| A Brief History of the Criticism
of Bible Translations
By J.R. Ensey
A clear perspective on the history of Bible translations reveals that those with a sensitive personality should avoid becoming involved in this activity. Only the very courageous or the overly self-assured should try his hand at Bible translating. Let’s take a brief look at the record of Bible translations and how they were received at the time of their publication.
The Old Testament contains the writings of Moses, David, the Hebrew prophets, and Solomon along with his wise colleagues. A few unknown scribes and priests could probably be added to that number. All were inspired and anointed by God’s Spirit to write with unerring accuracy (II Peter 1:21). The earliest Old Testament books, the Pentateuch, go back to the time of Moses when writing was still done in the pictographic style we find on inscriptions from that era. The latest OT book was likely composed in the fourth or fifth century before Christ. Scarcely a century and a half had passed since the ink was dry until the Hebrew Bible—a record of creation, the scattering of men on the earth, and the founding of the Hebrew nation—needed to be translated into another language. The changing winds of governments and cultures called for the Holy Scriptures, produced by divine inspiration, to be published in the vernacular of the people who embraced it as the Word of God.
The First Translation—the Septuagint (LXX)
Tradition states that during the second or third century B.C. the king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, wanted a copy of the Jewish law—the Torah—to be placed in the monumental library in Alexandria. No problem, except he wanted it in the Greek language rather than Hebrew so those visiting the library whose native tongue was Greek could read it. Hellenization, or the spread of Greek culture throughout much of the Mediterranean region, virtually required major commercial and literary documents to be rendered in the Greek language.1 By 300 B.C. there were more Jews in Alexandria than in Jerusalem. Their children were learning to speak Greek and using Hebrew less and less. Jews did not want to lose their Scriptures or their culture so they considered it a positive step to provide a translation. As we know, it would also be God’s choice a couple of centuries later that the NT be written in Greek.
Ptolemy’s request was fulfilled when seventy-two Jewish scholars—some say that six from every Jewish tribe participated—accepted the task. The translation of the Torah was finished in about two and a half months, but other parts of the Old Testament, including some non-canonical books, were completed later, probably within seventy-five years. The new translation was known as the Septuagint, abbreviated as LXX (Seventy).
Not all Jews were happy about this development and some took exception to the reading at this or that place. Jews are very traditional, of course, and they wanted their Scriptures to reflect exactly the oral and written traditions they had always known. Another language just didn’t seem to provide the exact tone and tenor of the Hebrew. Greek just didn’t have “the sound” they were accustomed to. Many never became reconciled to having their Bible in any language other than Hebrew. By and large the Jews held fervently to their Hebrew Scriptures while proselytes and Christians were apt to prefer a translation in the current vernacular.
When Jesus began to teach and quote the Scriptures, He usually quoted from the LXX, with the apostles following His lead.2 This seems to underscore the concept that the translation was considered as authoritative as the original Hebrew. When Christianity flourished in the first three or four centuries after Christ, the LXX was the most popular version of the Hebrew Scriptures. When the Jews saw that the Greek version was becoming the choice of the Christians they were eager to find fault with it. There probably never was nor will be a translation that is considered to be without flaw. Until the apostolic letters and records were written, the only “Bible” the early church had were the Hebrew Scriptures and their Greek translation, the Septuagint.
Lingering, however, was the question of whether a translation has the same authority as the inspired autographs. Prominent Christian figures like Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) and Origen (c. 184-253) felt that it was just as inspired as the original manuscripts.3 Augustine was also devoted to the LXX, but Jerome decided to use the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the Greek as the basis for his Latin Bible.4 Some felt that the Greek version was a little “too interpretive.”5 As long as there have been translations from the original writings, disagreements with them have been expressed. And that is not always a bad thing when the disagreements are based on scholarship and the best manuscripts rather than personal or religious bias.
The First Versions of the New Testament
New Testament (NT) manuscripts written by the inspired apostles and those close disciples of Christ began to circulate within two to three decades after Pentecost. The manuscripts were hand copied and passed around to the local churches to be read aloud in the services. They would not be collected into a single volume similar to our present Bibles for many years. Each manuscript or copy would eventually be vetted to determine its authenticity and authority. Copies of copies became common as churches multiplied, and each would have its own problems and human shortcomings. What God does is perfect; man has yet to reach that mark.
