Can I Trust My Bible Translation? (Part 1)

Many years ago we wrote a series titled Can I Trust The Bible? and published the 30-part series in six eBooks. You’ll find them listed at the top of our Free Apologetics eBooks webpage.

Our conclusion to the question, Can I Trust The Bible?, is a resounding YES! However, that yes is based on the particular view of the Holy Bible as containing 66 Books in two divisions: Old and New Testaments. We did not find that the apocryphal books passed the test of Inspiration by the Holy Spirit. You can read Part 4 of our study to see more about why we reached that conclusion.

What we would like to do now is ask and answer another important question: Can I Trust My Bible Translation? We will be looking specifically at English translations in this series and some of the more popular paraphrases.

How Many English Translations?

The American Bible Society estimates “the number of printed English translations and paraphrases of the Bible, whether complete or not, is about 900.” (ABS, 2009)  I’ve seen other estimates that are half that number (approx. 450), but we get the point. There are a lot of English translations and paraphrases of the Bible.

What’s the difference between a translation and a paraphrase?

Translation

A ‘translation’ is “the activity or process of changing the words of one language into the words in another language that have the same meaning.” (Cambridge Dictionary)

The word ‘changing’ should give us some pause as we consider translating the Bible from its three original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) into English – or any other language for that matter. How can we know that when we read an English translation of the Bible we are getting a true understanding of the original language? How can we be sure that we’re ‘reading’ the same thing in English that the original readers thousands of years ago read in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek?

The purpose of a translator should be to “accurately render the meaning of biblical texts from their original languages—Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament—into a ‘receptor language.’ Scholars and committees of scholars use the latest knowledge of ancient manuscripts to express accurately what the original authors of Scripture meant.” (What About Bible Translations? BibleGateway.com)

Some translators do that through a ‘word-for-word’ process (Formal Equivalence). Other translators do that through a ‘thought-for-thought’ process (Dynamic Equivalence). More on that in a few minutes.

Paraphrase

A ‘paraphrase’ is “to repeat something written or spoken using different words, esp. in a shorter and simpler form to make the meaning clearer.” (Cambridge Dictionary)

Again we see the idea of changing the original words to a ‘shorter and simpler form.’ That should also give us pause since we’re talking about someone shortening and simplifying the Bible to supposedly ‘make the meaning clearer.’

Says who? Who are these ‘translators’ and ‘paraphrasers’? Can we trust them to be accurate and unbiased in their work?

Translators

Every ‘translation’ of the Bible (or portions of the Bible) has at least one ‘translator.’

For example, Martin Luther translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German. Luther used Erasmus’ 1519 edition of the Greek New Testament (Textus Receptus) for his translation of the New Testament. That was somewhat novel since the Church had used the Latin version of the Bible for centuries prior to Luther’s Bible. Even the German version of the Bible used during that time had come from the Latin version. However, Latin was not one of the original languages of the Bible, so Luther wisely used Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew for the Old Testament.

Luther established a ‘committee’ of theologians to help him translate the Old Testament from Hebrew. He even consulted Jewish rabbis to make sure of the accuracy of his German translation.

Paraphrasers

Every ‘paraphrase’ of the Bible (or portions of the Bible) has at least one ‘paraphraser.’

One example is The Living Bible paraphrase by Kenneth Taylor. It was published the same year I became a Christian (1971). Instead of using the original languages to ‘translate’ the Bible, Taylor used an English translation (1901 American Standard Version) to ‘paraphrase’ God’s Word. Taylor said the paraphrase came from answering his children’s questions about Bible verses. He paraphrased the Bible to help them understand the meaning and thought that would be something to share with other families.

Taylor later worked with a team of Hebrew and Greek scholars to revise The Living Bible and turn the former ‘paraphrase’ into a ‘translation.’ (1996, Holy Bible, New Living Translation)

Translation Types

Translators use two primary methods when translating the Bible –

  1. Formal Equivalence
  2. Dynamic Equivalence

Formal Equivalence 

This is a word-for-word translation and is sometimes called a ‘literal’ translation. Translators look for a word in English that communicates the same idea as the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. The English Standard Version (ESV) is an example of a recent ‘word-for-word’ translation.

