The Bible: A brief survey of the translation process

Among the many versions of the Bible available today, which one should you choose?

The process of Bible translations began during the third century B.C. with the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. The reason for this translation, called the Septuagint,1 was the need for a Bible for the Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, who no longer spoke or understood Hebrew.

While the Septuagint was made for Greek-speaking Jews, in the Christian era this translation soon fell out of favor with the Jews, primarily because from the first century onward the Christians adopted it as their version of the Old Testament and used it freely in defense of the Christian faith. “Christians came to attach some degree of divine inspiration to the Septuagint, for some of its translations might almost appear to have been providentially intended to support Christian arguments.”2 The Jews, therefore, soon produced other Greek versions.3

Other ancient Jewish versions are the Targumim (from the Aramaic targum, “to translate”), which are fairly free translations of the Old Testament text into Aramaic. The Targumim were the product of the official synagogue interpreters who, after the Babylonian exile, when Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the spoken language, translated the Old Testament texts into Aramaic during the worship services. These verbal paraphrases were eventually written down, and traces of them appear in a few New Testament texts.4

Christian versions

After the LXX (the scholarly abbreviation for the Septuagint), the oldest and most important translation of the Bible is the Syriac version called the Peshitta, or “simple,” version. Syriac is an Aramaic dialect that was spoken over a wide area in early Christian times, particularly in western Mesopotamia, where it was used more than Greek. Originally the Peshitta did not include 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, or Revelation. These books were added in A.D. 508 when the Syrian-speaking Christians underwent a schism, and a new Syriac translation included them.

At the beginning of the Christian era, the churches in the East were Greek-speaking; in the Roman provinces of Africa and Western Europe, however, Latin was the official language. Toward the end of the second century, therefore, we find references to Latin Scriptures in the writings of the church fathers. Because of the tendency of some bishops and priests to make translations of the Septuagint and New Testament manuscripts into Latin, a number of translations of various biblical texts began to appear. These fragments were later assembled and became known as the Old Latin text, also called Itala.

In 382, Pope Damasus I (366-384 A.D.) commissioned his secretary Jerome to produce a new Latin Bible. After revising the Old Latin texts, Jerome produced a standard text version of the New Testament. After the death of Damasus, Jerome settled in Bethlehem, where he completed a new translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew in 405. Jerome’s Bible became known as the Vulgate (vulga meaning “everyday speech”). In 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Vulgate became the official Bible of the Catholic Church. It was the first book to be printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1456.

English versions

Ancient Bible versions were of vital importance for taking the gospel to the pagan nations during the early centuries of Christianity. Similarly, during the time of the Reformation, translations into the vernacular facilitated the spread of Reformation ideas in Europe. Since then, the whole Bible has been translated into 459 languages, the New Testament into another 1,213 languages, and portions of the Bible into still another 836 languages, making a total of more than 2,500 languages.5

The first complete English translation is credited to John Wycliffe, a lecturer at Oxford University, in the latter part of the 14th century. Wycliffe believed that “if every man was responsible to obey the Bible… it follows that every man must know what to obey. Therefore the whole Bible should be accessible to him in a form that he could understand.”6

Whether Wycliffe himself took part in the translation is uncertain, but under his influence two English versions of the Latin Vulgate were produced. One hundred fifty years later, William Tyndale, who became proficient in Greek while attending Oxford and Cambridge, translated the Greek New Testament into English. It was published in 1525 in Germany and was then smuggled in bales of cloth back into England for distribution. Church officials opposed the circulation of his translation; they bought copies and burnt them. Tyndale himself, after being betrayed by a friend, was imprisoned and executed in Belgium in 1536. In 1535, one year before Tyndale’s death, Miles Coverdale published another complete translation in English. By that time, Henry VIII had made himself head of the church in England and was ready to accept English translations of the Bible.

After James I became King of England, he authorized a new translation, which since its publication in 1611 has been known as the Authorized or King James Version (KJV). More than 50 scholars, versed in Greek and Hebrew, were responsible for its production. It captured the best of all the preceding translations and far exceeded all of them. It has justifiably been called the “noblest monument of English prose.”7 Based on the best of the earlier English versions, the KJV has remained for more than 300 years “the Bible” par excellence wherever the English tongue is spoken. Protestants and Roman Catholics (and Jews also, with respect to the Old Testament) have appreciated its beauty and value. Dr. Alexander Geddes, a great Roman Catholic biblical scholar at the end of the 18th century, stated that “if accuracy and strictest attention to the letter of the text is supposed to constitute an excellent version this is of all versions the most excellent.”8

Nevertheless, at the end of the 19th century, it was felt that a revision was necessary because: (1) Knowledge of the Hebrew vocabulary had increased since the beginning of the 17th century (about 1,500 words appear only once in the Old Testament). (2) The Greek text underlying the New Testament was the textus receptus (Latin for “received text”), which was based on medieval manuscripts, none of them older than about A.D. 1000. The important fourth- and fifth-century manuscript codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus were not available in 1611. (3) Many English words had become obsolete or archaic; others had changed in meaning. For example, the word “‘knop’ [Exodus 25:31-36] is an archaic word for the bud of a flower or for an ornamental knob or boss.”9 The word “prevent” (1 Thessalonians 4:15) in the 17th century meant “to go before,” or “precede,” rather than “to hinder.”

