F.A.Q. #7: What’s Up with All These Translations?

Christians have long been considered “the people of the Book.” While practically every religion has a sacred text of some sort (the Qur’an, Torah, the Bhagavad Gita), the Church of Christ seems to be especially dedicated to its scriptures. The Holy Bible is a constant across the faith; worship styles, church architecture, and other local traditions may come and go, but every believer experiences the normative (and life-giving) influence of the Bible. (Or at least we should.) This raises a fairly important question: which Bible? Do we believe things as they appear across translations, or do we establish dogma only on the Vulgate? The King James? Can we trust every translation and version to be faithful to the original manuscripts — or should we even care?

I think it’s important to understand the process of compiling a new version of the Bible. There are several different approaches, and each one has its own merits. Some translations seek to provide a literal, word-for-word version of the manuscript. If, for example, the Hebrew reads “his countenance fell,” then these versions also read “his countenance fell” instead of something like “he was saddened.” Literal translations have the advantage of extreme faithfulness to the verbiage of the manuscripts, but what they gain in fidelity, they can sometimes lose in readability. Take, for example, the first editions of the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The translators set out to make the most literal English translation in history, a feat which they accomplished — at the cost of sounding like Yoda. Preserving the word order of the source languages meant keeping some verbs at the end of the clause or verse, and so the finished product was a little hard to keep up with at times. (Unless, of course, you happened to be a small green Jedi master who lives in a swamp on Dagobah.)

On the flip side of the literal/word-for-word translation are “thought-for-thought” translations, the most extreme being paraphrase versions of the Bible. Thought-for-thought translations aren’t concerned necessarily with the words themselves; rather, they prefer to rephrase the meaning behind the words in a way the target readers would understand. In keeping with my original example, instead of a Hebrew verse reading “his countenance fell,” these would opt for “he was saddened” or something along similar lines. A more concrete example is the New Living Translation’s (NLT) John 3:16. Instead of the “only-begotten son” of the original Greek, it reads “one and only son.” Every translation does this on occasion (yes, even the beloved KJV exchanges “born from above” for “born again” earlier in John 3), but some versions use this as a standard mode of operation. The paraphrase editions such as The Message and The Voice give up on word-for-word translations altogether and instead use contemporary language exclusively (including modern slang and other colloquialisms which weren’t even invented at the time Scripture was being written).

Of course, some translations try to straddle the fence and use a combination of both word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations. The most common of these is probably the New International Version (NIV), and this approach may account for the translation’s success in church circles worldwide. If you ever want a spectrum of translations mapping out which ones fall under what translation style, you can find a pretty good one in most Christian bookstores or online here and here.

Alright. We understand the basic options in putting together a new version from the source texts. But what sources do we use?

Modern translations are typically made from the Greek and Hebrew texts used by biblical scholars, which are themselves carefully compiled and edited to give a “best reading” from the original manuscripts. I have to say “best reading” because not every manuscript is identical. Thousands of scrolls exist, and some of them have been adapted or edited by the scribes for various reasons (for more info on this, see my earlier post here). For this reason, many Bibles have footnotes or other notations explaining how a word could be translated a different way or that a specific verse or passage doesn’t appear in other manuscripts. The New Testament of the King James Version, for example, was translated from the Textus Receptus (“Received Text”) and supplemented by earlier English translations (particularly for Revelation). Since its creation in 1611, other manuscripts have been uncovered which offer a new best reading or majority text which differs from the one used for the KJV, and these texts are used for newer translations. In other words, because we have more and better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts than we did 400 years ago, we understand that some verses probably aren’t authentic and are thus either removed entirely or annotated in newer, more accurate translations. (For the die-hard KJV-only crowd: I’m not saying your preferred version is bad; I’m just saying there are better ones on the market nowadays, both in terms of accuracy and readibility, even though they potentially drop some of your favorite verses. And I guess I’m also saying it’s kind of silly to say a single translation in a language spoken by a fraction of the world’s population for only a couple of hundred years is the definitive version/the only “real” Bible; I mean, Jesus didn’t sound like Shakespeare.)

The multitude of versions of the Bible shouldn’t necessarily be a source of concern for the Christian. Each one fills a niche in terms of readership. For example, I would be hard-pressed to find a middle school student who loved the beauty of the King James or felt up to the task of handling the NASB, but I just might be able to get a seventh grader to dive in to the NIV, NLT, or CEB. On the other hand, a scholar wanting to work with the English text will probably reach for an NASB, ESV, or RSV, but the same scholar might not consider The Message to even be a real Bible. Each one conveys gospel truth and the full body of our sacred writings; they merely package it differently so as to make it accessible to a wide range of readers — believers and nonbelievers alike.

