Which Bible Translation?
He was a bright young scholar, only 29 years of age, yet he was about to make the most significant discovery of his career—a discovery that would soon alter the course of history. His goal was simple: to prove scientifically that the words of the Bible were trustfully transmitted over centuries.
He had already earned his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig (in present-day Germany) at the ripe old age of 23, but in his work of New Testament criticism, he had discovered a major problem. Even though he was supposed to be studying the ancient Bible texts, there really weren’t any ancient manuscripts of the Bible to be found anywhere. The only Bible manuscripts anyone had were the ones handed down through the church, and all of those were copied over a thousand years after the Bible writers died. How could anyone know whether, perhaps, they had been changed over the years? If so, when were they changed, and what did the earlier manuscripts actually say? Nobody really knew.
The year was 1844. The man: Constantin von Teschendorf. The place: the Sinai Peninsula, in the Monastery of St. Catherine. Here, Techendorf discovered the oldest complete known Bible in the Monestary St. Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula, dating back to the 4th century. As the story goes, he found the pages were lying in an old wicker basket, and he was given 43 pages as a present.
He came back in 1853, and again in 1859, searching for more manuscripts. On his last visit in 1859, he convinced the monks of the monastery to donate the remainder of their “wastebasket” Bible to Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Tsar Alexandar II published the manuscript, which came to be known as “Codex Sinaiticus” in 4 volumes in 1862, a move that would go on to shape the course of history and open the way for a new and deeper understanding of the ancient Holy Scriptures.
In 1870, Brooke Foss Westcott, a zealous Bible scholar, was appointed as professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. For the next 11 years, B. F. Westcott, along with his Irish colleague Fenton John Anthony Hort and Joseph Barber Lightfoot, worked together to produce a new and updated critical Greek text of the New Testament. This was the first time such a task was undertaken, since the one produced by Erasmus two-and-a-half centuries earlier. But unlike Erasmus, Westcott and Hort were able to consult much older Greek manuscripts as they compiled their new Greek Text.
After the recent discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, Westcott, Hort, and others began to notice the similarities between this ancient manuscript and another manuscript. This second manuscript had been hidden away for centuries in a library at the Vatican, and was known simply as the Codex Vaticanus. Now, this wasn’t an unknown manuscript. In fact, even Erasmus knew about the Codex Vaticanus during his work, and he obtained hand-written copies of several passages. However, in the early 16th century, few scribes at the Vatican were fluent in ancient Greek, and they made many mistakes in the portions they copied and sent to Erasmus, at his request. So, Erasmus, and most scholars, assumed the Codex Vaticanus was probably full of errors and wasn’t worth much.
As Westcott and Hort worked to produce their new Greek text, they relied heavily on these two ancient manuscripts—the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus. In fact, this is by far the biggest mistake that they made in their work. Wherever they found that the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus agreed with each other, they would usually go with the reading of the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, even if it disagreed with all the other manuscripts. Though they were Christians, they were at the same time “modernists.” Like the humanist scholar, Erasmus, who had compiled the Greek text of the 16th century, they embraced Christianity but they were, at the same time, theological and social liberals. Both Westcott and Hort denied the literal, historical interpretation of the creation account of Genesis 1-3. Hort rejected the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Like many Christians then and now, they were fascinated by supernatural or “occult” phenomena, and Wescott even organized a club to investigate these phenomena. However, there is no evidence that he actually participated in seances or occult activity.
(on one occasion, on hearing the accusations leveled against him, Westcott wrote: “Many years ago I had occasion to investigate “spiritualistic” phenomena with some care, and I came to a clear conclusion, which I feel bound to express in answer to your circular. It appears to me that in this, as in all spiritual questions, Holy Scripture is our supreme guide. I observe, then, that while spiritual ministries are constantly recorded in the Bible, there is not the faintest encouragement to seek them. The case, indeed, is far otherwise. I cannot, therefore, but regard every voluntary approach to beings such as those who are supposed to hold communication with men through mediums as unlawful and perilous. I find in the fact of the Incarnation all that man (so far as I can see) requires for life and hope.”)
As soon as they were finished with their Greek text in 1881, the scholars at Cambridge took up the next task: the revision of the Authorized King James Bible. In 1885, the new Revised Version was published, based on Westcott and Hort’s research into the ancient Biblical texts.
Naturally, this work wasn’t without its controversies. Not everyone was ready to agree with Westcott and Hort in their view of these two ancient manuscripts—and their opposers did not remain silent! Chief among them was an old scholar by the name of John Burgon, professor of Divinity at Oxford and later dean of Chichester. Burgon objected to Westcott and Hort’s strong preference for the two Alexandrian manuscripts. He wrote a critique of the Codex Vaticanus, which he had studied and believed to be greatly inferior to the later manuscripts.
During the next few years, other Biblical scholars began examining and building upon the work done by Westcott and Hort. They continued to search for manuscripts, and continued to refine the Greek text based on their discoveries. But few of the mainstream scholars questioned Westcott and Hort’s basic assumptions: that the oldest available manuscripts were by far the best manuscripts.
