The Bible Translation Debate – Part 1

(December 1996 – Volume 2, Issue 14)

There are many Christians who are confused over the plethora of Bible translations that are available today, especially to the English reader. A visit to any well-stocked Christian bookstore would result in discovery of translations such as: the King James Version, the New King James Version, the Revised Version, the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the American Standard Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the Geneva Bible, the New International Version. In addition one would run across several paraphrases such as the Living Bible, the Phillips translation, and recently released, the Message. If all of this is not overwhelming enough, we find that these translations come packaged in wide variety of “reference Bibles.” Reference (or study Bibles) are not translations as such, but rather Bibles that incorporate certain footnotes and study aids along with whatever translations chosen. Some of the more popular include, the Life Application Bible, the International Inductive Study Bible, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, The Scofield and the Ryrie Study Bible. In recent days a new study Bible has appeared for almost every niche in the church. There is the Full Life Study Bible and the Spirit-filled Life Bible for Charismatics; the Catholic Study Bible for Catholics; The Children’s Ministry Resource Bible for children workers; African Heritage Study Bible for American Blacks; The Experiencing God Study Bible for the mystical; The Woman’s Study Bible for women; the Overcomers Bible for those involved in 12-step programs; the New Geneva Study Bible for the Reformed; The Student Bible for the student; and of course, Ryrie and Scofield for the dispensationalist. Unfortunately, this is only a sampling of offerings. It is enough to confuse veteran believers, pity the poor new convert.

By God’s grace, however, let’s say you have made your selection and head to town to make your purchase. As you enter the bookstore you are suddenly sidetracked again as your eyes behold a copy of Gail Riplinger’s book, New Age Bible Versions. To your grave astonishment you find that Riplinger has denounced the very Bible you had intended to buy as corrupt, and perhaps, even of the devil. As a matter of fact, all translations, except the 1611 KJV are part of a New Age conspiracy to usher in a one-world religion by destroying God’s Word, according to Riplinger (It might be added at this point that Riplinger’s work has been largely discredited even by those who agree with her basic position). At this point, you collapse on the floor, crawl to the nearest Barnes and Nobles and purchase a cheap novel. It is just too difficult to read the Bible.


Maybe it would be best to start over with a fresh understanding of Bible translation. The Bible obviously did not come to us in its present form. Rather, as God inspired its human authors His words were written down in scrolls. These original manuscripts (or autographs as they are sometimes called) contained no errors, presenting perfectly the Word of God. However, there are no known originals left. What we possess today are thousands of copies of the original manuscripts (this includes fragments, which in some cases may contain only a verse or two). The problem is that while the manuscripts we study today agree to an incredible extent there do exist differences. It is comforting to note, however, that scholars estimate that the text we have before us is between 98 and 99.9% pure — exactly as originally written. Only about 50 readings of any significance is in doubt, and none of these affect any basic doctrine. So we can have complete confidence in our text.

As the church became more established, certain definable New Testament manuscript traditions tended to become the standards within more or less defined areas. These became known as “text-types” and there were four of them:

The Byzantine text: Preserved by the Byzantine Empire, there are far more manuscripts of this tradition than in the other three combined, but most of them are of relatively late date.

The Western text:Sprang from fairly undisciplined scribal activity, and therefore, considered the most unreliable of the “text-types.”

The Alexandrian text:Prepared by trained scribes, most likely in Alexandria and its regions. This text has excellent credentials.

The Caesarean text: Probably originated in Egypt and was a mixture of the Western and Alexandrian texts.


The Textus Receptus and/or the Westcott and Hort

The problem facing the scholar is deciding which of the texts-types are the most accurate, and then choosing which of the manuscripts within the text-types are the best. Some of the criteria used in making such decisions are: 1) the age of the document. Usually the older the manuscript the more authoritative it is. 2) the length of the reading. The shorter the reading of a given passage the more preferable it is since it has been proven that later scribes, at least, tended to add bits rather than remove them. 3) the difficulty of the reading. The more difficult the reading the more comfortable we are with it since, once again, the scribes were more likely to amend a difficult reading than an easy one. Having said all of this, however, not all scholars agree on the reliability of the texts-types. Among conservative Christians there has developed a major disagreement between two schools of thought:

The Textus Receptus:

In 1516 the Roman Catholic/humanist Greek scholar Erasmus gathered together about six Byzantine manuscripts (none of which contained the entire NT and none of which was written before the twelfth century) and published a Greek NT. He was persuaded to do so by a printer who desired to get a Greek text to market before a competitive version, at that moment being compiled by others. As a result Erasmus was forced to work from a very limited number of manuscripts and in great haste. He, and others, would later revise his work many times over the next century. When the translators of the KJV began their work on the NT it was from a revision of Erasmus’ Greek NT that they did their work. Later, in 1633, another revision of Erasmus’ work contained these words, “The text that you have is now received by all, in which we give nothing changed or perverted.” From that point on Erasmus’ revised Greek NT has been known as the “received text,” or the “Textus Receptus.” It is important to note that the text was not received in the sense that God put His stamp of approval on it, or that the official church of that day did either. It was received in that it was considered the standard text of that time. It is also of value to realize that the TR is based on a small number of haphazardly collected and relatively late Byzantine manuscripts (it is not based upon the whole Byzantine tradition which consists of thousands of manuscripts). It was compiled by an unsaved Catholic scholar motivated by greed. In about a dozen places its reading is attested by no known Greek manuscript at all. Yet, it was to become the basis for all English and European translations from 1611 to 1881. And the TR is at the foundation of the translation debate today.

Westcott and Hort:

Since 1881 most translations have been based upon the Greek NT text developed by B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort. These, somewhat liberal scholars, argued that the Byzantine text was of late origin and therefore inferior to the Alexandrian tradition. In their work, the scholars used manuscripts that dated back to the second century, some 600 years earlier than anything used by Erasmus. As a basis they used two manuscripts — the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. These works are believed by many to be the finest and most complete NT manuscripts known to exist. However, they could not have been used by Erasmus for they had not been rediscovered in his day.

While neither tradition is without flaw, most modern translators of the Bible have chosen Westcott and Hort’s work because of its careful scholarship based upon more recent discoveries , its use of much older and more complete manuscripts, and upon the apparent fact that the Byzantine manuscripts did not exist before A.D. 350 and are never quoted by the ante-Nicene fathers. On the other hand the Alexandrian text-types are found in Biblical quotations by the ante-Nicene fathers and in early versions dating back as far as A.D.200.

Honest disagreements still remain concerning which Greek NT is superior. However, among those who love God’s Word there is no conspiracy or attempt to corrupt the Word of God. I believe that all manuscripts can be used and studied, and as was stated earlier, we can have complete confidence in the Bible that is in our hands.

Just a word on the manuscripts behind the OT. When the KJV was translated, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts available were copies made about A.D. 850. Since 1890 many older manuscripts have been discovered, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of our Hebrew manuscripts now date back to 200-300 B.C. Most scholars assume that the older the manuscript the more accurate it is likely to be. If this is true, then modern translations of the OT have a 1000 year advantage over the translators of the KJV. Either way, it is comforting to note, that the Dead Sea Scrolls have given solid proof that the later manuscripts in our possession are accurate and trustworthy.


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