Multiple Translations and Personal Study

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

There are a number of sound and very reasonable arguments in favor of a local congregation having one set translation from which they preach and teach during public worship. There is value in every member of a congregation having the same wording in front of them during the Sunday sermon and remaining undistracted by minor variations in terminology or sentence structure which, though having little or no effect on the meaning, can make it hard to follow. Hearing a verse read or recited in the exact same way consistently in public worship can also aid in memorization. Additionally, it is helpful to the visitor who does not have their own Bible and must rely on one borrowed from or given to them by the church. It would probably be confusing to such a visitor to hear the verse preached by the pastor one way and then look down on the page of the Bible the church gave him to find it worded another way. Yes, there are numerous reasons why it makes sense for a local congregation to select a standard translation for public worship, and that is why most congregations do just that. This is hardly a biblical command, but it is a rather reasonable practice.

But personal Bible study is another matter. Many King James Onlyists take the arguments that really do support the idea of a church having a standard translation for public worship, and then they erroneously extrapolate that to the irrational claim that only one translation should even exist or that only one translation should be used in any context. The fact of the matter is, however, that choosing one standard translation for the public worship of your congregation makes some sense, but limiting oneself to only one translation for private, personal study does not. If there is more than one quality translation available to you in your language, you are neglecting a valuable resource to aid your own understanding of the text by limiting yourself to only one of those translations. There are several reasons for this.

Breaking Familiarity

One of the most basic functions of reading a different translation than the one to which you are accustomed is simply to break familiarity and be startled anew by what the text is really saying. Familiarity brings with is a sort of rhythm and habit in which we can read a text and feel that we understand it well without actually taking it in. Reading the same text in unfamiliar words can suddenly shake us out of the rut we didn't even know we were in and allow us to read the text with fresh eyes. We read the same passage we have read a thousand times before, but we read it in different words which forces us to slow down and pay more attention to what we are reading. The unfamiliarity of it can sometimes strike us with the message of the verse almost as if we were reading it again for the first time. We say to ourselves "that can't be right. This verse doesn't really say that does it?" So we go back and look at it again in our main translation that we know and love, and low and behold it really does mean that! We can see it now, though we had missed it all these years. In this way, even a translation that is not quite as good as the one we are used to can actually help us to better understand and respond to the text. As C.S. Lewis explained:

"Though it may seem a sour paradox, we must sometimes get away from the authorized version, if for no other reason, simply because it is so beautiful and so solemn. Beauty exalts, but beauty also lulls. Early associations endear but they also confuse. Through that beautiful solemnity the transporting or horrifying realities of which the book tells may come to us blunted and disarmed and we may only sigh with tranquil veneration when we ought to be burning with shame or struck dumb with terror or carried out of ourselves by ravishing hopes and adorations."1

Reading the Bible is about so much more than just passively taking in a set of words. The Bible is the Word of God. It is God's very speech to His people. We must not venerate the particular wording of our favorite translation over the actual content of what God is saying to us. Having and using a standard translation is good, but it is extremely helpful to step outside of it once in a while and read in another version if only just to gain fresh perspective and break our minds out of the subconscious laziness of mere habit which is so easy to fall into when faced with treasured familiarity.

Learning from the Differences

Typically, the differences between translations are trivial and are a mere matter of different wording to say the same thing. Even these differences can be helpful, as they may cause us to realize that we have actually misunderstood what our first translation was saying. But there are other differences between translations that do have some substance to them. Even here, we need not fear these differences and denounce any translation that dare differ from our own. These differences among sound translations are important opportunities to learn more about the text. Sure its easier to just trust one translation, to take the words of its English translators as the infallible decrees of a Pope-like council declaring once and for all exactly what English words shall be used to express the text. This is an easier approach, but by no means a more sound or trustworthy one. Noting the relatively small number of truly significant differences between the various translations not only gives us a firmer understanding and grounds for trust in the bulk of the text where such differences do not exist, it also gives us the opportunity and tools we need to wrestle out the true meaning of the text. As one scholar explains: 

"Whenever you are serious about studying a passage intensely, especially when you are teaching it to others or dealing with controversial exegetical or theological issues, consult more than one translation. For memorization, choose one translation and use it consistently. But for valid interpretation, if you cannot read the biblical languages, you must compare several versions lest you miss an important possible translation. Indeed, comparing translations is probably the best way to discover where significant textual differences or ambiguous wording occurs in the Hebrew or Greek."2

Thus, when we arrive at a place like Romans 12:1 and read in our KJV:

"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service."

But then we find in out ESV:

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."

We see that these translations are virtually identical until we arrive at the last couple words. When the church offers all our bodies together as one living sacrifice, what is it that we are doing? Is it our "reasonable service" or our "spiritual worship"? Those both sound good, but they do not sound like the same thing. So, we look further and find that the NKJV and NET both agree with the KJV while the HCSB and NRSV agree with the ESV. The old ASV contains the mixed reading of "spiritual service," while the NIV and CSB have "your true and proper worship" and "your true worship," respectively. At this point, you may be feeling that all these translations are just sowing more confusion. Wouldn't it be easier to just stick with one reading than to have to wade through all of this? Easier, yes, but again, it would be less accurate. As you ponder why these translations differ and grapple with the range of meanings in words, you can arrive at a clearer grasp of exactly what the biblical author is saying. In this, note how the NASB and the MEV render this same verse:

"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship," (NASB).

