The Bible: God’s Word To Man
In order to make the Bible more accessible, it has been translated, in whole or in part, into more than 1,000 languages. But which translation is the best?
Before discussing which translation is best, we need distinguish between the inspiration of the text of the original manuscripts and the inspiration of the work done by a translator working with original language.
The apostle Paul declares that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God”; (2 Timothy 3:16). The English word “scripture”; comes from the Greek word GRAPHE, meaning “that which is written.” The term; “is given by inspiration of God”; actually comes from a single Greek work, THEOPNEUSTOS. Literally, THEOPNEUSTOS means; “God-breathed”; or “breathed (out) by God.” The terminology used here emphasizes that the written text originated from (or out of) God. The Holy Bible is a revelation from God, not merely a collection of human insights.
While God has conveyed His message to us through human thoughts and words, nowhere does the Bible imply that the languages used in the Old and New Testaments are somehow the languages of Heaven. Hebrew and Greek are human tongues, with both the limitations and the richness that these languages possess. In giving us His word, God used two very different languages (and the thought-forms which underlie them), instead of one language only, which should protect us from the trap of ascribing perfection to any human language.
Currently we have over 5,000 early Greek manuscript portions and over 20,000 early translations of the New Testament. While most of the time these manuscripts agree, there are some places where they differ. When they do, a decision must be made as to which reading is most likely the original reading. This process is called Textual Criticism. Generally, there is little difficulty in determining the original reading, but sometimes scholars are not completely sure. This is why you sometimes will see a footnote on a verse indicating there is a variation in the Greek texts at that point.
The early Greek manuscripts of the Bible can be categorized into three groups depending or their readings:
1. Western and Caesarean: or Latin texts
2. Alexandrian: The Alexandrian texts centered around Alexandria, Egypt.
Because of the dry climate of Egypt, these texts tend to be the oldest. Most contemporary translations (RSV, NASV, NIV, etc.) rely on manuscripts from the Alexandrian, Western and Caesarean families in addition to the Byzantine texts. Manuscripts from these families are often more ancient, but there are a fewer of them than those of the Byzantine tradition.
3. Byzantine: The Byzantine texts (Textus Receptus)
centered in the Byzantine Empire. Since the West-
ern church switched to Latin, and Alexandria fell to
the Arabs, the Byzantine texts tend to be the
most numerous. The Textus Receptus is derived
from the Byzantine family (which represents about
95% of all the Greek manuscripts). However, it does
not truly represent the Byzantine textbase, mainly be
cause the sixteenth-century scholars examined so few of
From the immense body of the New Testament material (5,366 Greek manuscripts; over 2,200 lectionaries; over 36,000 citations from the church fathers), scholars have adopted a means of categorizing the various manuscripts. This provides assistance in determining which wording and spelling should be preferred in cases of disagreement. New Testament scholars have arranged the manuscripts into four main families (or textbases), based on similar phraseology, spelling and grammatical peculiarities, and other common features.
Since the time of the KJV, many thousands of Biblical manuscripts and fragments which are older than those used to form the KJV text have been discovered. Early witnesses to many New Testament books, the Dead Sea texts (including complete texts of Isaiah and Habakkuk) and others have been analyzed which means that we now have a much better idea of the content of the original texts. In addition, advances in Biblical studies (especially the Hebrew language) have meant that even more accurate translations are now possible.
In the case of the New Testament (where most of the attacks on modern translations are leveled), the text used for the KJV was the so-called “Textus
Receptus”, or “received text” compiled by the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus. More modern translations are usually based on one of the United Bible Societies “UBS” Greek texts (latest edition is the 4th) or the Nestle-Aland text (latest edition is the 27th). They are essentially identical anyway.
What should be emphasized is that these text-types are not in great opposition to one another. In over 90 percent of the New Testament, readings are identical word-for-word, regardless of the family. Of the remaining ten percent, MOST of the differences between the texts are fairly irrelevant, such as calling the Lord “Christ Jesus” instead of “Jesus Christ”, or putting the word “the” before a noun. Less than two percent would significantly alter the meaning of a passage, and NONE of them would contradict or alter any of the basic points of Christian doctrine. What we have, then, is a dispute concerning less than one-half of one percent of the Bible. The other 99.5% we all agree on!
The bottom line is that it really does not make much difference which of the major Bible translations you use. Because of the vast increase in our understanding of ancient languages and the number of manuscripts upon which to base translation, there are some differences between the KJV and the modern translations, but these differences are minor. In fact, the important point that so often goes over looked in such discussions is that with over 5,000 early Greek manuscripts, there really is very little variation.
Norman Geisler and Ron Brookds noted, “There are less than 40 places in the New Testament where we are really not certain which reading is original, but not one of these has any effect on a central doctrine of the faith.” The problem is not that we don’t know what the text is, but that we are not certain which text has the right reading. We have 100 percent of the New Testament and we are sure about 99.5 percent of it.
Three Classes of Bible Translations:
1. “Formally equivalent translation.”: Some call this “word for word”, but this is not so. It is impossible to produce an exact word-for-word English translation of the Bible, where you translate one English word for one Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic
word without inventing new English words as you go along (in which case the benefit is lost) or losing a lot of meaning. However there do exist translations which work, in the words of Dr Bruce Metzger (textual scholar and chair NRSV translation committee) “as literal as possible, as free as necessary”. Such translations attempt to translate “word for word” where it is possible and practical to do so. The NRSV and NASB would come under this category.
2. “Dynamically equivalent translation.”: Here is an example of dynamic translation in action. In Luke 9:44, Jesus is delivering an important message about his betrayal and death. This is how he introduces it according to these translations:
- KJV “Let these sayings sink down into your ears…”
- NRSV “Let these words sink into your ears…”
- NIV “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you…”
- NJ “For your part, you must have these words constantly in mind…”
The KJV and NRSV have taken the formally equivalent rendering. The NIV and NJ have, rather than using an obscure colloquialism from first century Palestine, used words which have the equivalent MEANING. This does not make the translation wrong, and it should not be interpreted as an attempt to make the Bible “simpler”. It is merely an attempt to clear up Greekisms or Hebrewisms which may mean nothing to the modern reader. The NJ and NIV are two examples of dynamic translations.
3. “Concepts for concept.”: Here the purpose is not so much to translate as to paraphrase. They usually interpret the text quite a lot (often more than people would like). Under this heading would come such Bible versions as the Today’s English Version (Good News Bible), The Living Bible and so on. You may think that there is no need for bible paraphrases, but they do have their uses. If the reader has a small vocabulary (for example, a young child or recent emigrant), paraphrases can be extremely useful in teaching Biblical concepts.
The KJV and NKJV come into this somewhere between formal and dynamic translations. Even extremely formal translations such as the NRSV do translate dynamically sometimes. Every translation
of the Bible “interprets” the text to some extent. In particular, every translation has a “bias”; (for lack of a better term). The KJV is no exception.
So when choosing a translation, as long as you are considering a major translation, you do not have to worry if it really is the Word of God. The greatest barrier to doctrinal agreement among Christians is not caused by textual uncertainty “what does the text say?”, but by hermeneutic and presuppositional issues “what does it mean?”. In other words, the main reason for conflict is due to interpretation, not translation.
Finally, every major belief of Christianity can be just as easily proven from the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, or the New International Version, as from the King James. Any major translation is sufficiently accurate to enable a person to believe in Jesus Christ and receive the new birth through faith in Him. Moreover, most translations accurately convey the character of God, the nature of man’s fall, our need for redemption, the signs of the Christian, and the foundational things we ought to do an ought to avoid to please God.
The New Testament is far more accurate than ANY other ancient writing. In fact, there is more evidence for the integrity of the New Testament than there is for the works of Shakespeare or any 10 other pieces of ancient literature COMBINED.
The only real concern is whether or not this is a Bible you will read and study. For if you don’t bother to read and study the Bible, then the accuracy of the translation is of little importance. Further more if we are studying and applying God’s Word then we ought to be conformed by it. Those that adopt a one version to the exclusion of all other often exhibit a spiteful and disrespectful attitude toward other Christians. They label all other translations (even the NKJV) as “per-versions” of the Bible. They typically accuse anyone defending these other translations of lying, denying God’s word, calling God a liar, and having no faith. All to often they betray its teachings by failing to exhibit love toward fellow believers in Jesus Christ. Some even imply that to be saved one must not only believe in Christ, but must also adhere to the KJV as the only Bible. There is nothing wrong with loving the translation you read and believing it to be the best translation of the Bible. There is something wrong with condemning other Christians for not sharing that opinion.