Why so many Bible versions?

Why do we have so many versions of the Bible? What makes a good translation? Should Seventh-day Adventists have their own version of the Scriptures?

Translating the Bible from the original languages is never complete. Why? First, new discoveries of Bible manuscripts provide additional information to help recover the words of the Bible’s authors. Even the discovery of a small manuscript fragment containing a few words that are not in the available manuscripts may prove valuable for deciding what a Bible author actually wrote in a particular verse.

Second, translators’ knowledge of the ancient languages of the Bible continues to increase as archeologists uncover additional documents and inscriptions that use the languages of the Bible, or closely related languages.

Third, our own language undergoes constant changes. Words and expressions either drop out of use and are replaced, or take on new and different meanings. This process has been speeded up by mass communication.

Fourth, some new translations target a particular type of Bible reader who needs the message of the Bible expressed in a particular way. For example, some of the most recent translations are designed for reading out loud because translators recognize that many people prefer to listen while the Bible is read aloud to them.

What makes a good translation?

What makes a good translation? First, it should be based on the oldest and best available manuscripts. Since the oldest Bible manuscripts were either not available or not used consistently until just over 100 years ago, Bibles translated during this century tend to be closer to what the authors actually wrote than those translated before that time.

Second, it should accurately translate the Bible writer’s words or thoughts. There are two main methods of translation: the formal and the dynamic. Those who use the first approach translate words and let the reader decide what these words mean. Most older translations were prepared according to this method. Those who utilize the dynamic method translate the thoughts of the Bible writers by using modern expressions that sum up what those writers meant. Most, but not all, modern translations follow this method.

Which is best? Both can produce good translations, but both can fail to transfer all the Bible writer’s meaning into the translation. Bible readers doing serious Bible study can combine the strengths of both methods by using a formal and a dynamic translation side by side.

Third, it should translate the manuscripts into a clear and easy-to-read language. Many modern translations rate well on this point.

Who produces the best translations?

Who produces the best Bible translations? Bibles translated by individuals are usually called paraphrases. They are easy to read and understand; in fact they tend to make Bible reading more exciting. Dr. Jack Blanco, an Adventist professor, has published one such English paraphrase, The Clear Word Bible (Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1994). Paraphrases, however, run the risk of reflecting the doctrinal and other preferences of the author. At times, they may include concepts that are not really in the Bible!

Having Bibles translated by a group limits the amount of bias that goes into a translation. For devotional reading, paraphrases have their place, but for serious study, translations by groups are more reliable.

Should Seventh-day Adventists have their own translation? Some have suggested that we make our own translation, using the skills of many Adventist Bible scholars around the world. However, such a move would bring suspicion of doctrinal bias, and would limit our ability to read and study the Bible with other Christians if we used our own version instead of a standard one.

God’s message for all people should be clear enough regardless of the translation. The arrival of a new translation presents us with the unique opportunity to broaden and deepen our understanding of God’s message through His Word.

Steve Thompson (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews) is the dean of the Faculty of Theology at Avondale College. Address: P.O. Box 19; Cooranbong, N.S.W. 2265; Australia. E-mail: steve.thompson@avondale.edu.au