Simplifying the Bible Translation Issue
By J.R. Ensey
Questions are often raised regarding the authenticity of contemporary Bible translations since they don’t read exactly like the King James Version in some places. The fact that there are some words in the KJV 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 Christian doctrine. That is not the reason that a few readings in the KJV do not appear in the new versions. Let me explain.
The New Testament (NT) was written in Koine Greek, a common class dialect of the Roman Empire during NT times. Copies of copies of these original manuscripts (MSS) are all that are currently extant. There are almost 6,000 Greek copies of parts of the NT, many in fragment form. Relatively few codices exist that contain all the books of the NT. Most copies of Scripture were made after the eighth century when cursive writing was introduced.
By A.D. 400 there were a number of MSS in Middle Eastern, European and N. African languages translated from the Greek. About that time, the Latin copies were gathered by Jerome and merged into a single volume called the Latin Vulgate. Since Latin had become the lingua franca of the West, the Roman Catholic Church established the Latin Vulgate as their official version. Greek copies were discontinued in Alexandria and the West. Only the educated could read Latin and the common people had to depend on the Roman Catholic priests to provide meaning through preaching or liturgy. Bibles in the vernacular of the people were forbidden in Christian nations. When the Reformation era began, Bibles began to show up in languages most readers could understand. Translators and publishers were persecuted by Roman Catholic leaders and many became martyrs.
The first translation of the Bible into the English language was published by John Wycliffe in c. 1383. However, it was a translation from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and not from the original languages. Over the years many copies of Jerome’s work had been made by hand, creating additions and changes along the way. It was not considered by textual critics and scholars to be a good source for an authentic translation. Wycliffe died in 1384, but when Catholic leaders realized the impact his work had on the English-speaking populace, they dug up his buried bones and burned them.
The invention of the printing press in c. 1454 by Johannes Gutenberg transformed how the Bible was published and distributed. It quickly eliminated hand copying. Printing permitted exact copies to be made.
In 1516 in Basel, Switzerland, Desiderius Erasmus, a roguish Catholic priest but a Greek scholar, borrowed five or six Greek New Testament manuscripts from the local Catholic monastery. Two others he borrowed from friends. From these late manuscripts, none earlier than the twelfth 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 published it. We know he did those things because he left a written record of virtually every word choice he made. Admittedly, it was as close a representation of the New Testament as probably could have been drawn from the hand-copied manuscripts he had. Over 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). A number of alterations had been made in the text by the time the last revision was published.
Ten years after Erasmus published the TR, William Tyndale decided it was time for a new English Bible based on that text. 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 (1538) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568). The English language spelling had not been standardized yet and the atrocious spelling and odd syntax in these editions render them difficult for modern readers.
In 1604 King James I agreed to a suggestion by England’s Puritan leaders to produce yet another English translation. Published in 1611, it was named after the king—the King James Version. As sources. the translators used the former English versions, the Latin Vulgate, the TR, a few Greek MSS other than the ones used by Erasmus, and selected writings of the Early Church Fathers to produce the KJV. Experts agree that approximately 80% of the KJV was copied directly from Tyndale’s Bible. Because of subsequent national upheavals, a Civil War, and the Thirty Years’ War, no other notable English translations were attempted for 270 years. Revisions with a few word changes and many spelling corrections were done during those years, with the last being in 1769, the edition still reflected in most KJV Bibles today.
Also during those years, many earlier 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 the text 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 variant renderings from the earliest MSS known at that time. It was still very close to Erasmus’ work, except for the omission of a few words and phrases that had obviously crept into the text by copyists, some verses being pulled from the margins of former MSS or added because they were being used in the church’s liturgy. The relatively few copyists’ flaws, made by hand in poor light in a monastery somewhere in the Mideast or North Africa, were carefully noted and any emendations or interpolations that became apparent were wisely not included in the new translations.1 The earliest extant MSS have been uncovered since that time, although minimal impact has been made on the actual scriptural text.
Since the KJV contains extra words and phrases which copyists had inserted over the years, it appears to some devotees that when they are not included in the modern versions an “omission” from Scripture is made. Not so. The KJV is not “the Bible.” It is merely one among several versions of the Bible based on medieval MSS rendered into English as it was spoken over 400 years ago. But KJV enthusiasts cry “foul,” as if some conspiracy to dilute the Scriptures was afoot. The new Greek text and the versions made from it were simply an effort to produce a more accurate rendering of God’s Word in the English language as it is spoken today. The relatively few differences necessitated no adjustment of any fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Any doctrine set forth in the KJV is also found in the contemporary versions, generally in a more clear and understandable rendering.2
The widely accepted contemporary Greek text is produced jointly by Nestle/Aland and the United Bible Societies. 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. However, adherents are wise to refrain from publishing unscholarly and confusing misinformation about either the KJV or contemporary versions.3
1. For example, there are four MSS that contain I John 5:7 written in the margin. One is the MSS Codex Ottobonianus (Minuscule 629, a diglot), dated to the 14th century. Eventually, it was pulled into the text by copyists and made a part of the Bible in Codex Montfortianus (Minuscule 61) in the 16th century. Virtually all textual scholars today, including Roman Catholics, recognize that it was not original in the autographs. See https://christianpublishinghouse.co/2020/03/01/1-john-57-8-the-story-of-an-interpolation/
2. This applies to all the major versions such as the NASB, ESV, 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.
3. 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 at advanceministries.org/store or in print form at Amazon.com.