A Look At the Conflict Between Bible Translations: History and Purpose

This is the start of a new series that will look into the debate of the various translations of the Bible that have been formulated over the centuries. Where did we get our English translations and is there really only one right translation or can we trust all of our major translations?

Since the rise of Christianity and the formulation of the Biblical canon, the one goal of the Church has always been to share the good news of the Gospel with everyone on earth. And with that goal came another. To share the Gospel far and wide, the church needed to make it understandable for those who didn’t speak the same tongue, and in order to do that, it needed to be translated.

In this multi-part series, I’m going to dive headfirst into the modern translation wars. Some claim that the KJV (King James Version) is the only true and accurate translation (some going as far as to label any other as a product of the New World Order), others claim that versions such as the NIV and ESV are just as reliable. In our tendency to debate we often don’t stop to think about the damage we may be doing to those who are outside looking in. Allow me to paint a scenario. Say I claim that the KJV is the only true and inspired Bible and every other translation is a product of man and in turn a product of Satan also. Someone else comes along and tells me that his favourite translation is the NLT (New Living Translation). I tell him how the NLT twists and changes the text to suit man’s desires and that he should throw it away and read the KJV. He then proceeds to ask me why I believe the KJV is the only true and inspired Bible. I tell him that it’s the original translation and that, if he asked the Holy Spirit to open his eyes, he’ll see that his translation is riddled with verses that were tampered with New Age doctrine and watered down. If you’re a skeptic looking in do you think you’ll be able to come to the conclusion that our translations of the Bible can be trusted?

One of the earliest objections to Christianity I came across was that our modern Bibles are translations of a translation of a translation. If I were to guess where the objection originated I’d first point out the translation wars that happen online. With so many translations on the market and so many varying opinions, I do not doubt that the question of whether one can trust the Bible at all must appear in the mind of the honest skeptic. Before we can begin to provide evidence for the historicity and reliability of the New Testament books we need to make a case for the reliability of the translations that line the shelves of our Christian bookstores. To do that we need to take a look at where it all began (a more comprehensive history can be found in the link below).

As I’ve already noted the first major goal of the church was to make the Gospel understandable to anyone who would read and hear it. Therefore, the first five centuries saw the Bible, the Septuagint in particular, being translated into languages such as Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, and others. The fifth century saw the completion of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (the Latin word for “common,” for the language it employed was the most commonly used at the time) which, due to Roman Catholicism becoming entrenched in Western Eupore, became the first widely used translation and would remain so for the next millennium.

Following that period came the Protestant Reformation which placed even further emphasis on Bible translation and spreading the Gospel. During this period Martin Luther produced a widely used German New Testament in 1522 A.D. Translations from John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, which were not authorized by the established church, became the first translations of the Bible in English. Additionally, translations such as the Geneva Bible (the first English language Bible to add numbered verses to each chapter), the Bishops Bible (the Bible of which the King James was a revision) and the Great Bible (the first English language Bible authorized for public use) also circulated around this time.

However, no translation after the Latin Vulgate experienced the same influence as the Authorized King James Version, which was completed in 1611. The earliest version would continue to include the Apocrypha until its update in 1666 (I wonder what the anti-christ conspirators think of that number *grins), which brought the Bible from 80 books down to 66 (although the Apocrypha was never seen as authoritative Scripture it did have historical value). What this history tells us is that, although the KJV was the most influential, it certainly wasn’t the original or the oldest. The translators weren’t exactly starting from scratch (also keep these prior translations in mind when we go to look at individual verses in future posts).

As the 19th century rolled around the language of the day was beginning to change. The American vernacular was starting to take over its Victorian counterpart and by the end of the century, Britain had mostly abandoned the “thees” and the “thous” of the beloved translation. So too were the verb conjugations ending in “-st” and “-th” done away with. Thus came the English Revised Version in 1855 and the Amercian Standard Version in 1901. It’s important to note that these versions didn’t come about with the rise of new doctrines or heresies (as our modern translations are often blamed for) but were written simply to update (to an extent) the archaic language of the KJV.

Following World War II the English language continued to spread and change and because the ASV was still highly conservative of the archaic feel of the KJV there was still a need for a translation that contained easily readable mid-twentieth-century English. Thus the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was born. Although it was produced by a number of scholars and endorsed internationally as an accurate translation it was the first to meet some opposition due to translators deviating from previous English renderings in some theologically significant passages. However, if critics had taken a closer look they would have found that the original meaning of the passages remained intact. It was among the first examples of people jumping to conclusions before properly examining the text. For example, the most well-known and disputed passage was Isaiah 7:14 (the controversy became so widespread that it created the “Isaiah 7:14 litmus test” to see if a translation was accurate!) in which the translators used the word for “young woman” instead of “virgin” in the passage about the conception of Jesus. It’s an appropriate interpretation since the Hebrew word used in the verse, alma, simply means a woman who is of age to bear a child and has no relevance on whether or not she’s a virgin (of which the Hebrew word betulah is used). Although we can argue that the translators could have been clearer their translation does not change or remove the virginal conception. But alas the controversy helped spark the vigorous KJV-only movement we see today.

