There are a number of different English versions of the Bible available. Sometimes people wonder which one they should read. Which is the best Bible translation?
Today I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the more popular English versions of the Bible. We’ll talk about them in general first, then we’ll use a specific passage as an example for comparison.
In the last episode, we looked at some of the problems involved in translating the Bible into English. We saw that the earliest manuscripts we have of the books of the Bible are in an ancient form of Greek. In order to read the Bible in English, it has to be translated into English. We found that translating is not a simple matter of substituting an English word for a Greek word. Every translation is, to some extent, an interpretation.
However, some translations are more of an interpretation than others.
I find it helpful to separate all the different English versions of the Bible into three categories: those that try to remain as literal as possible when translating, those that take a little more leeway when translating and are not as literal, and finally those that don’t really translate at all but reword.
These are not firm categories. They are only a general way of looking at the various English versions, but the categories do help understand the differences.
The first category is those that try to remain as literal as possible. They try to translate as close as possible to the literal Greek while at the same time producing a readable English version. The two that are best-known in this category are the King James and the New King James. They are the most literal of the well-known translations. That means that, in general, they contain less of the translators’ interpretations than other versions.
The King James and New King James also have another feature that makes them very useful for serious Bible study. Where the translators have added a word or words to make the grammar flow better in English; that is, when they add words that are not in the Greek manuscripts, they put those words in italics. That way, you immediately know if something was added by the translators.
In the next category are translations that take more leeway and don’t try to be as literal. The interpretations of the translators come through more in these. The New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version are two of the best-known in this category. They take more leeway not only in deciding what the author was trying to say but also more leeway expressing it in English. While these translations stay fairly close to the Greek manuscripts, they contain more of the translators’ opinions about what passages mean than the translations in the first category.
And finally, there is the third category. These are not translations at all but rather are paraphrases. These make little if any attempt to translate from Greek manuscripts. They start with an existing English translation and state in different words what the translators think the passage is trying to say. They are a rewording, in other words. The two best-known in this category are The Living Bible and The Message.
To make the distinctions between these different categories clearer, let’s look at an example.
Did God Try to Kill Moses? One Passage in Six Versions
We’re going to look at a passage from Exodus chapter 4. In the early part of Exodus, the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt. God appears to Moses and tells Moses He wants him lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Of course first, Pharaoh has to agree to let the Hebrews go. Pharaoh doesn’t want to do that.
So here’s our passage, Exodus 4: 22-26. The King James translates it like this, “And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn; And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go, then she said, a bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.”
There are several things happening in these five verses. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that unless he lets the Hebrews go, God will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son. Then God tries to kill someone. Then Moses’ wife Zipporah circumcises their son, and she’s not happy about it. The question is who God is trying to kill.
In other words, what is the verse connected with that says, “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him”? Is it connected with God threatening to kill Pharaoh’s son, or is it connected with Zipporah circumcising her son? We can’t tell.
The way the King James translates it is very close to the literal translation, and from the literal translation, the way it reads in the manuscripts, it’s not clear who God is trying to kill.
Now let’s look at it in the New King James Version. We’ll just look at verses 24-26; that’s enough to illustrate the point. The New King James says, “And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet and said, ‘Surely you are a husband of blood to me!’ So He let him go. Then she said, ‘You are a husband of blood!’—because of the circumcision.
This is slightly different from what we saw in the King James. First of all, the New King James has “encampment” instead of “inn.” The exact meaning of the word there is somewhat unclear. Encampment or inn is not going to make much difference in the way we interpret it. So that’s not a big deal.
But, there are some changes that are significant. Where the King James said, “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet,” the New King James says, “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet.” The New King James has changed “his” to “Moses’.” In the manuscript, it’s “his,” and it’s not clear who “his feet” refers to. It could refer to either Moses’ or his son’s feet. The translators of the New King James have decided it refers to Moses’ feet, so they’ve used Moses’ instead of what the manuscripts actually say, his.
There’s another change. Where the King James says, “So he let him go,” he spelled with a small h, the New King James says, “So He let him go,” He spelled with a capital H. They’ve capitalized the H in he. Why did they do that? Was it capitalized in the manuscripts? No. There were no capital letters used in those ancient languages. So why did they capitalize it? To lead you to think that “He” is God.
You see, there are two different ways you could interpret this passage. You could say that it starts off with God threatening to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if he doesn’t let the Hebrews go. Then God tries to kill Pharaoh’s son. Then Moses’ wife circumcises their son.
Or, you could say that it starts off with God threatening to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son. Then God tries to kill Moses. Then, for some reason, when Moses’ wife circumcises their son, God stops trying to kill Moses.
The second one is what many Christians think is correct—that God tried to kill Moses. Why would God try to kill Moses? Well, there are a hundred different opinions on that. People have vivid imaginations and don’t have any trouble inventing any number of reasons. But, for whatever reason, they say God was trying to kill Moses.
