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Apologetics – Lesson 7: Why are there so many versions (Part 1)

March 28, 2012

Go into any Christian (or regular) bookstore and you are likely to find many different Bibles. From the KJV to the NIV there are at least half a dozen (or more) Bibles to choose from. Which one is the right Bible? Are there Bibles to be avoided? Which one should Christians use? These questions, believe it or not, do come up in apologetics discussions. If God inspired the Bible then why is there not only one Bible? Why so many different versions? To answer this question we need to understand the process of translation and how we got the Bible in English. We will answer the first part of that question in this lesson and cover the English Bible history in the next.

The Translation Process:

To many of us in America there is one language, English. Actually the English we use is an Americanized form of the language that has been changed over the last two hundred years and taken a different path than the language of England. Regardless it is still fundamentally the same language (though some of my British friends may not agree. J) If you have never learned another language then the process of translation may be something of a mystery to you. Hopefully this article will aid in your understanding and you will gain an appreciation for the work of translators in any context. The translation process of the Bible (or any ancient document) is similar to translating languages today but there are some challenges specific to this task that make it interesting.

Step One – Manuscripts:

The first step in translating the Bible is determining what to translate. This sounds simple; you go and get a Hebrew manuscript of the Old Testament and a Greek manuscript of the New Testament. But it is not just a simple matter of going to a shelf and pulling off two manuscripts. Remember that the original autographs have been preserved through a copying process. Today we have manuscripts that are copies of copies of copies. As we have studied, there are variations among the various manuscripts. Through the science of Textual Criticism, scholars determine which of the readings of the text are the “best.” This compiled text is called a critical text (not to be confused with the Critical Text which we will discuss later).

For the OT the manuscripts are fairly well settled. Remember that the OT was a controlled document within the nation of Israel and not subject to the copying process and variation we see in the NT. Most translations today use the Biblia Hebraica text, which is largely derived from the Masoretic text. For the NT it is a different story. As we saw in the last lesson the prolific copying of the NT resulted in more and earlier copies than any other document in the ancient world. It also resulted in textual variations and different manuscript families. A manuscript family is defined by the region where the manuscript originates which can be determined by looking for similarities in the manuscripts. Remember that in the ancient world travel and communication was nowhere near what we are capable of today. Travel from place to place would take weeks if not months and there was always the chance that the courier would not survive the journey. When a manuscript reached a region it tended to stay there and copies made from it and others would reflect the region. Today, there are two big camps that we can divide the NT manuscripts into:

The Alexandrian Family:

  • These MSS represent about 5% of the total number of Greek MSS available for study.
  • These MSS are dated earlier than other MSS families. Examples include most of the papyri, the Sinaiticus, the Vaticanus, and other Uncial MSS.
  • Most modern English versions were made using this MSS family.

The Byzantine Family:

  • These MSS represent about 95% of the total number of Greek MSS available for study.
  • These MSS are dated later than the Alexandrian Family.

There are other families of manuscripts but these two are by far the most reliable and the most widely used. Once you understand the families of manuscripts you also need to deal with the textual variants we mentioned last week. If you are going to translate the Bible then you need to make a determination as to what to do with the variants. If a passage has variants giving two readings then the translator needs to determine which one to translate (the other is frequently in a footnote.) A good example of this issue can be found by looking up Mark 7:16 in a KJV and then a NIV. You will not find this verse in the NIV as it skips from verse 15 to verse 17. This is because the KJV uses primarily Byzantine family texts (verse numbers were created with the byzantine manuscripts) while the NIV uses primarily Alexandrian. Remember the issue is not that the verse is “missing” from the NIV but rather that the Greek texts that the NIV was translated from did not contain the verse. Be very careful in charging a translation with “missing” or “deleted” verses and words without understanding this fact. I should also note that, in the example given, the NIV places verse 16 in a footnote. Any good translation or Greek text will do this.