One scholar who did question these assumptions was a German bible scholar, Baron Hermann von Soden. After studying the differences in the manuscripts, Soden theorized that in the 4th century, there were likely 3 different variant texts of the Bible. By working from this theory, he developed a system to reconstruct the most probable original text behind these three variants. He published four volumes between 1901-1904, in German, entitled “Die Schriften des neuen Testaments, in ihrer ältesten erreichbaren Textgestalt / hergestellt auf Grund ihrer Textgeschichte” or “The writings of the New Testament, in its oldest attainable form of the text / prepared on the basis of their text history.” The work of von Soden would be continued through the 20th century by scholars such as Hodges & Farstad, who compiled “The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text,” published by Thomas Nelson in 1982, along with the New King James Version.
But, during this time, these discussions remained largely in the realm of academia. Yes, people did buy the Revised Version, and some began reading it, but by and large, the King James Version was the Bible of the common, man, at home and in the church.
The early 1900’s were an era of unprecedented change in America. The Wright Brothers had flown their first airplane in 1903. Henry Ford’s first “Model T” rolled off the assembly line in 1908. And in the same decade, the first “American” Bible was being published: the American Standard Version. This was really just a minor update to the Revised Version—it followed the same Westcott-Hort Greek text of the New Testament. One interesting feature of this translation was the use of “Jehovah” instead of all-uppercase “LORD” to indicate God’s name. This was the first of the new translations to start to gain widespread use in America.
But not everyone was happy with the new Bible. As more and more people began reading the new translations, more people began to realize that this new Bible wasn’t the same as the Bible they had been used to. Preachers’ found that the wording had changed in their favorite texts. Lay-members discovered some of their favorite passages marked off in brackets, or relegated to the footnotes. True, some of the passages were improved, but this new Bible was radically different from the old, tried and true King James Version.
While the scholars and academics had whole-heartedly accepted the new text of Westcott and Hort, church goes and pastors alike began crying out, “Who changed our Bible?” In 1930, a Seventh-day Adventist theologian published his book, “Our Authorized Bible Vindicated,” in which he argues vehemently against the character and methods of Westcott and Hort, and upholds the Textus Receptus as the “pure” and “unchanged” manuscript of the New Testament. His book rallied a following, not only among Seventh-day Adventists, but among many fundamentalist Christians, who saw the new Bible translations as encroaching on their beliefs. This was the beginning of the “King James Only” movement, that swept across denominational lines with the rallying cry, “We have one and only one true Bible – the King James Version”
By the 1970’s, the KJVO movement was being carried forward by preachers such as David Otis Fuller, and Independent Baptist. It was popularizes still further by Gail Riplinger’s 1993 publication of “New Age Bible Versions,” in which she not only vehemently attacks the modern Bible translations, but the character and motives of Westcott and Hort and of all Christians who should promote bibles “tainted” by their corruptions.
Meanwhile, another amazing discovery was shaping up to take the world of Biblical textual scholarship by storm. On a hillside along the northwest shores of the Dead Sea, in late 1946 or early 1947, a young shepherd entered one of the many small caves on the hillside and discovered several scrolls in old clay pottery jars. He brought them back to his family, eventually selling them for a few dollars to a local merchant. It was a few months before the scrolls made it into the hands of scholars who were able to recognize their value, and soon a full-scale search was underway to uncover the rest of the scrolls from the Qumran caves. Many of the scrolls were broken in fragments, but they were able to find enough pieces to discover portions of every book of the Old Testament, including the entire book of Isaiah.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Take, for example, the great Isaiah scroll that was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is dated to around 100BC. The oldest manuscript of Isaiah in the Masoretic text is AD895. Over this 1000 year time period, the scholars found only 13 significant differences between the scrolls.
The scholars also discovered that many of the Hebrew scrolls in the Qumran supported the readings of the Septuagint. This has led the Biblical scholars, who previously looked with disdain on the Septuagint, to reconsider their prejudices and take a fresh look at the Old Testament that was used by Jesus’ Disciples and the early Christian church.
I could go into more detail about the history of the Bible over the last 50 years, but I’ll leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that the road has not been an easy one. There has been more disagreement, not just over manuscripts but even over the methods of translation. Should we translate word-for-word, or should we paraphrase? Or, maybe the best option is somewhere in the middle, sort of a “dynamic equivalence.” What is the correct way to say the name of God? What does the word “Hell” mean? Can the word “man” in the Bible include women, too?
Today, we have not just dozens but literally hundreds of English Bible translations to choose from. Is this all part of a big conspiracy to cover up the one true Bible? With so many options to choose from, how can a person possibly pick the right one?
It’s seems sort of like searching the World Wide Web. Everybody’s got an opinion, but nobody has the facts. Maybe it seems a little like going through the buffet line at the Golden Corral. So many options, where do we start? Do you stick with the ‘taters and corn, or try something new?
I want to take just a few minutes, and share with you my own story. Your story may be different, but I want to just share with you from my own experience, in coming to know God’s Word.
As a kid, I remember my parents giving me my very first Bible. I couldn’t read yet, but it had a picture of Jesus on the front, and I remember thumbing through the pages, looking at the color plates throughout the thick book. I grew up hearing the Bible stories, of course, and when I learned to read, that Bible was one of the first books where I sounded out the words.