The Septuagint became the basis for the daughter versions of the Old Testament, including the Old Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic and Slavonic. The LXX remains to this day the authoritative biblical text of the OT for the Greek Orthodox Church.6 In outlying regions—Syria, Asia Minor, Libya, Ethiopia, and even Western Europe—the Christians wanted whatever apostolic writings were available to be rendered in their dialect. In Edessa and Antioch, renderings in Syriac/Aramaic were made in the late second or early third century. It was officially called the Old Syriac.7 Other MSS in this dialect were later made by Tatian, Thomas of Harkel, and Paul of Tella. Thomas’ contribution, the Harclean Version, was criticized for having such a slavish adaptation of the Greek as to sacrifice clarity.8
The language used by the church at Rome was Greek until about A.D. 250, but within early Christian communities in western areas of the Empire Latin had begun to be used. By the end of the second century some communities in N. Africa were already using Latin versions of the NT writings. However, so many scribes were doing their own independent copying that they began to see many variants and differences in the MSS. Accounting for part of the discrepancies is that they incorporated their own and others’ traditions into the text. As liturgical worship became more common, certain words and phrases were worked into the main body of text by copyists. Besides these problems, the versions were said to lack polish and were painfully literal.9
The other versions mentioned above had their detractors in time. There has never been a shortage of critics—of both the amateur and professional sort.
The Latin Vulgate
These criticisms motivated Pope Damasus in c. 382 to call on Jerome of Italy to bring together all of the Latin MSS he could find and produce one single official Latin version. It was published shortly after the turn of the century. He used the Hebrew Scriptures for the Old Testament rather than the Septuagint, and reworked the Latin versions of the NT into a composite that he called the Latin Vulgate—from “vulgar,” meaning “common.”
Although Jerome’s work is still around in some form today, criticisms have been leveled at it since the day it was published. When leaders in North Africa received his translation they were inclined to reject it out of hand. It was viewed by many as a threat to what was familiar, customary, and “friendly,” (i.e., the Latin drawn from the LXX) mandating uncomfortable word changes in their liturgy. Augustine complained that the new wording would offend the believers “whose ears and hearts have become accustomed to listen to that version to which the seal of approbation was given by the Apostles themselves.”10 The unfamiliarity of Jerome’s word choices so unnerved the Christians in North Africa that it was said they actually rioted in the streets.11
Some said Jerome’s translation was too literal, others declared that he was overly interpretive. He anticipated the criticism, however. He was not destroyed by it and his work became the Roman Catholic standard for well over a thousand years. Although the Vulgate was corrupted by incompetent priests and copyists over the years, the first English translation of the Bible, by John Wycliffe, used the Vulgate as its source. The first item printed on the Gutenberg press in 1455 was a handsome, colorful Bible—the Latin Vulgate.
Erasmus and the Textus Receptus
When Erasmus (1466-1536) decided to publish a new Latin revision of the Vulgate, he added a new Greek text to support his changes in the Latin. He put the two columns side by side so all could see the exactly what changes he had made. Although a similar volume was being prepared by a Catholic prelate in Spain, Erasmus’ new text in 1516 caught the eye of Catholic critics and evoked some strong criticism. After a millennium of exclusive use by the western churches, Roman Catholics had become comfortable with the familiar renderings, inaccuracies notwithstanding. Erasmus understood that the authority of the Vulgate rested mainly upon its long and widespread use. Their liturgy had adjusted to the wording of the Vulgate, and in places, the Vulgate to their liturgy.
When Erasmus’ new text did not read exactly like the Vulgate at I John 5:7 and other places, he was accused of changing God’s Word. Edward Lee, the Archbishop of York stood with “men of the old learning, that if Erasmus’ Greek codices did not contain what was in the Vulgate then they should have done [so] and must be rejected as erroneous.”12
Erasmus countered that he could not find the questionable trinitarian phrase of I John 5:7 in any Greek manuscript so he omitted it, evoking Catholic scorn. It was their strongest proof-text for the Trinity doctrine and they did not want to let it go. There were a number of glaring errors in the first edition, however, partly due to his rush to get it into print ahead of the one being prepared in Spain. He inserted other verses from the Vulgate that he could not find in Greek MSS, merely back-translating them from the Latin. Therefore, he earned both praise and criticism for his work—and both were due.
There were over 25 revisions of his initial edition during the next 100 years in the effort to get it as right as possible with the manuscripts they had to work with.
Tyndale and the Later English Versions
Martin Luther took advantage of Erasmus’ second edition Greek text of 1519 to translate it into German in 1522. This inspired William Tyndale to begin translating it into English. His New Testament was published in 1525-1526 and was welcomed by most Protestants. The Catholics, however, strongly opposed his work because it was unauthorized and based on something other than the Latin Vulgate. The King of England had Tyndale burned at the stake for violating the mandate against new English versions. At the stake, Tyndale prayed that God would open the king’s eyes to the error of his ways and to the great potential that lay with Bibles in the languages of the people.
