-“How do Bible versions, translations and paraphrases differ?”

QUESTION: Some Bibles are called “versions” (KJV), some “translations” (NLT) and some “paraphrases” (MESSAGE). What are the differences? Why are some called “literal” and others “loose”?

ANSWER: The Bible is God’s Word communicated to mankind. To do this God inspired about forty different writers, all “holy men of God” (2 Pet. 1:21 NKJV), to write the various books of our Bible during a period of some 1500 to 1600 years. They wrote in the languages they spoke. Thus most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a few passages in Aramaic (also called Chaldean). The new Testament was originally written in Greek. We do not have any of the original autographs (copies handwritten by the author) of the books of the Bible, but we have far more copies of the text of the Bible than of any other ancient book. A version of the Bible is simply a translation that is distinct from other translations. It is important to note that there is no inspired version of the Bible in English, and thus no standard with which to compare or by which to grade all other translations. We can be thankful, however, that in our English language we have a number of reliable translations. But there are also versions that introduce erroneous teaching.

Few of us would be able to read the original copies of any of the Bible books if we had them. There are said to be at least 6900 languages spoken in the world today, most of them by relatively small people-groups. To understand what God is communicating to us, we must have the Bible translated into our native language, or a language we understand and speak.

Terms such as “literal” and “loose” are associated with basic methods used in translating. Translators work with several different principles in mind, and it is these principles that determine what the result of their efforts will be called. Anyone who knows a foreign language knows that it is impossible to translate word for word from one language into another and have the resulting translation be clear and understandable. Word order within a sentence varies in different languages. Sometimes there are no exact equivalents for words in another language, so that to make the meaning clear, a single word in one language may have to be translated by several words in another. reading an interlinear translation demonstrates how difficult it is to understand the sentences in a literal translation.

Thus what is often called a literal translation is not fully literal. But since God’s Word is verbally inspired, not only the general ideas but each inspired word is important. When we study the Bible we want to know exactly what God is saying, not just have a general idea about it. Formal equivalence or literal equivalence is the principle of translating word by word, sticking as closely as possible to the words in the original text. This kind of translation does not always read as smoothly or easily as others, but is to be commended for its accuracy. Most older translations used this method.

The other major principle used in translating is called dynamic equivalence. Many contemporary translations use this method. It tends to go sentence by sentence rather than word by word. The translators are not concerned as much about every word, but rather with clearly expressing in contemporary language what they understand to be the meaning of the sentences. Units of weight, for example, are given in ounces and pounds or grams and kilograms. Distances are expressed in feet and miles or meters and kilometers. While the present-day reader comprehends things expressed in his terms more readily, the shades and depths of meaning of Scripture may be diminished.

Another translating method commonly used today is paraphrasing. To paraphrase is essentially to express a thought or a concept in one’s own words. Properly used, this can be helpful in clarifying the meaning of a passage. But there is a danger associated with it, for rather than carefully translating God’s words, paraphrasing borders on explaining what God means to say in the passage. In this way paraphrasers run the risk of putting words into God’s mouth or bringing their own opinions into God’s Word.

It is important to maintain a clear distinction between a translation and a paraphrase. As children grow old enough to read for themselves, a paraphrase is more helpful than a Bible story book that by its nature leaves out some of the teaching of Scripture. For serious study, use a translation – not a paraphrase.

Some qualities needed by anyone who wants to translate God’s Word are: proficiency in the languages being translated from and into; being indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and prayerfully approaching the work of translating.

The first of these requirements most people take for granted. But why the indwelling of the Spirit and prayer requirement? Scholarship alone is not sufficient for a Bible translator. First Corinthians 2:11-15 (NKJV) tells us this: “No one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God … But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him: nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things.” A difficult passage of Scripture can be translated several different ways. An unsaved person relying on his natural ability may easily make the wrong choice. But the godly believer, who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (the real Author of the passage) and is prayerfully seeking the Lord’s direction, counts not merely on scholarship but also on the Spirit’s help to properly render the passage.

Again and again Scripture stresses the wisdom of working with others. Wherever possible, this should not be done by large committees that include unbelievers who are only there because they are language scholars. But one-man translations also have inherent dangers. The translator’s ideas and prejudices can subtly creep into his translation. While we have noted some important principles involved in Bible translation, we must state that it is impossible to translate God’s Word accurately without employing all these principles.

But for the reader, what is most important is not which translation is read, but that it is read for personal blessing and for God’s glory.

Answered by Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.

With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website:


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