Biblia Sacra Vulgata… King James Version… New American Standard Version… New International Version… English Standard Version… Holman Christian Standard… Today’s New International Version… New International Version (1984)… American Standard Version… New American Standard Version Update… Revised Standard Version… New Revised Standard Version… New Living Translation… Swahili New Testament… Arabic Life Application Bible… La Biblia De Las Americas… Het Boek… Chinese Union Bible…
Some of these translations are familiar and some of them are likely unfamiliar to you. Only a few translations are listed above, but I could go on. The number of translations of the Bible (or at least the New Testament) is remarkable. Yet, there are so many more that have yet to be translated into native languages around the world. It’s truly remarkable though. Consider how many English translations of the Bible exist. How many can you think of at the top of your head without looking back to the paragraph above? Probably quite a few. If you can think of more than 5, that’s really a lot considering the number of translations in other languages around the world.
Now, there is a very important word I would like to elaborate on just a bit and that word is TRANSLATION. What is a translation? A translation is the transmission of the text/speech of one language into another. Simple enough, right? Well, not really. Sometimes, if we are used to our native language only it can be difficult to understand the challenge of translating a language. Let’s do another little experiment to show the difficulty, shall we? Let’s take the word run and I want you to think of the number of usages and different meanings for this word alone in the English language. According to dictionary.com, there are at least 50 different definitions/usages of the word run. That’s right, 50. Now, think of someone learning the English language for the first time and attempting to translate the most basic sentences such as: The water is running; Let’s go for a run; Make sure and run it through first; I ran to the store; I was nearly run over; etc, etc, etc. You can see now, some of the difficulty that people might have learning the English language when it is not their native language.
Well, my point is that the list of famous versions of the Bible at the beginning of this post are all translations and the same difficulty that people have in trying to figure out how to translate languages today into their own native language is similar to the difficulty that translation committees often have in translating the Bible. Not every word translates word-for-word from one language to another because languages are different and don’t always use the same words or expressions.
The reason I am writing this post is that some people defend their preferred English translation of the Bible as if it were the original words spoken by God and recorded by Moses on Mount Sinai or the original words that David used when writing the Psalms or that Jesus spoke when giving His famous Sermon. The fact of the matter is that the Bible consisted of the Old Testament before and when Jesus was raised from the dead, not modern English. The Old Testament was recorded in Hebrew and a little Aramaic, and believe it or not, the Old Testament was recorded in Greek (Koine Greek, to be exact). The first organized collection of the books of the Old Testament as a whole into a book was by Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC who requested the Old Testament translated and collected into the language of the day which was Koine Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint (LXX), and is known by the same name today. Later, it was collected and compiled into a Hebrew and Aramaic Bible with vowel markings which didn’t accompany the original scrolls in order to better know how to pronounce and accent the ancient language of Hebrew and to memorize it. The original text comes from scrolls dating long before, but the formal and more finalized composition into a book came from scribes in the 7th through 11th centuries around Palestine named the Masoretes. The text of the Hebrew Bible today, in the original Hebrew, is known then as the Masoretic Text (MT).
Now, the New Testament was in the context of the 1st century Mediterranean world which was ruled by the Roman Empire, but still bore the marks of the previous rule which was Greek/Macedonian. Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world from parts of what is Europe today to other parts of the Mediterranean to as far as India, Alexander the Great conquered and as he conquered much of the world he also spread culture from his native land wherever he conquered. So, parts of Macedonian-Greek culture spread throughout much of the known world. Greek buildings, games, attire, infrastructure, and most importantly language became commonplace. The key word is ‘common.’ Thus, the Greek from that period is called Koine Greek, meaning common Greek.
The Septuagint was written during this time period when Greek was common throughout much of the world, then some time later the parts of the New Testament were written in Koine Greek. Even after Jesus ascended into Heaven, Latin was the language of the Roman military and was primarily centralized in the Italian peninsula, Aramaic was primarily spoken in Palestine, but Koine Greek was known throughout the Roman world as the language of commerce that everyone would need to know much like people today learn English or Chinese throughout the world.
