People investigating the claims of Christianity are frequently confused by the multiple Bible translations in the English language. The number of these versions can be truly overwhelming! It would seem logical for something as important as the communication of God with mankind that there would be a definitive translation that gives the exact meaning of the oldest manuscripts.
It seems like each generation produces at least one new Bible translations This becomes important because some of the differences in Bible translations can change the meaning of the underlying text.
To better understand how this confusion came about, it is important to know a little bit of Bible translation history.
John Wycliffe – the First English Bible Translation
John Wycliffe was a philosopher, priest and seminary professor at Oxford University who wanted to publish the Scriptures in the English language so that the ordinary man could (at least those able to read) better understand the Bible. Until then, the Bible was in Latin which few English-speaking people could understand.
The Church at that time did not permit the ordinary person to read Scripture because they felt it would not be understandable to them. Rather, the ordinary public had to learn about Christianity from going to Church, from sermons given by local priests and bishops, and from artwork within the Church. The Roman Catholic view was that Scriptures could only be read and interpreted by approved clergy.
Wycliffe thought this was wrong; something so important to the welfare of the common man should be readily available to them in their own language.
Wycliffe’s followers were known as Lollards; they professed a theology that was quite different from the Roman Catholic Church including predestination and denounced the veneration of the saints, the sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the Papacy itself.
The Lollards are predecessors to the Protestant movement about 250 years later. Wycliffe was declared a heretic in 1415 and his writings were banned. The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic further decreed to remove his remains from consecrated ground. After the conference, they ordered his bones to be burned and the ashes dumped into a local river.
His influence on church history cannot be overstated. There were some shortcomings of his translation as it was not translated from early Greek and Hebrew documents, but from Jerome’s translation of these documents into Latin. Also, the Bible was written in Middle English which was not understood by later generations of English speaking people.
Future generations would improve his translation and correct some fo the translation errors in his original documents.
William Tyndale – Another Bible Translation
Tyndale is the next great figure responsible for the English Bible. He was a lecturer at Cambridge University where he translated the New Testament from the original Greek version. He published his work in 1526. His ability to use Greek and Hebrew documents produced a translation that was an improvement upon Wycliffe’s.
His translation was also the first to take advantage of the printing press and the first of the English Bibles of the Reformation.
The English used by Tyndale was also a modern variety that was readily understandable by his contemporaries and in future generations.
As with Wycliffe, this new translation was not approved by the official church and the laws of England maintaining the church’s power and influence. To further animosity against him, Tyndale wrote an article The Practise of Prelates, which opposed Henry VIII’s annulment of his own marriage.
He was eventually arrested and convicted of heresy for which he was executed by strangulation after which his body was burnt at the stake.
Even though Tyndale himself died, his work lived one. King Henry authorized the Matthew Bible which was largely the work of Tyndale, followed by the Great Bible and the Bishops Bible authorized by the church of England.
King James Bible – The Most Common Bible Translation
The King James Bible was produced during the reign of King James in 1611 and is largely based upon Tyndale’s inspired Matthew Bible as well as from other translations.
The King wished to provide a translation that would be acceptable to those in different Christian traditions. He was particularly interested in Anglicans (form the Church of England), and Puritan or Reformed Christians.
King James gave the translators specific instructions regarding the new translations. The translators had to confirm the ecclesiastical structure of the Anglican Church and support an ordained clergy.
Most of the translators were leading scholars in their own right with the work being divided into panels. The Old Testament was translated by three panels while the New Testament was divided into two panels. The Apocrypha was handled by only one panel.
Linguists consider the King James Version one of the great masterpieces in the English language. This praise is even more amazing considering people do not speak its Elizabethan dialect.
The King James version has been the primary version of Scriptures throughout the English speaking world for centuries. Translators now challenge the preeminence of the King James Version as the “best” translation.
Reasons for New Bible Translations
Translation from one language into another is never an easy challenge. Words in any language often have many shades of meaning that are difficult to translate precisely into another.
Translators use three translation philosophies for Bible translation.
Bible Translation by Formal Equivalence
The first philosophy involves trying to translate word-for-word from one language into another – the “formal equivalence” method. The New American Standard Bible (1971), the Revised Standard Version (1952), and the English Standard Version (2001) showcase this technique. Linguists criticize the formal equivalence because foreign words may not have their equivalent translation in English. Words have their own shades of meaning in one language that may not be present in another.
Furthermore, linguists argue over the formal equivalent of a word from one language into another. These controversies persist even when a translator might be fluent in each language.
Thought for Thought Bible Translation
The second philosophy involves a thought for thought approach to Bible translation. In this method, the translator tries to capture the meaning of the underlying text and translate it into the equivalent meaning of the new text. Of course, this requires an understanding as to the underlying meaning of the original text – which can be a challenge. Two translations that involve the thought for thought approach are the New International Version (1978) and the New Revised Standard Version (1990).
The thought for thought translation is usually easier than a formal equivalence translation. The translator has to be careful they do not inject their own personal understanding of the meaning into the translation. Multiple translators help each other avoid personal bias.
Bible Translation by Paraphrase
The final approach involves a paraphrased version. Linguists define a paraphrase as “a free rendering or application of a passage, expression of its sense in other words.” These versions include the Living Bible (1971), and The Message (1993).
Theologians criticize the paraphrase technique the most. A paraphrase may not project the same subtle meanings present in the underlying text. The technique may give only an approximation of the underlying content and not project the nuances of meaning.
There is still considerable controversy as to which translation technique is the best. There is even a debate among some fundamentalist Christians as to whether any translation other than the original King James Version is valid.
Summary of Bible Translation in English History
The English Bible has gone through multiple translations over the past few years. These translations attempt to make it more readable to modern people without destroying the underlying meaning.
The English speaking world does not use Elizabeth English today Yet many more fundamentalist theologians insist this dialect provides the best Bible translation.
Translation from one language into another is never an easy task. There is generally no literal equivalence of one word into another. English and French cannot be translated this way even though they are closely related languages.
There usually is no difference in meaning among the various Biblical translations. Translators are always evaluating the subtle differences in the meaning of words. These differences do not change the meaning of the underlying text as usually the original meaning is clear.
Bible students can now go back to the original languages and see for themselves what is there. To help them, many Greek or Hebrew texts have the English alongside the original language.
The foreign words are also labeled with the “Strong’s” concordance. This reference provides an extensive translation of each word and also compares the use of the word to other uses throughout Scripture.
This resource gives the reader their own Bible translator right in their own home. They can do their own research and come to their own conclusion.
Demski, William A.; Licona, Michael R.: Evidence for God, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI.