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Why So Many Versions?

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I. Why So Many Versions?

"Breaking up is hard to do," as the song goes. Ma Bell did it--creating a glut of long distance companies almost as numerous as brands of deodorant.

The Bible did it, too. Before the year 1881 you could read any version you wanted--as long as it was the King James Version. But since 1881, scores of new translations have been printed.

How did the King James get dethroned? Which translation is best today? Are any of the modern translations really faithful to the original? These are some of the questions we'll be looking at in this essay. But initially, we'd just like to get a bird’s eye view. We simply want an answer to the question, "Why are there so many versions of the Bible?"

There are three basic influences which have given birth to a multitude of translations.

First, in 1881 two British scholars published a Greek New Testament which was based on the most ancient manuscripts then available. This text, by Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, made several notable departures from the Greek text which King James translators used. For the most part, the Westcott-Hort text was a shorter New Testament. That's because the older manuscripts (MSS) which they used did not contain passages such as the longer ending of Mark's gospel of the story of the women caught in adultery. The Greek MSS which the King James translators followed included these and many other passages.

At the same time the Westcott-Hort text made its debut, the English Revised Version of the New Testament appeared. A new era was born in which translations of the New Testament now used the few ancient Greek MSS rather than the many later ones.

Second, since 1895 many archeological and manuscript discoveries have been made which have which have pronounced judgment on some of the renderings found in the King James. The single most important discovery was that of the Egyptian papyri. In 1895, Adolf Deissmann published a volume, given the unassuming title, Bible Studies (Bibelstudien), which revolutionized NT scholarship. Deissmann discovered that ancient papyrus scraps, buried in Egyptian garbage dumps some 2,000 years ago, contained Greek which was quite similar to the Greek of the NT. He concluded that the Greek of the NT was written in the common language of the day. It was not the dialect which only the most elite could understand. Since Deissmann's discovery, translators have endeavored to put the NT into language the average person could comprehend--just as it was originally intended. Not only that but the papyri have helped us to understand many words--words which were only guessed at by King James translators.

Finally, there have been philosophical influences. That is, the theory of translation is being revamped today. Missionaries have made a significant contribution toward this end--because they are eager to see a particular tribe read the Bible in its own language.

These three differences--textual, informational, philosophical--have been the parents of a new generation of Bible translations. But are these translations any good? Are they any better than the King James?

For the rest of the essay, we will examine each of these influences and then, finally, try to see which translation is best.

II. The Text of Modern Translations

Where have all the verses gone? The modern translations seem to have cut out many of the most precious lines of Scripture. They end Mark's gospel at the 8th verse of chapter 16; they omit the reference of the angel of the Lord stirring the waters at the pool of Bethesda (verse 4 of John 5); and, most notably, they excise the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

Besides omissions, these modern versions make significant changes in the text. For example, in I Timothy 3:16, the King James reads, "God was manifest in the flesh," but most modern translations read, "He was manifest in the flesh." In Revelation 22:19 the King James speaks of the "book of life" while virtually all modern versions speak of the "tree of life." Altogether, there are hundreds of textual changes between the King James and modern translations.

In this brief essay we cannot determine who is right. But we can make a few observations.

First, the textual changes in the modern translations affect no major doctrine. The deity of Christ, virgin birth, salvation by grace alone--and all the rest--are still intact. Though certain passages are omitted or changed, the doctrines are not. There are evangelicals who prefer the King James and there are some evangelicals who prefer the modern translations.

Second, the textual changes in these modern translations are based on the most ancient MSS of the Greek NT. These MSS date from early in the second century A.D. But the Greek texts behind the King James belong to a group of MSS--called the Byzantine text--which are much more recent. On the other hand, although these MSS are more recent, they comprise at least 80% of the 5000+ MSS of the NT that we presently have. It is theoretically possible that, at times, these MSS point to an early tradition as well.

Third, the King James NT did not always follow the majority of MSS. Actually, the Greek text behind the King James was based on only about half a dozen MSS. Now it just so happened that these MSS belonged to the Byzantine text. But on a few occasions there were gaps. And the compiler (a man named Erasmus) had to fill in those gaps by translating the Latin NT back into Greek. There are, therefore, some readings in the King James--such as 'book of life' in Rev 22:19 or the wording of I John 5:7-8, which are not found either in the majority of MSS or the most ancient MSS. No serious student of the Bible would call them original (though many popular Bible teachers do).

