The Bible: What’s With All the Versions?

 

I have received many comments from people who believe that the Bible may have been originally inspired by God, but now, several thousand years later, much of the original meaning has been lost in translation. Is this true?

 

 

The Bible is no ordinary book. The words were “God breathed”, divinely inspired. In John 14, Jesus told His disciples: “All this I have spoken while still with you.  But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

So God inspired the authors to write His words, but they wrote in Greek and Hebrew. Can we trust the English translations?

This is an excellent question. Perhaps a brief history of Bible translation can provide some answers.

The Old Testament:

The OT was originally written in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people.  The first translation was the Septuagint, a Greek version used by Greek-speaking Jews at the beginning of the Christian era, and by the early Christians. Its origins are uncertain, but tradition traces the Septuagint back to the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt (285-246BC).

As the Christian church spread to parts of the world where Greek was not spoken, translations were made into Latin, Syriac, and Egyptian.

The New Testament:

The books of the New Testament were written in Greek. It is significant to note that the dialect used was not the classical Greek that most literary pieces were written in, but the simple, everyday language that the common man would understand.

Unfortunately, language is always changing, so in order for the people to have a Bible in a language they understand, the language of the Bible must be frequently revised to match the changes. Note that it is the language of the Bible which needs revision, not the message.  God’s Word is for all ages. He has protected His Word by inspiring secular as well as church leaders over the ages to sponsor “authorized” translations by qualified scholars.

The Latin Vulgate:

During the second century AD Latin began to replace Greek as the dominant language of the Roman Empire.

There were several “unauthorized” Latin translations made, but they were considered unreliable, since they were actually translations of a translation. These translators used the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation from the original Hebrew.

Damasus, bishop of Rome (366-384) assigned the task of producing one standard Latin Bible to his secretary Jerome, who was reputed to be the leading Bible scholar of the time. Jerome knew Latin and Greek, but not very much Hebrew. So he moved to a monastery in Bethlehem and learned the Hebrew language from Jewish scholars. He spent 20 years on this project, completing it in AD 405.  I would say that this demonstrated Jerome’s integrity and dedication. This version became known as the Vulgate, which means “common”, since he wrote it in the common language of the day.

The Vulgate was the official church version until the Reformation in the fifteenth century. By this time, Latin was no longer spoken or understood by the common man, but church leaders resisted the notion of translating God’s Word into everyday language. The prevailing opinion was that people should get their teaching from ministers, not the Bible – because it was thought most people were not capable of traveling through God’s Word without a spiritual guide. (Miller, Stephen M.; Gross, Paul: How to Get into the Bible. Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1998, S. 5).

Unfortunately, even some members of the clergy had little knowledge of Latin, and corruption of the church became common. Instead of proclaiming the Good News of salvation and God’s gifts of mercy and grace, some church leaders were profiting from the sale of indulgences (like wooden slivers claimed to be from the cross, hay from the manger of Bethlehem, bones of saints, feathers from the wing of the archangel Michael, as well as “Get out of Purgatory” certificates for self or loved ones).  The leaders of the Reformation were determined to give the people a Bible they could read for themselves. In Germany, Martin Luther’s version was officially adopted by the German Lutheran church. England took a little longer to make the change.

English Translations:

Oxford scholar John Wycliffe was deemed a heretic for creating the first English Bible – which was banned in England. He had the audacity to die before he could be executed, but 43 years later church leaders dug up his remains, burned them, and threw the ashes into a river. William Tyndale produced an improved English translation in the early sixteenth century. For this, he was publicly strangled with a rope and his body was burned. His dying words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes. Within two years the king ordered English Bibles placed in every church. (Miller, ibid)

Once the English church leaders finally stopped burning the translators, many English translations were produced, but not all of them were accurate translations. King James commissioned a committee of about 50 of England’s foremost scholars to produce an accurate translation. Working at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, they completed the task in about seven years. It was presented to King James in 1611.

The King James Version remained the authorized version for about three hundred years, despite the fact that the English language is constantly changing, and with each new generation the 17th century language became more difficult to understand. But people are creatures of habit, and church leaders tend to be especially resistant to change.

The Revised Version was produced in 1881. The goal of its translation team was to make a word for word rendering of the original texts. This made for a good study Bible for scholars, but the text was awkward for the average reader.

In the last two centuries, many more English translations have been produced. This has led to the widespread idea that people are editing the Bible, and adding or omitting parts to suit their own agenda. It is true that some have taken liberties with the text. It is significant to note here the difference between a translation and a paraphrase.

Translation vs Paraphrase:

A translation, by the accepted Christian definition, must be a scholarly work undertaken by people who have mastered the original languages. Translations are generally commissioned by a Bible society and are usually done by a research team. The New International Version, for example, is a completely new rendering of the original languages done by an international group of more than a hundred scholars. These scholars worked many years and in several committees to produce an excellent thought-for-thought translation in contemporary English for private and public use. (International Bible Society website, http://www.ibsstl.org/bibles/translations/)

A paraphrase is not held to the same standards of accuracy as a translation. Paraphrases generally use a more colloquial language and are meant to be easier for the average person to read and understand. The Message Bible is an example of a paraphrase. The introduction says, “This version of the New Testament in a contemporary idiom keeps the language of the Message current and fresh and understandable in the same language in which we do our shopping, talk with our friends, worry about world affairs, and teach our children their table manners. The goal is not to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone, the rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak”.

To say that the Bible is continually edited would be inaccurate. There are checks and balances set in place by organizations such as the International Bible Society to ensure that new versions stay true to the original text. I personally use the New International Version for most of my reading and study, but I find that comparing it to other English versions broadens my understanding of the text.

The following chart, from Miller’s “How to Get into the Bible” compares the text of Psalm 23 from several versions.

Wycliffe Bible, 1380s

(first English Bible)

The Lord gouerneth [governs] me, and no thing shal faile to me;

in the place of pasture there he hath set me.

King James Version, 1611 The Lord is my shepheard, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in greene pastures.

New International Version, 1973 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

New King James Version, 1982 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures.

Contemporary English Version, 1995 You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be

in need.

You let me rest in fields of green grass.

New Living Translation, 1996 The Lord is my shepherd;

I have everything I need.

He lets me rest in green meadows.

 

I hope that this report has been helpful for those who are seeking an answer to the question of why, despite the fact that many versions of the Bible exist, I stand by my belief that the Bible is God’s Divinely Inspired Word, and that it has maintained its value and authority for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

 

 

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