It’s important for Christians to know what they are reading when they pick up an English translation of the Bible. There are so many to choose from that most Christians don’t even know the difference between many of the translations. It is easy to feel confused when the preacher is reading from the NKJV but the Bible in the hands of one of the congregants is holding an NIV Bible trying to follow along, or when someone reads from The Message and the hearer will find it rather difficult to find the same passage in an ESV translation.
Here is a quick breakdown of the 3 major categories of English translations of the Bible:
- Paraphrase translations
Paraphrase translations are typically one or a few people’s personal commentary and summary of larger sections of Scripture. It is important to know that when reading a paraphrase translation, you are not reading the Bible. Instead, you are reading someone’s personal understanding of the Bible passage. Paraphrase translations are vastly different from word-for-word translations and phrase-for-phrase translations in that they are not comprised of translation teams that are necessarily dedicated to the translation of the original languages, but are essentially the “translator’s” opinion based on another English translation of the Bible (usually a word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translation).
A paraphrase translation of the Bible is really what every Christian should be attempting to do in their own mind when they study Scripture. They should be studying the Scriptures in such a way that they are able to paraphrase what they are reading. It is often said, a person can know when they have truly learned something when they are able to explain it successfully to someone else.
In my opinion, paraphrase translations shouldn’t even be considered translations, they should simply be called commentaries. Paraphrase translations are not inherently wrong to read, but when a person picks up The Message or The Passion Translation (or any other paraphrase translation) they need to know ahead of time that they are not reading The Bible, but someone’s own interpretation of it.
Below is a helpful article of an interview with Dr. John Piper regarding his feelings about paraphrase translations.
- Phrase-for-phrase translations
Phrase-for-phrase translations attempt to assist the reader in understanding God’s Word by translating portions of the Scriptures one phrase at a time. Although this can be very helpful in understanding the meaning of the text, it is limited in its nature by leaving out possible key words and nuances that would otherwise appear in its original language or in a word-for-word translation. By far, the most popular translation in this category is the NIV translation.
Aside from being fluent in koine Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; word-for-word translations are the best translations of the Bible to read and study. Take a look at the differences between the translation philosophies and translating teams of the word-for-word translations compared to the phrase-for-phrase or even paraphrase translations. You will see that as you progress from one end of the spectrum to the other that the teams become larger, more qualified, with more accountability to ensure they are doing their absolute best to translate the original languages to modern-day languages.
I would recommend that every Christian commit to word-for-word translations (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) for their regular Bible-study. Everything else can be used as supplementary resources for helping one understand the Bible (including paraphrase translations), but I firmly believe Christians will ultimate benefit the most from 1) the regular study of a word-for-word translation, 2) a community of believers to study the Word with and hold them accountable, and 3) commitment to a local-biblically sound church.
I hope this is helpful for you the next time you pick up your Bible to read God’s Word to be reaffirmed of your salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and grow in His wisdom and direction for your life!