Why So Many Bible Translations?
By Dr. Dale A. Robbins
For over three hundred years the King James Version, published in 1611, was the prominent translation used in most Protestant churches. However, as the English language continued to change, it became increasingly more difficult for people to understand the Old English vernacular. Faced with the obvious need for our society to understand God’s Word, scholars sought to update the scriptures into more contemporary language.
Dr. Lewis Foster, one of those who helped translate the NIV and the NKJV says, “It is necessary to continue making new translations and revising old ones if people are to read the Word of God in their contemporary languages. With the passage of time, words change in meanings. For instance, in King James’ day the word ‘prevent’ could mean ‘come before’ but not necessarily in a hindering way. So the translators in that day rendered 1 Thes. 4:15, ‘For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.’ But today the word ‘prevent’ has lost that earlier meaning (come before), so it must be translated differently to convey the proper meaning: ‘According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not ‘precede’ those who have fallen asleep’ (NIV). ...To keep the translation of God’s Word living it must be kept in the living language the people are using.”¹
While new translations have generally been a welcome contribution to the comprehension of scripture, they have also received mixed reactions across the Christian spectrum. One story is told of a pastor who tried to introduce a revised version of the Bible to his rigidly conservative congregation. “So what’s wrong with the King James Version?” said one woman in defense. “In my opinion, if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us!” The amusing irony is that Jesus obviously did not speak the Old English of the King James Version — neither was the Bible originally recorded in English. Despite the sacred tradition that many revere of the KJV, it is merely a translation of the inspired Word of God, not the initial source. The Old Testament was authored in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. While the original autographs no longer exist, translations are made from ancient manuscript copies, of which there are today at least 24,000, whole or in-part, with which to compare.²
An English version of the Bible did not exist until a little more than 600 years ago. Before then, a version translated into Latin by Jerome in the fourth century, called the Latin Vulgate, was the most widely-used Bible translation in the middle ages (the first major book printed on Gutenberg’s press in 1456). Portions of scripture in English began to emerge in the early seventh century, but the first complete English translation was not produced until 1382 by the influence of John Wycliff. Despite fierce opposition of the Roman church, and absence of the printing press, copies of this work were widely circulated. Later in the 16th century, seven more popular English versions were produced, beginning with William Tyndale’s work in 1525. This English version of the New Testament was the first to be translated directly from the Greek instead of Latin texts. Before Tyndale’s completion of the Old Testament, he was tried as a heretic and executed in 1536. After Tyndale, several other famous Bibles were produced in the 16th century. The Cloverdale Bible in 1535, Matthew’s Bible in 1537, The Great Bible in 1539, The Geneva Bible in 1560 (the first to use chapters, verses, and the italicization of added words), and the Bishops Bible in 1568.
Finally in 1604, in an effort to resolve severe factions between Englishmen over Bible versions, King James I authorized the translation of another version that came to bear his name. Forty-seven scholars spent six years on the translation, with all work meticulously reviewed and refined by their combined collaboration. The four existing Massorec texts were used for the Old Testament, and a third edition of the Byzantine Greek text by Stephanus (often referred as the “Textus Receptus”), was used for the New Testament. The King James Version was finally published in 1611, and together with its four revisions (in 1629, 1638, 1762, and 1769), it remains as the most widely circulated Bible in existence. A few other translations were produced over the centuries, but the real revolution of new Bible versions began to erupt in the 20th century, largely due to the widening language barrier. Some of the more influential, recent translations have been: The Revised Standard Version in 1952, The Amplified Bible in 1965, The New English Bible in 1970, The New American Standard Bible in 1971, The Living Bible in 1971, Today’s English Version in 1976, The New International Version in 1978, and the New King James Version in 1982.
Apart from these versions, there are numerous study Bible editions, such as the Scofield Reference Bible, the Open Bible, the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, or the Spirit Life Bible, etc., but these are not different translations. These volumes merely feature special study helps, commentaries or references added as a supplement to a particular translation. Besides updating the Bible to contemporary language, another controversy with new translations arises over the issue of the original texts. The KJV New Testament (and all editions since Tyndale) was compiled primarily from the Byzantine family of manuscripts (A.D. 500 - 1000) frequently referred to as the Textus Receptus. But many of the newer translations were produced using a composite of later discoveries of other manuscripts and fragments dating from an earlier period. Among such are The “Alexandrian Family” manuscripts (A.D. 200-400) which include the three oldest: The Codex Alexandrius, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, all which were major contributors to most Bible versions after the King James version. Other important codices come from The Western Family, (of the Western Mediterranean areas), and the Caesarean Family of manuscripts (A.D. 200). (A codex is a manuscript bound together like a book instead of rolled into a scroll. Codices is plural for codex.)