Dynamic Equivalence

This is a thought-for-thought translation and is sometimes called ‘functional’ equivalence. Translators attempt to capture the ‘meaning’ of the original language. The New International Version (NIV) is an example of a somewhat recent ‘thought-for-thought’ translation.

Optimal Equivalence

One other option for translators is to try to balance between word-for-word and thought-for-thought. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is an example of that type of translation.

Early English Translations

Translations of portions of the Bible into Old English began as early as the 7th century AD. Some of the earliest names of Old English translators include Venerable Bede, Caedmon, Aldhelm, and King Alfred the Great.

Translations of portions of the Bible into Middle English began as early as the 11th century AD. Some of the earliest names of Middle English translators include Orm of Lincolnshire, Richard Rolle, and John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe’s Bible

Wycliffe translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English during the latter part of the 14th century AD. It is believed that Wycliffe did some of the translation for the New Testament and oversaw other translators for the rest of the Bible. Though a great thing for English-speaking people, the Catholic Church opposed Wycliffe’s translation.

A Roman Catholic Synod at Oxford banned Wycliffe’s Bible in 1408 AD and issued an edict against any unauthorized translation of the Bible into English. The Council of Constance (1415 AD) declared Wycliffe to be a heretic. The Church did its best to destroy all of the copies of Wycliffe’s Bible, but more than 200 copies or revisions are believed to have survived. Most are in museums and libraries.

One of Wycliffe’s primary beliefs after studying and teaching the Bible was that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christians and not the Pope. Pope Martin V ordered Wycliffe’s body exhumed and burned in 1428 AD. Wycliffe’s opposition to papal authority explains why.

Tyndale’s Bible

William Tyndale was born at the end of the 15th century (beginning of Early Modern English period) and trained in both Greek and Hebrew. He wanted to translate the Bible into English, but the 1408 edict was still in force. He traveled to Germany and learned Hebrew from Jewish rabbis. It was in Germany that Tyndale translated the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek. He completed the New Testament translation in 1525 AD. He later revised the translation using Erasmus’ third edition of the Greek New Testament. It became the first English New Testament version translated from the Greek.

The Coverdale Bible

Myles Coverdale was an assistant of William Tyndale. He used Tyndale’s Old Testament (what Tyndale finished before his death), Martin Luther’s German Bible, and some Latin texts to complete the entire Bible in English. The Coverdale Bible became the first complete Bible to be printed in English (1535 AD). King Henry VIII gave Coverdale permission to translate and print.

Coverdale also moved the Apocryphal books from being ‘inside’ the Old Testament to being in an ‘appendix’ position at the end of the Old Testament.

Matthew’s Bible

Matthew’s Bible (written by John Rogers whose pen name was Thomas Matthew) was first seen in 1537 AD. Matthew combined Tyndale’s New Testament with Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s Old Testament. Matthew also added about two-thousand notes to the Bible.

The Great Bible

King Henry VIII wanted a Bible that would be larger than Matthew’s Bible and used in every church in England. Myles Coverdale, at the request of Lord Cromwell, prepared what became known as The Great Bible (based on its physical size). Coverdale included much from Matthew’s Bible, except for Matthew’s notes. Coverdale also finished translating the Old Testament.

The Geneva Bible

Mary Tudor became Queen of England in 1553 and returned the country to Catholicism. English Bibles were burned and many Protestants were persecuted and killed. Some scholars fled to Geneva, Switzerland and produced an English translation of the New Testament from Greek in 1557 (using Stephanus’ fourth edition of the Greek NT). The Old Testament translation from Hebrew along with a revised New Testament was published in 1560 as The Geneva Bible. It was the Bible used by Shakespeare and the Puritans.

The Bishop’s Bible

The Bishop’s Bible of 1568 was a revision of Tyndale’s Bible, produced by bishops. It was not very popular (final printing in 1606 AD), but it became the primary Bible the King James translators were directed to use in their translation.

Next Time

We will look at one of the most popular English Bibles of all times, the King James Version, when our series about Bible translations continues.

Faith&SelfDefense