Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bible Translation Principles

Let's talk about Bible translations. At the end of last week I had a question about the Bible version I had quoted For Revelation 22:13

13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. –NKJV

13I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. – KJV

Usually unless I specifically tell you I'm quoting from another version, I am using the New King James. But sometimes the Bible Gateway web site I use to cut and paste the verses into my lesson, defaults to the NIV or New International Version which I usually notice right away and change. But last week I didn't notice, so what I quoted in the lesson read like this:

13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. – NIV

So the two phrases "beginning and the end", "first and the last" were flipped. So I thought it would be a good idea to look at a few of the most common English language translations of the Bible, and understand how they are different, and why.


Old Testament

To translate the Bible you start with a manuscript or complete text, written in another language. For the Old Testament text or Hebrew Bible this is usually not too controversial. The Jewish scribes took great pride in preserving the Law and the Prophets. By the 6th century AD the scribes were succeeded by the Masoretes of which there were several groups. The group led by the family of ben Asher became the noted authorities on the Hebrew Bible and by the 12th century they published the only accepted version of the Hebrew Bible sometimes called the Masoretic text. There was another version used from the early 16th to the early 19th century called the ben Chayyium text, but most scholars have reverted to a ben Asher manuscript dated to around 1000 AD. What you have to remember is prior to 1450 AD all published texts were hand copied, so it's common in ancient writings to find single words, phrases or verses omitted and some spelling differences. In addition to the Hebrew Bible scholars also look at The Septuagint or Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the Vulgate or Latin translation of the Old Testament since these were used by the early Christian Churches.

New Testament

There is more manuscript support for the New Testament than for another other ancient literature. Over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, and 8,000 Latin manuscripts, have been found, all attest to the integrity of the New Testament. To think of all those hand copied scrolls and books and yet to find the relatively few differences between them all is amazing. There are basically 3 major published Greek texts used by Bible translators, they are in perfect agreement 85% of the time and the other 15% are usually single word or phrase omissions and spelling differences that are very easy to resolve. It is how you resolve these small differences where most of the intrigue can be found.

Received Text – or Textus Receptus this is the traditional text used by Greek-speaking churches and was first published in 1516. The received text was based on relatively few manuscripts, but the they were very representative manuscripts. So you can also think of the received text as the common text, very close to what most of the early churches might have used. The Received Text is the primary source for the King James and New King James Bibles. Some claim divine providence in preserving this text version.

Critical Text – Most modern English translations published since 1880 have relied on a small number of manuscripts discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The primary manuscripts are known as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus. Some prefer these because of the great age of the oldest known copies, but they sometimes differ from the common text, and from each other, usuallt by omission, so there are questions about the quality of these manuscripts. You will sometimes see this version called the Alexandrian Text or the NU-Text abbreviated from the name of it's two publishers.

Majority Text – The third and most contemporary school of thought on Greek manuscripts is that the best manuscript is found in a consensus of the majority existing Greek manuscripts. Since all the version agree 85% of the time this group lets the majority rule, in resolving the few differences. This is generally pretty easy since most of the differences are omissions, you can fill in the blanks using what you find in the most manuscripts. This is also referred to as the M-text.


After you know which text was used, you will want to know the translation methodology used by the version you use. Greek and Hebrew differ from English in grammar and word order, so word-for-word translation would not result in anything meaningful. All translators try to achieve equivalence in well formed English, using either Dynamic or Complete equivalence.

Complete Equivalence - attempts to preserve all the information in the bible text, while presenting it in good literary form. The King James and New King James translators sought complete equivalence.

Dynamic Equivalence – a more recent procedure in bible translation, tries to magnify the primary meaning of the scripture in the most readable form. This method will result in more paraphrasing and less literal translation, to achieve a translation with a clear meaning and an easy reading flow. Modern translations vary in the degree to which they paraphrase from the literal. The NIV uses a mild amount of paraphrasing, where The Message or The Living Bible are completely paraphrased Bible translations.

Other Agendas

Sometimes specific Bible translators have stated goals to change something that they didn't like about a prior translation. Usually if you read the introductory note in the front of your Bible these will be disclosed, but it's just something it would be good for you to be aware of.


Let's look at some of the common English Bible versions and see how they apply all these principles.

KJV – King James Version – auth. 1611 – revised 3 or 4 times

  • Received Text
  • Complete Equivalence
  • Archaic English corrected some catholic alterations in the Bishops Bible 1568

NKJV – New King James Version 1979-82 (2 revisions)

  • Received Text – differences in NU-text and M-Text footnoted for each verse
  • Complete Equivalence
  • Removes some of the most archaic English words from the KJV

NASB – New American Standard 1960-77 (8 revisions)

  • Critical Text – Alexandrian or NU-Text
  • Complete Equivalence except where readability was hindered (footnoted)
  • An update of ASV 1901, ERV 1881 both considered updates of KJV

NIV – New International Version 1973-84 (2 revisions)

  • Critical Text – Alexandrian or NU-Text (some early attempts at majority text)
  • Dynamic Equivalence – mild form usually only one or two words added for clarity
  • Not a revision of other versions though they maintained some of the traditions of earlier translations like translating the Hebrew YHWH as Lord

ESV – English Standard Version

  • Majority Text – NU and Received text considered
  • Complete Equivalence – with occasional modifications for clarity
  • An update of the RSV correcting some of the gender neutral pronouns


No comments:

Post a Comment