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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Alphabet soup of Bibles


My first serious Bible was a pocket New International Version (NIV), soon followed by a heavyweight NIV study Bible. That translation from 1978 has shaped my knowledge of scripture, and will probably always have a ring of correctness for me because of that. I’m sure many a Bible student would consider my NIV background as something to be ashamed of, even scandalous. I’m no great advocate for the NIV; it’s just my biblical first love. But English-reading Bible students are so often divided and derided over which version they use.

Wikipedia lists 123 English Bible translations, or more, seeing as some are grouped under a single entry. I haven’t heard of a lot of those, and some sound like they are intended for a specific niche in the Bible-reading market. There are clear trends in that list. There are the ‘messianic’ versions, translated by/for Christians who are, or feel like they should be, Jewish. There are the translations that are desperate to be as literal as possible. There are translations linked to particular churches or ‘ministries’, and there are those that pride themselves on interdenominational cooperation. There are the paraphrases that attempt to get to the gist of the meaning, but sacrifice formal equivalence on the way.  There are versions that use a particular rendering of sacred names (Jehovah, Yahweh, YWH, Yeshua etc.). There are those that aim to use gender-inclusive language (like my second love, the NRSV). I’m sure that a lot of these Bibles are good, the fruit of hard labour, but I’m sure there are some that are plain awful too. I wonder if there is a special kind of Moses/God complex that drives a pastor/scholar to do a lone Bible translation: this one will be the God’s honest truth.

Years ago there were just a few nutters, mostly from the US, who would argue that the King James Version (KJV) is the only true version. They would even uphold the legendary King James as some kind of Evangelical saint who brought about a new scriptural revelation, completely unaware of the man’s true history. I’ve noticed various attempts to stay true to this touchstone of the English language while attempting an update of the vernacular (the NKJV and 21st Century KJV). If anything, the trend has spread to include advocates of one version or another, who will accuse users of other versions of errancy or idiocy.

Reading a version you are unfamiliar with can be jarring, as it conflicts with an internalised text. I am currently finding the gospel canticles in the Catholic Daily Office very odd to pray through each day. Then there are those Bible studies where everyone has brought a different translation of the Bible, and readings are met with the constant refrain “But mine says…”. Maybe this is why priests, pastors and Bible teachers end up asking everyone to use a certain version (I suggest the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and so judge me!), just to make it easier. The next generation, from patronal reverence, continue the choice of version, but now it becomes an article of faith: the Old Man taught me from the XYZ, and he was the foremost Bible scholar of his town/university/generation, so reading it must be the near equivalent to God speaking in your ear.

The freedom to keep churning out new versions of scripture is an important one. In spite of the occasional extremes and the fragmentation of biblical tradition, this is freedom of speech and religion, and the multiplicity of ingredients in this alphabet soup can only encourage us to take more notice of the text.

Brian Fulthorp excerpts some thoughtful words on the matter from biblical scholar Craig Blomberg

…most of the people of the world continue at best to have only one resonable translation of the Scriptures in their native tongues, while non-Christians in English-speaking countries too often assume that none of the translations is reliable or else we would not keep making new ones and quarelling over existing ones! Surely, God grieves over the amount of energy and rancor that has been exercised creating and critiquing all these versions, when everyone of them is highly reliable and far more than adequate in communicating God’s Word to readers of English. Still, each meets a definable need, either real or perceived…

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

3 thoughts on “Alphabet soup of Bibles

  1. I lead a Bible study group and people come with different versions. In a New Testament book, when we hit a serious discrepancy in the translation I say: ‘Well, what does the Greek say?’ and open a Greek Testament and Greek dictionary. I am not much of a Greek scholar but the point is to demonstrate that no translation can be accurate in every way and to help take us through the words to the meaning. Personally, I use the KJV for devotional use and the NRSV for study. My edition is a study Bible with notes and I can see where the NRSV had changed the original to opt for inclusive language. Once one is used to this one can allow for it.

    When we read an Old Testament book I acknowledge that I do not know any Hebrew but use a commentary when the text is problematic, as it often is. It is also helpful to have a translation of the Septuagint to hand.

    In the course of our group two members have bought a new translation without any urging from me. I have, however, had to point out the Good News is very loose and not much use for serious study.

  2. My preference is the NRSV for study and the RSV for reading aloud since it preserves the rhythm and flavor of the KJV without the disadvantages.

  3. The word of God is meant for all generations. I just read yesterday that some new words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. This is meant to update it with emerging trends. If we’ve graduated from analog to digital, then we must allow Bible users the choice of version that best explains the message.

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