There are two other issues involving variants that the translator or textual scholar must deal with. One is the issue of harmonization. This is when a scribe copied a passage in one text and added words because the passage was similar to one they were already familiar with. An example of this can be found in Colossians 1:2 where later scribes added “and the Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of Paul’s greeting to harmonize with Ephesians 1:2. This could have either been a deliberate change assuming that the previous scribe missed it or an unintentional change where the scribe simply kept writing what he was already familiar with. Another issue is the expansion of piety which produced longer names for Christ. For example writing “The Lord Jesus Christ” rather than simply “The Lord.” Again, there is no significant change here. Later scribes simply wanted to show respect for Christ or they copied what they were familiar with from the church liturgy. Any area where there is a high enough degree of viability and meaning (see Lesson 6) needs to be considered when compiling a critical text. That being said there are three big passages that provide examples for us. I call these the “Big 3 Variants:”

  • The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11):

Everyone went to his home. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees *brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they *said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “ He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “ I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” (NASB)

Just about everyone who is familiar with the New Testament is familiar with this story from the life of Jesus. It has been in every movie ever made about Jesus. Even the famous “The Passion of the Christ” had to have a flashback pointing to this story. It is a wonderful and touching story that points to Christ’s abundant mercy and grace for repentant sinners. The fact of the matter is that this verse does not appear in the manuscript tradition until the 5th century. Some manuscripts have this as a part of Luke (f13 for those who which to check.) Most scholars believe that this is a true account and that these events actually took place but was not part of John’s original gospel.

  • The Comma Johanneum (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. (KJV)

This sounds like a clear presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity. And indeed it has been used by people to defend that all-important doctrine. However, the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth” are not found in any Greek manuscript until the 16th century. It is clear that this was a later addition to bolster the doctrine of the Trinity (as if it needed bolstering.) It appears in the KJV (and NKJV) because it is translated from the Greek text published by Erasmus who was forced to include it in the 3rd edition of his Greek text by the discovery of the 16th century MSS.

  • The Longer Ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20):

Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it.

After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country. They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either.

Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “ Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (NASB)

Before we explain this it is important to look at the preceding verse: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It is likely that the early scribes were thinking the same thing that we would think today if Mark stopped there. Where is the rest? They didn’t tell anybody? That doesn’t make sense! Thus the rest of the story in an attempt to harmonize with the other three gospels. The facto of the matter is that these verses do not appear in the manuscript tradition until the late 5th century. There is strong evidence that this passage was a later addition to Mark in an attempt by early scribes to fill in what they believed to be lost. Scholars are somewhat divided on this particular variant and there are good arguments on both sides of the issue.

The next question that we have to ask is, does it matter? Do any of the Big 3 impact our understanding of Christ or orthodox Christian doctrine? The short answer is, no. There is no cardinal doctrine of Christianity that is challenged by any serious textual variant, the Big 3 included. We can understand Christ’s grace and mercy from many other passages, the doctrine of the Trinity has never hinged on a single verse, and the longer ending of Mark does not provide any difference in our belief in the resurrection, the great commission or Christian practice (the Appalachian snake handlers not withstanding).

From here we need to identify the three primary printed “critical” texts in use today. These texts are all considered “critical” texts in that they followed the process we looked at above. They represent three schools of thought on how to assemble a critical text and are the main NT texts used today in most all English translations. These are:

  • Textus Receptus/Received Text (TR)
    • Based on Erasmus’ Greek text and serves as the basis for the KJV.
    • The TR we have today is primarily based on the KJV translators’ textual decisions.
  • Majority Text (MT)
    • A compiled text giving priority to variants present in the majority of manuscripts. The reading represented by the majority of MSS then it is given priority
    • Very similar to the TR but not identical.
    • Not many translations are based off this Greek text however the NKJV provides footnotes that give the MT variations.
  • Critical Text (CT)
    • A text-critical edition that takes into account the age of the MSS and gives weighting to the earlier MSS.
    • This serves as the NT basis for most of the newer English translations.
    • This text is primarily represented by the Nestle-Aland, currently in its 27th edition, (NA27) and the United Bible Society in its 4th edition (UBS4.)

I have looked into these issues and, though I am not a textual scholar, I am persuaded that the Critical Text is the best we currently have. Many people have different opinions on this and we must stress that this should not be an issue of division in the church though many do divide over this. (More on that in the next lesson.)

