Henry Ford once said, “Any customer can have a car painted in any colour that he [or she] wants, as long as it is black.”1 Before 1881, this was pretty much the situation with the English Bible:2 you could read any English translation of the Bible you wanted, as long as it was the King James Version (KJV). Since 1881, though, things have changed, and a surplus of new translations have been published: The New Revised Version (NRV), New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), New Living Translation (NLT), New American Standard Version (NASB), and on and on you can go.
So why are there so many options now? How did the King James get dethroned? Which translation is best for the modern reader? With so many different translations, are any of them actually faithful to the original?
These are all valid questions, and in order to address them, we will need to step back a little to get a “big picture” perspective of the situation. To start, we simply need to ask the question, “Why are there so many English versions of the Bible?”
It is important to understand that there are three basic influences that have given rise to such a wealth of Bible translations over the last hundred years.
First, in 1881, two British scholars by the name of Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort published a Greek New Testament established on the most ancient handwritten copies, what are referred to as manuscripts, available to them. This text made many notable deviations from the less ancient Greek text that the King James translators used back in 1611. In the 17th century when the King James Version was being worked on, the amount of documentary sources was limited. The King James translators were using a collection of printed texts that were put together based on the manuscript evidence that was available. The discovery of both more and older manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, allowed scholars to map out a clearer picture and create a better understanding of what the original writings, which have been lost to the sands of time, of the New Testament looked like. It wasn’t that the Bible had been lost in any way, but with the uncovering of more ancient Bible copies, it helped to broaden our understanding of how the text of the Bible looked over the last two millennia.
It is also important to understand that, while these earliest copies do get us closer to what the original may have looked like, earlier does not always equate to more reliable. This is where examination of the manuscripts is very important. Scholars don’t assume that an earlier copy is a more reliable copy by nature of it being old. Instead, they carefully examine the manuscript and its text, comparing it to other documents of a similar age and later copies that they think it may be the originator of, and come to an educated decision based on a whole host of factors.
All of this is why some of our earliest manuscripts give us a better picture than what was available in the 17th century. Nonetheless, the Christian faith did stand unshakable for centuries while the earliest copies of its texts lay mostly forgotten in the sands of Egypt. People learned, trusted, valued, copied, and were changed by the Word of God long before the most recent discoveries of our most ancient copies.
However, the older manuscripts, which Wescott and Hort used, did not contain passages such as the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20), or the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) (for a description of why Mark’s ending stops where it does tap here). But the Greek manuscripts that the KJV translators followed included these and many other extra passages, which were likewise included—for better or for worse—in the KJV.
Shortly following Westcott and Hort’s text, the English Revised Version made its appearance, ushering in a new period of Bible translations, an era based on earlier manuscripts.
Second, since 1895 many discoveries from archaeological digs and manuscript finds have been made, bringing into question some of the renderings and translational choices of the KJV.
In 1895, a German scholar named Adolf Deissmann published a work called Bibelstudien (Bible Studies), which revolutionized New Testament scholarship. He discovered that ancient scraps of papyrus buried in Egyptian garbage dumps contained Greek that was quite similar to the Greek of the New Testament. He concluded that the New Testament was written in the language of the common people. It was not an elitist dialect, as many had previously thought, but rather colloquial Greek, as would have been spoken in the ancient marketplace.
Since Deissmann’s discovery, translators have endeavored to put the New Testament into the language of the average person, creating translations that are comprehensible without compromising the intent of the original language: to speak to ordinary people. Likewise, subsequent discoveries of ancient manuscripts have shed further light on the meaning of many words and phrases in the original Greek, which the KJV translators had only guessed.
Third, there are a great deal of philosophical issues that have influenced subsequent translations. Major contributions in this area have come from missionaries, as they translated the Bible into many indigenous and tribal languages—missionaries translating, for example, a verse like Isaiah 1:18, that says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow,” in an area of the world where snow has never been seen. When Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 and rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, how does one render the text in a location where donkeys do not exist? Is it appropriate to replace the donkey with an alpaca, llama, or gazelle simply for the sake of the reader, or does that do injustice to the words and understanding of the text? These questions of nuance, clarification, and faithfulness in translation both stretched and strengthened translators and their approaches.