In 1870, the Convocation of Canterbury voted to sponsor a major revision of the King James Version. When the complete Revised Version appeared in 1885, it was received with great enthusiasm, but its popularity was short-lived because most people continued to prefer the Authorized Version.

The King James Version controversy

In 1516, the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament in Basel, Switzerland, which became the basis of the textus receptus. Unfortunately, none of the Greek manuscripts available to Erasmus was older than about A.D. 1000. The textus receptus (a term used for the first time in 1633) preserves a form of the New Testament found in the great majority of Greek manuscripts,10 most of which were copied between A.D. 750 and 1500, and which show a high level of agreement with one another.

Since the time of Erasmus, a number of older Greek manuscripts with variant readings from the textus receptus have been discovered. The most important among them are two manuscripts prepared about A.D. 350. One is called Codex Vaticanus because it was found in the library of the Vatican; the other is called Codex Sinaiticus because in 1844 it was discovered in the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. By the time of the 19th century, the number of variants among known Greek New Testament manuscripts was estimated to exceed 300,000.11 In 1881, therefore, two English scholars, Brooke F. Westcott and Fenton J. Hort, published The New Testament in the Original Greek, which was based primarily on the ancient codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.

It is this Greek New Testament that is attacked by “KJV-only defenders,” because most modern translations are no longer based on the textus receptus, but rather on the Westcott and Hort and later revisions of the Greek texts. One of the chief arguments of KJV-only defenders is that the King James Bible translators relied on the textus receptus, which they believe was providentially preserved through the centuries from scribal mistakes and intentional changes. By contrast, the Westcott and Hort Greek text, it is alleged, is based on manuscripts produced during a period of apostasy in the church and not providentially protected from scribal changes. “Translations based on them are therefore unreliable.”12 While the fourth century certainly was a time in which false teachings entered the church, there is no evidence from the existing New Testament manuscripts that these doctrinal errors affected any of the Greek manuscripts produced during that time.

One of the most frequent criticisms of modern versions is the supposed omission of terms connected with the divinity of Jesus. For example, where the KJV repeatedly has the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:11; 16:31; 1 Corinthians 5:4; 2 Corinthians 11:31; etc.), modern versions read only “Lord Jesus.” The omission of the word Christ in these texts is seen as a denial of Jesus’ divinity. Gail Riplinger, a leading proponent of the KJV-only defenders, writes: “Texe Marrs warns, ‘New Age leaders believe and will spread the apostasy that Jesus is neither Christ nor God.’ New version editors become ‘New Age leaders by this definition.’”13 She completely ignores the fact that the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ,” which appears about 80 times in the KJV also appears 63 times in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and 60 times in the New International Version (NIV). While the textus receptus uses this phrase more than 80 times, the older Greek manuscripts only use it about 60 times. But this does not mean that they in any way deny that Jesus was the Christ.

The charge that modern versions minimize the deity of Jesus can be found throughout the writings of KJV-only defenders. However, there are a number of places where modern versions are stronger and clearer on the deity of Jesus than the KJV. One example is John 1:18. The KJV reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Modern versions like the New American Standard Bible (NASB) read, “only begotten God,” and the NIV, “God the One and Only” instead of “only begotten Son.”

Two lengthy passages are not found in the earliest manuscripts. One comprises the closing verses of Mark (16:9-20), and the other is the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Most modern versions include these passages but indicate their omissions in the ancient manuscripts in various ways. For example, the NIV interrupts the text flow between verses 8 and 9 of Mark 16 with a centered rule (line), followed by a note, “The two most reliable early manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20.” Because we do not have the original autographs, we do not know whether these stories were lost in the process of transmission or whether they were later additions of oral reports. Whatever the case, their omission in the ancient texts does not warrant the charge that modern versions have changed God’s Word.

Modern versions

The proliferation of new English versions in recent decades has made it necessary to carefully consider which translation one is going to use and for what purpose. First, we need to recognize that there are three basic types of translations.

