There are many different versions of the Bible—with new translations coming out all the time, it seems—and sometimes it’s hard for Christians to agree on which one is best to use. Different churches recommend different translations, and many church-goers simply go with the version being preached in the pulpit. The good news is that Christians don’t have to agree on one translation of the Bible.
First, because of language barriers, it’s impossible for all Christians worldwide to agree on one Bible. If we all agreed that the KJV (for example) is the one true Bible, then what are Christians to read who speak Spanish or French? There’s no such thing as King James Russian or King James Papiamento. Non-English translations have to be made, and there’s nothing more “inspired” about a translation in English than a translation in, say, Urdu.
But if we limit our consideration to English translations, Christians still don’t have to agree on one Bible. There are several reasons why various Bible translations are good and even necessary:
1) Language changes over time, and words and spellings become obsolete. Christians in the 21st century do not have to agree with the spelling of the 14th century. For example, consider John 3:16 in the first English translation ever made, John Wyclif’s 14th-century version:
“For God louede so the world, that he yaf his ‘oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.”
And here is the same verse in the KJV of 1611:
“For God so loued þe world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.”
Obviously, these translations (which were necessary in their time) needed to be replaced with translations that reflected contemporary spelling.
2) Christians don’t have to agree on one version of the Bible because only the original autographs of Scripture were inspired. The words that Joshua wrote in the Book of the Law of God (Joshua 24:26) were inspired by God. Every translation of those words since that time has involved a measure of human interpretation—that’s the nature of translating. For example, the Hebrew word Joshua wrote concerning false gods was nekar in Joshua 24:23. That inspired word can be translated into English as “strange,” “foreign,” or “alien,” or the gods in question can simply be called “idols.” It’s up to the translator, but the basic meaning does not change. The English translation is not what’s inspired anyway, as most Christians would agree.
3) Christians don’t have to agree on one version of the Bible because such agreement would tend to foster autocracy and absolutism. Having different translations prevents any one group or church from saying, “Only our translation is holy. We are the only ones who have God’s Word.” This is in fact what happened during the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic Church (and later the Anglican) held in their grasp all the copies of the Bible (in Latin, which most people could not read), and they forbade anyone else from making a copy or reading it for themselves. Bibles in the vernacular were illegal. Fortunately, the Reformation changed all that: Luther made a German translation, and Tyndale an English translation, and the rest, as they say, is history.
4) Christians shouldn’t have to agree on one version of the Bible because having different translations allows more people access to God’s Word. Various versions of the Bible are written at various reading levels. The KJV, for example, is about a 12th-grade reading level. The NKJV is about a 7th-grade reading level. The NCV has a 3rd-grade reading level. The ERV (Easy-to-Read Version) is better for people just learning English. John 3:16 in the ERV is, “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life.” If all Christians agreed on the NIV Bible, for example, anyone at a reading level lower than junior-high would have difficulty reading God’s Word.
It’s important to know that not every translation is equally faithful to the original text: some take a more literal approach, and some take a more dynamic approach. But all good translations of the Bible do their best to stay true to the original Greek and Hebrew texts and accurately communicate the Word of God.
In the final analysis, agreement on one particular translation is not all that crucial. Most of the differences are quite minor. Mark 3:5, for example, reads like this in four popular translations:
“He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts . . .” (NIV).
“And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart . . .” (ESV).
“And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts . . .” (KJV).
“After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart . . .” (NASB).
The wording is different, but they all mention Jesus’ look, His anger, His distress/grief, and the people’s stubborn/hard hearts. What is the value in promoting one of these translations to the exclusion of all the others?
The differences among the good translations are not differences in doctrine. Whether we’re reading the KJV, the NIV, the NAS, the ESV, or the ERV, Jesus is still the Lord and one-and-only Savior, and salvation still comes by grace through faith.