Henry Ford once said that, "any customer can have a car painted in any color that he [or she] wants, as long as it is black," (1) and before 1881 that largely applied to English Bible versions available as well.(2) You could read any English version of the Bible you wanted, as long as it was the King James Version (KJV). Since 1881 though things have changed, and a surplus of new translations have been published and printed - The New Revised Version (NRV), New International Version (NIV), English Standard Version (ESV), New Living Translation (NLT), New American Standard Version (NASB), and on and on you can go.
So why did this happen? How did the King James get dethroned? Which translation is best for the modern reader? With so many different translations are any of them really faithful to the original?
These are all valid questions, and in order to address them we will need to step back a little to get a "big picture" perspective of the situation. To start, we simply need to ask the question, "why are there so many versions of the Bible?"
History of the Text
It is important to understand that there are three basic influences which have given rise to such a wealth of Bible translations over the last hundred years.
First, in 1881 two British scholars by the name of Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort, published a Greek New Testament established on the most ancient manuscripts then available. This text made many notable deviations from the Greek text which the King James translators used. For the most part, the Westcott and Hort text was a shorter New Testament than the one compiled from the KJV translators (known as the Textus Receptus or TR ). (3)
The older manuscripts, which Wescott and Hort used, did not contain passages such as the longer ending of Mark's Gospel, or the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), two sections of Scripture which do not appear in the most ancient witnesses. The printed editions which the KJV translators followed included these and many other passages so they likewise were included — for better of for worse — in that translation.
Shortly following Westcott and Hort's text the English Revised Version made its appearance. Ushering in a new period of Bible translations, an era based on earlier manuscripts of the biblical tradition.
Second, since 1895 many discoveries concerning archaeological digs and manuscript finds have been made, bringing into question some of the renderings and translational choices of the KJV. The most important being that of the Egyptian papyri. In 1895, a German scholar named Adolf Deissmann published a work called Bibelstudien (Bible Studies), which revolutionized New Testament scholarship.
Deissmann discovered that ancient scraps of papyrus buried in Egyptian garbage dumps close to 2000 years ago contained Greek which was quite similar to the Greek of the New Testament. He concluded that the Greek of the New Testament was written in the language of the common people. It was not an elitist dialect, as many in the Church had thought, but actually common place Greek like that spoken in the ancient marketplace.
Since Deissmann's discovery, translators have endeavored to put the New Testament into the language of the average person, seeking to create a translation that is comprehensible without compromising the original language - just as it was originally intended in the Greek. Likewise, subsequent ancient manuscript finds have shed further light on many words and phrases in the original Greek, words the KJV translators only guessed at in terms of their original meanings.
Third, there are a great deal of philosophical issues that have influenced the subsequent translations. One of the major contributions in this area were missionaries, seeking to translate the Bible into many indigenous and tribal languages, so that people around the globe could read the Word of God in their own language.
The Text of the Modern Translations
During undergraduate studies I would routinely talk to the Mormons that frequented my neighborhood. They were polite and would show up knocking on my door regularly. During one particular conversation a young Mormon missionary challenged me: “You don’t think you’re Bible has been changed?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Who took John 5:4 from your Bible then?” he said without missing a beat. Puzzled I turned to the Gospel of John chapter four, and sure enough there it went from verse 3 to verse 5 (for an explanation as to why there is no verse 4 click here).
And as I continued to probe I found even more. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:16, in the KJV it says that, "God was manifest in the flesh," but most of the modern translations read, "He who was manifest in the flesh." At Revelation 22:19 the KJV has reference to the "book of life" while almost all of the modern versions have the "tree of life" in its place. And that was only the beginning, there are hundreds of these changes between the KJV and the modern translations. So what's going on?
First, it is important to note that the textual changes in the modern translations effect no major doctrine of the biblical message. The deity of Christ, virgin conception and birth, salvation by grace alone, and all the rest are still clearly found in the modern translations.
Second, the textual changes in the modern translations are based on the judgement of weighing the most ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament. These manuscripts date from the early second century (AD) and onward. The “alterations” we see in our modern text are not a case of “who took John 5:4 out of your Bible,” as the Mormon missionary asserted, but rather, “who put John 5:4 in to your Bible?”
The KJV translators used printed editions of the Greek New Testament (specifically, a 1525 Hebrew text and the seven printed versions of the Greek New Testament then available), based on only six to eight manuscripts in total that existed when those printed editions were compiled. None of those seven manuscripts even came close to how old the ancient discoveries we possess today. What we are able to do now with the evidence that we have before us in the case of biblical manuscripts is get a clearer picture into what the original authors wrote. In the case of John 5:4 we know that that particular text was a commentary note in the margin. Over time the text went from briefly explaining the context of John 5 to making its way into the text. For the record, these verses are not missing. In nearly every case you can find a citation and a note at the bottom of your Bible explaining the why and what of these “missing” passages.
Third, the KJV New Testament did not always follow the majority of manuscripts. As previously mentioned, the Greek text behind the KJV was based on only about half a dozen manuscripts, all of which belonged to what is referred to as the Byzantine text. Due to the small number of manuscripts available there were gaps left in the full text. The compiler of these manuscripts, a man named Desiderius Erasmus, had to fill in a great deal of these gaps by translating the Latin back into the Greek. Because of this, some of the readings that exist in the KJV such as the "book of life" passage from Revelation 22 are not found either in the majority of manuscripts or the most ancient manuscripts. And the development of these texts from words like “God” to “he who,” or “book” to “tree” have reasonable and understandable explanations. Some where honest mistakes, others were copyist errors, and still others were the well intentioned, albeit mistaken, efforts of scribes to render the text accurately. At the end of the day it is due to the wealth of evidence we have for the Bible and the number of manuscripts we have, that we can be confident that we know these insertions should not be there, and that our modern translations are the accurate readings that the original author’s wrote 2000+ years ago.