During my undergraduate studies, I would routinely talk to the Mormons who frequented my neighbourhood. They were polite and would knock on my door regularly. During one particular conversation, a young Mormon missionary challenged me: “You don’t think your Bible has been changed?” “No,” I replied. “Then who took John 5:4 from your Bible?” he asked, without missing a beat. Puzzled, I turned to the Gospel of John, chapter five, and sure enough, it went from verse 3 straight to verse 5 (for an explanation for why there is no verse 4, tap here). As a Mormon, he would have only read the KJV, which does include this verse.
As I continued to probe, I found even more examples of supposed discrepancies. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:16, in the KJV it says that “God was manifest in the flesh,” but most of the modern translations read, “He who was manifest in the flesh.” At Revelation 22:19, the KJV refers to the “book of life,” while almost all of the modern versions have the “tree of life” in its place. And that was only the beginning: there are hundreds of changes between the KJV and modern translations. So what’s going on?
First, it is important to note that the textual changes in the modern translations effect no major doctrine of the biblical message. The deity of Christ, his virgin conception and birth, salvation by grace alone, and all the rest are still clearly found in the modern translations.
Second, the textual changes in the modern translations are based on comparing the most ancient and most reliable readings from the available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament. These manuscripts date from the early second century (AD) and onward (for a discussion of how manuscripts are dated, tap here. The “alterations” we see in our modern text are not a case of “who took John 5:4 out of your Bible?” (as the Mormon missionary asserted) but rather, “who put John 5:4 into your Bible?”
The KJV translators could only use what was available to them: a 1525 Hebrew text and the seven printed versions of the Greek which were based on only six to eight manuscripts (in comparison with the over five thousand New Testament manuscripts we have today). None of those seven manuscripts even came close to the age of the ancient discoveries we now possess. With these older documents, we can get a clearer picture of what the original authors wrote. In the case of John 5:4, we know that this particular text was initially a commentary note in the margin. Over time, the note went from briefly explaining the context of John 5 to making its way into the text itself. For the record, these verses are not missing from your modern translation anyways. In nearly every case you can find a note at the bottom of your Bible explaining the why and what of these “missing” passages. If the KJV translators were alive today, they would of course make use of the plethora of documents we now possess in our undertaking of translating the Bible from its original languages into our own. In fact, they say as much in the preface to the original 1611 King James Bible, that any translation of the Word of God needs to be updated for the purposes of clarity and understanding.
Third, due to the small number of manuscripts then available, there were sections missing from the text. The compiler of these manuscripts, a man named Desiderius Erasmus, had to fill in a great deal of these gaps by translating the Latin Bible back into the Greek. Because of this, some of the phrases that exist in the KJV—such as the “book of life” passage from Revelation 22—are neither found in the majority of manuscripts nor the most ancient manuscripts. But this history gives the shift between words like “book” to “tree” or “God” to “he who” reasonable and understandable explanations. Some were honest mistakes, others were copyist errors, and still others were the well-intentioned, albeit mistaken, efforts of scribes to render the text accurately. At the end of the day, due to the number of manuscripts we now have, we can be confident that our modern translations are accurate readings of what the original authors wrote nearly 2000 years ago.
Translation style also has a big influence on modern translations. Many presume that the more a Bible translation is “word-for-word,” the more faithful it will be to the original text. If the original has a noun in a certain place, they would expect a translated noun to sit in the same position. If the original has ten words in one verse, the translation should ideally have ten words as well. This style of translation is referred to as “formal equivalence,” and is used more often than not in the King James (KJV), the American Standard (ASB/NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV).
But there are also “thought-for-thought” or “phrase-for-phrase” translations. This translation style is not concerned with replicating grammatical form as much as rendering the intended meaning. This “dynamic equivalence” allows the translation to be more interpretive in order to make the text be easier to understand. This type of translation is reflected in the New International Version (NIV) or the New Living Translation (NLT).
Of course, no single translation is exclusively dynamic or formal equivalence all the way through. Some lean more on one side than the other more often than not, but many modern translations will slide on a scale from book to book, chapter to chapter, and verse to verse, simply for the purpose of making the words read understandably.
