the NEW LIVING TRANSLATION. This version also has an interesting history. In the early 1970’s, Kenneth Taylor of Tyndale Publishing House produced a paraphrase known as the Living Bible. This attempt was to make the Scriptures as meaningful in the modern English idiom as possible to the general reader from a position of rigid orthodoxy.

The commercial success of the Living Bible was overwhelming and it became very popular among Evangelicals despite its limitations as to coherence with the original text. In the mid-1990’s a decision was made to update the Living Bible. A translation team was assembled to rework the translation and modify it from a paraphrase to a dynamic equivalence translation. The language was also improved to make it more accurate and readable. This is the first case where a paraphrase was modified to become a dynamic equivalence translation. The New Living Translation has been marketed extensively and has proven to be popular among Evangelicals.

The final version that we will note is called the NEW ENGLISH BIBLE. This version was originally conceived in the late 1940’s. It was one of the first British attempts at a dynamic equivalence translation and was well accepted in England because of its attempt to retain formal and traditional English vocabulary and diction. However, its popularity with British readers was not matched by readers from other countries due to its British character.

This version, like many of the others we have noted, has also been updated to remove some of its limitations and to improve its style. It has never been popular in the United States and the reader may encounter some difficulty in locating a copy.

TRANSLATION COMPARISON
Romans 3:23-26

NKJV NASB ESV RSV NIV NLT NEB
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, For all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard. For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine splendour,
being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. and all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the Person of Christ Jesus.
whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness,
because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness,
because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness,
because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins;
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in
his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished;
For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith. God meant by this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had overlooked the sins of the past–
to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus. to demonstrate his justice now in the present, showing that he is himself just and also justifies any man who puts his faith in Jesus.

 

CONCLUSION

On the one hand, there is reason to lament the proliferation of versions because the reason for the new translations appears to be market driven. On the other hand, there is reason for thankfulness that the Word of God is available to us in so many versions.

However, we must understand two things. First, we must keep in mind that the Bible must be prayed over, studied, and committed to the heart in order for it to function in the manner that God intended. The truth of Scripture is given to us for living. We may own every version of the Scriptures that is available and not be profited one bit. We must be doers of the Word. Debates can be multiplied regarding the correct way to translate the Bible. It certainly is a topic that merits serious consideration. But it is the power of the Word of God that effects the changes in thinking and doing that are so critical today.

In the second place we must remember there remain countless peoples in the world today who have never owned or even seen a copy of the Scriptures. Gratitude should flow from our hearts to God for the privilege of having the Word of God in our own language. However, in addition to gratitude, there must be the determination to make the Word of God available to all the peoples of the world in a language they can understand.

 


 

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