Beginner’s Guide to Reading the Bible – Part 4


If you wanted to go into a shop and buy a Bible (and please do, by the way!) you need to make a choice about which version, or translation, you would like.
This is because the Bible was not originally written in English, but instead Hebrew and Greek. Assuming you can’t read those original languages, you will need a translation. We’re also going to assume you’d like to get an English one.

adult-18598_640To give you some idea of the task a translator faces, in some Old Testament verses, the Hebrew text reads: “God’s nostrils enlarged”. Rather than leave this as a literal rendering, most translations opt for something like “God became angry,” which is what the expression means. In Matthew 1v18, the King James Version says that Mary “was found to be with child.” But the original Greek literally says something like: “Mary was having it in the belly”! When we speak of a translation being faithful to the original, we need to clarify whether it is faithfulness to the original words or to the meaning.

Over hundreds of years, there have been many different translations of the Bible into English, with new ones appearing every decade or so. The most common ones you will come across are called:

  • The King James Version (or Authorized Version) (also known as the KJV / AV for short)
  • The Revised Standard Version (RSV)
  • The New International Version (NIV)
  • The Good News Bible (GNB)
  • The New King James Version (NKJV)
  • The English Standard Version (ESV)

As you would expect, they all differ slightly in the type of language they use, whether it’s modern, simple, grand, and so on. Translators have a very hard job to render the original words into language that makes sense to us (especially the parts which are very figurative and poetic.) Sometimes they make mistakes – although we would assert that the Bible is inspired, it is the original languages which God inspired rather than the translators’ efforts.

To help us decide which one is best for us, it is useful to think of a spectrum going from left to right.


The ones on the far left are versions which are more literal – the translators have tried to accurately represent each word individually, even if some of the idioms and phrases don’t make much sense with our cultural background in this country.

The ones to the right are more meaning-driven – the translators have tried to render the sense rather than the accurate meaning of each word. Sometimes these versions are called paraphrases. We would advise caution when using Bibles that are very meaning-driven, or ‘thought for thought’, because it is easier for translators to introduce their own beliefs about what the text is saying.

On top of this, some versions are much newer than others, and take into account older manuscripts which have been discovered recently (being older generally means fewer copying errors by scribes). This is going into too much depth for this post, but it’s good to be aware that different Bibles are sometimes based on different manuscripts.

We must also bear in mind that some translators have allowed their own individual beliefs and biases to creep into their work. This is often seen in the capital letters they choose to give Satan and Devil, for example, which aren’t in the original texts. Sometimes whole phrases are added in. But some versions are very honest, and use italic font when translators have added in a word that isn’t really in the original, to help it make sense in English. bible pix

Ultimately, it is good to use a range of different Bible versions but of course you need one that suits you. It is a good idea to try out a few versions online (see sites like this) before you buy one. Out of interest, most of the quotations on this site are from the English Standard Version or New King James Version.

Next time, we’ll be looking at cross-references and margins.

Part 3
Part 5
General help with reading the Bible

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