Have you ever noticed that some translations of the Bible are, well, really different from others? Sometimes people ask me why different translations are so different from one another, if they’re all based on the same starting point. There’s a lot that goes into that answer, and I’ll unpack what’s behind the scenes of Bible translations in this week’s devotion.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn't come preaching God's secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. -Common English Bible

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. -English Standard Version

When I came to you, my friends, to preach God's secret truth, I did not use big words and great learning. -Good News Translation

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. -King James Version

You'll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God's master stroke, I didn't try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. -The Message

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. -New Revised Standard Version

My sacred family members, when I came among you to tell you about Creator’s mysterious ways, I did not use big words or high-sounding wisdom. -First Nations Version

Those are all 1 Corinthians 2:1. And though each translation is intended to faithfully represent Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, they are simply not the same. Why?

The first obstacle for a Bible translation is figuring out what it’s translating. Our New Testament is a collection of stories, letters, and other documents that all started out as separate writings before being compiled. In the case of the letters, like 1 Corinthians, the original is long lost, and we have to rely on copies. Unfortunately, those copies are usually incomplete. Perhaps a page got lost or damaged, or else someone only wrote down their favorite parts of the letter. Other times, a scribe made an error or deliberate revision in their copy, which was then passed on to others.

This leads to a situation where experts collect all the bits and pieces of 1 Corinthians they can find, then try to figure out what the original said. It’s kind of like having 100 copies of the same puzzle, but pieces are missing from every set. Usually, you could figure out what the picture is supposed to be, but sometimes it’s trickier. In 1 Cor. 2:1, there’s one piece of the puzzle that’s especially tricky. One word is different in half the manuscripts! Some have the word “martyrion”, which means witness or testimony, while others have the word “mysterion”, which means secret or mystery, in the same place. Which is it? Well, if you go back and look, you’d see that some translators think the evidence is better for “mystery” while others find “testimony” more compelling. Situations where two originals seem equally plausible are rare, but still happen. Even less frequent, but still possible, sometimes new manuscript evidence comes along, like with the Dead Sea Scrolls, that leads scholars to realize that passages they thought were originals are missing from early manuscripts. That's why Mark 16:9-16 and John 8:1-11, among other passages, are often bracketed in newer translations-- though they are included in some traditions, they aren't there in the older, more original copies of the gospels.

For most of the New Testament, though, there is strong agreement on the original Greek manuscripts. With a shared starting point, does that mean that everything is in agreement for translators? Look again. Nope.

Some of the differences between translations comes down to synonyms. “Big words and great learning” means about the same thing as “lofty words or wisdom.” A translator might choose words at an easier or more challenging level based on their target audience, but the meaning is essentially the same. The same goes for sentence structure– some translations keep the Greek structure, which is usually awkward for English speakers, while others rearrange in order to make it easier to understand, especially if read aloud.

Other translation decisions carry more weight. One of the Greek words in 1 Cor 2:1 is “adelphoi.” Adelphoi is translated, in the versions above, as “brothers,” “brothers and sisters,” “brethren,” “friends,” and “sacred family members.” Which is it? Well, that’s complicated, and it requires translators to make a choice. Adelphoi is the plural form of the word that means “brother.” So, adelphoi means brothers. In Greek, however, a plural form of a masculine word was used to encompass mixed-gender groups. So, adelphoi means siblings. It was also used as a catch-all for relatives, even if they didn’t share parents. So, adelphoi means family members. Culturally, it was also a word that indicated a kind of supportive community, regardless of genetics. So, adelphoi means friends.

In English, however, brothers is not the same as siblings. There was a time when English speakers might say “men” to mean all people, but we certainly don’t speak that way now. If we mean to encompass a mixed-gender group of people, we use words that include the whole group. A translator has to choose: do I stick with one literal translation of a word that might actually undermine the original meaning for modern readers? Or do I find an equivalency in my language to capture the meaning of a Greek word or phrase? Does adelphoi mean brothers or siblings or family or friends?

A great way to find out what choices a translator made is to read the introduction. The ESV, for instance, will plainly tell readers that it avoids gender-inclusive language for groups of people, while the NRSV and CEB will tell readers that they translate adelphoi as brothers and sisters unless the context suggests otherwise. The NIV and CEB both make efforts to simplify vocabulary and sentence structure for younger readers, while the NRSV prides itself on being scholarly. The Message and the First Nations Version both paraphrase with specific audiences in mind, trying to make the Bible accessible to their particular readers.

So which Bible translation is best? The best Bible is the one you actually read. As you read, though, it’s important to know that somebody made decisions about how to translate what you’re reading– and to ask yourself if the decisions they’re making are consistent with your understanding of God. If so, read away! If not, find a translation that will nurture your faith. I recommend the NRSV, which is what we read in worship, or CEB, especially for readers who are new to the Bible.