Evidently God heard Tyndale’s prayer, for soon King Henry VIII relented to allow new translations to be made. While the king held the door open for more English versions, several others were rushed through it. Soon published were Coverdale’s Bible, Matthew’s Bible, Taverner’s Bible, the Great Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible. (The Geneva Bible was published in Switzerland and the Douay-Rheims Version in France.) Most of them utilized Tyndale’s wording. The last in the line of notable English translations was the King James Version published in 1611. It would be the most used and longest at the top of the English translations for nearly 400 years. However, it definitely had its detractors who justifiably pointed out its deficiencies—poor translation in places, omissions of words and phrases found in all Greek texts, and additions that are still known to have little or no manuscript support.
The ink was hardly dry on its pages when fellow Cambridge scholar Hugh Broughton cried out against it: “The late Bible was sent to me to censure [evaluate] which bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe, it is so ill done. Tell His Majesty that I would rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches. The new edition crosseth me. I require it to be burnt.”13
The translators were accused of accommodating the superstitions of King James in their use of such words as “familiar spirit...witch ...wizard.”14 But he had ordered that it use certain words that fit well with the liturgy and government of the Church of England and that “the whole church should be bound to it and to none other.”15 The translators did rely to some degree on the familiar wording of the Vulgate, since they were more familiar with its Latin than with the Hebrew or Greek. For the Greek they used Erasmus’ Textus Receptus, which had been modified by Robert Stephanus in 1550 and Theodore Beza in 1598. Stephanus had modified Luke 2:33 in the attempt to protect the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Beza had been “attacked from the early seventeenth century onward for modifying the text to suit his own theological presuppositions.”16
On the positive side, the English-speaking people had received a translation that was in many ways superior to all that had gone before, particularly that it used what was then “modern English.” But still the denunciations came. According to the Cambridge History of the Bible: “For eighty years after its publication in 1611, the King James version endured bitter attacks. It was denounced as theologically unsound and ecclesiastically biased, as truckling to the king, and unduly deferring to his belief in witchcraft, as untrue to the Hebrew text and relying too much on the Septuagint. The personal integrity of the translators was impugned. Among other things they were accused of ‘blasphemy,’ ‘most damnable corruptions,’ ‘intolerable deceit,” and ‘vile imposture.’”17
There were three major revisions of the KJV by 1769 and multiple minor ones. The 1769 edition done by Benjamin Blayney is the edition still used by most KJV readers today, although several revisions have appeared within the last fifty years. One has to ask: Which of these revisions is the real King James Version that is supposed to be “perfect”18 with no flaws, mistranslations, omissions, or additions?
Why did the KJV have such a long reign atop the English Bible market? With civil wars, dissolution of Parliament, and other catastrophic upheavals in England, the people were in no mood for another round of divisive Bible translations. They just kept working on the KJV to fix the problems that scholars were pointing out. The changing language and the discoveries of new manuscripts kept the pressure on the KJV to make the necessary corrections.
The New Greek Text and English Version of 1881
During the latter half of the 19th century, it became apparent that many new biblical manuscripts had come to the attention of archaeologists and papyrologists. Although manifesting a number of minor variants, these were acknowledged to be above 98% in line with other Greek MSS. That a new Greek text was called for became obvious.
Two prominent Anglican clergymen—Brooke Foss Westcott and F. J. A. Hort (herein W-H)—applied their expertise in Greek to the task for a period of approximately 30 years. In 1881 they published a new Greek text that would eventually be known as the Critical Text. A committee of English scholars led by Anglican clergyman C. J. Ellicott published the Revised Version of the New Testament that year and the complete Bible in 1885. An American committee pulled together a version incorporating the spelling and style used in the U.S. It was known as the American Standard Version (ASV).
The nay-sayers surfaced again when W-H published their new Greek text, but mostly with similar claims that had been heard before. The TR/KJV enthusiasts thought they had conspired to “change the Bible.” English clergyman Dean John Burgon was the most vocal critic of the new text, and yet he himself acknowledged that the Textus Receptus was in need of revision in some places. Actually, W-H were bringing the Greek text into line with the manuscripts closest to the autographs. As always, long use and familiarity give voice to the detractors. By this time translators and textual analysts had become accustomed to the charges of “conspiring to change the Word of God to accommodate false doctrine.” Time would reveal that this was not the case.
