Snowmass Chapel gets a lot of visitors to its grounds throughout the year. People love walking through the aspens, sitting on a bench along the creek, or wandering the John Denver Garden. A number of years ago one visitor stopped to chat with me and asked if the Chapel was “a Bible-based church.” I almost responded, “Which Bible?!”
I understand the question she was asking, but I also wondered if she knew there are more than 100 translations of the Bible – and that’s just in English! As of 2021, there are more than 1,300 language translations worldwide.
I have my daily go-to (the NRSV Harper Collins Study Bible) but I also like to mix it up. Sometimes the way a translator uses a word or phrase is more aligned with the theme of a sermon or more helpful to someone I might be counseling. Just like Robert’s use of the Aussie Bible in his recent sermon on humor, often the right translation can kick-start our understanding or shed new light on a particular passage. I have a dozen English language Bibles on the shelf behind my desk, each one with very slight variations.
But despite so many to choose from, Bible translation has never been taken lightly. Almost all experts agree that the original texts (some as old as 3,000 years!) were copied with 99 percent accuracy. Those scribes in heavy woolen capes and dark candle-lit caves were sticklers for details! While some copying errors occurred, of course, the nature and meaning of God’s words never changed. Never! Isn’t that amazing?
So serious were the keepers of the faith, in fact, that until 1539 translating the Bible into anything other than Latin would get you executed for heresy. Poor William Tyndale learned that the hard way – he made the very first translation into English in 1530 and it cost him his life. (By the way, the Tyndale Bible was a massive influence on the King James Bible 50 years later. Apparently so was Shakespeare.)
Thankfully, you won’t get your head cut off if you were to undertake a new translation today – at least not literally. But it might still cause a stir. The English Standard Version (ESV), for example, was created in 2001 in direct response to a translation called Today’s New International Version (TNIV) which the translators of ESV saw as having liberal feminist undertones. The TNIV sought to have more inclusive, gender-neutral language like “humanity,” “people” and “brothers and sisters” rather than “mankind,” “men,” and “brothers.”
Here’s an example of Gen. 1:27 from each:
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (TNIV)
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (ESV)
(By the way, that verse from the TNIV is identical to many other translations, including the NRSV which is the Bible you’ll find under your seat in the pews at Snowmass Chapel.)
The difference in those translations is slight, but worth knowing. In this case the original Hebrew word for human beings is….adam! So even though in English, thanks to King James, we are used to adam = man, the more accurate translation is adam = humankind.
Another thing I find fascinating (and cautionary) is that many Bibles come with footnotes. These can be really helpful commentary that explain or make reference to other areas in scripture related to what you’re reading. Who writes those notes also matters! What is their theology? What’s their lens of interpretation? What scholarly or historical evidence did they have available to them? Those little footnotes pack a wallop and have the ability to shape the way you view scripture – it’s worth paying attention to who’s doing the shaping and why. And where you go to church influences your Bible of choice a lot, too: If you’re Baptist or Evangelical you might be reading from the Scofield Reference Bible or the NIV; Presbyterian, you might prefer the Reformation Study Bible; Catholic, the New American or Jerusalem Bible, etc.
Fifty-five percent of folks still read the King James Version (hats off to you! I find all the “thees and thous” intimidating). The rest are spread around all the other 99+ versions. But the moral of the story is, no matter which version of the Bible you read….read! It’s an amazing story that has the power to transform your life every time you pick it up. I guarantee you, it’s a page-turner.
“How blessed the reader! How blessed the hearers and keepers of these oracle words, all the words written in this book!” (Rev. 1:3, The Message version)
 Beth Allison Barr is a medieval historian, theologian, and professor and dean of the Graduate School at Baylor University. Her book “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” explores the effects of interpretation and translation on patriarchy and women.