Following that the 1960s saw work on the New American Standard Bible (NAS), which was written to update the language of the highly literal translation of the original ASV. It was the first translation to be written entirely by contemporary evangelical scholars and it eventually saw publication in 1971. Around the same time, Kenneth N. Taylor released a translation known as the Living Bible Paraphrased which was a very free rendering of the ASV into modern English. This was one of the first translations to not be a highly literal interpretation of the original Greek and Hebrew but because of it’s easy to read and enjoyable style young people who saw the KJV and others like it too difficult to follow loved it and became avid Bible readers because of it.

In 1978 the world received the New International Version (NIV). Over a decade in the making, this translation struck the perfect balance between faithfulness to the original Hebrew and Greek and fluent, intelligible English, and it quickly became the best-selling and most widely distributed English Bible in the world.

Translations continued to be published and we soon got an update to the RSV with the New Revised Standard Version, which was slightly freer in prose than its predecessor. This one is important because this was the first major translation to use inclusive language for humanity. When the original Hebrew mentions humanity with a word like “man” or “men” this translation sought to express humanity in more inclusive terms, such as “people,” instead. Additionally, when a pronoun like “he” or “him” was used generically and not towards anyone, in particular, it would render it “he or she.” When it came to titles like high-class men it would render it as a high-class person. To be as faithful to the original as it could be wherever the Bible would mention humanity as a group that included both male and female this translation sought equivalent ways to express it as such. This was the direction our modern language was heading in and these translations were created to accommodate it. Because of this, it became the version of choice for English speaking scholars worldwide.

In 1996 Ken Taylor’s son, Mark, began a project to turn the Living Bible from a paraphrase into a legitimate translation and involved the work of ninety scholars. This eventually became known as the New Living Translation (NLT). A similar procedure was applied to the New King James Version (NKJV) which updated the entire text of the original KJV into modern English. Eugene Peterson wrote up another paraphrase titled The Message which was even more unrestrained than the Living Bible. The NIV was also soon updated with simplified language to help younger children in the New International Readers’ Version (NIrV) which was then complemented by an even more simplified version called the Common English Bible (CEB) in 2011.

To conclude this brief survey there is one more translation that deserves a mention. When the RSV went out of print the evangelical publishing company, Crossway Books, secured rights to update, revise it, and republish it as the English Standard Version (ESV). This magnificent translation sought to be as close to the original Greek and Hebrew as possible without forsaking clarity of speech. Accuracy was their first goal and they achieved it with flying colours. Even the controversial “young woman” from Isaiah 7:14 in the original RSV was turned back into “virgin”!

If that seemed like a head-spinning amount of translations to choose from you needn’t worry. Out of them all, only a handful of those I mentioned are in use today. These are the KJV, for its influence on the English language over the past 400 years, the NKJV, because it’s a more accessible version of the KJV, the NIV, for its popularity and widespread appeal, the NLT, because for those who want a Bible that prioritizes clarity over a literal translation while still remaining faithful to the meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew it’s the version of choice, and finally the ESV, for its usefulness as a highly literal translation and because its textual base is the best we have. Since the KJV and the NKJV are essentially the same translation we can count those as a single version so, in the end, we have four to choose from. If we were to remove the King James versions for their obsolete textual bases then we have three major versions to choose from. Translations like the Amplified and the Message are more of an add-on than a standalone translation and they aren’t meant to function as such.

All three of our major translations are reliable and accurate resources with which we can discover God’s message. Although the King James translations are beautiful and important renditions of Scripture the textual bases on which they rely on do not represent the most accurate portrait of the originals compared to what we have today (taking into account that it’s also largely a direct revision of the Bishops Bible takes us even further back). At its time the KJV was the most up to date translation because of the amount of manuscript evidence the translators had to work with but fast forward four centuries and the amount of evidence we possess now is far greater. Our modern translations base their texts on the evidence we have today to give us an even clearer picture of what the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts said.

The skeptic’s objection that our modern Bible is simply a translation of a translation is patently false. As more time passes we find more and more copies of the original manuscripts, from earlier and earlier dates. We have better data about what the original authors wrote now than we did back then. This point will be an important one when it comes to our look at various “missing verses” in future parts, so make sure to keep it in mind.

In conclusion, the Bible we’re reading today is rife with a rich history that dates all the way back to the times of the apostles. When you stop to think about it it’s truly incredible.

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