In this issue of “Theology & Culture” (T&C), we will continue our look at Bible translations while also tackling a key myth that is connected to this important area of the Christian life. In our last T&C, we noted that the Bible claims to be God’s Word and looked at two of the five most common methods used in Bible translation work. This, we noted, explains the various types of translations we have in print.
We discussed both the “dynamic equivalent,” “thought for thought”, or “phrase for phrase” and the “word for word” approach to translation work. I would encourage you to read the previous Theology & Culture for a more detailed discussion on this.
In this blog we want to continue our discussion regarding this important issue. What follows may seem trivial but it is not, especially when it comes to some people arguing for certain translations being more “literal” than others. Besides what we just noted, keep in mind that our many English translations do not match the number of Greek words because they try to explain what the original languages of the Bible are saying. This shows that translation work is not easy.
Consider the following facts:
· Depending on what Greek New Testament (NT) you use, there are 138,000-140,000 words.
· Note the number of words in the following translations. The NIV has 175,037 words. The ESV has 175,599. The NASB, 184,062. The KJV, 180,565. The NKJV has 177,980. The NLT has 186,596 words.
The point is that every translation, as we showed in our last T&C and in this edition, is trying to make the Scriptures understandable while being accurate to the original text of the Bible.
A third and important point is that much of the translation work and differences come from the fact that there are so many Greek manuscripts (MSS), with portions or complete books of the NT, with different nuances and copy of words and such. In fact, the number is over 5,600 MSS.
We have MSS dating back to the first few centuries of the church. The King James Version, a good translation, was based on the Greek NT of Erasmus. His work relied on several Greek MSS, none dated earlier than the twelfth century A.D. He published His Greek NT in 1516.
Unfortunately, and it is not the fault of the men who put together the KJV, is the fact that some have elevated this one version of the Bible above every other translation. The fact is, the translators of the KJV used other English translations along with the Biblical MSS available at the time.
Over the years we have discovered more MSS, and when looking at them it is not just how many we have, but the quality of the copying as well. Remember, before Gutenberg invented the printing press, each copy was done by hand by dedicated scribes, with some being more focused on doing a good job than others.
As we look at MSS, as a rule, the older copies are considered better because they get us closer to the first century and the writings of the NT. But even when analyzing these, we have to look at the quality of the work, whether they were copied well or sloppily. MSS copying is hard, laborious work.
Translators today have more MSS to work with but that does not make it any easier. No matter the translation, the Koine Greek, the language of the first century, is not spoken today, so trying to interpret it can be a challenge and sometimes translators differ on the definitions of words. That does not necessarily make the translation bad.
Most modern Bible versions have good, trustworthy scholars doing the work on these translations. At our church, people read and study out of various versions of the Bible, including the ESV, NLT, KJV, NIV, NET, NASB, NKJV, just to name a handful. And though there may be differences in some of the translations, that does not mean we should demand allegiance to only one version.
Every translation we can find fault with if we look, some more than others. But it is a myth to say that only one particular translation should be followed. No translation is perfect. We do not have the original MSS plus some words in Hebrew and Greek, and maybe Aramaic, the languages the Bible was written in, are, as we just noted, hard to define but scholars do their best.
Another point to be made is that there are good “literal” and “thought for thought” Bible translations. It is important to make sure that whatever translation we choose to use we are comfortable with and have done our homework to see which translation works best for us and is also theologically sound. That is key. Some of the Bibles that I have no problem with are the ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, CSB, LEB, NIV (not the 2011 edition - this is a disaster of a translation), the NLT, and the NET are quite good. There are others we could add to the list.
And we are not to split churches over what translation we use unless a heretical, horrible Bible is in use. The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the paraphrase known as the Clear Bible need to be kept at a great distance. These teach unbiblical doctrines.
If someone says that only one version of the Bible is inspired by God, they are wrong. Only the original MSS are “God-breathed” but many versions that we hold in our hands are good translations done by honest, ethical, Biblical scholars.
Let me also note that if we were to lay out all 5,600 Greek MSS of the NT on a gym floor and compare them, keeping in mind that they cover many centuries of copyist work, these MSS would be in agreement with each other on over 99% of the words. Think of that. A.T. Robertson, the renowned Greek scholar of the last century, held to this high percentage and I agree with him. That shows how God has preserved His Word throughout the years.
In closing, let me share three thoughts when it comes to discussing Bible translations,
1) Show a little grace to people who might use a different translation that we do. Unless we are scholars and know the original languages and understand the art of how translating is done, we need to allow people to have different thoughts on Bible versions than we do. Keep in mind, we are talking about good translations here.
2) There are a number of critics who will undercut whatever translation we are using. As we have mentioned, some translations are good, some not so much. We can find someone to find fault with every translation. You can search the Internet and find people who are critical of any version of the Bible if you look hard enough.
3) Good translations teach solid doctrine. Even if some Bibles have a different word order or leave out a word in one verse that we think makes them heretical, yet that word is found in another verse in that translation dealing with the same topic, we do not throw out the entire version. Good translations do not cover-up key doctrines such as the Atonement of Christ or His Deity, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel message, etc.