Original Languages of the Bible
God’s word, the Bible, was originally written in Old Testament Hebrew (with Daniel, Ezra and a few other places written in Aramaic). And, although Jesus and the Apostles primarily spoke Aramaic, the common language of Judea, and although some Aramaic words were used in the original New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament was written primarily in Greek. The New Testament Greek, however, is different from even the modern language spoken in Greece.
Unless your native languages are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, you will necessarily read a “translation” of the Bible.
And, as an old Tuscan proverb states –
“Traduttori Traditori” or “translators are traitors.” As you can see, even that translation to English has lost its sense of rhythm.
Translating from one language to another is inherently difficult. Words may be singular, plural, possessive, masculine, feminine and even neuter in one language and not have any of those characteristics in another language. Word order may be different with word placement dictating importance.
Words may mean more than one thing – for example, the Greek language may have several words for a word in English to which we only have one meaning. For example in the “do you love me” discourse with Christ and Peter in John 21:15-17, Christ ask Peter twice do you “agape” love me? Agape refers to unconditional love. Peter answers both times “Yes, Lord, you know that I “phileo” love you.” Phileo, to which we get Philidelphia, or the City of Brotherly Love, is a brotherly or friendship love. Certainly, it is a lesser love than “agape” love. The third time Christ asks Peter if Peter “phileo” loves him. to which Peter again answers using “phileo.” After which Peter broke down and cried.
But why? In English, it would seem that he was broken because Christ had to ask him repeatedly. In actuality, Christ was saying if you don’t agape love me, do you even phileo love me? Coming from Christ, that would certainly hurt.
Another example, a word, even translated correctly, in the Bible may come across differently in our native language – English. For example, in John 20:13 the Angels appearing to Mary at the tomb of Jesus said: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Although this is an accurate literal translation, it sounds a bit harsh to our contemporary minds. If we were to address a female as “women,” we better be prepared for a fight. But there was no animosity here, they could have translated the “thought” as “dear lady” or some other term of endearment, love, and respect.
Do we translate the word or the thought?
So, we get into the question of what do we translate? The specific words, the thoughts or somehow, both? Some would argue, I want a literal translation. Since we all know John 3:16, here is a literal, word for word Greek translation of this verse.
John 3:16 “In this way for he loved the God the world that the son the only he gave, in order that he believing into him not perish but have life eternal.”
Still, want a literal translation?
On the other hand, if we attempt to translate the thought, we can end up overcompensating. To a degree, this is what we end up within the Amplified Version of the Bible. In reality, we can have a bible that’s accurate, one that’s readable or one that’s elegant. If we’re fortunate, we may end up with one that combines all three qualities.
A quick discussion on the Old Testament
With all of the emphasis on the various translations, it’s important to recognize that as a practical purpose, the Old Testament is somewhat settled and that the major translation issues discussed below really pertain to the New Testament. Why? The Old Testament was entrusted to a nation – the Jews, who memorized the Old Testament, cherished it, kept copies in their Synagogues and in their homes and generally treated the Old Testament as Sacred scripts critical to their national identity. Additionally, from the 6th to the 10th century, Jewish scholars successfully compared the text of all known biblical manuscript in an effort to create a unified and standardized text.
An exception, the KJV follows the Septuagint (or Greek Old Testament) rather than the original Hebrew text. Consequently, the KJV’s Old Testament is a translation of a translation which on the surface is never a great idea.
For example, Proverbs 18:24 is rendered differently in the KJV vs. a majority of more modern translations, which translate from the original Hebrew.
Proverbs 18:24 King James Version “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”
Proverbs 18:24 English Standard Version “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
It would seem apparent that something went amuck in the translation of the KJV.
Another example is Daniel 3:24-25 where King Nebuchadnezzar, clearly an unbeliever, states with amazement “…Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?..I see four men loose…and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
The literal Greek and most other translations translate this as “…like a son of the gods.”