The RV and the ASV had but a relative few antagonists. They received the overwhelming endorsement of leading clergymen from across the theological spectrum in spite of the fact that they did not read much easier than the KJV. They were stiff and “wooden” for the average reader. They were said to be strong in Greek but weak in English. Readability would soon be a primary factor in choosing a Bible. That was a plus for the KJV in 1611 and would be for new versions on the horizon during the latter half of the 20th century. However, the serious critics seemed to be lying in wait for the next big outcry that was only a half-century in the future.
The Revised Standard Version
In 1950 post-war America was still praising God for victory over Japan and Germany in WWII. The Christian faith would reach its zenith in the U.S. within five years. Political and cultural conservatism was in full bloom. The Bible was paramount and most Bibles in America’s homes were the King James Version. Elizabethan vernacular and majestic syntax—“Bible English”—had become ingrained in the minds of most people.
In 1951 the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was published. It was basically advertised as a revision of the ASV, which was a revision of the KJV, but the language was more modern, and the translators had adjusted some verses to reflect readings from the current critical text. The real bombshell, however, was the rendering of Isaiah 7:14. The RSV had translated the Hebrew almah in that verse as “young woman” rather than “virgin.” Although the NT references to the status of the mother of Jesus were all “virgin,” this sounded to some conservatives like a conspiracy to dilute the fact of Jesus’ virgin birth. Also, the reading at Micah 5:2 was viewed as “watering down” the deity of Messiah. That deity would be addressed with You rather than Thou was another thorn in their side.
Critics noted a couple of verses in the NT that appeared to indicate a more liberal theological bent (Romans 9:5, Hebrews 2:14).19 Part of the problem in those verses was punctuation, but others cited a compromising exegesis. To their credit, a revision in 1989 (NRSV) did modify some of the questionable verses, like Romans 9:5, but there would be no real redemption for the RSV. Most moderate to conservative Christians still avoid using it or its revisions.
The real problem that rankled conservative theologians about the RSV was that the parent group who actually owned the copyright was the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC), a theologically liberal group. The Division of Christian Education of the NCCC oversaw the actual translation done by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish representatives, yet they worked under the auspices of the NCCC. Conspiracy theorists assumed that liberals in that organization must have influenced the translators in a compromising direction.
The King James Only Movement arose out of the ashes of the RSV debacle. Adherents began to strongly denounce any Greek texts other than the TR and any new version that was based on the Critical Text.
In the meantime, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 and they also complemented and explained many of the known variants.
The New International Version (NIV) and Other New Translations
In 1973 the NIV published its NT and the entire Bible in 1978. It found immediate acceptance with many theologians and readers across the religious spectrum. After a few years it was the best-selling Bible in America. Employing a more dynamic equivalence translation methodology, readers came to understand more about God and His eternal plans for mankind. It was as if lights were turned on in the minds of those who dared to consider anything other than the KJV as the Bible. Bible language had been brought forward out of a dark period of world history.
The immediate popularity of the NIV allowed it to become the primary target of the KJV Only movement. It didn’t say things exactly like the familiar king’s English. It didn’t use as many words. It “left out” some words and even assigned a few verses in the KJV to the footnotes. It wasn’t a revision of the KJV but a new translation altogether by more conservative scholars. The same accusations all other translators endured, even the 1611 team, were heard again. Praise for the NIV came from the readers and users; criticisms primarily came from those dedicated to the TR/KJV tradition. It wasn’t perfect, but what translation could justify that description?
Soon other Bible publishers saw where they could improve on the RSV and the NIV, and a spate of new translations came on the market. Some were too rigidly literal in their renderings, like the NASB and ESV. While popular with scholars and theologians, many average buyers gravitated toward paraphrases like the Living Bible and The Message. Gradually, however, a shift has been seen among serious readers back to the center of the field to versions like the New Living Translation (NLT) or the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
Extremists in the KJV Only movement continue to hammer at any new translation, claiming that theirs was the only “perfect” translation and the only Bible God meant for English readers to ever use. From King James himself to the translators to the final editors of the KJV, all were pronounced to be among the world’s most outstanding men of impeccable character and scholarship—superior to any before them or since.20 Wild accusations that have no basis in fact are constantly flung at any who would dare try to improve on that 400-year old translation.21 However, preferring to continue using the KJV should be no problem or basis for criticism. On the other hand, to claim its absolute perfection is to invite easily produced evidence to the contrary. For its advocates to denounce all others that are based on a more contemporary vernacular, on superior scholarship, and on older manuscripts is spitting into the wind.