So, there you have it. The Bible was originally recorded in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek by the original authors and later codified into formal books based off the scrolls and letters (or bits of parchment or ostraka). Now, it wasn’t until the 14th century that the first English translation of the Bible was translated by John Wycliffe, but Wycliffe only had the Latin translation to use for his translation. You might recognize the name from Wycliffe Bible translators named after him today. When the printing press was invented the first printed book was the Latin translation of the Bible in the 15th century (though the Latin translation came much earlier thanks to Jerome in the 4th century). In the 16th century prominent Reformer Martin Luther and famous English language scholar William Tyndale produced respective translations of the New Testament in their languages of German and English. Then, in 1611 you have King James I sponsor the making of a full English Bible which was based on all the previous English translations and some of the late Byzantine Greek manuscripts. It was a masterful effort with a great formal, organized committee of translators and done using a beautiful version of the English language.
A few other English translations appeared, but nothing gained acceptance like the KJV until Noah Webster offered a translation in the 19th century who also wrote the Dictionary of the English Language. His translation was eventually called the English Revised Version. Then, at the turn of the 20th century America produced the American Standard Version which was nearly identical to the ERV. It was updated in the ’70s and called the New American Standard Version. The committee went back to the earliest Greek and Hebrew manuscripts in order to form their translation and make it as best they could, word-for-word. Then, fans of the KJV wanted to update the translation and formed the New King James Version. Also, a new translation called the New International Version came out receiving harsh criticism for a less literal and more contemporary English reading, but later became one of the most popular English translations used.
An attempt to find something in between the very literal NASB and the NIV was done at the beginning of the 21st century to form the English Standard Version (ESV), which is my personal favorite English translation. The Bible is also being translated into languages all over the world so people in non-English speaking countries can read the Bible in their own language. So, there you have it. A bit of Bible history for you.
Now, the full reason for this post… There are some today who believe that the Bible first came to us in English. They treat their English Bible translation as if it were the original words that God spoke or the original words authors used in writing the inspired text. People react strongly to things like The Message by Eugene Peterson or the TNIV or the new Bible some are in an uproar about called The Voice.
I remember back in college when I first learned Koine Greek and was translating 1 John (beginner’s translating) how one student as a joke walked into class and placed a copy of The Message New Testament on my Greek professors podium and how when he walked in his reaction was to get right into his lecture and without stopping for a moment during his lecture he grabbed The Message and tossed in the waste basket in the corner of the classroom and the class responded in laughter. My professor and others in college criticized The Message because it wasn’t a translation, but rather a paraphrase and an interpretation by one person of the Bible. Rather, it’s more a sort of readable commentary than a Bible many would argue. The negative impression rubbed off on me and I too felt much the same concerning The Message. However, as long as it is emphasized that it isn’t actually a translation of the Bible, I don’t think there is anything really wrong with it. The author’s purpose is for contemporary people to understand the Bible, whereas, with the difficult English wording of many translations of the Bible it is extremely difficult to understand some parts of the Bible (even for scholars).
Then, you have the TNIV which has updated the NIV by factoring in early and better Greek manuscripts than the first translation used, but that’s not all… They also made many parts of the Bible gender-inclusive. This has been highly controversial. The fact is that some parts of the Bible are directed to men and women, but many of these parts only have a masculine word in the original language. For example, you can take Romans 8 where Paul speaks of salvation and he mentions “brothers” as opposed to “brothers and sisters.” The point isn’t to incorporate a liberalism into the Bible or a political correctness. The point is to show that Paul is speaking of salvation and this applies to men and women. He isn’t saying only men are saved by grace through faith, or only men are more than conquerors, or only men have hope in Jesus Christ. However, that’s what it can mean if you take the masculine word into a literal English rendering of men/brothers as opposed to women/sisters. There are also parts of many popular English translations where the original wording is not specific to man or woman, but some translations have taken it as masculine anyway. The TNIV tried to make the Bible more clear for the modern reader. However, though their intention was noble they were believed to be undermining the wording of the Bible by those who held to their English translations of the Bible as the original wording given by God, and the TNIV has become a dated translation replaced by an updated NIV in which the gender-inclusiveness of the TNIV has been scaled down significantly in this new translation, but it has also met great opposition.
(This is part 1 in the series called Let’s talk about the Bible. Please see the next post in this series for the continuation of this post, Let’s talk about the Bible (pt.2).)