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This is a good question, and many resources can be found across the web to answer it. There is also much hostility and disagreement in the world about which translation is the proper translation or best translation. Fundamental Independent Baptist churches, for instance, can be fierce King James Onlyists, though this may not apply to every Independent Baptist local church. Jehovah’s Witnesses are only to use the New World Translation because it was the translation produced by that religion for their own purposes. Different people have their own favorite translations that they will recommend. While I will advocate that it is good to have multiple translations available, there is some confusion caused by the influx of new translations being published by publishers. So, we will answer this question first. Why are there so many translations of the Bible?
Click here to see a basic timeline of Bible translation.
The basic motivation for translation in our modern day began at the protestant reformation. Under the Roman Catholic Church, the Bible was only allowed to be produced and read in Latin. Romanism was a Latin only religion. In 1522, Martin Luther translated from the autographical languages (mostly Greek and Hebrew) into German so that the common person could read the Bible. No longer was the Bible something only to be read by the high church. It was the written word of God made available to every man and woman. There is a richer history of Bible translation than this, but I want to be concise.
In 1526, William Tyndale’s English Bible became the very first incomplete Bible printed and distributed in the english language so that english speaking and reading people could have God’s word to read for themselves. Myles Coverdale’s translation followed this shortly. In 1537, Tyndale’s translation was complete. The first english “Authorized Bible” was referred to as the “Great Bible” and was printed in 1539. It was followed by the Geneva Bible (I have a page from one of these!!!), the Bishop’s Bible, the Douay Old Testament, and, finally, the original 1611 King James. More good translations followed.
The motivation for each translation was that the Bible, translated from the autographical languages, become more understandable to common people who were unable to read the previous translations or autographical languages. When language had become antiquated or not understandable because language changed over time, there have been new, accurate translations produced so that the common people could read the word of God. This reflects the spirit of the Bible. It was not written in some high church or academic language. It was written in the common language of the day.
Following the translation of the English Standard Version in 2002, publishing companies grew tired of paying royalty fees in order to use certain translations in the Bible study materials they were producing. So, english publishers started commissioning their own versions, like the Christian Standard Bible, so that they would not have to pay royalties in the production of their materials. This adds some confusion because there are so many translations to choose from and new translations are being produced even though newer translation are not necessarily needed. These newer translations are not necessarily inaccurate, simply unnecessary.
What makes a translation a good translation?
A good translation will be motivated by two primary factors. First, it will prize accuracy. The goal of a good translation is to make the autographical words and meanings understandable for a people who speak a different language. Second, it will be translated in the common language. The language will be plain for the average person sitting in the congregation and in society. Why? Because translators desire that people understand what God has spoken and because the Bible itself was given in the common language of its time.
So, translations that are not accurate to source and are written in a language that is not understandable are not currently good translations. I will use my page from a 1599 Geneva Bible as an example. It was an english translation that was good for the time because people could read the language. It is not comprehendible now because the common language has changed since it was produced. So, the Geneva Translation is no longer a viable translation because no common reader understands the language. In the same way, translations that were primarily motivated politically, religiously, or socially are not valid translations to use because the translators or commissioners had a motivation other than making God’s word available to the common people. Such translations include the King James, TNIV, and New World Translation. I won’t condemn anyone for using an ill-motivated translation. We simply understand that this is why these translations say something that is so different from the more accurate and understandable translations available to us.
There is much more to say about what makes translations different, but this will suffice for the purpose of this question.
What translation should I use?
The answer is simple—one that is accurate to source and understandable. The most accurate word-for-word translation currently available to us is the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The New International Version is a phrase-for-phrase translation produced for those who are on an eighth-grade reading level (NIV). Paraphrases like The Message Bible are not translations at all. So, if there is any question about a translation, please ask. I recommend either the NASB or the NIV depending on your english reading level. If you don’t like either of those, I recommend the ESV. I don’t recommend the KJV or NKJV because those translations are not as understandable, and most people can’t really learn from them.
If you are reading this and are a King James Onlyist, my prayer for you is that you not fall into the same trap that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) did in the Middle Ages when the whole religion only allowed the Latin translation. The people could not understand it and the RCC was plunged into heresy upon heresy. God’s word was written to be received by all people in a common language. I won’t argue with you about it. It’s not worth it. Let me encourage everyone to watch this debate between James White and Jack Moorman.