Which Translation? A Primer

The question comes up occasionally, and at the beginning of this National Bible Bee season it seems to have been raised more than usual, “Why are there so many translations of the Bible?”  Along with that comes, “Which is the best translation?”  I hope to answer these questions, probably more rudimentarily than is adequate, but hopefully they will allow you to discuss the issue with your children.

The Bible was originally written in three languages.

  • The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew.
  • Some of the later OT books (like Daniel and Ezra) have portions in Aramaic. Aramaic was used because these books were written during or after the Babylonian captivity of 586 B.C.  When the Jewish people were taken to Babylon, Aramaic became their main language.  When they returned to the Promised Land, the common language was Aramaic (Neh. 8:6).  Aramaic continued to be the common language in Israel, even into the time of Jesus.
  • The New Testament was written in Greek, which was the common trade language which came out of the Greek empire (323-31 B.C.). When God moved upon men to write the Scriptures (1 Pet. 1:21), He had them write in these languages.

The Old Testament text was complete around 400 B.C., and the New Testament was completed by the end of the first century A.D.

An important fact to understand when discussing the original texts of Scripture is that there are NO original texts available today.  In other words…

  • No one has the original scroll of the Torah that Moses wrote
  • No one has the actual piece of parchment onto which Paul, Luke, or John penned their portion of the New Testament.

Every ancient text that we have is a copy of a copy of a copy, etc.

This is important to understand when we talk about different translations.  Each translation is based on “the original text,” but different translators have decided to use different families of texts on which to base their translations.

  • The King James Version and New King James Version are based on the Textus Receptus
  • Most modern translations (NIV, NASB, ESV) are based on what is called a “critical text.” If you use the NKJV, you will see notes that refer to the “NU” text.  This is a text that is the work of combined scholars who publish the Nestle-Aland text and the United Bible Society text.

Before talking about the differences in texts, it is important to note that the variation in ancient texts is mostly in the area of the New Testament Greek texts.  The textual issues in the Old Testament Hebrew are very few.  The reason for this is the difference in the method of copying that the Hebrew scribes used compared to the Greek scribes.

  • Hebrew scribes meticulously copied the text then counted the letters in each line. If the numbers did not match the original, the whole page would be scrapped.  This made for a very accurate transmission of the Old Testament.
  • Greek scribes were not quite as meticulous. In fact, sometimes a Greek manuscript would be copied by one person reading a text and a room full of scribes writing down what they heard.  Clearly, this sort of copying would allow some errors to creep into the text.  This is why we have many variations in the pieces of manuscripts that we do have of the New Testament writings.

Before you begin to despair about the reliability of your Bible, you should understand that these variations only total about ½ a page in your New Testament. There are no doctrines affected by these variations, unless you practice snake handling based on Mark 16:18.

So how did there become different text “families?”  Imagine if you were the church of Colossae who just received a letter from the apostle Paul.  How exciting would that be?  You would want to share it.  This kind of sharing among the churches was encouraged by Paul in Col. 4:16.  So these letters were copied and distributed to churches all over the world.

The process of collecting these letters and then recognizing just which were to be included in the New Testament culminated in the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, overseen by St. Augustine, where this Church council officially recognized the New Testament books that we have today as authoritative Scripture.   It is interesting to note that not all of the letters that the apostles and their close associates wrote were recognized as inspired Scripture. Also, remember that the Old Testament books were established long before the time of Jesus.  When the New Testament was recognized (or “canonized”), it began a process of being copied and sent to all parts of the world.

The transmission of the complete Bible was accomplished largely by Jerome’s 4th century translation into Latin called The Vulgate.

According to Kurt and Barbara Aland (of the Nestle-Aland text), there are five main “families” of texts that developed in various geographic regions of the world.  The text families are the Alexandrian, Egyptian, Eclectic (pulling from many sources), Western (European), and Byzantine texts.  These text families developed because of both geographical grouping and varying church traditions.  For example, the Coptic Christians of Egypt used the Alexandrian text.

The Byzantine Text (or Majority Text) is the basis for the King James Version of 1611 and many other translations during the Reformation era.  Most of the “originals” of this text family date from the 9th century.

  • The Greek text which formed the basis of the King James Version was titled the Textus Receptus (TR) and was published in 1633, but it was largely based on a Greek New Testament published by Desiderius Erasmus in 1516.
    • Erasmus was a Dutch Renaissance humanist and Catholic priest. He was known as the “Prince of Humanists.”  When collecting the manuscripts for his Greek New Testament, he was in a veritable race for publication.  Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, in 1514, had already developed a Greek New Testament as part of an original languages Bible, but compiling the Old Testament section and receiving approval from the pope delayed its publication until 1520.
    • Due in part to the race for publication and his work with the Latin Vulgate, Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was sometimes corrected by the Latin. This is very evident in the book of Revelation where entire portions were “back-translated” from Latin to Greek to make a complete text.

The NA/UBS (NU) text is the basis of most modern translations, including the NASB, ESV, and NIV.  It follows mainly the Alexandrian text but takes into consideration all possible texts to make a decision on which is closest to the original.