Some have concluded that translations other than the KJV are somehow inferring a “false god or demon spirit” but that is not the case. It needs to be remembered that the context of this passage, an unbelieving king (Nebuchadnezzar,) is simply stating the astonishment of the presence in the fire of a fourth supernatural being and uses a pagan historical reference to one who appeared “supernatural” – “son of the gods.” We recognize this fourth person as a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ since we have been exposed to the revelations of the New Testament, while the Old Testament unbelieving king simply saw a supernatural being.
In fairness, a final conclusion should not be drawn from a few passages, however, it should be recognized that the desired result of a true and accurate translation can only be enhanced when the source is from the original language.
The history of Bible translations
Saint Jerome (347 -420) and the Latin Vulgate
At the age of 45, the Scholar Jerome, working under the authority of Pope Damasus, in order to address the many inaccurate texts of that day, and to establish a Latin-based translation of the Bible, began his work using both Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available around 382, and completed his translation around 405 (around 23 years later – which was quite an accomplishment for a one-man team.) It was known as the Latin Vulgate (from the Latin word vulgus, meaning “common” language.) Although corrupted copies of Jerome’s work, encumbered by copyists errors (since this was before the printing press,) were commonly circulated, corrected editions were published in the late sixteenth century. As an aside, interestingly, even Jerome considered the Apocryphal books as non-canonical books of the bible.
John Wycliffe (1320 – 1384) and the First English Translation
Until John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic priest and Oxford scholar translated the New Testament in 1382, using Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, only small portions of the Bible had been translated into English. It was Wycliffe who believed that each man was directly accountable to God and as such needed to have a Bible translated into their own language. He also rejected many of the teachings of the Catholic church, as a precursor to the Reformation, and five papal edicts were issued for his arrest. Although he died in 1384 of natural causes and was buried in the Lutterworth Church cemetery where he was Pastor, 43 years after his death, his body was exhumed, burned and his ashes dumped into the river Swift.
Wycliffe’s Bible was slavishly literal – even to the point of retaining the Latin word order when it made no sense in English, illustrating again, that a “word-for-word” translation is not necessarily accurate or, for that matter, readable.
The invention of the movable type printing press (1454)
In 1454, the Gutenberg movable- type printing press was invented. Gutenberg’s first full-length book: the Latin Vulgate Bible.
The Reformation is born (1517)
On October 31, 1517, the Reformation is born when Martin Luther challenges the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg.
William Tyndale (1494 – 1536) the Oxford – Greek and Hebrew Scholar
England’s monarchy went back and forth from Catholic to The Church of England or pseudo-Christian and was under the 1408 edict which forbade ownership of any English Bibles. Although other translations, inspired and based on Wycliffe’s efforts were appearing in Italy, France, Spain and even Holland, as early as the 1400’s, in 1520 William Tyndale, another Oxford scholar envisioned a fresh English translation and moved to Germany in order to realize his dream. This effort bore fruit in 1525 when the New Testament was completed.
Tyndale later revised the New Testament substantially, using Luther’s German translation, the Latin Vulgate and Erasmus’ third edition for the Greek – the revision was a bona fide masterpiece. He even coined some new words that found their way into the English vocabulary – words such as ‘Passover,’ ‘peacemaker,’ ‘scapegoat,’ and even the adjective ‘beautiful’ was coined by Tyndale. Although he completed the New Testament, he was only able to translate through 2 Chronicles in the Old Testament, as he was kidnapped in 1535 in Antwerp, and burned at the stake the next year for heresy. His charge? A corrupt translation of the Bible. It actually was a superb translation but the clergy of that day feared the common class could not understand the bible and needed the clergy and tradition to interpret it for them.
Tyndale’s translation was a wonderful and lucid English translation for its day. He was able to turn Greek into good English.
The Proliferation of English Bibles
After Tyndale, from 1535 until 1610, English went through upheavals in rulers and religious loyalties. At the same time England and Europe developed numerous bibles to meet the needs of various political and religious factions which included the following:
- The Coverdale Bible (1535)
- Matthew’s Bible (1537)
- The Great Bible (1539)
- The Geneva Bible (1560)
- The Bishops’ Bible (1568), and
- The Rheims-Douai Bible (1582, 1609-1610)
The Era of Elegance – the Reign of King James
In 1603, England was left with primarily, two competing Bibles – the Bishops Bible which was used in the churches and the Geneva Bible which was commonly read in the homes.
