Some Bible Controversy

When blogging about Christian topics, it is very easy to stir up controversy, especially when blogging about the Bible, because we Christians value our ability to read our sacred text and make up our own mind about what it says to us.

This is a good thing, and I encourage Christians everywhere to read their Bible, study it and think for themselves about what it says and where they stand on the topics and issues it speaks about.

But I may end up regretting this post, because I am going to talk about three opinions about the Bible which make me unhappy when I hear them raised.

Although I know a little about the Bible, I am not an expert, and there is always someone who knows more than you do about a topic.

Bible Opinion Which Makes Me Grumpy #1

New translations of the Bible have to be made because of copyright issues.

The first opinion about the Bible which makes me annoyed is the belief that new translations of the Bible have to be made because of copyright issues, implying that the proliferation of Bible translations is caused by the evils of copyright laws.
Now I don’t know about all new translations of the Bible, but just say we look at the New International Version (NIV), first published in 1978 (full Bible), and compare it with the new Today’s NIV published recently. The new version was not created because copyright issues restricted Biblica (the copyright holder) from using the same words as the 1978 version. Biblica themselves hold the copyright, so they can do whatever they want with the original text – they own the full rights to it. The King James Bible has been updated numerous times to more modern language, and it has formed the basis for the Revised Version, the New American Standard Bible and the modern World English Bible. None of these Bible versions were undertaken because of the hindrance of copyright laws. Updates by a copyright owner to particular translations are not made because they have to modify the text to get around copyright laws, they are made to accommodate changes in language and the way people use it. They are made so as to make the Bible more readable, approachable and understandable to a new generation of believers and potential believers.

Ask most people today to read the King James translation of the Bible from 1611 and some of them will stop reading the Bible altogether. For modern audiences, it is hard to read. The English language has changed a lot in the last 400 years. Certainly, some aspects of Christian theology might be very easily comprehended from reading the delightful prose the KJV uses, but many other aspects of theology will be clouded and obscured for the modern reader as well. Modern translations of the Bible are much more readable to most people . By the way, contrary to some people’s beliefs, the King James translation of the Bible is still copyrighted in the UK, where it first came under embryonic copyright laws when it was printed in 1611.

As to different translations copyrighted by different copyright holders, you try comparing the translated output of 50 Biblical scholars from Bible translation organization A with the translated output of 50 Biblical scholars from Bible translation B. I believe it would be very rare indeed to find identical sections, passage by passage, within the two translated outputs. Translation teams are, I’m sure, aware of copyright issues, but their intention is not to produce a new translation to get around copyright laws and to make money. They want to produce Bibles which preserve the message of the salvation offered by God for each new generation in a form which each new generation will comprehend.

“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.” Malachi 2:7

The proliferation of Bible translations today ought to be a cause for rejoicing, because it means that there are more ways for more people to come to a deeper understanding of the knowledge of the Lord.

Bible Opinion Which Makes Me Grumpy #2

One translation of the Bible is better because it is a more exact word-for word translation than another.

Another strange comment I’ve heard is that one translation of the Bible is better because it is a more exact word-for word translation than another. Typically I hear it said that the New American Standard Bible is better than the New International Version in this regard. Now I’ve read both translations and both have good points and bad points. To say that the NASB is better beacuse it is more word-for-word accurate, though, is not really helpful. Sometimes a more literal translation can shed more light on a verse or topic, for sure, but sometimes it makes it less clear to the reader. Language translation is not an exact science. The creators of the King James Bible are known to have taken an approach to the translation effort which involved explicitly avoiding literal translation. The result was a masterpiece of the English of its day.
You can’t always translate word for word from one language to another, you’ll end up with gibberish if you do.

Compare John 1:1

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” NASB
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 1984 NIV
The Koine Greek: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
Translated literally: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and God was the word”.

OK that works, but now look at a literal translation of 3 John 1:14.

“..but I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face.” NASB
“I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” 1984 NIV
Now in Koine Greek: ἐλπίζω δὲ εὐθέως [a]σε ἰδεῖν, καὶ στόμα πρὸς στόμα λαλήσομεν
Literal translation: “I hope soon you to see and mouth to mouth we will speak.”

It sounds like Yoda wants to give me a snog!

The translator’s task is to make that sentence intelligible to modern readers while remaining faithful to the original content and intention of the source text. Often this requires changing the literal transcription of the source words. Each translation of the Bible has its own merits, and one might suit you more than another, but a literal translation does not guarantee a better translation.

Bible Opinion Which Makes Me Grumpy #3

The  King James Bible is the only authoritative English translation of the Bible.

What really annoys me is that some people say that the  King James Bible is the only authoritative English translation of the Bible. This is interesting, because I grew up with the 1984 edition of the New International Version, and  I have memorized verses from that edition. If I try to find those verses in Today’s NIV using a concordance or online Bible search tool such as Biblegateway.com, I often can’t find the verse I’m after because of the differences in wording. So I understand how people can become attached to a particular translation of the Bible. It becomes a familiar friend, a place you and your faith are at home. But neither the KJV, the NKJV, the RSV, the NRSV, the NIV, Todays NIV, the NASB or any other translation are  the final definitive (English) translation of the Biblical texts. Each of them has its place and each of them are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16).

In regard to the King James Bible, yes it uses exquisite, poetic language and imagery to convey the message of Scripture, a literary feat which has probably not been matched by any subsequent translations, but did you know that it was initially translated using (among other resources) the first printed versions of the Greek New Testament, prepared by Erasmus from only about six ancient Biblical manuscripts? Subsequent versions of what was to become the Textus Receptus (the Received Text) improved upon this, but not substantially.

In contrast “Today more than 5500 manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are known.” Admittedly, many of these are only fragments or single pages of text, but among them are the Codex Sinaiticus, an almost complete manuscript of the Old and New Testaments, dated to about 350 AD, and the Codex Vaticanus, containing most of the New Testament, except the Pastorals, Philemon, and Revelation, dated to about 325-350 AD. These are the two oldest almost complete manuscripts of the New Testament known. Fifty manuscripts written before the invention of the printing press (15th centruy), are known to contain the entire New Testament.

Yes, they have many textual variations between them all, but this allows us to perform a comparison and attempt to trace their literary lineage, just like finding out where your descendants came from. One important point about the variety of textual variations present in these manuscripts is that you and I, as normal people, can see them for ourselves. OK, so most of us don’t know Koine Greek, but these texts are not secreted away so that they can’t be studied by ordinary folks if we decide we want to learn Greek and examine them. The two links to the Codices above point to digital copies of these ancient texts, so you yourself can actually read what these 1600 year old manuscripts say.

Modern editions of the Greek text are compiled from this list of 5500 ancient manuscripts as well as by referencing early Latin, Coptic, and Syriac manuscripts. We don’t rely today on only the Textus Receptus nor only on the “Minority texts” which disagree with it. Effectively, the further we have travelled in time from the 16th century, when the first Textus Receptus was printed, the more resources we have to recreate the original intention of the New Testament text.

So, though I will be shot down in flames for saying it, I believe a solid case can be made that modern Bible translations are more likely to reflect the original words of the New Testament than the King James Version does.

I believe God has made this proliferation of source texts and Bible translations for a reason – so we would not worship the Bible, but would instead worship him.

There I’ve said it. Let the flame wars begin.

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One thought on “Some Bible Controversy

  1. No fire here, and the last paragraph, about worshiping God rather than the Bible was great. Took me a while to get through it, but it was a great post indeed. Thank you.

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