Why do we have so many English Bible translations?

Interior of the NKJV Verse Art Bible, one of the many English Bible translations available.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of English Bible translations we have today. It’s not uncommon to wonder why we have so many. Why do all these translations exist? Do they serve different purposes? Is there one that’s best—and if so which one? Let’s find out together.

The long history of Bible translation (in brief)

God’s people have been translating the Bible for about as long as we’ve had the writings that make up this book we call the “Bible.” The Jewish people translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek so that Greek-speaking Jews could read and understand the Scriptures. This is what we know as the Septuagint, which was completed around 130 BC. (It’s also what the New Testament writers most frequently directly and indirectly referenced in their works.)

The Scriptures were translated into Aramaic in the mid-first century AD, which became known as the Peshitta Bible and the first complete Bible translation of the Christian era. In the late fourth century AD, Jerome was commissioned to create what became known as the Vulgate, a new Latin translation of the entire Bible from Greek and Hebrew texts. The proceeding centuries saw translation work continue, with full texts or significant passages completed in Slavic, Arabic, Old English, and French.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe translated the Bible into Middle English so it could be read by the average person. Jan Hus translated it into Hungarian and Bohemian (Czech). The 15th and 16th centuries launched the modern translation movement with the invention of the printing press and western scholars regaining access to Greek and Hebrew Bible manuscripts (long story). Erasmus of Rotterdam completed a copy of the Greek New Testament. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German (while also kicking off a little movement known as the Reformation). By 1600, the Bible was available in 15 different European languages. Today, the Bible is available in 700 languages, with more than 2000 additional translation projects in process.[1]

Okay, that’s some of the very broad history. But why do we have so many different English Bible translations?

A slightly briefer history of English Bible translations (and why we have so many)

William Tyndale completed his translation of the Bible into English in 1530. This became the de facto English Bible until King James I commissioned another in 1604. First printed in 1611, the King James Version (KJV) became the preeminent English Bible for the next 300 years and remains the most widely read English translation in history.

But the KJV wasn’t the only English translation, even at its height. From the 19th century until today, multiple English translations have been commissioned and completed. Some, like the RSV and ESV, used existing translations as their foundation. Others, like the NIV and NET, were conceived with a “start fresh” approach.

So why do we have so many different English Bible translations? The most significant reason is that English is a relatively young language. This means it is also (sadly) a very fluid one. Because the way we use words changes, as does the meaning of words because of how we use them, we always need new English translations to present the message of Scripture to the modern reader.

Different translations use a different approach to reach a shared goal

Even though every English translation shares the same goal, meeting that goal isn’t easy. Translators do their work in tension, having to choose between, as NIV translation committee member William Mounce said, whether they are going to “err on the side of words or meaning.”

Some choose to focus on words, taking the formal equivalence approach to translation. This means to attempt to render the words of Scripture into English as accurately as possible, even at the expense of readability for the modern reader. The NASB, ESV, NKJV, and KJV are among the most widely read translations of this nature, with interlinear translations being the most “word-for-word” of these.

Others opt for a “thought-for-thought” approach, called the functional (or dynamic) equivalence method. This approach aims to render the meaning of Scripture into English as clearly as possible, even if it deviates from the precise wording. The NLT, GNT, and CEB are among the most widely read translations of this sort.

A third group of translations take a different approach, aiming for a balance between accuracy to the words and meaning of Scripture (insomuch as possible). This is sometimes called optimal equivalence, with the NIV, NET, CSB, and NRSV being its best—and most widely read—representatives.

What’s the right Bible translation for you?

With so many different translations available, it’s easy to be overwhelmed when it comes to choosing one. But fear not! The short answer to choosing the right translation is to choose the one that works best for you:

  1. If your primary focus is on in-depth study, especially as an academic, you’ll likely opt for a translation that’s more on the word-for-word end of the spectrum. An interlinear Bible and translations like the NASB and the NKJV will serve you well in this regard.
  2. For those of us mainly focusing on teaching or daily personal reading and study, a translation in that optimal realm like the NET, CSB, or NIV might be the best bet. From my own experience, these have been the most fruitful for me to use in multiple teaching contexts, including in community group settings and the pulpit.
  3. If you’re developing and maintaining a good daily habit of reading the Bible, a thought-for-thought translation like the NLT is fantastic, especially for those of us who maybe don’t read all that frequently. That being said, I default to translations like the NET, NIV, and CSB for regular reading in addition to teaching. It’s hard to beat the blend of accessibility and accuracy that they offer.

Different English Bible translations work together

In practice, I find it best to not limit myself to one translation all the time. It’s healthier for me to explore multiple translations. Different translations act as a sort of prism, helping you see different facets of the timeless truth of Scripture. The more we read God’s truth, and the more ways we experience it, the more beautiful it becomes. Consider Psalm 143:8 in five different translations:

  • Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. (NASB)
  • Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning, For in You do I trust; Cause me to know the way in which I should walk, For I lift up my soul to You. (NKJV)
  • May I hear about your loyal love in the morning, for I trust in you. Show me the way I should go, because I long for you. (NET)
  • Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. (NIV)
  • Let me hear of your unfailing love each morning, for I am trusting you. Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. (NLT)

Despite how differently one version might read from the next, each one communicates the same core truth, and expands our picture of God’s love. His love is the unfailing, faultless, perfect, and merciful love that we can always rely on. The “never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love” we desperately need, as Sally Lloyd-Jones described it in The Jesus Storybook Bible.

Feast on the one that works for you

Bible translation has been happening for almost as long as the Bible has existed. And as long as there are people in the world who need a Bible to read, Bible translation is going to continue, in English and in every language. But even though there are so many options available, you don’t need to stress about which one to read. Instead, find the one that fits your purposes, dig in, and enjoy!

  1. The Wycliffe Society offers a slightly more comprehensive sketch of the history of Bible translation that is very helpful and worth your time. You can read that here.

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