By far, the Geneva Bible was the more popular, but it was not popular with the clergy.
In 1604 England’s new monarch, King James I, summoned the religious leaders to air out their ecclesiastical grievances and differences. The most important issue that was settled was a resolution to develop a new Bible translation, to be based on the original Hebrew and Greek, to be printed without marginal notes, and to be the only Bible used in all of the Churches of England.
James assigned six panels of scholars to do the work: three for the Old Testament, two for the New Testament, and one for the Apocrypha. Two teams met at Oxford, two met at Cambridge, and two at Westminster Abbey. Altogether, there were forty-seven (47) men who worked on the King James Version of the Bible.
The translators did not consult any Greek or Hebrew manuscripts as they did their revision. Instead, they based their work on existing published texts. The Old Testament textual basis has not changed too dramatically since the sixteenth century, but the New Testament text has gone through enormous changes. The text that the King James translators used was principally the Stephanus text of 1550 (third edition), which, in turn, relied essentially on Erasmus’ third edition of 1522—the same Greek text that Tyndale had used. Effectively, 90% of the King James New Testament was really Tyndale’s translation.
It should be noted that Erasmus, a contemporary of Luther, translated the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate and from eight Greek manuscripts, three of which were primarily used, and all of which were dated no earlier than the eleventh century.
In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible was published. It is, even today, one of the most elegant translations of the bible. As with all translations, however, the KJV is not without its blemishes.
A moment in the Christian community, known as the King James Only movement, claims the KJV is the “only preserved” bible. This movement is bigger than one might imagine, as you can check the “KJV only” in Google and even get a listing of KJV only churches in your area. There is nothing in the bible to indicate the veracity of this and it seems ludicrous to assume that the only “true” bible wasn’t released until 1611 and then only to English speaking individuals.
Additionally, the Apocrypha was included in the KJV until 1885, or for 274 years, which seems strange of a God who is stating this is my only preserved word. I have read accounts of the KJV coming from the 5000 plus manuscripts, which is also historically incorrect since these manuscripts were not discovered until the 20th century – 300 years after the KJV. I’ve also read accounts that the KJV came from Antioch where the Christians were and all the other bible versions came from Athens where the Catholics resided. Again, there is no historical underpinning to support this. Unfortunately many KJV only advocates are dogmatic about the KJV but ambivalent on the Sovereignty of Christ and other biblical doctrines. This contradiction does not seem to be in line with “rightly dividing the word of truth” 2 Timothy 2:15.
Again, the KJV is an elegant rendering of God’s word, but it does have a number of shortcomings and other versions are as good if not better. Probably the biggest shortcoming is simply understanding the words use in the KJV. Matthew 7:5 is a great example.
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Now, beam I understand, but what’s a “mote?” As a comparison, the NASB translates this a follows:
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Okay, speck I understand. And the comparision of log and speck shows the intent of hypocrisy.
To claim KJV only is certainly short-sighted, lacks historical and biblical support and clearly ignores whole cultures of non-English speaking believers and non-believers.
The Era of Accuracy (1881 – 1971) The Proliferation of Revised Bibles
Subsequently, numerous attempts to develop a revised and modern version of the Bible developed as follows:
- The Revised Version appeared in 1881 meant to be a revision of the KJV. In fact, it was touted as “the triumph of King Truth over King James.” It was, however, far more literal than elegant and most people, including the clergy, still preferred King James.
- The American Standard Version (1901)
- The Revised Standard Version (1946, 1952) – which Senator McCarthy condemned as communist propaganda.
The conservative reaction to the RSV’s translations resulted in the New American Standard Bible (1963, 1971; Revised 1995.) This revision from the Lockman Foundation, a theologically conservative organization resulted in a literal translation, which remained popular with conservative pastors, but not so popular in the pew. Many times, it resulted in less readability by simply putting Greek into an English dressing.
