Previously we found that the Bible is the most authentic collection of books from the ancient world.  In terms of the number of manuscripts and the shortness of the time between the writing of a biblical book and its discovery, the Bible is more authentic than any ancient text by far.  But the Bible’s uniqueness and authenticity do not – by themselves – prove that the Bible is true or that it is the Word of God.  And what about the Bible’s translation?  Can we trust that our modern English translations are faithful to the original?

Sometimes critics will say something like this, “The Bible has been translated so many times, it is probably full of errors.”  People seem to have the impression that our modern English Bible has been translated from a translation of a translation of a translation.  But this is not the case.  In most modern English Bibles, the text has been translated only once: directly from the original Hebrew and Greek into English.  Some older translations such as the Wycliffe Bible are based on a previous translation: from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, and then from Latin into English.  But the idea that English Bibles are translations of translations of translations is patently false.

Although we do not have any of the original manuscripts today, we do have thousands of ancient and accurate copies of the Scriptures in the original languages.  And from these original languages, the Bible has been translated directly into English (and into many other languages) for our benefit.  In the ancient world, one of the most well-known and respected translations was the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX).  This was a translation of the Old Testament Hebrew into the common Greek language of the day.  The work began as a translation of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) by roughly seventy scholars (hence the Roman numeral: LXX) in the third century B.C.  The rest of the Septuagint was translated in the second century B.C.

The Septuagint became widely accepted by the early Church.  Some Christians even believed that it had been divinely translated so that it contained no errors.  However, comparisons with older Hebrew manuscripts show numerous minor differences such as ages of the patriarchs in passages like Genesis 5.  Most scholars today believe that the Septuagint is not a particularly superb translation of the Old Testament.  But it was sufficient and widely accepted at the time.

In the early centuries A.D., the Bible was translated into Latin for the benefit of the growing number of Latin-speaking Christians.  Several Latin versions existed, until Pope Damasus I commissioned the scholar Jerome to produce a standard Latin translation of the Bible.  This version is called the Vulgate, and was completed around A.D. 400.  Most Christians at the time could not read Hebrew, but Jerome could.  So he opted to translate the Old Testament from its original language into Latin, rather than translating from the LXX.

Surprisingly, many Christians at the time objected to the Vulgate.  Since it was translated directly from the Hebrew texts, it differed in some places from the translations from the Septuagint.  Some Christians assumed – for no good biblical reason – that the Septuagint was a perfect, divinely inspired translation, and therefore any differences between the Septuagint and the Vulgate must be errors in the Vulgate. People who grow up reading a particular translation often do not like to hear a new translation of a text even if that new translation is more accurate.  Augustine of Hippo objected to Jerome’s work on this very basis.  But it wasn’t that the Vulgate was inaccurate; rather, it was simply unfamiliar.

Over the course of a millennium, the Vulgate became the standard, most accepted, Latin translation.  Just as some Christians had once accepted the Septuagint as the one true, perfect translation of Scripture, so many came to accept the Vulgate as such.  But, like the Septuagint, the Vulgate has a few minor translation errors, as well as copying errors that accumulated over time.

This prompted the scholar Desiderius Erasmus to produce a new Latin translation of the New Testament from the original Greek language.  Erasmus selected the best Greek manuscripts he could find.  He himself translated them into Latin, and produced a bilingual printed New Testament with Greek in one column and his Latin translation in the other.  This was the first time the entire New Testament had been published in Greek.

Ironically, some Christians strenuously objected to Erasmus’s efforts because they had come to accept the Vulgate as the one true and perfect Word of God, and Erasmus’s translation contained minor wording differences.  It didn’t seem to occur to them that the differences might be errors in the Vulgate, because it was the version with which they were familiar.  Of course, the claim that any one translation of Scripture is the “one perfect and true” version is spurious and without Scriptural support.  The Scriptures do teach that every word and letter penned by its authors is true (2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 4:4, 5:18; Psalm 119:160).  However, they do not make this claim for any particular copy or translation.

Eventually the Bible was translated into English.  In the first millennium A.D., several books of the Bible had been translated into English, but not the entire Bible.  In the late 1300s, John Wycliffe and others translated the entire Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English.  William Tyndale produced the first English version translated directly from the Hebrew and Greek in 1526.  Tyndale translated the entire New Testament, but did not finish the Old Testament.  He too met with resistance from those who preferred to believe that their own cherished translation was the only true Word of God.  Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church resisted the idea of a Bible that people could read in their own language, for the people might then challenge the authority of the Church and the priest’s interpretations of the text. Indeed, the penalty for being caught with a Tyndale New Testament was death by fire! Tyndale himself was eventually caught and burned at the stake in 1536.

In 1535, Miles Coverdale produced the first printed English translation of the entire Bible, using Tyndale’s work and supplementing it with his own translations from the Vulgate or German texts.  This was adapted and became the “Great Bible” of 1539.  The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English translation to include chapter and verse divisions.  This translation was very popular, and became the accepted standard for English-speaking Christians for over 100 years.  It was the Bible used by the Puritans and Pilgrims and had numerous notes in the margins.