And just because you asked (okay . . . you didn’t, but I know you really wanted to), I prefer either the English Standard Version (ESV) or the NASB for my own reading and devotions, and I find the NIV and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) useful for teaching and preaching. I just personally prefer a literal, word-for-word text (which is also why I use a Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament for all of the above — but that’s another thing altogether).

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F.A.Q: Can We Trust the Bible?

One of the foundational principles — perhaps the foundational principle — of Christianity is that our book, the Holy Bible, is reliable. It is a true record of historical events, poetry, and prophecy which should be treated as authentic and authoritative. Its truths are absolute, not relative. The information contained within its pages serves as the final word on matters of faith, and any practice which contradicts Scripture should be reformed or abandoned. All of this is based on the premise the Bible is accurate and inspired by God. So . . . is it? Can we trust the Bible?

Most common claims against the reliability of the Bible seem to center on its composition. After all, the people who are said to have written most books were probably illiterate, and at the very least, the stories had to survive many, many years as oral history before being finally written down as a manuscript. Then one has to consider how those manuscripts have changed across millennia. Didn’t they break down like a game of Telephone? One guy writes down something, another guy copies it but makes a mistake or a change, the next guy does the same thing, someone else didn’t like what it said and so rewrote it according to a private agenda, and on and on throughout the centuries?

Well, no. That’s exactly what did not happen. I personally believe most of those questions are based on a really arrogant view that we, modern women and men, are inherently intellectually superior to anyone who came before us. We wouldn’t make those mistakes, but the poor benighted souls in ages past just weren’t so bright, bless their hearts, and so they made mistakes. Rubbish — as we shall see.

Let’s begin with oral history. It’s true that the New Testament wasn’t completely finished until the 90s AD (most date Revelation around 96, and it was the last book to be completed/written down). Most were probably codified between 60-80, with the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) finished before 70. Even so, detractors say, that’s still at least a thirty-ish year gap between the death of Christ and written history about his life. (Let’s not even talk about the Old Testament with its books written across a span of around a thousand years by some estimates.) Could people have accurately told and retold the story of Christ and his church for decades before anyone (also accurately) wrote it down? Yes, they could have. It was common practice among ancient philosophers and historians to assess their students via recitation. You were not said to have truly learned from your teacher if you could not repeat what you had been taught verbatim. Some stories have the great Pythagoras (of theorem fame) not allowing his students out of bed until they could recite, word-for-word, everything learned the previous day. The rabbinic tradition of NT times did much the same thing: a disciple would be forced to memorize his lessons as spoken by his master. This included scripture, too; the Torah would have been completely memorized verbatim by age thirteen (at the latest). Memorization of orally-learned material was essential for the knowledge of the day to survive. (Similar methods are used among oral cultures even today.) It’s entirely possible — even highly likely — that the events recorded in Scripture happened exactly as they’re given to us.

What do we do, then, when we have seemingly conflicting reports? Not even the synoptics tell every story exactly the same way. Sometimes one leper is healed, sometimes ten; sometimes the tree cursed by Jesus on the way into Jerusalem withers immediately, and sometimes it happens much later. Can we reconcile these different accounts, or is this obvious evidence not even the authors can get their stories straight? Two considerations to take into account here are genre and private agendas. The gospels are ancient biographies, and they’re written as such. That is, they focus on the adult life of the main personage (Jesus Christ) with special attention to his death, outstanding circumstances surrounding his birth, and his teachings (especially when the main character can outsmart other teachers). Ancient biographies aren’t in chronological order; instead, they’re arranged either more topically or in the way that best presents the narratives. This is one reason, for example, the synoptics have the cleansing of the Temple just before the crucifixion, thus presenting it as a proximate cause, but John’s gospel places it at the beginning of the book, thus showing the zeal and authority of the Son of God. Agendas of the authors play into this, too. In my last example, John sets out to prove the divinity of Christ, so he highlights events showing exactly that: cleansing the Temple, the miracles/signs, the “I am” statements, etc. Luke is a historian/physician concerned with the plight of the poor and marginalized, so he includes the story of the Good Samaritan and other sayings of Christ featuring our duty to care for our neighbors. Matthew is a Jewish author writing to a Jewish audience, and so he focuses on the continuities between the covenants and how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah (the reason his book is first in the NT and thus closest to the OT, as a matter of fact). This isn’t to say that the texts are so agendized they destroy the truths they contain. Nothing is distorted or falsified; it’s simply presented in such a way as to promote a specific point or highlight a specific facet of Jesus’ life (or the life of Moses, or the Israelite monarchy).