Many scholars feel that the older manuscripts have been somewhat more accurate and important to the refinement of the newer translations. However, this has been disputed by others, especially since the older copies make up a tiny portion of the large quantity of manuscripts available. At least 90% of the 5,400 existing Greek manuscripts come from the Byzantine family (the basis for the Textus Receptus), and due to the overwhelming numbers of copies with which to compare and verify for accuracy, some scholars feel that the small handful of older texts should not be used to overrule the credibility of the majority. Although textual criticism shows only slight differences between the manuscript families, in those passages where the older text differs with the newer, the modern translators usually deferred to the older, primarily from the Alexandrian Family manuscripts — Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. It should be emphasized that none of the revisions in the new era translations, such as the NIV or NASB (compiled with Alexandrian Family Manuscripts), conflict with any rule of faith or doctrinal issue, but some conservative church leaders refuse to accept any tampering with the “tried and proven” Textus Receptus translation of the King James Version. In response to such concerns, the theological community came to see the need for another version, one which would satisfy the need for updated language without venturing beyond the traditional text source. Thus, in the late 1970’s, Thomas Nelson Publishers commissioned a company of scholars to produce a revision of the traditional King James Version. Relying on the familiar Textus Receptus, 130 translators made the needed revisions to modern English and corrections to minor translation errors, while making every effort to retain the traditional phraseology of the old version. This New King James Version, as it was called, was completed in 1982.
Today, most Evangelical churches will make random use of any of the various translations mentioned here. Frequently a pastor will recommend one particular version to be used exclusively by the congregation so that everyone will have an identical source to refer to during the preaching or Bible studies. This not only helps eliminate confusion, but also makes it possible to engage in corporate word-for-word readings of scripture, something that wouldn’t be possible if everyone was reading from a different version. After some research on the various versions, every believer would do well to zero in on a primary version to which they devote their study and commit passages to memory. It’s inadvisable to allow the issue of translations to become a distraction. For the average layman, most of the differences between the translations are relatively insignificant. All the versions we have listed have a high degree of harmony and convey the same general message of God’s Word, but will use some of their own distinctive phrases and words. The following is a summary of the most popular versions, along with a brief evaluation:
The King James Version (KJV) — Translated in 1611 by 47 scholars using the Byzantine family of manuscripts, Textus Receptus. This remains as a good version of the Bible. It has been the most reliable translation for over three centuries, but its Elizabethan style Old English is difficult for modern readers, especially youth. This is still a good translation for those who can deal with the language.
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) — Translated in 1971 by 58 scholars of the Lockman Foundation, from Kittle’s Biblia Hebraica and Nestle’s Greek New Testament 23rd ed., which include the Alexandrian Family codices. Though academic in tone, it is said to be the most exact English translation available. A very good version.
The Living Bible (TLB) — A paraphrased rendition of the King James Version by Kenneth Taylor in 1971. This is not a genuine translation, but is a type of phrase-by-phrase commentary that was originally intended to help the author’s own children understand the scriptures. It is useful for inspiration and commentary, but for serious Bible study it should only be used in conjunction with a legitimate translation
(IPS Note: There are serious problems with the Living Bible. See Details)
The New International Version (NIV) — Over 100 translators completed this work in 1978 which was composed from Kittle’s, Nestle’s and United Bible Society’s texts, which include the Alexandrian Family codices. This is considered an “open” style translation. It is a good, easy to read version.
The New King James Version (NKJV) — 130 translators, commissioned by Thomas Nelson Publishers, produced this version from the Byzantine family (Textus Receptus) in 1982. This is a revision of the King James version, updated to modern English with minor translation corrections and retention of traditional phraseology. This is a very good version.
¹ Selecting A Bible Translation, Lewis Foster
² Evidence That Demands A Verdict, Josh McDowell