"I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service of worship," (MEV).

Note how the ideas are combined: "service of worship." Reflecting on this, we start to realize that these ideas are not in conflict at all. What is the "service" in view here? What is the "worship" Paul is talking about? It is the offering of ourselves as a living sacrifice! Who offers sacrifices? Priests do. The service of a priest is worship. The worship that a priest offers is his service in the temple. When we present our sacrifice (our own bodies) to God, we are worshiping Him. And we are serving Him. We worship God in service and we serve Him in worship. Far from confusing us, the multiple words here help enrich the passage by making it clearer and more specific exactly what Paul was saying! And note how this connects with what Paul says earlier when he indicts idolatrous man:

"Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen," (Romans 1:25, KJV).

Or when Jesus answers back to Satan from Scripture:

"And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve, Luke 4:8, KJV).

The ideas of worship and service are inherently tied together in the ancient mind, and wrestling with that enriches our understanding of Romans 12. Similarly, while today the ideas of "rational/reasonable" and "spiritual" seem at odds, this was not so in biblical times. The spirit of a man could not be divorced from his reason and his mind was inherently tied to his soul. Thus, in our modern age, we have no word that can mean both "reasonable" and "spiritual," but these translations help us to see that the biblical authors did! Perhaps we should rethink our secular assumptions that matters of the soul are somehow unreasonable or that the reason and rationality are unspiritual. Again, multiple translations help us to see that the New Testament authors did not think this way, and neither should we.

The point is, if we are willing to push past the discomfort of what looks like disagreement or ambiguity between the translations, we discover greater depth and clearer understanding of the text than we might reach relying on one translation alone.

Learning from the Agreement

While there is much to be learned from those rarer places where translations notably differ, we can also learn from places where they are exactly the same. In most places, translations will mean precisely the same thing but say it in different words. In some places, however, different translators from different times and places and with different manuscripts, motivations, and translation philosophies, will all end up translating a verse exactly the same way! This is also valuable information! Consider the following example. The gospel of John begins:

"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God," (John 1:1).

It doesn't matter if you are reading the KJV, NASB, NIV, ESV, CSB, MEV, or NKJV, this is exactly what the verse says. Indeed, go back to the old translations even before the KJV by William Tyndale, the Matthew Bible, the Great Bible, or the Bishop's Bible, and this is still the exact wording you will find. The minor exceptions only prove the rule. The old Geneva Bible, the most popular Bible from before the KJV, reads:

"In the beginning was that Word, and that Word was with God, and that Word was God."

We see from this that the translators of the Geneva Bible were not just blindly regurgitating this verse from older translations without critical evaluation. They changed the wording to what they thought better reflected that Greek. Yet, the difference between "the word" and "that word" is trivial at best. This ever-so-slightly different rendering only further testifies that the traditional reading is, indeed, exactly what the verse says and means. Likewise, the modern NET translation reads:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God."

The choice to say "the word was fully God" attempts to further clarify exactly what is being said about the word, but it doesn't say anything different than what is said in the traditional rendering held by the majority of translators throughout history. Indeed, other than adding the word "fully," the NET translators came up with the exact same wording at which translators before them had arrived. Thus, when a Jehovah's Witness knocks at your door and claims that the Greek in John 1:1 actually says that the word was "a god" rather than "God," their argument is vacuous. You may not know Greek yourself, but you also do not need to blindly trust your translators the way they blindly trust theirs. Different translators from different times writing in different places for different reasons all arrived at literally the exact same rendering of this verse in English. The translations authorized by the British crown read the same way as those produced by men who were afterward executed by the British crown. Translators using the old TR or the new Critical texts arrived at the same wording. Translators across denominational boundaries, theological divides, and national borders have all agreed what the Greek here means. Indeed, even Roman Catholics translating from the Latin Vulgate arrived at literally the exact same wording (as seen in the 16th-Century "Douay Rheims" translation, for example). Thus, while the JW has only his blind faith in his own translation and perhaps an appeal to a few fringe Unitarians who set out specifically to deny the deity of Christ, the Christian has the startling word-for-word agreement between so many otherwise divergent translators that the rendering becomes quite difficult to doubt. "The Word was God!" That is what the text says, and many translations make us only more sure of that.

Conclusion

The Bible is God's word, and God's people ought to strive to read it with clarity and understanding. We ought to always by digging deeper into the text and mining its riches. While, by the Spirit of God, this can certainly be done with only one translation available, having multiple translations is, in fact, a valuable aid in reading the Bible for all its worth and drawing out all of its transforming truths. If the goal of translating the Bible is so that everyday Christians can read it with understanding, then it makes sense, when possible, to make multiple translations available for personal study. We should welcome any solid translation of the Bible.

 

 

  • 1. C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (Family Christian Press) 456, from "God in the Dock" Chapter 10
  • 2. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Revised and Expanded (Thomas Nelson, 1993) 131