King James disliked the Geneva Bible and its marginal notes in particular.  In 1604, he commissioned a new translation and selected about 50 scholars to work on this monumental project.  The translation was to make use of the common language of the day, and to be translated from the original Hebrew and Greek insomuch as possible, but was also to follow the tradition of the Faith’s early fathers.  The translators therefore relied on the Latin Vulgate and English translations, such as the Tyndale version, to guide their efforts.  The Greek texts they used were primarily the same texts used by Erasmus.

The King James Bible was completed and published in 1611 and included the Apocrypha.  Two editions were initially published, with minor differences, such as the last sentence of Ruth 3:15.  One version reads “And he went into the city” while the other reads “and she went into the city.”  A particularly embarrassing edition of the King James Version was published in 1631, often called the “Wicked Bible” because of an error involving the omission of the word “not” in Exodus 20:14.  That King James Version literally states, “Thou shalt commit adultery!”  A few other errors existed in these early editions: the omission of “no” in the phrase “no more sea” in Revelation 21:1, “sin on more” instead of “sin no more” in John 5:14 and so forth.  But aside from these few errors, it was a very good translation of the text.

Again, some Christians strongly opposed the King James Version as a modern aberration.  They preferred their long-cherished translations.  Some asked why the Church needed a new translation.  Weren’t the existing translations accurate?  The King James translators themselves addressed their opposition on this issue in the preface where they affirmed that other English translations are rightly called “the Word of God” despite any minor blemishes, and add that a “variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.”

The Puritans continued to prefer the Geneva Bible and the Roman Catholics preferred the Douay-Rheims.  Of course, the text of Scripture itself does not endorse any particular translation.  To insist that we must do something that the Bible does not say we must do (such as using a particular translation of Scripture) is a violation of Deuteronomy 4:2.  We are not permitted to add any such commandment.  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching as doctrines the precepts of men (Matthew 15:3-9).  Over the course of time, English-speaking scholars increasingly accepted the King James Version as the standard, even over the Latin Vulgate.

By the mid-1700s, there were many modernized variations of the King James Version with numerous misprints and other errors.  So, the King James Version was officially updated in 1760 by scholars at Cambridge.  Another version was published in 1769 by scholars at Oxford which replaced many of the most archaic terms.  This Oxford version eventually became the accepted standard, and is still in print today.  If you have a King James Bible, it is almost certainly the 1769 Oxford translation.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 enabled Bible scholars to examine Old Testament Hebrew manuscripts that were over one thousand years older than anything to which they had access previously.  These demonstrated that the more recent manuscripts have indeed been very faithfully copied, but not perfectly.  A few small errors and spelling changes occurred over the course of time, though none involving any significant biblical doctrine.  A number of other ancient manuscript families were also discovered in the 400 years since the publication of the 1611 King James Version, manuscripts that were older and closer to the original autographs than those available to the KJV translators.

Such discoveries prompted the publication of newer English translations that were based on the oldest, most reliable manuscripts that were previously unavailable.  These include the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and countless others.  Minor differences in wording occur between these various versions.  Sometimes this is simply because a Greek or Hebrew phrase has no exact parallel in English, and so different translators have arrived at different solutions to convey the meaning.  But in other cases, it is because different versions are translating from different manuscripts in which the Hebrew or Greek words differ.

Many modern translations, including the NAS, add footnotes in places where there is disagreement between ancient manuscripts.  The NAS puts square brackets [] around words and verses that do not appear in the oldest manuscripts (and were presumably not in the original text), but appear in later manuscripts.  These indicators allow the studious reader to begin his own investigation into the authenticity of any disputed text, rather than merely taking the word of the translators.  Note that the lack of such brackets and footnotes throughout the majority of the text is an indication of the tremendous agreement between ancient manuscripts, demonstrating that the copyists were meticulous in their efforts.

Translation Philosophy

Precise translation from one language into another is not always easy.  Not only do various languages have a different vocabulary, they also have subtle or large differences in syntax, rules of grammar, verb tenses, and so on.[1]  A given phrase may not have an exact translation in a different language.  And different languages have different figures of speech.  You may well understand the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.”  But would a different language use that same metaphor?  If not, then a word-for-word translation would not convey the proper meaning.  So, how should the Bible be translated into English?

There are two primary philosophies of Bible translation.  Formal equivalency is the approach that attempts to render a word-for-word translation whenever possible.  The word is considered the basic unit of translation.  Formal equivalency will tend to preserve the word-for-word structure, even if that structure is hard to understand in the target language.  For example, the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” would be rendered word-for-word in the target language, perhaps leaving the reader perplexed as to how dogs and cats can fall from the sky.

On the other hand, dynamic equivalency is the approach that attempts to best express the meaning of a verse in the target language, perhaps at the expense of exact wording.  A phrase or sentence is considered to be the basic unit of translation.  Dynamic equivalency attempts to best convey the meaning of a phrase into a target language so that the reader will best understand, regardless of the exact wording.  “It’s raining cats and dogs” would be rendered in such a way as to capture the meaning in the target language – that it is raining very heavily – probably with no mention of the words “cats” or “dogs.”

