One Bible, Many Versions

Why So Many?

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, "any customer can have a car painted in any color that he wants, as long as it is black." Before 1881 that applied to Bible versions as well. You could read any version of the Bible you wanted, as long as it was the King James Version
(KJV). However, since 1881 things have changed, and a surplus of new translations have been published and printed.

Why did (could) this happen? How did the King James get dethroned? Which translation is best for the modern reader? With so many different translations are any of them really faithful to the original?

These are valid questions. However, it is important to step back and get a "big picture" perspective of the situation. To start, we simply need to ask the question, "why are there so many versions of the Bible?"

It is important to understand that there are three basic influences which have given rise to such a wealth of Bible translations recently.

First, in 1881 two British scholars by the name of Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, published a Greek New Testament based on the most ancient manuscripts then available. This text made many notable departures from the Greek text, which the King James translators used. For the most part, the Westcott and Hort text was a shorter New Testament than the one compiled from the KJV translators (known as the Textus Receptus (TR)).

The older manuscripts, which Wescott and Hort used, did not contain passages such as the longer ending of Mark's Gospel, or the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), while, the Greek manuscripts which the KJV translators followed included these and many other passages.

Shortly following Westcott and Hort's text the English Revised Version made its appearance. Ushering in a new period of Bible translations, an era based on earlier manuscripts of the biblical tradition.

Second, since 1895 many discoveries concerning archaeological digs and manuscript finds have been made, bringing into question some of the renderings and translational choices of the KJV. The most important being that of the Egyptian papyri. In 1895, a German scholar named Adolf Deissmann published a work called Bibelstudien (Bible Studies), which revolutionized New Testament scholarship.

Deissmann discovered that ancient scraps of papyrus buried in Egyptian garbage dumps close to 2000 years ago contained Greek which was quite similar to the Greek of the New Testament. He concluded that the Greek of the New Testament was written in the language of the common people. It was not an elitist dialect as many in the Church had thought.

Since Deissmann's discovery, translators have endeavored to put the New Testament into the language of the average person, seeking to create a translation that is comprehensible without compromising the original language; just as it was originally intended in the Greek. Likewise, subsequent papyri finds have shed further light on many words and phrases in the original Greek, words the KJV translators only guessed at in terms of their original meanings.

Third, there are a great deal of philosophical issues that have influenced the subsequent translations. One of the major contributions in this area were missionaries, seeking to translated the Bible into many indigenous and tribal languages, so that people around the globe could read the Word of God in their own language.

The Text of the Modern Translations

Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 AD) at 1 Timothy 3:16. 
The originaltext can be read, "He who" in the Greek. 
A later correction over top can be seen were a scribe 
(in a hand written nearly 700 years later) has written "God."

When I was growing up, I remember watching series' of Christian video publications that made statements affirming that, "modern translations had cut out many precious lines of Scripture!" I was made aware of the fact that Mark's Gospel ended at the 8th verse of chapter 16, the reference to the angel at the pool of Bethseda (John 5:4) was also gone, and most notably, the story of the woman caught in adultery seemed to be missing from John 8.

In fact, many changes were made to the text. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:16, in the KJV it says that, "God was manifest in the flesh," but most of the modern translations read, "He who was manifest in the flesh." In Revelation 22:19 the KJV has reference to the "book of life" while almost all of the modern versions have the "tree of life" in its place. And that was only the beginning, there are hundreds of these changes between the KJV and the modern translations. So what's going on?

First, it is important to note that the textual changes in the modern translations effect no major doctrine of the biblical message. The deity of Christ, virgin conception and birth, salvation by grace alone, and all the rest are still clearly found in the modern translations.

Second, the textual changes in the modern translations are based on the most ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. These manuscripts date from the early second century (AD) and on. The KJV translators used printed editions of the Greek New Testament (specifically, a 1525 Hebrew text and the seven printed versions of the Greek New Testament then available), based on only 6-8 manuscripts in total from the New Testament, none of which even came close to how old the papyri discoveries we posses today.

Third, the KJV New Testament did not always follow the majority manuscripts. As previously mentioned, the Greek text behind the KJV was based on only about half a dozen manuscripts, all of which belonged to what is referred to as the Byzantine text-type (or family). Due to the small number of manuscripts there were gaps left in the full text. The compiler of theses manuscripts, a man named Desiderius Erasmus, had to fill in a great deal of these gaps by translating the Latin back into the Greek. Because of this, some of the readings that exist in the KJV such as the "book of life" passage from Revelation 22 and the Johannine comma in 1 John 5:7-8 (mentioned previously) are not found either in the majority of manuscripts or the most ancient manuscripts.
Word- for Word, Thought-for-Though, or Paraphrased?