What needs, however, to be recognized is that the translations, after King James, were the product of some 5,100 New Testament Greek manuscripts, many of which were dated from the first century and the original Hebrew.
In other words, whereas as the KJV was the product of eight Greek manuscripts (Erasmus) from the Eleventh century, the Latin Vulgate and the Greek Septuagint Old Testament, the newer Bibles were using substantially more manuscripts that were much closer to the original creation date. It must be remembered that earlier manuscripts are inherently more accurate since later manuscripts entail additions, deletions, and errors after the many years of manually writing and rewriting by human scribes.
One of the criticisms that some point to, in an attempt to show that King James is more accurate (some will even say “the only preserved word”) than other more current translations is that 1 John 5:7-8, describing the Trinity, has been omitted from all current versions. The truth is that Erasmus was pressured to add 1 John 5:7-8 into his third edition of the New Testament as a result of a Catholic scribe who was adding it into some of his bible transcriptions.
1 John 5:7-8 “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”
Two facts should be understood. It is logical to conclude that some text, appearing in later manuscripts, were not necessarily present in earlier manuscripts. Additionally, the Christian truth of the Trinity does not rest alone on 1 John 5:7-8.
It should be recognized that to maintain a “KJV Only” stance casts an unnecessary disrepute on legitimate Christian scholars who attempt to rightly divide the word of God so that believers can grow in their sanctification and unbelievers can be regenerated. It also casts doubts on God’s ability to preserve His word as promised.
Dynamic equivalence – (1970 – today)
Because of the poor readability of the Revised Bibles, a new era of readability resulted in the translation of the NEB and the NIV. Both of these translations were the first major translations done by Protestants that are completely new works. Neither relied on the Tyndale-King James lineage. Neither is a literal or formal equivalent translation. The goal of any translation is to not only reproduce the message of the original but to reproduce the impact of that original message.
The lineage of the dynamic equivalence include the following:
- The New English Bible (1970; revised 1989)
- The New International Version (1973, 1978, revised 2011) – by 1995, outsold KJV – over 100 million copies sold.
- The New King James Bible (1979, 1983) – revised to address archaic language, but still, use the Erasmus Greek text
- The New Revised Standard Version (1989)
- The Holman Christian Standard Version (2000, 2001)
- The English Standard Version (2001)
Another recent translation, meant to be an effort to combine readability, accuracy, and elegance and championed by the likes of Chuck Swindoll, President of Dallas Seminary, is the New English Translation.
God Preserves and the Spirit Illuminates His Word
With all the inherent translative difficulties, the Bible, in a wonderful verse in the New Testament which incorporates a reference to the Old Testament, says as follows:
1 Peter 1:24-25 “For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word that was proclaimed to you.”
The Old Testament verse quoted in this New Testament verse is Isaiah 40:8.
God, in spite of our translations difficulties and weaknesses, preserves His word. He does warn us not to add to or take from the word (Deuteronomy 4:2 and Revelation 22:19,) so we are charged to be careful with its meaning and we are to be faithful in accurately communicating what He has communicated to us.
Additionally, it is the Spirit of God that illuminates his word. As the Apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 2:14-16 “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him? But we have the mind of Christ.”
For almost 1500 years people have come to the Lord in salvation without a written Bible. Since the invention of the printing press, there has been a steady effort to provide accurate, readable and elegant bibles for the masses. They’ve sometimes have erred on the literal, stilting readability. Sometimes erred on readability, invoking too much of one person’s opinion, but we have today, a number of translations that are as true as can be produced with our current level of scholarship to convey the full message of God. Are there bad translations? Certainly, the translation of the cults – Mormons, 7th Day Adventist and Jehovah Witnesses, are not to be used but many of the current translations are accurate, readable and elegant and should not be avoided.
God does indeed preserve His word – “the word of the Lord endures forever,” (1 Peter 1:25) and the Holy Spirit does enlighten His believers – “the one who is spiritual discerns all things” (1 Cor 2:15.)