Each approach has its advantages and its disadvantages.  Formal equivalency has the advantage that the actual words in English most closely match the words in the original Hebrew and Greek.  But it has the disadvantage that those words might not be understood by the reader, particularly when a figure of speech has been formally translated.  Hence, formal equivalency translations can be difficult for students new to the Bible.  But they are great for more experienced students, particularly those who want to do an exhaustive study on a particular word or phrase.

A dynamic translation is more likely to be understood by the reader, but the reader should not assume that the same words have been used as in the original text.  Consequently, they are less useful for detailed word studies.  Since the translator is attempting to convey the meaning of the passage by any words necessary, the dynamic approach depends greatly on the translator’s understanding of the passage.  It is therefore more sensitive to the biases and fallibility of the translator, whereas misunderstandings of a formal translation are more likely due to the biases and fallibility of the reader.  Dynamic translations are generally easier to read, particularly for students new to the Bible.

In reality, all translations of Scripture use some formal and some dynamic equivalency; it is a question of emphasis.  Some phrases would be incomprehensible if rendered word-for-word into English, and so a dynamic translation is needed even in an otherwise formal translation.  Conversely, sometimes a translation that is primarily dynamic equivalency will render a passage word-for-word if that best captures the meaning.   Some of the better translations that are dynamic equivalency are the 1984 New International Version, and the New Living Bible.  There are many good formal translations such as the King James Version, the New King James Version, the American Standard Version, and the New American Standard Bible.

To see how different translations deal with a difficult Greek phrase, consider Romans 6:2.  In verse 1 Paul has asked a rhetorical question: should we continue to sin so that grace may abound?  He answers this in verse 2 with an emphatic negative.  The New American Standard Bible translates this as “May it never be!”  That’s probably as close to word-for-word as would make sense in English.  But it may not capture the meaning as well as the dynamic translation of the NLT which says, “Of course not!” or the NIV which says, “By no means!”  In English, these expressions are a far more common way to answer a rhetorical question in the negative, even though the exact words “Of course” and “by” and “means” are not present in the Greek text here.  The King James renders this phrase as “God forbid” which also captures the meaning, even though the words “God” and “forbid” are not present in the Greek text at this location.

Many translations, especially the formal translations (including the KJV and NAS) will put certain words in italics.  This is to indicate words that are not present in the original language, but have been supplied to make the phrase grammatically correct or sensible in English.  For example, the KJV translation of Romans 1:1a states, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.”  So, the words “to be” are not actually in the Greek text but are supplied so that the meaning of the phrase will be understood by the reader.  Without these supplied words, the English reader might get the impression that Paul was merely called “an apostle” as in an honorary title, which is not true to the Greek.  The Greek text means that God called Paul to the office of apostle.  The King James Version correctly conveys the concept of the original but uses words not present in the Greek text in order to accomplish this.

Translation Accuracy

So, can we have confidence that modern English versions have been accurately translated from the original languages?  Yes.  And there are at least two ways we can check translation accuracy.  Perhaps the easiest is to compare the various translations.  When you read a verse in KJV, NAS, NIV, NLT, and they all say basically the same thing, you can trust that this is true to the original.  But there is another way to check the translation – consult a Hebrew or Greek lexicon.

A lexicon is basically a dictionary; it is a list of the Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible, along with where they are found in Scripture.  A lexicon might even supply an English definition of each Hebrew or Greek word.  In most cases, you can check to see if the lexicon’s supplied definition is reasonable by looking up all the verses in which the word occurs.  This was once a tedious process, but modern Bible software has made this task easy.  By reading each verse in light of the supplied definition, we can see whether it fits the context.

With lexicons and software, any person can confirm for himself that most modern Bible translations are indeed very accurate.  I do not claim that any one translation is perfect; but I do claim that it is always possible to check the translation.  So the claim that the Bible may not be accurate because it has been translated so many times is demonstrably false.  There is no rational basis for such a belief.   If someone claims that modern English Bibles have been translated and copied so many times that we really can’t know what the original said, you can rest assured that the person has not remotely studied the issue.

We can know beyond any doubt that modern conservative English Bibles have indeed been very well translated.  And from our previous article, we know that the manuscripts available today are very faithful to the original.  From these facts, we must conclude that the English translation you hold in your hand is true to the original.  It has not been “corrupted.”  It correctly captures the intended meaning of the original authors.

The fact that our modern Bible is faithful to the original text does not, by itself, prove that the Bible is accurate, or that it is the Word of God.  How do we know that the events recorded in Scripture actually happened?  And though the Bible claims to be the Word of God, how do we know for certain that this claim is true?  This will be the topic of our next article.

[1] This is especially the case with Hebrew, where tense (past, present, future) is not a function of verb conjugation as it is in English.  Instead, Hebrew verbs have moods and stems, which indicate such things as completeness or incompleteness of action.  Certain Hebrew words like “et” which connect verbs to their object have no parallel in English.  Moreover, the original Hebrew of the Bible had no vowels, only consonants.  Greek, on the other hand, is far more similar to English in structure, though it too has its differences.