Different Styles, One Bible

From time to time in our group bible studies, we find differences in the translations of our bibles.  As we are studying in a small group or a Sunday school class, we often find that the version that the leader or others may be using has phrases and words in it that are in a different order or possibly even uses different words all together from the one we are reading.  Recently, we came across this dilemma in our Sunday morning study through Revelation.  We came to Revelation 8:13 which in the NASB95 reads:

“Then I looked, and I heard an eagle flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!”   Revelation 8:13 NASB95

As we read this in class, a student noticed that their translation rendered the word “eagle” as “angel.”  As we discussed this, we found that there were other translations that chose to use the word “angel.”  Now, to me, there seems to be a big difference between an eagle and an angel.  So what’s up with that?  This happens to be only one example among hundreds (thousands?) in which there are differences, which raises an even bigger question – Do different bible translations contradict each other?  At first glance, it would certainly seem so.  This can be confusing at best for some and down right frustrating for others.  Also, it has seemed to give ammunition to those critical of the bible suggesting that this is just further evidence that the bible has been  corrupted, casting doubt on the validity of God and His word.  So is there an answer for these differences or are translations of the bible really full of contradictions?

The good news is that there is a rather simple answer for this problem which isn’t really a problem at all.  In fact, it is a blessing and a help for us who are continually seeking to know God through His word.  The answer comes in the form of style of bible translation, of which there are two basic styles: Word-for-Word and Thought-for-Thought.

Two Styles, One Bible

Bible translations begin with the original languages in which they were authored using the science of textual criticism along with the latest historical and archaeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew along with parts of Daniel and Ezra being written in Aramaic.  The New Testament was originally written in Greek.  Both of these languages, as with all languages, have evolved over time. The languages of Hebrew and Greek that were used to write the bible are different than the modern day styles of these languages. They have evolved over time.  For example, in the English language we can see how this has happened as the language has changed since the days of the King James vernacular Of the Middle Ages which used a lot of words that are no longer familiar (Thee, Thy, Thou) or are obsolete (betwixt, bakemeats).   So when bible translators begin a translation, they are beginning with the most credible evidence for the original manuscripts, meticulously contrasting and comparing those autographs (originals), as well as studying other writings of the same time periods to be able to understand how the language was used during the time of the writing of the scripture.  By using the original biblical writings along with a pursuit to more fully understand the language of the time results in teams of translators being able to produce very accurate versions of the bible in English.  These versions come to us in two basic styles.

Word-for-Word Style

The first style of translation is often referred to as the “Word-for Word” or “literal” type of translation.  This style attempts to take the words and structure of the original languages and directly interpret them as closely as possible into words of the corresponding English language.  Whenever possible, a word from the original language will be directly translated into the English equivalent.  This method tries to capture the exact wording and writing style of the original writers by directly translating it into our modern language.  This style strives to be as transparent as possible to the original text as it allows readers to see the structure and meaning of the original.

Sometimes these types of bibles are criticized for being too “wooden” or “unnatural” in their readability.  Often it is said that since they try their best to retain the wording of the original that this can make it difficult to produce proper English, thereby, complicating our bible reading.  For instance, my translation of choice is the Updated NASB which is probably criticized the most for it’s lack of readability but is praised for its trueness to the original language.

Although this argument does have some credibility, literal translations are often the best choice to make for more in-depth, scrutinizing types of study.

Examples of these styles of English bibles would be the NASB, ESV, HCS, RSV.

Thought-for-Thought Style

The second style of translation is often referred to as the “Thought-for-Thought” or “paraphrase” type of translation.  This style attempts to take the original languages and interpret them into the thought behind words or groups of words.  One of the benefits that this style is often praised for is they are often described as being more readable and understandable than the literal types of translations.  While this may be true, one of its criticisms is that since these styles take the liberty to interpret the literal words into thoughts, they are often criticised for setting a limit on the extent and depth of God’s word to us.  These translations can come dangerously close to putting limitations on God’s ability to speak to us in a multifaceted way since they attempt to ascribe a certain interpretation of “thought” for the literal words originally spoken.

Another danger that goes along with that, is when a translator’s personal theology is imposed upon a translation.  For instance, the TNIV took the theological stance that God is neither male nor female and therefore, their translation attempted to remove all references of “He” or “Him” when referring to God thus making Him gender neutral.  This is dangerous since it can take on a liberty which the original manuscripts do not intend to convey resulting in questionable accuracy when compared to the originals.  In their defense, paraphrased translations often make the most sense in evangelizing the lost since the wording is often more natural and accessible to the unchurched.

Examples of these styles of bible would be NIV, NLT, TEV, CEV, The Message, and KJV (read the preface to the KJV if you doubt me!)


Hopefully this helps as you are reading different translations, or studying with a group of people with different styles of the bible, or maybe even looking into buying a new version of the bible.  While it is important to research the background of a bible translation, we can rest in the fact that God has blessed us with so many great choices.  I have personally chosen to own most of them, whether in digital form on my computer or in book form on my book shelf.

So what about our passage in Revelation 8:13?  Is it “eagle” or “angel”?  The original Greek New Testament uses the word ἀετός (aetos) which is literally translated “eagle, vulture.”  So why did some translators (KJV, NKJV) prefer to use the idea of “angel”?  Quite possibly because this eagle is being used to symbolize the announcement of the escalation of God’s judgments upon the wicked through the final Trumpets as well as the idea of swiftness in the Lord’s visitation of wrath upon sin.  So far in Revelation, God has chosen to use angels (which is ἄγγελος meaning “messenger” in Greek) as His messengers of choice to announce His plans for swift judgment.  The thought of using “angel” is not out of context necessarily with the rest of Revelation, and does still carry the proper thought, but it is a departure from the original Greek verse which renders it “eagle.”  So this interpretation is not out of line, but it does imply a certain meaning that may or may not impose opinions and limitations on the text.  You be the judge.

For further reading:

Norman L Geisler and William E Nix, From God to Us How We Got Our Bible

Robert L Thomas, How to Choose a Bible Version

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