Fourth, the charge that the more ancient MSS or the men who embrace them are unorthodox is a faulty charge. It is true that in certain places the ancient MSS do not explicitly affirm the deity of Christ--such as in I Tim 3:16. But neither do they deny it! Besides this, in some passages these ancient MSS make Christ's deity explicit where the King James does not! In John 1:18, the modern versions read "the unique one, God" while the King James has "the only begotten Son." Futhermore, the majority of evangelical scholars embrace this critical text. Even the men who edited the New Scofield Reference Bible of the King James Version personally favor the critical text!

Fifth, at the same time, there are some scholars today who are strong advocates of the Byzantine text--most notably, Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad. Together they edited The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text and Dr. Farstad was also the senior editor of the New King James Bible. Thus, it is possible to be intelligent and still embrace the Byzantine text, just as it is possible to be evangelical and embrace the modern critical text. (I happen to disagree with the resultant text that Firsthad and Hodges have produced,1 but I respect their scholarship.)

Finally, we ought to quit labeling one another as heretics or idiots in the ongoing discussion. There needs to be charity on both sides. One of my college professors frequently said, "The Christian army is the only army in the world that shoots its wounded!" Unfortunately, this is especially true when it comes to translations of the Bible.

III. Deissmann and the Papyri

In1895 a German pastor by the name of Adolf Deissmann published a rather innocent-sounding volume: Bible Studies. Yet, this single volume started a revolution in NT scholarship--a revolution in which the common man was the winner.

In the 1800s Deissmann began reading ancient Greek MSS. But not the great classical authors. He was reading private letters, business transactions, receipts, marriage contracts. What were these documents? Merely scraps of papyrus (the ancient forerunner to paper) found in 2,000-year-old Egyptian garbage dumps. In these seemingly insignificant papyri, Deissmann discovered a key to uncover the NT! For these papyri contained the common Greek language of the first century A.D. They were written in the vocabulary of the NT.

What's so revolutionary about that? you ask. It is revolutionary because up until 1895, biblical scholars had no real parallels to the language of the NT. They often viewed its Greek as invented by the Holy Spirit. They called it "Holy Ghost Greek." Now it is true that the ideas--even the words--were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it's another thing to say that the language of the NT was unusual--that its grammar and vocabulary were, in a word, unique. If this were true, only the spiritual elite could even hope to understand the NT.

Deismann's discovery burst the bubble on this view: the Greek of the NT was written in the language of the common man.

There are two implications of what Deissmann did for the Bible translations:

First, if the apostles wrote in easy-to-understand terms, then translations of the Bible should reflect this. We ought not to translate with big 50 cent religious-sounding words if the original was not written that way. The King James word 'propitiation,' for example, basically means 'satisfaction'--that is, God is satisfied with Christ's payment for our sins. Our Lord's final word from the cross, "It is finished," has been found on papyrus business documents--on receipts, if you will. It means "paid in full."

In other words, Bible translations need to be clear. One of the obvious proofs of this is that the gospel offends people. And it cannot be offensive unless it is understood!

Second, the papyri discoveries have helped us to understand words which the King James translators merely guessed at. For example, in the King James version of John 3:16, the Greek word translated 'only begotten' really means 'one and only' or 'unique.' The Bible, then, does not say that Jesus was the begotten Son of God--which might suggest that he had a beginning--but that he is the unique Son of God.

But there is another implication of the papyri discoveries, though not related to Bible translations. Rather, it is related to preaching. Preachers of the Word of God need to make themselves understood. As one of my seminary professors was fond of saying, "We are not called to feed giraffes--we are called to feed sheep!" This does not mean that a sermon should be sloppy or inaccurate--just that it should be clear.

Deissmann has done a service for scholar and layman alike. He has shown that the language of the NT was understandable to the common man on the street. The ironic thing is that when the King James Bible was first published in 1611, it was condemned by many for being too easily understood! But after 400 years, the English language has changed. I, for one, invite the new translations because they give the gospel back to the people.