Step Two: Translate into English

Now that the “critical text” has been chosen it must be translated the text into English. A pretty simply step, right? Wrong! It is very difficult to translate one modern language into another let alone an ancient language. Translators have to deal with issues of translation all the time and understand how to translate various idioms. The best example of this is this German phrase: “Morgenstund’ hat gold im mund.” Simply translating the words we have: “Morning hours have gold in the mouth.” Not the clearest message is it? This is a textbook example of an idiom. Fortunately for our German translator we have an English idiom that is directly equivalent: “The early bird catches the worm.” Not all idiomatic expressions are as simple. Translators frequently have to take on the role of the interpreter of the text in order to make it understandable to their audience. In the world of Bible translations, this produces three distinct styles of translation:

  • Formal:A formal translation is one that seeks to adhere closely to the actual words of the Greek and Hebrew texts. It tries to preserve the exactness of the vocabulary used in the texts. This is also referred to as an “Essentially Literal” translation.
    • Example: Luke 9:44
      • GREEK —“Put these words into your ears” (literal translation)
      • KJV —“Let these sayings sink down into your ears.”
      • ESV/NASB —“Let these words sink into your ears”
      • HCSB —“Let these words sink in:”
      • NET —“Take these words to heart”
      • NIV —“Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.”
      • The NIV and NET explain the meaning of the idiom.
  • Dynamic:A dynamic translation is one that seeks to help the reader to understand the meaning of the original text – not necessarily preserving the exactness of the vocabulary used in the texts, but communicating the meaning of that vocabulary using dynamic equivalents. The goal is to help the reader understand the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words. In such a translation, the translators are often INTERPRETERS the text, not just giving a translation of the text. Dynamic translations run on a scale from formal to paraphrase. The typical dynamic translation seeks a balance between the two.
    • Example #1: John 2:4
      • GREEK —“Woman”
      • KJV —“Woman, what have I to do with thee?”
      • ESV —“Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
      • NKJV —“Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me?”
      • HCSB —“What has this concern of yours to do with Me, woman?”
      • NET —“Woman, why are you saying this to me?”
      • NIV —“Dear woman, why do you involve me?”
      • The NIV adds the word “dear” so as to interpret the tone of Christ’s words for the reader.
    • Example #2: 2 Timothy 3:16
      • GREEK —“Every Scripture is God-breathed”
      • KJV —“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God”
      • NASB/HCSB —“All Scripture is inspired by God”
      • ESV —“All Scripture is breathed out by God”
      • NIV —“All Scripture is God-breathed”
      • The NIV and ESV present a more literal translation of the Greek term.
      • Sometimes dynamic translations can give a more accurate reading.
    • Example #3: 1 CORINTHIANS 7:36 – Notice how the translations deal with the word “virgin.”
      • GREEK —“his virgin” [“his” —a father of a virgin daughter, or a man engaged to be married]
      • KJV —“But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin”
      • NASB —“But is any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly towards his virgin daughter”
      • ESV —“If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed,”
      • NET —“If anyone thinks he is acting inappropriately toward his virgin,”
      • HCSB —“But if any man thinks he is acting improperly toward his virgin,”
      • NIV —“If anyone thinks he is acting improperly towards the virgin he is engaged to”
      • The NIV, ESV, and NASB add words to clarify what the writer is referring to. Note that no translation is totally literal or totally free.
      • The reader must decide to what degree they want the translation to provide interpretation.
  • Paraphrase:A paraphrase is a very loose translation that seeks to help the reader understand the text. The translator interprets the text for the reader and seeks to communicate this meaning using modern day language. Often a paraphrase is not made from the original languages, but is simply an update of an English translation.
    • Example: 1 Peter 3:15
      • ESV —“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,”
      • NIV —“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”
      • TLB —“Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord and if anybody asks why you believe as you do, be ready to tell them, and do it in a gentle and respectful way.”
      • MSG —“ Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.”
      • Paraphrases are useful for gaining insight into how the translator understands a text. However, they should be treated as fundamentally the opinion of the translator. Effectively a commentary.

What Version Should I Use?