  • Formal or literal translations attempt to translate as close as possible to the original wording, e.g., King James Version (KJV, 1611), Revised Version (RV, 1885), Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952), New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1971), etc.
  • Dynamic equivalency translations are not so much concerned with the original wording as with the original meaning, e.g., New English Bible (NEB, 1970), New International Version (NIV, 1978), and Revised English Version (REB, 1989).
  • Paraphrases of the Bible seek to restate in simplified but related ways the ideas conveyed in the original language, e.g., The Living Bible (TLB or LB, 1971), The Message (1993), and The Clear Word (2000). Paraphrases are more like commentaries, e.g., in The Message, Colossians 2:9 — “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (KJV) — is expanded to “Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him.”
  • So, which version shall we use? For serious Bible study and preaching, it is helpful to consult several good versions. Good modern standard translations are the RSV, the NASB, and the New King James Version (NKJV). For personal and family devotions, a paraphrase may be used. Paraphrases, however, should not be used in Sabbath school or in the pulpit.

    Ellen White and Bible versions

    Anyone reading the writings of Ellen G. White soon realizes that she used Scripture profusely. All her articles and books are saturated with scriptural quotations from the King James Bible. Did she use other versions? Yes, but sparingly. Among the modern versions that Ellen White occasionally used were the Revised Version (1885), the American Revised Version (1901), and the translations of Bernard, Boothroyd, Leeser, Noyes, and Rotherham.14

    Writing in 1931, her son W.C. White stated that “I do not know of anything in the E.G. White writings, nor can I remember of anything in Sister White’s conversations, that would intimate that she felt that there was any evil in the use of the Revised Version.… When the first revision was published, I purchased a good copy and gave it to Mother. She referred to it occasionally, but never used it in her preaching.”15 The reasons for this was that “there are many persons in the congregation who remember the words of the texts we might use as they are presented in the Authorized Version, and to read from the Revised Version would introduce perplexing questions in their minds as to why the wording of the text has been changed by the revisers and as to why it was being used by the speaker. She did not advise me in a positive way not to use the A.R.V., but she intimated to me quite clearly that it would be better not to do so, as the use of the different wording brought perplexity to the older members in the congregation.”16

    Ellen White did not hesitate to use other versions, but out of concern for those who had heard or read only the King James Version, she did not use them in public. However, she never made the use of the King James Version a criterion of orthodoxy. She was aware of the fact that copyists and translators over the centuries had introduced some changes in the text; nevertheless she could say, “I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word,”17 and so should we.

    Gerhard Pfandl (Ph.D., Andrews University), is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.

    REFERENCES

    1. The word Septuagint comes from the Latin for 70 (abbr. LXX). According to a legendary explanation for the name Septuagint, the Greek King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.) was persuaded by his librarian to secure a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible for the royal library. The king appealed to the high priest at Jerusalem, who responded by sending 72 elders to Alexandria with an official copy of the Law. Over a period of 72 days, these men made a complete translation of the Torah, working independently during the day and comparing their results in the evening so as to arrive at a rendering that would be satisfactory to all concerned. The rest of the Old Testament was translated in piecemeal fashion over the next 100 years.
    2. F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, rev. ed. (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), p. 141. In Isaiah 7:14, for example, the LXX uses parthenos (“virgin”) rather than neanis (“young woman”), which is generally used to translate the Hebrew word almah.
    3. The versions of Aquila and Theodotion were named after their translators.
    4. For example, the expression “spirit of prophecy,” which appears only in Revelation 19:10, is frequently used in the Targumim to describe the gift of prophecy, e.g., Genesis 41:38: “Pharaoh said to his servants, can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of prophecy from before the Lord?”
    5. Statistical summary of the United Bible Societies of December 31, 2009. See http://www.biblesociety.org/index.php?id=22.
    6. Bruce, The English Bible (Oxford: University Press, 1961), p. 13.
    7. J. H. Skilton, “English Versions of the Bible,” New Bible Dictionary, J. D. Douglas et al., eds. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), p. 333.
    8. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, op cit., p. 220.
    9. R. Bridges and L. Weigle, The King James Word Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), p. 196.
    10. About 95 percent of the 5,400 Greek manuscripts known.
    11. None of these variant readings affects any of the teachings of the Bible, however.
    12. S. Thompson, “The Great Bible Versions Debate,” Record (July 22, 1995), p. 5.
    13. G.A. Riplinger, New Age Bible Versions (Munroe Falls, Ohio: AV Publications, 1993), p. 313.
    14. General Conference Committee, Problems in Bible Translations (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1954), pp. 71, 72.
    15. Ibid., p. 72.
    16. Ibid., pp. 72, 73.
    17. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1958, 1980), Book 1, p. 17.