IV. Dynamic Equivalence Vs. Formal Equivalence

Most laymen today think that a faithful translation of the Bible means a word-for-word translation. If the original has a noun, they expect a noun in the translation. If the original has sixteen words, they don't want to see seventeen words in the translation. We might call this translation "formal equivalence." The King James, old American Standard, and the New American Standard come closest to this ideal.

On the other end of the spectrum is a "phrase-for-phrase" translation, or a dynamic equivalence translation. It is not so concerned about the grammatical form of the original language as it is of the meaning of the original. A dynamic equivalence translation is more interpretive--but it is also easier to understand. The New International Version (in part) and the New English Bible follow this philosophy.

Actually, anyone who has ever learned a second language knows that a word-for-word translation is impossible much or most of the time. Idioms in one language need to be paraphrased. Even the King James translators realized this. In a couple of places in the OT, the Hebrew text literally reads, "God's nostrils enlarged." But the King James has something like, "God became angry"--which is what the expression means. In Matthew 1:18 the King James says that Mary was found to be with Child. But the Greek is quite different--and quite graphic: "Mary was having it in the belly"! And in many places in Paul's letters, the King James reads, "God forbid!" But the original has neither "God" nor "forbid." Literally, it says, "May it never be!" (as most modern translations render it!)

Therefore, when we speak of faithfulness in translation, we need to clarify the question: Faithfulness to form? or faithfulness to meaning? Sometimes faithfulness to one involves lack of fidelity to the other. There are problems with each of these. The King James, with its attempted fidelity to form, in some passages makes no sense. And in 1611 they made no sense! The New American Standard, likewise, is often characterized by wooden, stilted English.

On the other hand, dynamic equivalence translations sometimes are too interpretive. The NIV, in Eph 6:6, tells slaves to "Obey (their masters) not only to win their favor. . . ," but the word "only" is not in the Greek and I suspect that Paul did not mean to imply it, either. This reveals one of the problems with dynamic equivalence translations: the translators don't always know whether their interpretation is right.

But some versions don't interpret--they distort. Some are notorious for omitting references to Christ's blood, or for attempting to deny his deity. In these instances, the translators are neither faithful to the form or the meaning. They have perverted the Word of God.

Yet, dynamic equivalence translators who are honest with the text often make things very clear. In Phil 2:6, for example, the NIV tells us that Jesus was "in (his) very nature God." But most formal equivalence translations state that he was in the form of God. The problem with these formally correct translations is that they are misleading: the Greek word for 'form' here means essence or nature.

Dynamic equivalence versus formal equivalence: two different philosophies of translation. A formal equivalence translation lets the reader interpret for himself. But too often, the average reader doesn't have the background or the tools to interpret accurately. The net result is that he often badly misunderstands the text.

On the other hand, a dynamic equivalence translation is usually clear and quite understandable. But if the translators missed the point of the original--either intentionally or unintentionally--they will be communicating an idea foreign to the biblical text.

There are pros and cons of each philosophy of translation. In the next section, we will see which translations have done the best jobs.

V. Which Translation Is Best?

In this essay we've been looking at the differences in Bible translations. We have noted that the Greek text behind the King James NT is different from the Greek text behind most modern translations. We have seen that the discovery of the papyri at the turn of the century has shed much light on the meaning of biblical words. And we have found that Bible translations, by-in-large, are either word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translations and that there are pros and cons with each of these. Today, we want to look briefly at five or six popular translations and discuss their values.

But before we look at these translations, I'd like to make three general comments. first, you might think there is no hope of ever knowing what the Word of God really says. There are so many translations that read so differently! How can anyone who does not know Greek or Hebrew really know what the Bible says? I am personally convinced that the Holy Spirit is sovereign over even the worst translations. Even in extremely biased or sectarian translations, all the major doctrines can be found. And if you know which translations are best, then you will be much better off!

Second, one of the best safeguards you can follow is to stay away from the sectarian translations or those done by an individual. The New World Translation, by the Jehovah's Witnesses, is the best known sectarian translation. We will speak about this translation a little later. Translations by individuals include Moffatt's, Weymouth's, J. B. Phillips, The Living Bible, Kenneth Wuest's Expanded Translation, and the Berkley New Testament. To be sure, there is much merit in each of these--especially the last four. But the idiosyncracies and theological biases of a translation are far more apparent when it is produced by one man.

