On Versions and Translations

Disclaimer: I have studied both Greek and Hebrew but I am no scholar. I basically know enough to get myself in serious trouble! But my MA is in Biblical text and I know enough about the languages that I can research in the language and I know something of the history of text transmission and translations.
Also, I normally do not go into detailed discussions regarding translations because many who wish to get into arguments really have no clue and it becomes an exercise that ends in frustration. However, there are many people who honestly don’t know the issues involved and have never particularly researched. When they do, they search online and run into quite a few bad websites that only serve to confuse.
Also, I am not suggesting in this post that the New International Version is the best version or the worst version of the Bible. It is merely one version among many. Each translation has its own strengths and weaknesses. I always recommend for Bible study the use of several translations.
Recently, I felt it important to address the issues of translations for those who are interested. 

Years ago I was in Honduras visiting with a missionary there. He told me about a visit he had with a North American preacher who demanded to know if he used the King James Version of the Bible in his preaching and teaching.

“Well, no sir. I use the Reina Valera version.”

“What?! Why don’t you use the King James?”

“Well sir, it would be inappropriate since the King James is in English and I teach in Spanish.”

The preacher argued that the missionary should use the KJV because it was “the most accurate” and stood the test of time.

“Well, if it is the test of time you are concerned with, since the Reina Valera was translated in 1569, I’d say we had the 1611 English version beat by nearly eighty years!”

On another occasion I was listening to a panel of elders taking questions from a gathering of preachers. One preacher asked, “What do I do if my elders demand I only preach from the KJV?”

One of the panelists, a now since retired professor who holds two Doctorates (one in Old Testament from Hebrew Union and one in New Testament from Harvard), who himself taught Greek and Hebrew, snorted. “Well, that’s a problem of your own making since you agreed to work in that church.” Then he added, “I cannot for the life of me understand how any eldership can claim to know what version is the best version when they cannot even translate one line of Greek or Hebrew.”

Recently I was given a packet about the New International Version and all of the “problems” with it. Evidently, it was such a bad translation it should be rejected by any follower of Jesus outright!

The article was evidently downloaded from some ministry website. The title of the article was “The New International Perversion.”

Now to set the stage I need to point out the “Statement of Faith” listed on the website, which lists 14 items. Number two is as follows:

We believe the King James Version is God’s Holy word. It is the preserved word of God without any error according to Psalms 12:7.

(Note: Psalm 12:7 says nothing about the King James Bible since it wasn’t in existence until several centuries later!  The verse itself is ripped out of its context.)

There are too many factual errors in the article to address them all. Let me just deal with “The NIV ‘Taketh Away’ 64,576 words!” The author begins with these statements:

Don’t look for “mercy seat” in the NIV – Gone!

Don’t look for “Jehovah” in the NIV – Gone!

Don’t look for “Godhead” in the NIV – Gone!

…Despite God’s clear warnings about “taking away” from His words–the NIV removes…over 8 percent of God’s words…

Wow.

The problem is, the King James Version is not what any of the biblical writers had in mind when they said “do not take away”. The King James Version wasn’t in existence until 1611–the Bible was written over a period of a several hundred years and the latest writing predates the KJV by, um, over 1,500 years. English language as we know it wasn’t really around until Chaucer several hundred years after the New Testament was written–and anyone who has ever memorized the prologue to Canterbury Tales know Middle English is almost impossible to understand.

So technically, none of those English words were “God’s words” that were not to be taken away, were they? The words being spoken about were Hebrew and Greek words, not English words. (I suppose the original scholars in 1611 might have been incensed that the Editors of the current edition of the KJV changed Iehovah to Jehovah–is that taking a word away, I wonder?)

So words like mercy seat and Godhead were not in the Bible used by Christians in the early 2nd-4th centuries. Those are English words used to translate Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words (the languages in which the Bible was originally composed). So, when the NIV chooses not to use these words they are not taking anything from the Bible. They are just using more contemporary (and in many cases more accurate) English words.

Godhead is used to translate θεοτητος in two passages. A better translation is deity or divine nature. In Acts 17:29 Godhead is used for the Greek word θεός which means “God” or “Deity”. The word Godhead is merely the way the scholars in 1611 translated these words. (Should I point out they translated ἀγάπη as charity in 1 Corinthians 13 which in 1611 meant “love” but now charity no longer has that meaning)?