That’s what the translators of the New King James are trying to guide you to think. If they hadn’t made the changes, you might have thought that Moses’ wife circumcised their son and threw the foreskin at her son’s feet and “he let him go” referred to Moses having held his son down for the circumcision. But since they changed it, especially the part where they capitalized the H in “He let him go,” you think it’s saying that God tried to kill Moses, and that somehow, Zipporah circumcising their son made God stop.
The translators of the New King James have inserted just two minor changes, but they are enough to guide you to a certain interpretation.
So that’s how the two in the “try to be literal” category translate it.
Now let’s move to the next category, the category where they take a little more leeway.
Let’s look at the New Revised Standard Version. They translate it like this, “On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her sons’ foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me.’ So he let him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.’”
They have changed “Then Zipporah took a sharp stone…” to “But Zipporah took…” What does that do? It makes you connect who God was trying to kill with Moses. Let’s see what else they changed.
Just like the New King James, they changed “his feet” to “Moses’ feet,” but they’ve done something else. They’ve changed “cast it” to Moses’ feet to “touched Moses’ feet with it.” Why would they have done that?
Well, some take the position that sometimes, the word “feet” in the Old Testament refers to a man’s penis. The interpretation put on this is that God was mad at Moses because Moses’ son was not circumcised, so God tried to kill Moses. Then Moses had his wife circumcised their son, take the foreskin she cut off their son and touch Moses’ penis with it. This somehow provided some kind of substitute circumcision for Moses that satisfied God, so God quit trying to kill Moses.
Where did they get that idea? Well, it’s an interpretation some people put on it. We’ve already seen what the literal translation is, and it doesn’t say that. This thing about a substitute circumcision for Moses is an interpretation some people put on it. But the way the New Revised Standard Version translates it, you’d never know it was an interpretation; you’d think the Bible actually says it.
Now let’s look at the New International Version. It translates the verses like this, “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said. So the Lord let him alone. At that time she said ‘bridegroom of blood,’ referring to the circumcision.”
Theirs is similar to the New Revised Standard Version, but they have even more changes. They flatly put “the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.” In the manuscript it’s, “the lord met him and sought to kill him.” They’ve substituted Moses for him. And they have “so the Lord let him alone.” In the manuscript, it’s “so he let him go.”
They’ve gone even farther with changes than the New Revised Standard Version, guiding you to a certain interpretation.
Now let’s go to our final category of English versions—the paraphrases. The Living Bible has it like this, “As Moses and his family were traveling along and had stopped for the night, Jehovah appeared to Moses and threatened to kill him. Then Zipporah his wife took a flint knife and cut off the foreskin of her young son’s penis, and threw it against Moses’ feet, remarking disgustedly, ‘What a blood-smeared husband you’ve turned out to be!’ Then God left him alone.”
The Living Bible has changed the whole thing around so that the only conclusion you could reach was that God was trying to kill Moses. See what I mean about it being a paraphrase?
Now let’s see how The Message does it. “On the journey back, as they camped for the night, God met Moses and would have killed him but Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ member with it. She said, ‘Oh! You’re a bridegroom of blood to me!’ Then God let him go. She used the phrase ‘bridegroom of blood’ because of the circumcision.”
Again, you can see they’ve taken lots of leeway here. Just like the Living Bible, they just flat out give you their interpretation, that God was trying to kill Moses.
So, we’ve taken one passage and looked at it in six different English versions of the Bible. We’ve seen one, the King James, that translated it more or less literally. The others all changed things to guide you to a certain interpretation of the passage. Some changed it just a little, but enough to guide you. Others changed it so much that they we no longer just guiding you, they were flat out giving you only their interpretation.
We saw it in just six verses. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible. Thinking back on the changes we saw in just six verses they translated, how many changes do you think they made translating the whole Bible? Thousands and thousands.
And the thing is, when you’re sitting at home reading your Bible, you have no idea that what you’re reading is not really the Bible; it’s interpretations the translators have put on the Bible. You think the Bible says that God tried to kill Moses but stopped when his wife cut off their son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ penis with it. But actually, as we’ve seen, the Bible says no such thing. That’s an interpretation, presented in some Bibles as a translation.
Are You Reading the Bible, Or Are You Reading an Interpretation?
So when you read the Bible, are you reading the Bible, or are you reading someone’s take on the Bible?
I understand why people want to read more modern English versions of the Bible than the King James. And I am not one of those people who believe the King James is some sort of magical-God-ordained thing. But, I do believe it is the one which interprets the least in translation.
What I recommend is, that if you use one of the later English versions, after you have read it, go back and compare it with the King James. Then you can get an idea of how the translators of your later English version have changed things and get more of an idea what the actual Bible says, less filtered through the interpretations of the translators.
If you don’t do this, and if you use one of the more recent English versions of the Bible, you never know what is actually in the Bible versus what is someone else’s interpretation.