Bob DeWaay offers this summation: “The history of debate over bible translations shows us two things: 1) people are prone to attach themselves to one translation and make it into the only inspired text when it is in fact just a translation, and 2) the same traditional, irrational arguments will be put forth to defend that translation and to slander any attempts to put the Bible into current languages.”22
Those who make such irrational arguments usually refuse to do their homework in objective research, often allowing a blind prejudice to guide their thinking. There are libraries full of books and an almost inexhaustible supply of information available via the Internet. There is no reason to subject oneself to conspiracy theories that are based in fear and ignorance, however sincere, honest-hearted, and truth-loving one may be.
There are enough critics around to make sure no new Bibles arrive on the market that are not vetted by tedious textual analysts. None will escape close scrutiny. That is a positive thing. The greater number of Greek readers and scholars today also ensure that little gets put into serious translations that does not belong there. DeWaay continues: “There is a wealth of material for those who would like in depth study about Greek manuscripts, translations, and other issues. There is no reason to be blown about by the winds of a disreputable conspiracy theory that has the effect of making conservative Christians appear to be foolish and unwilling to know the facts.”23 A careful look at something as important as the Bible is absolutely necessary. On-going evaluation and analysis is imperative. Our eternal salvation depends on knowing and obeying the truth found in the Word of God.
By the same token, analysis of any Bible translation should be based on extensive research, sound scholarship, the best internal and external evidence, and subject to friendly review. This we know: “The word of the Lord is right, and all his works are done in truth” (Psalm 33:4 KJV).
1. Fred G. Bratton, The History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 125.
2. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 347. It was called “the first Bible of the Church.” Allan Jenkins and Patrick Preston, Biblical Scholarship and the Church (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), p. 3.
3. Allan Jenkins and Patrick Preston, p. 3.
4. Ibid., p. 17.
5. Ibid., p. 8.
6. Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible In Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), p. 20.
7. Ibid., p. 26. Metzger explains: “Only two MSS of this version, both containing text from the Gospels, have survived. These are known as the Curetonian and the Siniaitic Syriac manuscripts, written in the fifth and fourth centuries respectively.
8. Ibid., p. 28.
9. Ibid., p. 30. For instance, one Latin version at Matthew 3:16 states that when Jesus was baptized, “a tremendous light flashed forth from the water so that all who were present feared.” So many MSS in Latin were floating around because “everyone who happened to have possession of a Greek manuscript of the NT, and thought he had any facility in both languages, however slight that might have been, attempted to make a translation.” – p. 31.
10. Augustine, Letter 82 to Jerome, Chap. 5.35.
12. The Cambridge History of the Bible Vol 3, ed. S. L. Greenslade: 1963, Cambridge University Press, p. 60.
14. T. Harwood Pattison, The History of the English Bible (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1894), p. 107.
15. Ibid., p. 95.
16. Op cit., The Cambridge History ..., p. 63. An example would be Revelation 16:5.
17. Ibid., p. 361.
18. The claim of “perfection” for the KJV is widespread among its advocates. KJV defender David Daniels explains: “But the trouble is—if it even has .0001% error in it, it cannot BE the Word of God! God’s Word [the KJV], he says, is perfect (Psalm 19:7). God, as the saying goes, does not make—or write—junk! If it isn’t 100% perfect, then it isn’t the Word of God.” https://www.chick.com/information/bibleversions/teeth.asp). KJV advocate Peter Ruckman held that any mistakes or mistranslations, any changes or emendations appearing in the KJV, are the result of “advanced revelation” and not mistakes at all. Unbelievably, he declares, “The A. V. 1611 text is to be preferred over any Greek text, as it tells the truth of the matter.... Notice how the English text corrects the errors in the Greek text.” The Christian’s Handbook of Manuscript Evidence, Chapter titled “Correcting the Greek with the English” (Pensacola: Pensacola Bible Press, 1970,1990), p. 126.
19. Romans 9:5 sounded too much like Jesus was being presented as the only God. The Trinitarians editing the RSV probably were uncomfortable with what Paul was saying. Read it in the RS, then read the NIV, NLT, and the ESV.
20. D. A. Waite, Defending the KJB (Collingswood, NJ: The Bible For Today Press, 1992), p. 17.
21. See Chapter Five, “Rebutting Extremists’ Claims,” in Searching the Scriptures: Merging Truth, Texts and Translations (Willis, TX: Advance Ministries, 2016), pp. 196-225.
22. Bob DeWaay, King James Only? (Minneapolis: Twin City Fellowship, 2000), p. 8.
23. Ibid., p. 12.