The Bible Translation Debate – Part 2

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(January 1997 – Volume 2, Issue 15)

We now move from the subject of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts to the English translations available today. It must be understood that there is no such thing as a true literal translation. Instead, there is a spectrum, a graduation. Translation is not a pure mechanical process, and is never completely divorced from interpretation. The desired end product is a rendering that means what the original means, but is written in a way that we can understand. The translators of Scripture take three approaches:

Literal translations:

These are attempts to render the original languages as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability sometimes. The best examples are the KJV, The NKJV and the NASB.

Paraphrases:

Paraphrases represent the opposite approach, sacrificing accuracy for readability. Works such as the Living Bible, Phillips, and The Message, are all highly readable but represent more the interpretation of the author than a translation of the text. These may have value as a comparison but are of little use as a legitimate translation.

Free translation:

Works such as the NIV attempt to blend the best of accuracy and faithfulness to the text, with readability that gives clear and easy understanding. This necessitates a great deal more interpretation on the translators part than a strictly literal translation. For example, in Rom 8:3-9 the NASB consistently translates “sarkos” as “flesh,” which is the literal translation of the word. The NIV, on the other hand, in its attempt to help us understand what “sarkos” means, translates it in a number of ways: “sinful nature,” “man,” “sinful man,” and “sinful.” While the NIV’s translation may be more easily understood and more similar to the way we talk today, the question is, “Is it accurate?”

A study of the above passage shows that it actually causes more confusion. The NIV’s translation boils down to an interpretation with which many Bible students would disagree. On the other hand, how many modern readers understand what it means to be “in the flesh?” And how many would study to find out? These are the dilemmas that the translator faces. It might be added that both the KJV and the NKJV translates “sarkos” two different ways in this passage: as “flesh” and as “carnal.” So, in this passage anyway, the NASB is the most consistent and literal of the three translations.

The literal translations, such as the KJV, NKJV and the NASB, are superior especially for the purpose of serious study because of their accuracy. While they may be more difficult to read in places, the believer who truly desires to understand truth will get beyond this problem, without having to deal with the confusion that the freer translations invite. On the other hand, one might recommend one of the free translations, such as the NIV, for new Christians, children, or for general reading.

THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS

A brief history of our English translations might be of interest at this point. It should be noted that godly leaders have always attempted to put the Bible in the language of the people in order that they might “Grow in respect to salvation” (I Pet 2:2). The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic and was translated into a Greek version, the Septuagint, approximately 200 years before Jesus walked the earth. The Vulgate was a Latin translation of the whole Bible, by the scholar Jerome in A.D. 405. This version of the Bible was known as the Vulgate because it was in the vulgar, or common language of the people.

It was not until 1380 that the first English translation was produced, by John Wycliffe. The English government opposed this work, eventually even passing a law against any English translations. Those who resisted found themselves persecuted. Wycliffe was so hated that his remains were exhumed and burned in 1428.

It would be almost 150 years before another translation of the English Bible was published, this time by William Tyndale. Again the English government and clergy opposed this work, and King Henry VIII issued a proclamation in 1530 that the translation, and circulation, of the Scriptures in the common language of the people be forbidden. Tyndale’s famous response was, “I defy the Pope and all of his laws; if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” Tyndale was able to follow through on this threat, but ultimately died a martyr for his efforts.

Persecution was unable to stop the translation of Scripture into the English language. In 1535 the Coverdale Bible was published, followed by the Matthews in 1537 and the Great Bible in 1539. The next important translation was the Geneva Bible (1560), which was translated by Christian refugees who fled Britain during the reign of Queen Mary. Since the translation was produced in Geneva, Switzerland it became known as the Geneva Bible. But the real significance of this work was that it contained marginal notes, of both a doctrinal and practical nature, which became very controversial due to their Reformed theology, and their apparent disdain of kings. It was the Geneva Bible which the Puritans studied and brought to America on the Mayflower. The Pilgrims hated the King James Version and would not even allow it in the colonies for years. The Geneva Bible would be the preeminent English translation for seventy-five years. As a side note, it was also known as the “Breeches Bible” because of its reading of Genesis 3:7, “And they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves breeches.” Two other popular translations of the day were the Bishop Bible (1568), which was the work of Archbishop Parker and sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth, and the Douay Bible of 1582 which was a Roman Catholic translation.

It was between 1607 and 1611 that the greatest of all English translations of the Bible — the King James Version — took place. Forty-seven scholars, working in several teams, produced the greatest piece of translation that the world had ever seen. Its accuracy and beauty has endeared the KJV to millions for almost four hundred years. King James I of England had sanctioned a new translation (although it never was given an official civil or ecclesiastical authorization despite the handle, “Authorized Version”). King James was apparently not a believer, lived a very ungodly life and hated the Puritans. However, because of the popularity of the Geneva Bible with its anti-king sentiment, he felt threatened. He called for a new translation; he did away with all marginal notes; and he used some Puritans as translators to insure its acceptability. Although the KJV would undergo numerous revisions over the years (the modern KJV is very different from the original) there would not even be a major attempt at a new translation until the 1881 Revised Version and its American cousin, The American Standard Version of 1901.

These two translations, and almost all that have followed them, are based on the Westcott and Hort Greek NT rather than The Textus Receptus. This fact has set up the debate that still lingers among many, concerning which translation is more accurate (see The Bible Translations Debate Part I).

Some King James-only advocates, refer to the NASB and NIV (and sometimes even the NKJV) as corrupt translations. They usually attempt to point to the differences between the translations that they believe are attempts to subvert the true meaning of the Word of God. For example, they claim that the NASB and the NIV do not use the word “blood” as often as the KJV, which is supposed to prove that the NASB and NIV are soft on the issue of atonement.

Besides being pure nonsense, the fact is that all translations could be challenged by such criteria. For example, even David Hunt, a supporter of the KJV, admits that when it comes to declaring the deity of Christ, the modern versions excel. He says, “There are eight verses in the New Testament that clearly declare that Jesus is God: Jh. 1:1; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; II Thes. 1:12; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; II Pet. 1:1; and Rev. 1:8. The KJV is clear in four of these (Jh. 1:1; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; and Heb. 1:8), whereas the NASB and NIV are clear in seven of the eight (the same four plus Titus 2:13; II Pet. 1:1; and Rev. 1:8). . . If the situation was the other way around. . . Some KJV-only advocates would surely accuse the modern versions of down playing Christ’s deity” (Berean Call, Jan, 1995).


I personally believe that the Bible translations debate is blown way out of proportion by some. Rather than fighting over which translation is superior, we might do well to spend more time reading one of the great translations, especially the NASB, the KJV, the NKJV and perhaps the NIV. For further reading on this issue I would recommend:

The Men Behind the King James Version, by Gustavus S. Paine.

The King James Version Debate, a Plea for Realism, by D. A. Carson.

What You Should Know About Bible Translations, by G. Christian Weiss.

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