My favorite, by far, is Jehovah. I, for one, applaud the NIV translators (and most every other contemporary English translation including the NASV, NRSV, RSV, ESV, etc., etc.) for removing this mis-transliteration.

Jehovah first appeared in Tyndale’s English translation in 1530. John Wycliffe was credited with creating the first English Bible in the 1380s (although some believe there were several translators involved). Wycliffe did not use Jehovah but instead translated the name of God as Adonay (Lord). The actual covenant name for God is YHWH or YHVH in Hebrew (some think this is pronounced Yahweh or Yahveh). The written Hebrew language did not utilize vowels. It wasn’t until around the 2nd century CE/AD that the Masorites added dashes, dots, and small symbols to serve as vowels (called “vowel markings”).

The challenge for these Rabbinic scholars was to prevent a reader from taking YHWH’s name in vain by pronouncing it out loud. In their minds it was better to substitute the word adonai (lord) for YHWH. (To this day many orthodox adherents of Judaism will simply say “LORD”, “The Name”, or Hashem instead of God’s actual covenant name).

So what to do? In each case where the word YHWH/YHVH appeared, they placed around it the vowel markings of adonai (ah-o-ah) to remind the would-be reader to pronounce the word adonai instead of Yahweh/Yahveh. So what happened? Tyndale transliterated (i.e., substituted English letters for the Hebrew letters) the consonants YHVH and the vowel markings A-O-A and a new word YaHoVaH (Iehovah or Jehovah) was born. The word most likely did not exist before Tyndale mis-transliterated it. The KJV scholars merely followed Tyndale’s lead.

Any decent collegiate dictionary will tell you this if you look up Jehovah. You can also read the preface of most any Bible and you will see the reference to the Tetragrammaton (i.e., YHWH) and an explanation. Those who are first year students in Hebrew know this to be the case. (I know this also may burst the bubble of those who actually believed Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code when he claimed Jehovah was a combination of Jah the “masculine deity” and Havah, Eve his consort–sorry conspiracy theorists, just not true).

I won’t address any more of the article’s attack on the New International Version. The fact is, the author of the article does not know Greek or Hebrew and has no clue about how translations are created. The writer actually believes that the King James Version is inspired without any error.

The truth is, the King James Version, like any other translation of the Bible is a product of human beings who are just as subject to mistakes, bad judgement, and inferior knowledge as any of us are. One only has to go to 1 John 5:7 in the KJV,

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

Now if you will look at other versions such as The American Standard Version, The New American Standard VersionThe Revised Standard Version, The New International Version, and The New Revised Standard Version (to list a few), you won’t find that verse. (And if you look in the Greek texts I have, you won’t find the verse there, either). Why is that?

It is not in the most reliable manuscripts. In fact, it is in no Greek manuscript dating before 1500 CE/AD!  To quote Greek professor Daniel Wallace,

…there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek manuscript until the 1500s; each such reading was apparently composed after Erasmus’ Greek NT was published in 1516.

So much for the KJV being “the preserved word of God…without any error…

This is not to castigate or condemn the King James Version, either. But to recognize there is no translation that is without some problems.

So what is the take away? Does this mean the Bible is hopelessly flawed and untrustworthy? Absolutely not! What it means is that translations are not flawless.

If anything, the Bible has stood the test of time. We have more ancient early manuscripts of the original Greek and Hebrew texts than any other document in antiquity. And not just a few more–but thousands more. If anything, our desire to continue to search for earlier and more reliable manuscripts to make certain we are as close to those original documents is a testimony to the accuracy of newer contemporary translations. Because when older manuscripts are found, if they are proven to be superior documents, they are included in translations.

This is a good thing.

It means we are serious about getting as close to the original documents as possible. And the translations that keep coming out every year shows that scholars are serious in getting the Bible into the words of everyday people.

Language changes. Word meanings and usage changes every year. As long as our modern languages are living languages, there will always be the need for new translations.

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About Darryl Willis

Darryl has been working for non-profits for over 36 years. His current work takes him to Ukraine several times a year. He has fallen in love with the country and the people. Darryl writes poetry and his work has appeared in several online and print journals.
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2 Responses to On Versions and Translations

  1. susan says:

    Here, here!

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