Why are there so many different translations of the Bible? Wouldn’t one for each language be enough? Not necessarily, and that’s because there are several approaches you can take to translating the original languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Bible translations usually come in three basic styles, which we’ll call 1) word-for-word translations, 2) thought-for-thought translations, and 3) paraphrases. You may have heard other, fancier names for these categories, but we’ll stick with those. (See Choosing a Bible Translation for more detail on that.)
The basic challenge of translating anything is that language doesn’t exist in isolation. Language exists to transmit ideas and culture. We want to communicate something because we want to share our experiences, thoughts, and values. The same is true with what God inspired the authors of the Bible to write. They wrote with the language of their experience.
In other words, the Hebrew writers communicated from their Hebrew-oriented worldview, the Greek from theirs. That may seem elementary, but it means that translating those words involves dealing with how they thought about the world.
Now, to be sure, the Bible presents fundamental truths about who God is and how He acted in history. Those basic facts won’t change. God will always split the Red Sea down the middle, Jesus will always die for our sin and rise again, and Paul will always see Jesus on the way to Damascus. Those are set facts.
But taking Hebrew and Greek ideas and rendering them in English, for example, is complicated. The languages don’t line up exactly. For example, Greek has four words for types of love; English has one. That’s why it takes scholars years of prayer and study to make sure they get it right. Add to that the fact that modern languages such as English keep changing, and you can see why new versions keep coming.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll examine the different approaches translators take for moving the original languages to English. Up next week? Word-for-word translations.