What’s the difference between Bibles – and does it matter?

An insider shares his secrets

Ever wondered if there are too many versions of the Bible available in English? Bible scholar Bill Mounce, a specialist in New Testament Greek, tells Eternity that we’re actually lucky to have so many reliable Bible translations.

Mounce is an expert on them, having served on the translation committees for two of the best-selling translations: the New International version (NIV) and English Standard Version (ESV).

“If you have a good English translation, you do have what the original Bible says.” – Bill Mounce

“There’s an Italian Proverb that translators are traitors,” Mounce says. “Meaning that all translators are traitors to the original meaning of the text. You just can’t get it exactly precise.”

He says that why translators work so hard to do the best job they can. But overall, despite syntactical differences, there are not really differences in meaning.

To see how good a job the translators have done, Mounce suggests comparing the Christian Standard Bible with the New American Standard Bible and the NET Bible. Seeing how similar they are should give people confidence, as Mounce believes there is more overlap among English translations than difference.

“A lot of people, when they find out I teach Greek, say ‘I would like to know what the Bible really says – I need to learn Greek,’ Mounce tells Eternity.

“They are always a bit surprised at my response. I say ‘Well, if you have a good English translation, you do have what the original Bible says.’

“Different translations have different translation philosophies, which are going to produce some wildly different translations, but when you get down to it, is the meaning of a verse the same in the ESV and the NIV?

“You will find that almost always they are the same.”

Myth busted

Mounce is a bit of a myth-buster – and one myth he busts is the idea of a word-for-word translation of the Bible.

“I stopped by a coffee shop yesterday morning – where I know a lot of the students from Moore College [in Sydney] have coffee,” begins Mounce, who is visiting Australia.

“And there was a girl studying Jeremiah and I could tell it was an ESV. So I just started talking to her. She said a lot of students like the ESV, ‘because it is closer to the original …’

“And I thought that is a very interesting discussion. Because if by closer to the original you mean more word-for-word, then the ESV is maybe a little bit that way, but the problem is – and this is true of all ‘formal equivalent’ translations’ … in every single verse they have had to change the words ….

“So, they are not really ‘closer’ to the original text.”

No such thing as a literal translation

Mounce continues: “If you say ‘what kind of Bible do you want?’ People say, ‘I want a literal Bible.’ There are a couple of problems with that.

“One is [that] by ‘literal’ they generally mean word-for-word, and they equate that with accuracy. The problem is that there is no such thing as a literal translation.

“What I like to say is the NIV is closer to the meaning of the original text. And that is what translation is for. Translation is not about replicating the form of one language into the other. Translation is about accurately conveying the original author’s meaning, the authorial intent, into a different language.

“I think the NIV does a really good job of that.”

As Mounce is one of a handful of people – or possibly the only one – to have worked on two major Bible translations, we asked him what the differences were between those versions.

“I have not really done the maths, but I am guessing there is about an 80 per cent overlap [between the ESV and the NIV].”

“When we lay out charts showing the different translations, we tend to show them as points on a line, but they should really be overlapping circles – they have way more in common than they have different.

“But the ESV tries to stay a little closer to the actual words. We would translate to a point where people could figure out what it means and that was okay. The NIV tries to be a little more understandable.”

All Bible translation is interpretative, Mounce points out. The NIV will go a little bit further – not much, but a little bit further – to make the meaning of the text clearer.

Life on the translation committees

Mounce found it interesting to have to get his head around the NIV while still engrossed in translating the ESV. Having been raised on the Revised Standard Version (RSV), it felt natural to work on the ESV, which he described as an evangelical-friendly update of the RSV. But when he went on the NIV committee, he found it a little difficult at first.

“I had to make sure I stopped reading other versions because I did not want to make suggested changes that would turn the NIV into the ESV. I had to figure out what was the rhythm of the NIV. Now that I am used to it, I really prefer the NIV. It communicates to a broad evangelical audience so well.”

“One of the things I enjoy about the NIV is that it is very sophisticated in that, in terms of its style, it is very nuanced and it’s very careful.”

“You can’t add that amount of information that it adds and still be called a Bible.” – Bill Mounce

Giving ‘The Passion’ a pass

Mounce is not keen on every single ‘translation’. Off the cuff, Eternity asks him about the most controversial translation of the moment – The Passion Translation. “My son has told me about The Passion Translation and he has gone over some of the specifics he has learned in school.”

“Based on what he is telling me, it’s not a Bible.

“You can’t add that amount of information that it adds and still be called a Bible. It is a running commentary on the Bible or something like that.

“But when you start adding in ideas – and again I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of this, other than verses he has read to me – when you start reading verses that have wholesale information that is not in the original, it is no longer a Bible.”

English is a moving target – our language is changing quickly – and Mounce thinks Bible translations will need to keep up. When I ask whether we have ‘stable’ Bible translations, he says we do – “for any point in time.”

“So, for example, when we did the ESV, it was meant to be in the stream of translations of Coverdale and the King James [early English translations of the Bible]. If you were raised in a church, you could understand those words and phrases. So it was very stable. And the NIV as well.

“The problem is that English is changing so fast. We can read stuff that we translated 20 years ago and it sounds so foreign to us.

“For a long time, it was the gender language issue. Every translation has made up its own mind on how it is going to handle the change in gender language and that is only going to continue.”

Is there a new NIV on the way?

“We get asked this a lot,” reveals Mounce. “The NIV is the only Bible translation that was originally set up to be constantly updated.

“We meet for a week every summer and go through the committee’s suggestions as well as translation suggestions that come in from the outside.

“The Committee on Bible Translation controls the text of the NIV, but we don’t control when the next update will be. They are incredibly expensive to do and that is a decision that [publishers] Biblica and Zondervan make together. But there will always be ongoing updates – that is the original commission of the NIV.”

Mounce guesses a new NIV is some time off because the committee is still in the thick of going through the entire Bible.

“It does not do any good if you read the Bible but don’t really believe it.” – Bill Mounce

Best Simple English Bible?

Mounce recommends the New Living Translation (NLT), a “natural language translation,” and the New international Readers Version (NIRV) as a precursor to the NIV.

He says the NLT is a good translation that is very understandable.

“But I also recommend the NIRV. This is a version of the NIV which is designed for people learning English as a second language. It reads very easily.”

“The nice thing about the NIRV is that if you are reading it as a younger person – and as you get older and you want another Bible, you can very easily shift to the NIV. It is not totally different.

“So, the combination of the NIV and the NIRV is really good. When I was pastoring, we used the NIRV for all of our youth outreach and our children because we knew they would move up to the NIV.”

The most important thing about the Bible you read

Even Bible translations that have been historically pitted against each other are all good, says Mounce. As Bruce Waltke – a professor in Hebrew and the Old Testament – has said: “None of them would lead you to heresy; all of them will lead you to the gospel. What we have to do is believe them.”

Mounce confirms: “It does not do any good if you read the Bible but don’t really believe it.”

He encourages people by challenging them to decide whether they believe the Bible is true or not and whether they are going to trust it or not. “Because when you do, the reading becomes different. God’s Spirit is at work and is helping you understand and then apply the truth of the Bible to your life. And that is really important. It is not just an academic decision. It’s not like reading a good Hemingway novel,” he says.

“You are reading something that conveys the message of life. But you have to really believe it in order to really implement what it says.”