This is an important question that all Christians should be asking. We live and die by this book and we stake our eternity on what is says. It is important that we understand it and can be comfortable in reading it in a language we can understand. There are many opportunities for people today to learn the original languages of the Bible. Online classes and courses can be found to learn both Hebrew and Greek. I had the privilege of taking a class on NT Greek though our church. However, I acknowledge that not everyone has the ability and desire to learn the original languages to a level that they can simply read and study them. (Even though I took a Greek class I am far from being fully versed in the language.) Therefore we should be very grateful that we have the Bible in a language we can understand. (More on that in the next lesson.) In choosing the correct version of the Bible that you should use, there are a number of important considerations:

  1. Accuracy: How well does the translation convey the meaning of the original? (“Jack and Jill went up the Hill” should not be, “Bob and Susan went to the store.”) In any translation accuracy is important but when translating the very words of God it is essential. As such, this should be the main factor in evaluating a Bible translation. A strict formal translation is not always the most accurate but an overly dynamic translation can be too interpretive and only give the reader what the translator thought the passage means.
  2. Readability: Translations are made at various reading levels for different target audiences. Formal translations tend to be higher reading levels (8th grade and higher.) Dynamic translations tend to be made at a lower reading level (4th – 7th grade.) Children’s translations are written for early readers. (lower than 4th grade.) Over time the meaning of words change. An important question to ask is, “Can you read and understand this version?” A good and useful translation should be understandable. It is not helpful to read and study from a Bible written in a style you cannot understand. It is also not helpful to read and study from a Bible that is written too simplistically. You should find one written at the level you are comfortable with but not one that is much lower than your ability.
  3. Strengths and Weaknesses: A paraphrase may be very readable, but it is very weak in its accuracy in handling the text. A formal translation is very accurate but may not be very readable. A dynamic translation is very readable but may be overly interpretive. The reader must understand how the translation was developed, what the intentions of the translators were, and to whom the translation was written for. The preface to the translation can provide much of this information.

In the end, you should use a translation that accurately conveys the Word of God in your language yet you are able to understand. There are many good translations in English and we are blessed to have them. (More about English Bibles in the next lesson.)

That being said, there are some things to be cautious about when selecting a translation. Be careful of translations made by an individual rather than a committee. It is far easier for bias and interpretive decisions to be included with one person rather than many. Beware of translations produced by non-Christian organizations. The Jehovah Witness New World Translation (NWT) is the best example of this and has been specifically translated to support their particular Christology (That Christ was not Divine.) Also, be careful in using an overly dynamic translation or paraphrase as your primary study Bible. You will be making the translator your primary interpreter.

How to Select a Translation:

All that being said I want to offer some basic guidance for anyone who is looking for a translation. After checking the Accuracy, Readability, Strengths, and Weaknesses the final step is selecting a translation for your personal use. Always read the preface; this is at the beginning of the Bible you are considering and provides much of the underlying information about the translation including:

  • Texts used to translate: Hebrew and Greek textual base.
  • Translation philosophy: Formal, Dynamic, or Paraphrase.
  • Translators: Individual or committee.

Read though portions of the translation, or the entire Bible if you can, and make sure you are comfortable with it and can effectively read and understand it. Ask others whom you respect what they think of the translation. It can also be helpful to select both a formal translation and dynamic translation and use one for study and another for reading. In fact this is a very good habit for the serious student of the Scriptures. Ultimately you need to select a translation you are going to use.

My Preferences:

The following are my personal preferences for an English Bible translation based on the guidelines I provided. This is simply my preference and in no way reflects what I think others should be using:

  1. ESV
  2. NASB
  3. NET
  4. NKJV

The reasons for these should become apparent in the next lesson when we will be looking at the various English Bibles available to us today.


All this being said, we do not have multiple Bibles. The reason that there are multiple translations is the issues of textual decisions and the translation philosophy. We are blessed as English speaking people to have so many translations of the Word of God in English. Some would say that we are overly blessed in this area and that it makes no sense to invest any more resources in making another English translation. While I would not necessarily go that far, I do see that we have an abundance. In the next lesson we will discuss how we came to be so blessed to have the Bible in English.

God bless.

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