Word-for-Word, Thought-for-Thought, or Paraphrased?
Translation style is also a big part of why modern translations look like they do. Many presume that a Bible translation that reflects a more "word-for-word" style is more faithful to the original text. If the original text has a noun in a certain place it is expected that a noun sit in that word's place in the translation. If the original has ten words in one verse, the translation should have as close to ten words in its place as possible. This is what is referred to as "formal equivalence." This type of translation ideal is reflected in the King James (KJV), the American Standard (ASB/NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV).
On the other side of things is a "thought-for-thought" or "phrase-for-phrase" translation. This translation is not concerned with grammatical form in its translation of the original text as much as it would be about rendering the intended meaning. This is what is referred to as "dynamic equivalence," allowing the translation to be more interpretive in order to be easier to understand by the reader. This type of translation ideal is reflected in the New International Version (NIV) or the New Living Translation (NLT).
A simple way to check whether your translation is a word-for-word (formal equivalence) or thought-for-thought (dynamic equivalence) translation is to turn to Luke 9:44. In this passage Jesus predicts his betrayal and crucifixion, however, he prefaces his statement with a comment to the disciples:
"Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you..." (NIV)
"Let these words sink into your ears..." (NASB)
The Greek in this passage literally says, "Let these words sink into your ears," as rendered by the NASB. However, in English we don't talk like that. What the NIV, and other dynamic equivalence translations do, is replace it with a more understandable English equivalent: "Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you." The thought-for-thought translator takes the meaning of the text and translates it for the English reader to understand, staying faithful to the meaning; the phrase-for-phrase translator takes the form of the text and translates it directly, staying faithful to the form.
When we speak of faithfulness in regard to translation we need to clarify what we're talking about. Do we mean faithfulness to form or to meaning? This does not always have a simple answer, for at times when we're faithful to one we are not always being faithful to the other. There are certain passages in the King James that simply don't make any sense, and frankly, they didn't make much sense in 1611 when they were originally translated either. Likewise, many thought-for-thought translations push the line on interpretation and boarder on saying something the original author did not intend.
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe: Which Translation to Use?
So what does all this mean? Is there no hope for knowing what the original text of the Bible said? Is all lost in translation? Should we conclude that there are so many translations that all read so different from each other, and therefore, anyone who doesn't know Greek or Hebrew can't possibly understand the text? The answer is a resounding “no!”
Every individual who is serious about Bible study should own at least two different translations. Specifically, a thought-for-though (formal equivalence) translation as well as a phrase-for-phrase (dynamic equivalence) translation. This will help to flesh the original meaning and the original language of the text out for the reader - broadening their understanding of what the text actually says.
Finally, a note must be said regarding the King James Version and modern translations. The King James Bible is a fine translation, and no one should be faulted for using it. However, it is neither the best translation nor the most accurate. Likewise, the KJV of today is not the KJV of 1611, it has undergone a number of revisions and the vast majority of printed KJV Bibles today are either an Oxford or Cambridge printing of a 1769 reprint. (3)
I am also not saying that all translations are created equal. There exist some "translations" that distort in the name of interpretive translation, working not to be authentic to form or meaning but rather to a specific agenda by the translator(s). Any translation that is a sectarian translation is highly suspect, and works done by single individuals often suffer from personal and theological bias (whether intended or unintended) and should therefore, almost always be avoided.
The best example of a sectarian translation (that hardly warrants the title "translation") is the Jehovah's Witness' New World Translation (NWT). Due to the sectarian bias of the JWs in conjunction with the lack of true biblical scholarship among the group, this is easily the worst English translation available. The NWT works to be phrase-for-phrase the vast majority of the time, sometimes to an unreadable point. However, when issues of theological questions arise that do not match with JW doctrine, a "phrase-for-phrase" method is enacted that far too often twists the text in a way that it hardly allows for.
Examples of translations done by single individuals include Moffatt's, The Living Bible, Kenneth West's Expanded Translation, and the Berkley New Testament. While these are not necessarily bad translations, and can often be of use alongside of committee translations, for personal use it is not always wise to restrict reading to simply these types of Bible versions.
Again, the individual who seeks serious Bible study should take into consideration a multi-translational approach, possessing at least one formal and one dynamic equivalence translation for personal use. The most important note however, is that whatever translation you use you read it!
Also, here is the Star Wars fan in me labeling Bible translations as if they were Star Wars characters….
(1) Henry Ford and Samuel Crowther, My Life and Work (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), pg. 72.
(2) There were of course, other English translations available such as the Wycliffe Bible (c. 1384), Tyndale Bible (c. 1520s), Coverdale (c. 1520s), and the Geneva Bible (c. 15
(3) When many today refer to the Textus Receptus (TR) what they mean is the Trinitarian Bible Society’s Textus Receptus. This however, is a document compiled by a man named Frederick Henry Scrivener in the mid 1800s. Scrivener compiled the readings that were chosen by the KJV translators and codified them in a single document. It is not based on the manuscripts used by the translators, but rather, their finalized chosen text. In this way, it is a document put together nearly 200 years after the KJV’s final publication in 1611 and represents a Greek New Testament based on an English New Testament based on a Greek New Testament.
(4) For more on the topic of “King James Onlyism” I would recommend James White’s The King James Only Controversy