Why Are There So Many Translations?

by Mark Coppenger

Punctuation is equally important to Bible verses. As children, many learned the King James Version of , which reads, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from which cometh my help.” On this reading, assistance dwells in the highlands. But the ESV reads, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” It replaces a comma with a period, and shows the psalmist glancing around for help wherever he might find it. (As it goes on to say, help comes from the Lord, not the hills.) The problem is simply that there were no commas and periods in the original Hebrew Scripture, so latter-day translators were left to sort things out, using a variety of cues.

Speaking of the original languages—both the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek—sometimes it is challenging to nail down exactly what the original writings said. We don’t have those first editions from the hand of David, Mark, etc., so we need to rely upon subsequent copies. (This is arguably a good thing, for if the actual writings of Paul still existed, we would probably venerate them as well as the Savior they present.) Consequently, we have some variances, for the copyists were only human.

Take for instance. In the old King James Version (1611), Jesus says to do four things—“love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” But in the more modern, New International Version, He prescribes only two—“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” So, why the difference? It’s simply a matter of working with the most promising manuscripts available at the time. The 17th-century KJV translators were using Greek manuscripts prepared at least a thousand years after Jesus’ birth. But the 20th-century scholars who produced the NIV and ESV had even older writings to study. Though these pages were produced back in the 5th century AD, they weren’t discovered until the 19th century.

This is not to say that the KJV of is a big problem. Jesus did, indeed, command that these four things be done. We know that from . It just seems that one of the copyists thought he would help out Matthew by filling in gaps that really didn’t need to be filled. He should have left the text as he found it.

Of course, there are other reasons to revise translations. Some words are just outdated. In the KJV, reads, “Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee.” Few know what a “froward mouth” is, so we can be glad that the English Standard Version renders it “crooked speech.” But sometimes, the translator might overreach in his attempt to make the words fresh and contemporary. When Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic paraphrase, The Message, renders “Give us this day our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer as “Keep us alive with three square meals,” you have to wonder if this calls for more caloric intake than necessary.

Fortunately (or, actually, providentially), none of these issues puts the basic message of the Bible in peril. God has made sure both that the original manuscripts were without error and that workable translations conveying the essence and details of His revelation are everywhere to be found. (This includes translations in over 2,000 languages other than English,[i] with new translations always underway for ethnic groups still lacking a Bible of their own.) Indeed, their variety of expression is a gift to the Church, as believers find the Word expressed in their heart language.


121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come? (ESV)

44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (ESV)

44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (ESV)

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (ESV)

24 Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you. (ESV)

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