I. Why So Many Versions?
"Breaking up is hard to do," as the song goes. Ma Bell did it--creating a glut of long distance companies almost as numerous as brands of deodorant.
The Bible did it, too. Before the year 1881 you could read any version you wanted--as long as it was the King James Version. But since 1881, scores of new translations have been printed.
How did the King James get dethroned? Which translation is best today? Are any of the modern translations really faithful to the original? These are some of the questions we'll be looking at in this essay. But initially, we'd just like to get a bird?s eye view. We simply want an answer to the question, "Why are there so many versions of the Bible?"
There are three basic influences which have given birth to a multitude of translations.
First, in 1881 two British scholars published a Greek New Testament which was based on the most ancient manuscripts then available. This text, by Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, made several notable departures from the Greek text which King James translators used. For the most part, the Westcott-Hort text was a shorter New Testament. That's because the older manuscripts (MSS) which they used did not contain passages such as the longer ending of Mark's gospel or the story of the women caught in adultery. The Greek MSS which the King James translators followed included these and many other passages.
At the same time the Westcott-Hort text made its debut, the English Revised Version of the New Testament appeared. A new era was born in which translations of the New Testament now used the few ancient Greek MSS rather than the many later ones.
Second, since 1895 many archeological and manuscript discoveries have been made which have which have pronounced judgment on some of the renderings found in the King James. The single most important discovery was that of the Egyptian papyri. In 1895, Adolf Deissmann published a volume, given the unassuming title, Bible Studies (Bibelstudien), which revolutionized NT scholarship. Deissmann discovered that ancient papyrus scraps, buried in Egyptian garbage dumps some 2,000 years ago, contained Greek which was quite similar to the Greek of the NT. He concluded that the Greek of the NT was written in the common language of the day. It was not the dialect which only the most elite could understand. Since Deissmann's discovery, translators have endeavored to put the NT into language the average person could comprehend--just as it was originally intended. Not only that but the papyri have helped us to understand many words--words which were only guessed at by King James translators.
Finally, there have been philosophical influences. That is, the theory of translation is being revamped today. Missionaries have made a significant contribution toward this end--because they are eager to see a particular tribe read the Bible in its own language.
These three differences--textual, informational, philosophical--have been the parents of a new generation of Bible translations. But are these translations any good? Are they any better than the King James?
For the rest of the essay, we will examine each of these influences and then, finally, try to see which translation is best.
II. The Text of Modern Translations
Where have all the verses gone? The modern translations seem to have cut out many of the most precious lines of Scripture. They end Mark's gospel at the 8th verse of chapter 16; they omit the reference of the angel of the Lord stirring the waters at the pool of Bethesda (verse 4 of John 5); and, most notably, they excise the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8.
Besides omissions, these modern versions make significant changes in the text. For example, in I Timothy 3:16, the King James reads, "God was manifest in the flesh," but most modern translations read, "He was manifest in the flesh." In Revelation 22:19 the King James speaks of the "book of life" while virtually all modern versions speak of the "tree of life." Altogether, there are hundreds of textual changes between the King James and modern translations.
In this brief essay we cannot determine who is right. But we can make a few observations.
First, the textual changes in the modern translations affect no major doctrine. The deity of Christ, virgin birth, salvation by grace alone--and all the rest--are still intact. Though certain passages are omitted or changed, the doctrines are not. There are evangelicals who prefer the King James and there are some evangelicals who prefer the modern translations.
Second, the textual changes in these modern translations are based on the most ancient MSS of the Greek NT. These MSS date from early in the second century A.D. But the Greek texts behind the King James belong to a group of MSS--called the Byzantine text--which are much more recent. On the other hand, although these MSS are more recent, they comprise at least 80% of the 5000+ MSS of the NT that we presently have. It is theoretically possible that, at times, these MSS point to an early tradition as well.
Third, the King James NT did not always follow the majority of MSS. Actually, the Greek text behind the King James was based on only about half a dozen MSS. Now it just so happened that these MSS belonged to the Byzantine text. But on a few occasions there were gaps. And the compiler (a man named Erasmus) had to fill in those gaps by translating the Latin NT back into Greek. There are, therefore, some readings in the King James--such as 'book of life' in Rev 22:19 or the wording of I John 5:7-8, which are not found either in the majority of MSS or the most ancient MSS. No serious student of the Bible would call them original (though many popular Bible teachers do).
Fourth, the charge that the more ancient MSS or the men who embrace them are unorthodox is a faulty charge. It is true that in certain places the ancient MSS do not explicitly affirm the deity of Christ--such as in I Tim 3:16. But neither do they deny it! Besides this, in some passages these ancient MSS make Christ's deity explicit where the King James does not! In John 1:18, the modern versions read "the unique one, God" while the King James has "the only begotten Son." Futhermore, the majority of evangelical scholars embrace this critical text. Even the men who edited the New Scofield Reference Bible of the King James Version personally favor the critical text!
Fifth, at the same time, there are some scholars today who are strong advocates of the Byzantine text--most notably, Zane Hodges and Arthur Farstad. Together they edited The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text and Dr. Farstad was also the senior editor of the New King James Bible. Thus, it is possible to be intelligent and still embrace the Byzantine text, just as it is possible to be evangelical and embrace the modern critical text. (I happen to disagree with the resultant text that Firsthad and Hodges have produced,1 but I respect their scholarship.)
Finally, we ought to quit labeling one another as heretics or idiots in the ongoing discussion. There needs to be charity on both sides. One of my college professors frequently said, "The Christian army is the only army in the world that shoots its wounded!" Unfortunately, this is especially true when it comes to translations of the Bible.
III. Deissmann and the Papyri
In1895 a German pastor by the name of Adolf Deissmann published a rather innocent-sounding volume: Bible Studies. Yet, this single volume started a revolution in NT scholarship--a revolution in which the common man was the winner.
In the 1800s Deissmann began reading ancient Greek MSS. But not the great classical authors. He was reading private letters, business transactions, receipts, marriage contracts. What were these documents? Merely scraps of papyrus (the ancient forerunner to paper) found in 2,000-year-old Egyptian garbage dumps. In these seemingly insignificant papyri, Deissmann discovered a key to uncover the NT! For these papyri contained the common Greek language of the first century A.D. They were written in the vocabulary of the NT.
What's so revolutionary about that? you ask. It is revolutionary because up until 1895, biblical scholars had no real parallels to the language of the NT. They often viewed its Greek as invented by the Holy Spirit. They called it "Holy Ghost Greek." Now it is true that the ideas--even the words--were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it's another thing to say that the language of the NT was unusual--that its grammar and vocabulary were, in a word, unique. If this were true, only the spiritual elite could even hope to understand the NT.
Deismann's discovery burst the bubble on this view: the Greek of the NT was written in the language of the common man.
There are two implications of what Deissmann did for the Bible translations:
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