The Word of God: Why So Many Versions?

So, you want to read the Bible? Where do you start? There’s the KJV, NKJV, RV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, NASB, NEB, NET, NIV, ASV, ISV, HCSB, NIRV, TLB, GNT, NLT, MSG, TLV, CEV, NCV, MLB, AMP, CEB, and the abbreviations could go on and on. Why does it seem like there are more acronyms for Bible versions than there are ticker symbols for stocks on Wall Street? Why are there so many versions?

Language Evolution

As the meaning of words and phrases evolve through time, the need for revision will necessarily arise. “Jacob sod pottage” (Gen 25:29), “ouches of gold” (Exo 28:11), “a grievous murrain of cattle” (Exo 9:3), and “vain jangling” (1Tim 1:6), are examples of phrases from older versions (KJV, RV) that drive the modern reader to an old dictionary for help. There are also words that have changed meaning entirely. “Study” (2Tim 2:15) used to mean, “to be diligent.” “Prevent” (1Thes 4:15) once meant, “to precede.” The word “mean” (Isa 2:9; 5:15) once meant “common.” “Quick,” “suffer,” “careful,” and “let” are but a handful of the many examples that could be given of words which have changed meaning over time. Thus, as our English language continues to evolve, additional Bible versions will emerge.

Reading Ability

Some are hindered from understanding certain Bible versions because of their reading ability. Bible versions like the NIRV (New International Reader’s Version), completed in 1996, seek to make the Bible more understandable for children and those who have difficulty reading English, such as non-native English speakers. Other versions are better for readers in the teen years (NIV, NLT) and we can be thankful for those who labored to provide them.

Translation Styles

Before the 20th century, most English Bible versions were as literal as possible, translating “word-for-word” (also known as formal equivalent translations). The 1900s continued to provide additional literal translations, but also a handful of popular paraphrased versions (e.g. The Living Bible, Good News Bible, the Message), aiming to capture the meaning of idioms and other forms of speech not able to be translated literally. By around 1970, a relatively new translation philosophy known as dynamic equivalence introduced us to “phrase-for-phrase” Bible versions (e.g. NIV, NEB), a style somewhere in between formal equivalence and a paraphrase. So with more translation styles, it is inevitable that we will have more Bible versions.

Digging Up the Past

Perhaps more than any other in history, the 20th century has given us the most Bible versions in English. This is partly due to a significant number of Greek NT manuscripts discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, which were hundreds of years older than anything else in possession at the time. Buried in the dry sands in and around Alexandria, Egypt, they were remarkably preserved and differed slightly from the manuscripts translators were using. It is important to emphasize that no fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith is at stake in any of the textual differences contained in these manuscripts, but these textual differences were sufficient to usher in a new era of Bible translations, committed to including these important older documents.

Additionally, archaeological discoveries have shed light on the meaning of older Hebrew words which were mysterious to earlier translators of the OT. Newer or updated versions become necessary to incorporate these discoveries.

Climate Change is Real

Religious and political climates are constantly changing, and those changes often spark significant reactions to particular Bible versions. The RSV was first published immediately following WWII, and although one million copies were sold on its first day of publication, there was a strong reaction to a handful of unpopular verses. The word “comrade” was found in three places, arousing suspicions of a communist plot behind the translation. Additionally, the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 had been translated as “young woman,” inviting accusations of heresy. I remember listening to a radio preacher who referred to the acronym RSV as the “Reviled Substandard Version.” These reactions spawned a number of newer versions to “correct” the RSV.

Some Bible versions within the last few decades are attempting to be more gender-inclusive as the word “man” is not commonly understood to be a generic term which includes women. This has led to a host of new versions (NRSV, CEV, NLT, TNIV).

A Publisher’s #1 Cash Cow

While some of the reasons for the explosion of new versions are understandable and even honorable, others are not. Hopefully, publishing companies are honest enough to admit that many Bible versions arise because they sell in record numbers. The Bible is still the all-time #1 bestseller, and publishers need a cash cow to keep their companies operating.

Is it good to have so many versions available today? The pros and cons will continue to be a subject of debate. We can be thankful for the variety, accessibility and affordability of versions which we now enjoy, something the Church did not have for its first 15 centuries of existence, or more. We can now simply turn on our phones and instantly access most of these versions (many free of charge). On the negative side, the plethora of versions, some quite unreliable, can be a source of confusion and uncertainty to many.

As many versions as we are blessed to have, we can expect more as societal and linguistic changes occur. It is almost certain that more manuscripts will be unearthed. Yet, with all of these inevitable developments, we can be sure of the unchanging message of the Bible, for God has preserved, and will preserve, His Word.

With such an abundance of Bible versions available, we have absolutely no excuse for not reading and studying the Scriptures. How privileged we are. It’s easy to spend countless hours debating the versions available rather than reading and obeying the ones we own.