Alright, so the original manuscripts were alright. What about how they’ve changed since then? For the continued accuracy of the manuscripts, we thank the Irish. Irish monks during the so-called Dark Ages worked tirelessly to preserve any documents they could find; they truly saved the bulk of human knowledge from being utterly lost. They also kept copies of biblical manuscripts, preserving them verbatim. There are differences, of course, in some manuscripts. The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8 doesn’t appear in most of the earliest copies of the gospel, for example. Do we chuck it out? No, even if a monk somewhere down the line thought, “You know, people should know about this, and since it’s in this copy, I’ll put it in that one, too.” Most of the differences/changes are discussed in the comments on the margins of the copied texts (marginalia). Marginalia, incidentally, is hilarious. You can read comments from copyists complaining about their bosses, how hard their chairs are, how bad their hands are cramping, and just about anything else (in addition to “added vv. 3-7 because of inclusion in MS P35” and the like).

So we see the original texts were solid, and the copies passed down through history are pretty legitimate, too. But how do we know we have the books we needed? Wasn’t the Bible decided by popular vote, anyway?

Nope! This is probably the greatest urban legend regarding how the canon became the canon. Rumor has it that the first Council of Nicaea (called by Emperor Constantine in 325) set out to establish what writings would and would not be included in the Bible. They didn’t. What they did do was affirm what had already been selected. The worshiping church until that time used only certain of the texts floating around based on a few rather strict criteria: the Jewish Tanakh became our Old Testament, and New Testament books had to be written by an apostle, suitable for preaching/use in worship, and it had to agree with the regula fidei (the rule of faith — that is, it couldn’t contradict known doctrine or practices as handed down by the apostles). Even so, different people came up with different lists of what they thought should be included. The church father Irenaeus came up with the first real listing in ~180: the OT according to the Greek translation (the Septuagint, a.k.a. LXX), four gospels, and the letters of Paul. Origen (~250) and Eusebius (~325) omitted some of the epistles. The Muratorian Canon was the first list widely circulated (in ~200). Nicaea then affirmed the books already in use, and some years later (367), the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius gave us the listing we have today. Thirty years later, the Council of Carthage officially closed the canon in its current form.

Since then, the canon has changed for Protestants. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church still count as canonical the Apocrypha, other books or parts of books originally included in the Tanakh. The Jews largely abandoned the use of those bits in 90A.D., and, building upon that fact as well as legitimate questions regarding content and authorship, Martin Luther moved them to reside between the testaments in the Bible. Luther also wanted to chuck other books from the NT, but he refrained. In any event, in the 1700s, a revision of the King James Bible removed the Apocrypha completely, leaving Protestants with the now-standard sixty-six books we have today.

The composition of the Bible is solid from start to finish, regardless of how many centuries it spanned in order to come to us in its present form. Modern scholarship is certainly up to the task of making new translations in any number of languages, each as accurate to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic as the earliest translations were (or even more so [sorry Vulgate fans]). The last real question of reliability, then, is whether we treat the Bible as inerrant (totally free from error in the original manuscripts in any fashion) or infallible (totally free from error in matters of faith and morals/dogma). The inerrancy debate has raged for centuries, and I’m not going to even attempt to solve it here. To me, it comes from whether we treat Scripture completely as literal history or if we take into consideration matters of genre. I doubt, for example, every event mentioned in poetry is 110% historically accurate, and the book of Revelation has so many different ways to read it most people give it a miss entirely. Regardless of one’s stance on if every Israelite king truly reigned during the given timeframes, we can all readily affirm the Bible lacks any error whatsoever when it teaches us the story of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the story of the church, and all manner of Christian doctrine as the church has understood it, always and everywhere.

I realize this doesn’t deal with what is, to most post-Enlightenment readers, the impossible: miracles, spiritual warfare, etc. But that’s another post for another day. This one is already long enough, but I hope it demonstrates to you the reliability and authenticity of the Holy Bible, God’s inspired word.