I’m not a Bible scholar in any regard. I’m just a Bible salesman with a lot of years experience who has read through the Bible many times in many different translations. So this piece represents somewhat-educated opinion rather than genuine erudition. With that quick disclaimer out of the way, I thought I’d share a little bit of my thinking on Bible translations.
The furor over Bible translations is not new. I suspect there were Jewish traditionalists who objected to the Greek translation (Septuagint) and others before it on the grounds that God’s Law should only be written in Hebrew. The English translator and early protestant John Wycliff literally gave his life to translate the Latin Vulgate (also a translation) into English so the common man could read the Bible for himself. I found this interesting paragraph about one of John Wycliff’s followers at “Greatsite.com“, a rare Bible site.
One of Wycliffe’s followers, John Hus, actively promoted Wycliffe’s ideas: that people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language, and they should oppose the tyranny of the Roman church that threatened anyone possessing a non-Latin Bible with execution. Hus was burned at the stake in 1415, with Wycliffe’s manuscript Bibles used as kindling for the fire. The last words of John Hus were that, “in 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention (a list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church) into the church door at Wittenberg. The prophecy of Hus had come true! Martin Luther went on to be the first person to translate and publish the Bible in the commonly-spoken dialect of the German people; a translation more appealing than previous German Biblical translations. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records that in that same year, 1517, seven people were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for the crime of teaching their children to say the Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin.
Thankfully current Bible translators don’t have to worry about being burned at the stake, although the verbal pilloring of some recent translation committees make me suspect there might be those who would favor such. There is a grand English tradition of translation, from Wycliff to Tyndale to King James and countless others since; there seems to be no end of translation efforts. Do we really need them all?
The short answer is: yes. A more reflective answer is that our English language is so fluid and changing that the goal of an accurate rendering of an ancient text into contemporary English is extremely hard to hit. Idioms, definitions, and usage of common terms change by the hour, it seems, and it is very difficult for a team of scholars to create a translation that can accurately reflect the original meaning to succeeding generations of readers.
Of course accurate translation depends on an accurate original language text to translate from. This presents another difficulty as there are absolutely no original texts (autographa) available to compare to. We are left to sifting through thousands of copies of varying ages and making educated guesses at what the original text actually said. Wikipedia has an fascinating article on the subject that says in part.
None of the original documents of the New Testament is extant and the existing copies differ from one another. The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most conforming to the original. The New Testament has been preserved in three major manuscript traditions: the 4th-century-CE Alexandrian text-type, the Western text-type, and the Byzantine text-type, which includes over 80% of all manuscripts, the majority comparatively very late in the tradition.
Since the mid-19th century, eclecticism, in which there is no a priori bias to a single manuscript, has been the dominant method of editing the Greek text of the New Testament (currently, the United Bible Society, 4th ed. and Nestle-Aland, 27th ed.). In textual criticism, eclecticism is the practice of examining a wide number of text witnesses and selecting the variant that seems best. The result of the process is a text with readings drawn from many witnesses. In a purely eclectic approach, no single witness is theoretically favored. Instead, the critic forms opinions about individual witnesses, relying on both external and internal evidence. Even so, the oldest manuscripts, being of the Alexandrian text-type, are the most favored, and the critical text has an Alexandrian disposition. Modern translations of the New Testament are based on these copies.
A question I’m asked frequently is “How does this compare to the King James Version?”, when looking at a modern translation. This question is generally occasioned from accusations the questioner has heard that a new translation has intentionally deleted portions of text for theological reasons. The real reason for any omission generally lies in the above quoted information. With the passing of time, scholars have determined that previous original texts may have actually been inaccurate and the newer translations have taken that scholarship into account.
A more important question should be can we trust the translators to give us a reliable rendition of the text they use? I believe that we can. There is no translation available at The Scroll that I would hesitate to recommend based on the intent of the translators, and the reliability of the text.
You will also hear opinions that a given translation is “the best”, or the “most accurate”, based usually on that person’s preferred translation philosophy. Translations fall on a continuum of translation styles that have two fancy names bracketing it. On one side is the “Formal Equivalence”, a literal or “word for word” translation versus “Dynamic Equivalence”, which attempts to render whole thoughts in contemporary forms & idioms. Both have their positives & negatives. Again from Wikipedia…
A variety of linguistic, philological and ideological approaches to translation have been used. Inside the Bible-translation community, these are commonly categorized as:
though modern linguists such as Bible scholar Dr. Joel Hoffman disagrees with this classification.
As Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible, like all languages, have some idioms and concepts not easily translated, there is in some cases an ongoing critical tension about whether it is better to give a word for word translation or to give a translation that gives a parallel idiom in the target language. For instance, in the New American Bible, which is the English language Catholic translation, as well as Protestant translations like the King James Version, the Darby Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the Modern Literal Version, and the New American Standard Bible are seen as more literal translations (or “word for word”), whereas translations like the New International Version and New Living Translation sometimes attempt to give relevant parallel idioms. The Living Bible and The Message are two paraphrases of the Bible that try to convey the original meaning in contemporary language. The further away one gets from word for word translation, the text becomes easier to read while relying more on the theological, linguistic or cultural understanding of the translator, which one would not normally expect a lay reader to require.
So where does all this leave us? Can we even trust the Bible at all? In spite of manuscripts with many variations the important ones are actually very minimal. Even where whole paragraphs are considered questionable, it doesn’t really affect major Bible truths. God has preserved the central message of His Word, and it is still “quick & powerful & sharper than any twoedged sword…”And frankly, if your pet theology depends on a given translation for it’s proof, I’d suggest reconsidering your theology!
I came to the conclusion long ago, that the very best way to approach Bible translations was to read MANY of them. (I started to say ALL, but that would be improbable!) The difficulties presented to the translators lead to the many varieties of expression in the same text. When we compare these efforts we are given an improved opportunity to hear what the original writer was really saying. Bible comparison reading gives the serious Bible student a valuable study tool – and the Holy Spirit one more way to speak to us!