In the English-speaking world, we are blessed with a wealth of good translations of the Bible. For most of church history, this was not the case.
Chances are you have a few translations you prefer, and occasionally switching between these versions in your devotional reading can prove eye opening. You see a phrase or scene from a slightly different angle, and you have a fresh appreciation or insight as a result.
Bible study leaders can also use multiple translations of the Bible to great profit. But it’s best not to introduce variety too early in the process.
When Not to Use Multiple Translations
In your personal study of a Bible passage, I suggest you stick to one translation. Because different translations have different philosophies and tendencies, switching between Bible versions at this stage in the process will slow you down.
At this blog we advocate an old method of Bible study called Observe-Interpret-Apply (OIA), and when observing we suggest you pay attention to words and grammar (among other things). Observing all that a passage contains can be a tall order—bringing in alternate translations might double or triple your work!
For your primary Bible, consider something closer to a word-for-word translation (“formal equivalence”) than a thought-for-thought translation (“dynamic equivalence”). Since Bible study should focus on the words of the original authors, we should use a translation that does as little interpreting as possible while still making sense of the text.
Note: If you’d like an explanation of some of the most popular Bible translations, Daniel Wallace does a decent job here.
When to Use Multiple Translations
After observing the text and working through the answers to your interpretation questions, you should have a sense of the main point of the passage. You may also have some questions you weren’t able to answer.
At this point I usually read my passage in multiple translations. I find software like e-Sword or websites like Bible Gateway perfect for this, because they allow you to view several versions in parallel. For example, here’s the first chapter of John’s gospel in the ESV, NASB, and NIV.
Reading a passage like this is revealing. Staring at your main translation for hours can bake the words into your brain. But this exercise will show you the differences between translations quickly. You’ll see the vast agreement as well as the small areas of disagreement. For particular words, a variety of translations will show you that Bible translation is a difficult task!
You may be able to resolve any word-related confusion by looking at a commentary or two. Most commentators geek out over words and translations, so you’ll have no shortage of food for thought.
Preparing to Lead Your Small Group
If you are leading a small group Bible study with regular participants, it’s a good idea to note which translations those folks read. Take a look at your passage in these translations before the small group meeting so you won’t be thrown or surprised by an odd word choice.
If I notice a drastic difference between translations when I’m preparing, I’ll often point it out to my group. This “pre-emptive strike” allows me to bring the issue into our discussion if it seems important. However, it’s easy to get bogged down in discussions like this, so I usually try to direct our conversation elsewhere.
Though they can differ widely, most of the major English Bible translations are very good. And the deviations we see almost never change the interpretation of the passage. We can use the variety to inform our ideas about the author’s original meaning, but we must also remember not to freak out over the differences we see.