A simple way to check whether the translation of your Bible is more of a word-for-word (formal equivalence) or thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence) is to turn to Luke 9:44. In this passage, Jesus predicts his betrayal and crucifixion, however, he prefaces his statement with a comment to the disciples:
“Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you…” (NIV)
“Let these words sink into your ears…” (NASB)
The Greek in this passage literally says, “Let these words sink into your ears,” as rendered by the NASB. However, in English we don’t talk like that. What the NIV and other dynamic equivalence translations do is to rephrase this statement with a more understandable English equivalent: “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.” The thought-for-thought translator translates for the English reader to easily understand, while staying faithful to the meaning; the word-for-word translator is less concerned about how it sounds in English, prioritizing faithfulness to the form.
When we speak of faithfulness in regard to translation, we need to clarify what we’re talking about. Do we mean faithfulness to form or to meaning? This does not always have a simple answer, for at times when we’re faithful to one, we are not always being faithful to the other. There are certain word-for-word passages in the King James that simply don’t make any sense, and frankly, they didn’t make much sense in 1611 when they were originally translated either. Likewise, many thought-for-thought translations push the line on interpretation and border on saying something the original author did not intend.
So what does all this mean? Is there any hope for knowing what the original text of the Bible said? Is all lost in translation? Should we conclude that, since there are so many different translations, anyone who doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew can’t possibly understand the text? The answer is a resounding “No!”
Every individual who is serious about Bible study should own at least two different translations: specifically, a thought-for-thought (formal equivalence) translation as well as a phrase-for-phrase (dynamic equivalence) translation. This will help to flesh out the original meaning and the original phrasing for the reader—broadening their understanding of what the text actually says.
Finally, a note must be said regarding the King James Version and modern translations. The King James Bible is a fine translation, and no one should be faulted for using it. However, it is neither the best translation nor the most accurate. And to clarify, the KJV of today is not the KJV of 1611, as it has undergone a number of revisions. The vast majority of KJV Bibles today are either an Oxford or Cambridge printing of a 1769 reprint.3
I am also not saying that all translations are created equal. There exist some “translations” that distort, working not to be authentic to form or meaning, but rather to a specific agenda by the translator(s).
Any sectarian translation is highly suspect. Works done by single individuals often suffer from personal and theological bias (whether intended or unintended) and should therefore, almost always be avoided. The clearest example of a sectarian translation (hardly warranting the title “translation”) is the Jehovah’s Witness’ New World Translation (NWT). Due to the sectarian bias of the JWs in conjunction with the lack of true biblical scholarship among the group, this is easily the worst English translation available. The NWT works to be phrase-for-phrase the vast majority of the time, sometimes to an unreadable point. However, when issues of theological questions arise that do not match with JW doctrine, a “phrase-for-phrase” method is enacted that far too often twists the text in an unjustifiable way.
Works done by single individuals also often suffer from personal and theological bias (whether intended or unintended), and should therefore almost always be avoided. Committee translations with multiple individuals have the added benefit of accountability and weeding out any one individual’s personal theological perspective or preconceived bias from bleeding into a rendering of words, phrases, ideas, or concepts within the biblical text. Examples of translations done by single individuals include Moffatt’s, The Living Bible, Kenneth West’s Expanded Translation, and the Berkley New Testament. While these are not necessarily bad translations, and can often be of use alongside committee translations, for personal use it is not always wise to restrict reading to simply these types of Bible versions.
Again, the individual who seeks serious Bible study should take into consideration a multi-translational approach, possessing at least one formal and one dynamic equivalence translation for personal use.
The most important note, however, is that whatever translation you use, read it!
(1) Henry Ford and Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), pg. 72.
(2) There were of course, other English translations available such as the Wycliffe Bible (c. 1384), Tyndale Bible (c. 1520s), Coverdale (c. 1520s), the Geneva Bible (c. 1560s), and the Bishop’s Bible (c. 1560s) that all predated the 1611 King James Version.
(3) When many today refer to the Textus Receptus (TR), what they mean is the Trinitarian Bible Society’s Textus Receptus. This, however, is a document compiled by a man named Frederick Henry Scrivener in the mid 1800s. Scrivener compiled the readings that were chosen by the KJV translators and codified them in a single document. It is not based on the manuscripts used by the translators, but rather, their finalized chosen text. In this way, it is a document put together nearly 200 years after the KJV’s final publication in 1611, and represents a Greek New Testament based on an English New Testament based on a Greek New Testament.
(4) For more on the topic of “King James Onlyism,” I would recommend James White’s The King James Only Controversy