  • The Alexandrian text (or Codex Alexandrinus) is a nearly complete copy of the New Testament and Septuagint (OT in Greek) from the 5th Century A.D. (It was used by Coptics in Egypt and later brought to Constantinople by an Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Cyril Lucaris in the early 17th)
  • The Alexandrian text did not come to the attention of the western world until it was given to King Charles I of England, whose reign ended in 1649 (so, though it was an earlier text than the Textus Receptus, it was not available when the King James Version was translated).
  • Other important manuscripts such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus plus thousands of portions of Greek and Latin texts are compared to compile what we have in the modern day “eclectic texts” such as the NU text.

A difficult thing for many Christians to accept is that many of the scholars that analyzed these texts did not even believe in the inspiration of Scripture.  It might be compared to an archaeologist putting together Egyptian hieroglyphics but not believing the ancient religion of the Egyptians.

So which is the inspired text?  Depending on who you ask, the answer could be, “the TR, the NU, both, or neither!”  It is important to understand that the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture only extends to the original texts penned by each author. 

As much as any text or translation accurately reflects the original text, it is the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

God has graciously provided an abundant number of copies of the Scriptures to compare with one another to be able to confidently say that we have the Word of God.  But we should also be willing to say that everyone involved in the process of preserving and translating the text, from the scribes that copied the originals, down to the translators of each version, were all human beings and subject to error.

God even uses men in their sinfulness to bring about his purposes.  So whether you want to use

  • a translation that was ordered by a tyrannical king to persecute Puritans and establish the authority of the Anglican church using a text published by a humanistic, Catholic priest (KJV/NKJV) OR
  • a translation made by a modern day group of doctrinally variegated men using a text compiled by 19th century liberal scholars (NIV/NASB/ESV)

…you can still believe that God has preserved His Word so that you can hide it in your heart, that you may be taught, reproved, corrected and instructed in righteousness.  May God use His Word to thoroughly equip you for every good work!


Some thoughts on translations

Among all the translations of the Bible, there are basically two methods of translation used.

The first is the literal (sometimes called “word-for-word”) translation.  Translations such as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV all use a literal method.  The philosophy behind a literal translation ascribes importance to every word that was written down in the original and, as much as language will allow, attempts to translate every word without adding or changing the thoughts.

The second translation method is called “dynamic equivalence.”  The NIV and TEV (or GNT) are broadly-used translations in this category.  Dynamic equivalence attempts to convey the meaning of the text but is freer with adding or omitting from the original.  I appreciate the fact that communication is the attempt to convey an idea from one person to another.  This can certainly be done using different words than the original message. (If I tell one child, “Dinner’s ready,” and that child tells the other children, “It’s time to eat,” they have effectively communicated the message.) However, in its attempt to communicate the message without using every word, the NIV leaves out some important words that do affect theology.  For example, Romans 1:18 begins with the conjunction “for” in every original text, but the NIV leaves it out.  By doing so, it separates the importance of the wrath of God as part of the message of the gospel.

The most important rules in choosing a translation are: 1) find a translation that best conveys the meaning of the text, and 2) know the limitations of the translation you choose.  If you use an NIV, realize that you will not be getting every original word translated.  You should compare the NIV with a literal translation before making any major changes in faith or practice based on the NIV.  If you use the KJV, you should be aware that a lot of the words in that translation do not have the same meaning today.  Unless you are a master at Elizabethan English, you should compare it with a more modern translation and look at the original languages (whether using the TR or the NU).

A warning about paraphrases

A paraphrase is not a translation.  Many paraphrases do not attempt to go back to the original languages and their published purpose is not to provide a translation.  They are often the work of one man and may be simply written for devotional value or to give a fresh perspective on the Scripture.  Some paraphrases include The Living Bible and The Message.

I personally have great concerns with The Message and its author Eugene Peterson.  Peterson has been a leader in a movement toward spirituality that finds its roots in Neo-Platonic thought.  Spirituality becomes more of an out-of-body experience than a conquering of the flesh by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.  Peterson betrays his fondness for mystical practices by using new-age, occult phrases in The Message.  The gravest example is in the translation of The Lord’s Prayer in Matt. 6:10.  Jesus prays, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Peterson uses a well-known occult phrase, “As above, so below.” I do not see the value of putting these kinds of words into my mind or into my home.

I hope that this essay gives you some valuable information to think about, and that you will be able to read and study more to come to a faithful position on the matter.  I recognize that many people have firmly-held beliefs regarding translations and original texts.  I hope that each of us is committed to loyalty to Christ Himself above any work or thought of man.  Christ is the Word, and Christ is Truth.  Let our eyes be fixed upon Him.

2 thoughts on “Which Translation? A Primer

  1. Thank you for this information on which Translation. To some people it is very important that the King James is the only right one. We had that experience in our church. He made a big speech about not using the King James version, called us evil and left the church. He did let his grandson come to AWANA for which we are thankful.

    I am going to study this and try to put this information into my permanent memory bank. melvina

  2. I forwarded this to my sister in N.Y. and she thought it was so good that she is saving it to her Word account. I printed it off for myself so I don’t forget this information. Thanks. melvina

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