When I was ten years old, my family met several other families in the church, who had very high Christian standards, and taught our family many good things. I remember my parents buying my brothers and me each our very own, large print King James Bible. Not only did they give us the Bibles, but for the first time, they taught us each, individually, to spend time every day, alone, reading God’s Word for ourselves. Now, you can imagine me, by now just eleven years old, reading from the King James Bible. I didn’t read very fast, but I had colored pencils and I would underline verses as I went along, using different colors for promises, and for instructions, etc. And we memorized. Every day at family worship, we would memorize scripture. Not just a memory verse, but whole chapters! We even memorized the Sermon on the Mount, and to this day I can quote nearly all of those three chapters in Matthew by heart.
I want to say that this, alone, probably more than anything else—the daily studying and memorizing of God’s word—has shaped who I am today. It was this memorizing that helped sharpen my mind at a young age, and after that time I always did well in school. And it was the habit of daily study that brought me to know Jesus Christ for myself—not because it was my Mom and Dad’s religion, but because I had a personal knowledge and relationship with Jesus Christ.
During this time, when I was a young kid, I remember my dad reading (and talking about) the book, “Our Authorized Bible, Vindicated.” Somewhere along the line, my first little Bible, with the pictures, disappeared. It may have gotten lost in one of the moves, but since it was an NIV, I suspect that its disappearance was intentional. But, I didn’t really care, because I had fallen in love with my big King James Bible, which by this time I had marked and read nearly through.
You could say that, for a time at least, my family was in the “KJV-Only” movement. Not that we were extremely so, but we definitely knew the arguments against the “corrupted” manuscripts of Westcott and Hort, and even looked with distrust on translations like the “New King James.”
Through my teenage years I continued reading and studying every day. For a long time, I would journal, and write a summary of what I had studied. Eventually though, as I started college, I got out of the habit of studying every day. I would study on weekends, or when I could find the time. Sometimes it would get to be sporadic. And during those times, I could tell my spiritual life was declining. When I would pick up my Bible, I would find it was difficult to read. I had read so much, the words started to sound the same. Some things I thought I understood, and some things seemed to go right over my head. And this in spite of the fact that I had grown up, for the most part, with the King James Bible.
A few years ago, I started listening to the Bible as I would commute back and forth to work. It wasn’t the King James Bible, it was the NIV. Now, I know about the problems with the NIV. Trust me, those problems have been drilled into my head! I knew about the problems, but I also knew that I needed to hear the Scriptures—because I wasn’t getting them any other way.
And you know what happened? It was totally unexpected. The Bible became alive to me. Even though I was an elder in the church—even though at the time I was earning my living by colporteuring—for the first time, it seemed, the Bible characters became real in a way they never had before. Jesus and His disciples were no longer strange people in a far-off land, speaking a far-off language. They became my friends! As I would drive the lonely back roads of eastern Kentucky, the words of Paul and Peter would by driven home to my mind, and the pictures of heaven in the book of Revelation have literally brought me to tears.
I want to say this—I hold no grudges. I have no regrets for the years I spent studying and memorizing the King James Bible. If I have any regrets, it is those times when I got away from studying God’s word. And that was my own fault—I can’t blame that on a Bible translation. But I can tell you this—that through that NIV Bible, God spoke to my heart. And once again, He changed my life.
Recently, I set out to do my own study into the different Bible translations. I’ve spent the better part of this past year, off and on, doing the research that has become this series, “The Story of the Word.” Over the past few weeks, I’ve meticulously compared over two-dozen different Bible translations, looking critically for the weak points, as well as their strong points. And yes, I have found many weak points. There are differences, and there are many that fall short. But in not one case have I found a Bible translation that doesn’t contain the full gospel of Jesus Christ. I’d be happy to share some of my research with you individually, if you are interested—but I want to say, I was honestly surprised. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Despite all the attempts of Satan, God has preserved His Word. The Bible you hold in your hands, regardless of which translation you prefer—this Bible nearly twenty centuries after it was written, is still the Word of God.
Friend, I have only one question for you: will you read it? If you, like my family, are a lover of the King James Version, read it. Maybe, like me, you’ve come to a place where you aren’t spending time every day in His word. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand, or perhaps it’s difficult for you to read. I want to encourage you—I appeal to you—find a Bible that you can read, or listen to, and that you can understand. No, it’s not a satanic Bible. It’s the Word of God, and I guarantee that it will change your life.
If you have enjoyed reading this message, you may enjoyed reading my more in-depth article on Bible Translations Comparison
The mother of the author of this article would like to add her own personal testimony. Although at one time I was a King James only believer, I have found that the more modern translations help me to have a better understanding of God’s word. It would seem to me that insisting on King James only is akin to chaining the word of God to the walls of a monastery. It keeps people from reading the Bible in the language with which they are most familiar. I recommend comparing various translations in your daily Bible study and you will find the truth. Our God is powerful enough to preserve the essential truths of his word.
Amen! Thank you, Mom! Most of all, thank you for teaching me to love the Bible when I was young. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for you! <3