Simplifying the Bible Translation Issue
By J.R. Ensey
Questions are often raised regarding the authenticity of Bible translations. The fact that there are some words in the King James Version that do not appear in the contemporary versions has given rise to the suggestion that they have been “removed” or “omitted from the Bible” in the effort to water down Bible doctrine. That is not the reason for a few readings that are in the KJV but not in the contemporary versions. Let me explain.
The Bible was written in the Greek language, a common language of the Roman Empire in New Testament times. The first translation of the Bible into the English language was done by John Wycliffe in 1383. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate, the Roman Catholic Bible for over a thousand years. In other words, it was a translation of a translation that had been compiled primarily from other Latin translations by Jerome in c. A.D. 390-400. Over the years there had been many copies of the Vulgate made by hand with numerous additions and changes. It is not considered by scholars to be a good source for an authentic and authoritative translation.
In 1516 in Basel, Switzerland, Desiderius Erasmus borrowed several Greek New Testament manuscripts (MSS) from the local Catholic monastery. Two others he borrowed from friends. From these MSS, none earlier than the eleventh century, plus the Latin Vulgate and writings of some church fathers, he compiled a Greek text of the New Testament. (I have personally handled and examined these same manuscripts in Basel.) In the process Erasmus moved some words around, added a few of his own, struck a few others from the text and submitted it as representing the Bible as the apostles had written it. We know he did those things because he left a written record of virtually every word choice he made. Two dozen editions of his text, each containing changes in the text made by four other editors over the next 117 years, left us with what we know today as the Textus Receptus (“Received Text” or TR).
Ten years after Erasmus published the TR, William Tyndale decided it was time for a new English Bible. He used Erasmus’ work as his Greek textual source. Making an English translation of the Bible was illegal in England at the time and he ultimately paid for it with his life. He was burned alive at the stake in 1536. Not long afterward, the king relented and permitted a few English translations to be done. These few included The Great Bible and The Bishop’s Bible. The English language had not come of age yet and the atrocious spelling in these editions makes them barely readable by moderns.
In 1604 King James agreed to a suggestion by England’s Puritan leaders to produce yet another translation. Published in 1611, it became known as the King James Version. The translators used the former English versions, the Latin Vulgate, the TR, a few MSS other than the ones used by Erasmus, and prowled the church fathers’ writings to produce the KJV. Because of subsequent government upheavals, civil war, the Thirty Years’ War and other national emergencies, no other English translations were attempted for 270 years.
During those years, many New Testament Greek MSS were discovered, some going back to the third and fourth centuries. The examination and publication of these MSS provided a textual source that put us back very close to the original work of the apostles. Scholarly textual criticism was applied to all known manuscripts, and in 1881 a new Greek text was published that reflected renderings from the earliest MSS known at that time. It was still relatively close to Erasmus’ work, except for the omission of a few words and phrases that had obviously crept into the text by copyists, being pulled from the margins of former MSS or added because they were being used in the church’s liturgy. Before the printing press was invented in 1454, all copies were made by hand, most in poor light in a monastery somewhere in the Mideast or North Africa. The copyists’ errors of the pen were noted, and the emendations and interpolations they had added became apparent and were wisely left out of the new translations or footnoted for readers.
Since the KJV contained those few extra words and phrases, it appears to some that words of the Bible are being “omitted” or “removed” from modern versions. Not so. The KJV is not “the Bible.” It is merely one among several English (as it was spoken over 400 years ago) translations of the Greek text compiled by Erasmus almost a hundred years earlier. However, publication of new versions caused KJV enthusiasts to cry “foul,” as if some conspiracy to dilute the Scriptures was afoot. It was simply an effort to produce a more accurate rendering of God’s Word in the English language. The word differences necessitated no adjustment of any fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Any doctrine set forth in the KJV is also found in the contemporary versions, only in a more clear and understandable rendering.
The widely accepted contemporary Greek text is produced jointly by Nestle/Aland and United Bible Societies (commonly designated NU). Most scholars hold that text, often referred to as the Critical Text, to be the closest that we have to the autographs—the original writings. Some still love and use the KJV, and that is fine if they prefer it. But adherents would be wise to refrain from publishing unscholarly and confusing misinformation about the KJV and about the contemporary versions.
1. This applies to all the major versions such as the NASB, ESV, ASV, etc., recognizing that there are a couple of rogue translations out there published by fringe groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation, created to support their particular doctrines
2. For a more thorough look at the Bible translation issue, the reader may want to order a copy of Searching the Scriptures: Merging Truth, Texts and Translations by the author of this article. It is available in eBook format only. Order at advanceministries.org/store.