Something likewise needs to be said in regard to translation style itself. Many presume that a Bible translation that reflects a more "word-for-word" style is more faithful to the original text. If the original text has a noun in a certain place, it is expected that a noun sit in that word's place in the translation. If the original has ten words in one verse, the translation should have ten words in its place. This is what is referred to as "formal equivalence." This type of translation ideal is reflected in the King James (KJV), the American Standard (ASB/NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV). 

On the other side of things is a "thought-for-thought" or "phrase-for-phrase" translation. This translation is not concerned with grammatical form in its translation of the original text as much as it would be about rendering the intended meaning. This is what is referred to as "dynamic equivalence," allowing the translation to be more interpretive in order to be easier to understand by the reader. This type of translation ideal is reflected in the New International Version (NIV/TNIV).

A simple way to check whether your translation is a word-for-word (formal equivalence) or thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence) translation is to turn to Luke 9:44. In this passage Jesus predicts his betrayal and crucifixion, however, he prefaces his statement with a comment to the disciples:

"Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you..." (NIV)

"Let these words sink into your ears..." (NASB)

Luke 9:44


The Greek in this passage literally says, "Let these words sink into your ears," as rendered by the NASB. However, in English we don't talk like that. What the NIV and other dynamic equivalence translations do is replace it with a more understandable English equivalence, "Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you." The thought-for-thought translator takes the meaning of the text and translates it for the English reader to understand, staying faithful to the meaning, the phrase-for-phrase translator takes the form of the text and translates it directly, staying faithful to the form.

When we speak of faithfulness in regard to translation we need to clarify what we're talking about. Do we mean faithfulness to form or to meaning? This does not always have a simple answer, for at times when we're faithful to one we are not always being faithful to the other. There are certain passages in the King James that simply don't make any sense, and they didn't make sense in 1611 when they were originally translated either. Likewise, many thought-for-thought translations push the line on interpretation and boarder on saying something the original author did not intend.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe: Which Translation to Use?

So what does all this mean? Is there no hope for knowing what the original text of the Bible said? Is all lost in translation? Should we conclude that there are so many translations that all read so different from each other, and therefore, anyone who doesn't know Greek or Hebrew can't possibly understand the text? The answer is no.

Every individual who is serious about Bible study should own at least two different translations, specifically, a thought-for-though (formal equivalence) translation as well as a phrase-for-phrase (dynamic equivalence) translation. This will only help to flush the original meaning and the original language of the text out for the reader, broadening their understanding of what the text actually says.

Finally, a note must be said in regard to the King James Version and modern translations. The King James Bible is a fine translation, and no one should be faulted for using it. However, it is neither the best translation nor the most accurate. Likewise, the KJV of today is not the KJV of 1611, it has undergone a number of revisions and the vast majority of printed KJV Bible's today are either an Oxford or Cambridge printing of a 1769 reprint.

Again, the individual who seeks serious Bible study should take into consideration a multi-translational approach, possessing at least one formal and one dynamic equivalence translation for personal use. The most important note however, is that whatever translation you use you read it!


Note of Warning: I am not saying that all translations are created equal. There exist some "translations" that distort in the name of interpretive translation, working not to be authentic to form or meaning but rather to a specific agenda by the translator(s). Any translation that is a sectarian translation is highly suspect, and works done by single individuals often suffer from personal and theological bias (whether intended or unintended) and should therefore, almost always be avoided. 

The best example of a sectarian translation (that hardly warrants the title "translation") is the Jehovah's Witness' New World Translation (NWT). Due to the sectarian bias of the JWs in conjunction with the lack of true biblical scholarship among the group, this is easily the worst English translation available. The NWT works to be phrase-for-phrase the vast majority of the time, sometimes to an unreadable point. However, when issues of theological questions arise that do not match with JW doctrine, a "phrase-for-phrase" method is enacted that far too often twists the text in a way that it hardly allows for. 

Examples of translations done by single individuals include Moffatt's, The Living Bible, Kenneth West's Expanded Translation, and the Berkley New Testament. While these are not necessarily bad translations, and can often be of use alongside of committee translations, for personal use it is not always wise to restrict reading to simply these types of Bible versions.


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