Third, to the question "Which translation is best?", there can be no singular answer. I suggest that every Christian who is serious about studying the Bible own at least two translations. He should have at least one dynamic equivalence translation (or phrase-for-phrase) and one formal equivalence translation (that is, word-for-word translation). In fact, it would be good to have two dynamic equivalence translations--because in this type of translation, the translator is also the interpreter. If his interpretation is correct, it can only clarify the meaning of the text; if it is incorrect, then it only clarifies the interpretation of the translator!

Now, for the translations.

King James Version

The King James Bible has with good reason been termed, "the noblest monument of English prose" (RSV preface). Above all its rivals, the King James Version has had the greatest impact in shaping the English language. It is a literary masterpiece. But, lest anyone wishes to revere it because it was "good enough for St. Paul," or some such nonsense, we must remember that the King James Bible of today is not the King James of 1611. It has undergone three revisions, incorporating more than 100,000 changes! Further, there are over 300 words in the King James that no longer mean what they meant in 1611. If one wishes to use a Bible that follows the same Greek and Hebrew texts as the King James, I recommend the New King James Version.2

Revised Standard Version

The RSV was completed in 1952 and was intended to be, in part, a revision of the King James. Of course, it used the ancient MSS of the NT, resulting in the omission of several verses and words. But the wording was still archaic. The RSV attempts to be a word-for-word translation where possible. The NRSV follows the same principle of translation, though has now become more "gender-inclusive" in its approach. At times this is very helpful; at other times, it is misleading.

New American Standard

The NASB is something of an evangelical counterpart to the RSV. It, too, was intended to be something of a revision of the King James. There are three major differences between the RSV and the NASB: first, the NASB is less archaic in its wording. Second, its translators were more conservative theologically than the RSV translators. Third, because of the translators' desire to adhere as closely to the wording of the original, often this translation is stilted and wooden. Still, the NASB is probably the best word-for-word translation available today.

New English Bible

The NEB was completed in 1971, after a quarter of a century of labor. It marks a new milestone in translation: it is not a revision, but a brand new translation. It is a phrase-for-phrase translation. Unfortunately, sometimes the biases of the translators creep into the text. The REB (Revised English Bible) follows the same pattern: excellent English, though not always faithful to the Greek and Hebrew.

New International Version

The NIV was published in 1978. It may be considered a counterpart to the NEB. It is more a phrase-for-phrase translation than a word-for-word translation, and the scholars were generally more conservative than those who worked on the NEB. I personally consider it the best phrase-for-phrase translation available today. However, its major flaw is in its simplicity of language. The editors wanted to make sure it was easy to read. In achieving this goal, they often sacrificed accuracy (in particular, in the NT, sentences are shortened, subordination of thought is lost, conjunctions are deleted).

New World Translation

Finally, a word should be said about the New World Translation by the Jehovah's Witnesses. Due to the sectarian bias of the group, as well as to the lack of genuine biblical scholarship, I believe that the New World Translation is by far the worst translation in English dress. It purports to be word-for-word, and in most cases is slavishly literal to the point of being terrible English. But, ironically, whenever a sacred cow is demolished by the biblical writers themselves, the Jehovah's Witnesses twist the text and resort to an interpretive type of translation. In short, it combines the cons of both worlds, with none of the pros.

In summary, I would suggest that each English-speaking Christian own at least a NASB or RSV and an NIV. As well, I think it would be helpful to possess a King James and even a New English Bible. And then, make sure that you read the book!

Epilogue

There is a recent translation that has not yet been completed, but has been available in part on the Biblical Studies Foundation web site. The NET Bible (or New English Translation) has all the earmarks of a great translation. When finished, it may well be more accurate than the NASB, more readable than the NIV, and more elegant than either. In addition, the notes are genuine gold mine of information, unlike those found in any other translation. I would highly recommend that each English-speaking Christian put this Bible on his shopping list as soon as it is completed!

Editor's Note: This translation has of course now been completed, and is available in numerous locations (see Bible.org's Store, as well as Bible.org's free study environment).


1 See my essay "The Majority Text and the Original Text: Are They Identical?" (posted on the Biblical Studies Foundation web site).

2 However, as I pointed out earlier, I think there are severe defects in this text.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism