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Does the Bible have to sound old?

Put off by the Bible's thees, thous and shalts? Explore why that doesn’t have to hold you back, and how to get started with a newer translation.

How would you respond if you were asked: what do the works of Shakespeare and the Bible have in common? Perhaps you’d think: complex plots, confusing language, and moments of violence. Or maybe you’d think, ‘I studied them both in school and haven’t thought much about them since.’

But what about the fact that both works have stood the test of time? And their popularity isn’t set to die down any time soon, either. Shakespeare’s plays continue to draw in the crowds over 400 years after his death. And, thousands of years after its composition, the Bible continues to be the No. 1 bestselling book of all time – and the most frequently stolen. 

There are plenty more links between the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, including the fact that both Hamlet and Othello have over 50 biblical references.

And, yes, admittedly, there’s also the chance that both Shakespeare and the Bible run the risk of sending us into a cold sweat when we’re faced with the language, right?

But, in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays are often reimagined to offer a fresh interpretation for today’s audiences, so too has the Bible been revised over the years to make its ancient writings accessible for contemporary readers.  

Put off by thees, thous and shalts?

If you’re daunted by the prospect of old language that gives Shakespeare a run for his money, you’ll be glad to know that, at 400 years old, the celebrated King James Version has made room for some new kids on the block, including the likes of the Good News Bible (GNB), the New International Version (NIV) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV).

Translated from the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic found in the earliest manuscripts, newer Bible translations bring these ancient stories, poems and prophecies right up to date.

And you don’t have to worry about getting a watered-down version of these ancient writings, either; the new updated versions are just as true to original languages, if not more so.

How is the Bible translated?  

Featuring at least 66 books, 700,000+ words, and 3000+ named characters, translating the Bible is no mean feat. To put it in perspective, the Bible has a higher word count than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

As a result, the length and literary complexity of the Bible means that you need a whole team of experts working on a new translation. A good translation will draw together the expertise of several scholars to ensure that it’s true to the original, but still adds something new to the current body of translations out there. 

While updating the language to help it resonate with readers today, Bible translators also make decisions about how to get the point across:

Literal: A literal translation mirrors the original text as much as it can, including using reference points, language and metaphors that would have made sense to its early readers. 

Equivalent: While staying true to original manuscripts, these types of translations sometimes focus less on the exact phrasing or terminology used, instead focusing on what the text is trying to communicate. 

Paraphrase: Fancy a quick summing up of the text? Some translations work to paraphrase the text in a way that’s clear and concise for modern readers.

To give an example, take a look at the same few verses (Psalm 23.1–3) in different translations to see how the wording and outcome change:

In this example, you’ll notice that different versions use different language to communicate the Bible text in language relevant to their audience (it’s not hard to work out that the KJV is the oldest!)

Why are there so many versions of the Bible?

English speakers have had Bible translations since at least the 1300s, so it’s understandable that we now have multiple translation available all these years later. Not only do Bible translators have to work incredibly hard to carry across meaning from the Bible’s original languages, but they have also found fresh, relatable ways to update these ancient writings for contemporary audiences. 

As such, different Bible translations have been created to offer texts that speak to today’s reader. Some popular options include:

What is the best Bible translation?

Some translations of the Bible handle the original languages less successfully than others, especially as knowledge has grown and developed over time.

However, no one Bible translation can ultimately be considered ‘the best’ – different translations have different things to offer. Plus, it’s a case of personal preference; people tend to form a favourite or two based on the style of language. 

Are older translations more reliable, though? The quick answer? No. In fact, newer translations can be truer to the original language and meaning since translators have had more time, resources and expertise to create this translation. 

And you might be surprised to learn that the New Testament wasn’t originally written in an inaccessible, high-brow language that only a select few could read or understand. Most of it was written in everyday Greek, so it was easy to understand and accessible to its audience.

If anything, this supports the point that reading Bible translations that make sense to us today – that use language we find relatable – was intended. Its authors weren’t writing to exclude or alienate. The authors wanted as many people as possible to hear their message – it was intended for everyone.

Which Bible translation should I read?

When trying to decide which Bible to read, it’s worth trying out a few different ones to see how you get on with the language and see what you take away from it. However, it’s important to remember that – although it’s natural to have one or two favourites – each Bible translation offers something different, so it’s worth being open to exploring others every now and then. 

You might like to try out versions that apply different translation philosophies, like the ones listed below, as this may offer you a different interpretation that reveals the message in a fresh way: 

Literal: New Revised Standard Version

Equivalent: New International VersionGood News Bible

Paraphrase: The Message

If you’re interested in finding out which translation might work best for you, or you’d like to compare versions, you can hit the ‘GNB’ tab on our online Bible to quickly switch between different versions. Why not compare a few different versions to see which one you relate to more? 

Ancient words for modern times?

Okay, so we’re over the language barrier. But what now? We're still reading an ancient text, right? 

That’s true, but what if ‘ancient’ doesn’t mean ‘outdated’, and ‘old’ doesn’t mean ‘irrelevant’ – just that it’s stood the test of time?

The Bible might have been written thousands of years ago, but for many it continues to offer guidance on things that matter deeply to us today: love, family, community, faith, hope. It continues to provide an answer to questions so many of us are still asking today. Questions like:

  • What’s life all about?
  • What's my place in the world?
  • How do I find purpose and meaning?
  • How do I build healthy relationships? 
  • Is there a higher being, and what might that look like?

It continues to challenge and inspire billions of people around the world, all these years later. Could it have something to say to you?

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