The Translating of the Bible
Introduction: The Bible has consistently been one of the best sellers and most often translated books ever known to man. The Bible purports to be God breathed (theopneustos) and the Bible backs up its claims with many attendant internal and external proofs (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17). As a consequence, the Bible demands that men accept it as God's inerrant revelation and as man's only authoritative creed book; the only book by which man is to live and die (Heb. 1: 1, 2; Jn. 12: 48; 6: 63). The word of God is able to "build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified" (Acts 20: 32). In view of the importance of the Bible, how about all the translations of the Bible? There are about 75 recognized translations today of the Bible into English. How should translations be viewed and how did they come to exist?
I. The original books of the Bible were written in three major languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and the Koine Greek.
A. For several centuries after the cessation of the age of inspiration (ending with the book of Revelation, ca. 96 AD, Jude 3), the scriptures were not available to the people in translation (all the various languages of earth). Latin was the language of the learned and as a result, the early Bibles in England were not in English but Latin.
B. To view the inception and emergence of the English Bible, we must travel back to the middle of the seventh century. The first work, not truly a translation, was performed by Caedmon when he arranged portions of the Bible in the native Anglo-Saxon. The next century experienced the first true documented translation of any part of the Bible into English (work of Aldhelm in 709 AD). Subsequent to 709, portions of the Bible were translated into English in 735 (by Bede), King Alfred (901), and Abbot Aelfric (tenth century AD). It was not until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that significant portions were again translated into English (Middle English).
C. Any study of the translation of the languages of the Bible focuses on John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. Wycliffe (1330-1384 AD) opposed the shackles of Romanism and urged England to a great spiritual revival. Wycliffe believed all men should have ready access to God's word. Wycliffe undertook and finished a translation of the Bible from Latin into English in 1382. Wycliffe's work is the first complete translation of the Bible into English. John Wycliffe's work prevailed until the sixteenth century. The true father of the English Bible, though, is William Tyndale. Tyndale wanted to provide man with a translation into English from the original Hebrew and Greek, not the Latin, which was itself, a translation. It was during this same time period that Martin Luther finished a translation in German. The Catholic Church determinedly did all within its power to stop translation work and to keep the Bible from being available to all men in their languages. Tyndale was imprisoned in 1534 and in 1536, he was strangled and burned at the stake. Tyndale's efforts were not in vain, though, his New Testament was completed in 1525 and in 1535, Miles Coverdale, a scholar and friend of Tyndale, published his translation, partly based on Tyndale's work.
D. A number of translations and revisions followed those of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale. Translations such as Matthew's Bible (1537), Taverner's Bible (1539), the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop's Bible were rendered. The fervor for English translations pressured the Catholic Church into producing an English "translation" of their own, the Rheims-Douai (completed in 1609, 10). This work, though, was not really a translation of the original Hebrew and Greek but was based on the Latin Vulgate.
E. Anterior to 1611, no translation had been produced that appeased all and was viewed as useful for both public (pulpit) and private use. Hence, the making of the Authorized Version, the King James. The King James is truly remarkable, especially considering the meager manuscript access afforded to the translators. The King James Bible is not truly a translation but a revision of the 1602 edition of the Bishop's Bible. About 48 of some of the best Hebrew and Greek scholars were appointed to work on this project and about three years later, their labor gave the world the King James Bible. The King James has undergone many revisions, all of which have continued to render a still better work. The King James with it Shakespearean classic English continued to be the choice of the masses for about 400 years (the New International Version has surpassed the King James in popularity, more later).
F. Some scholars have well remarked that we are needlessly inundated with too many translations today. Translations, especially revisions, from time to time, are good in view of changes in English, idiom, and syntax. Also, there is no such thing as an absolutely perfect translation or revision (the scholars are not inspired, contrary to some teaching). Other important works have followed the King James Version of 1611. Some are the English Revised Version (1885), and the Revised Standard Version (a revision of the American Standard Version of 1901) was completed in 1952.
a. Scores of translations have come into existence, the Twentieth Century New Testament (considered the pioneer of the modern-speech versions), Weymouth's Version, Moffatt's Version, the New American Standard, etc. The American Standard Translation of 1901 vastly improved upon the King James and was, in this sense, a revision of the King James. Also, the American Standard translators had access to a host of important manuscripts that were unavailable to the King James scholars (such as the so called great uncials, the Vatican, Sinaitic, and the Alexandrian manuscripts). The American Standard is still declared by many scholars to be one of the best and most exact rendering ever made of the Hebrew and Greek text.
b. Needless to say, there are a number of other important works such as the New King James that also sought to offer the best of both worlds between the tried and proved King James (based on the Received Text) and the latter day versions (made use of the Westcott and Hort text). There are, in general, strengths and weaknesses of every translation. The Amplified New Testament (an expanded version) is a good work from the standpoint of the verb renderings. One should always read the rules each translation supposedly followed, rules such as the meaning of italicized words, brackets, parenthesis marks, etc.
G. A number of translations have been produced not only for commercial reasons but because they have had a particular slant to present (see addendum). For instance, the declared most popular translation today is the New International Version. The obvious slant of the NIV is seen in its preoccupation with Calvinistic influenced renderings (see Ps. 51: 5, cp. to American Standard). Even the King James showed some Catholic influence (Acts 12: 4, "Easter," the word should be "Passover"). Again, I stress one can learn about how to be saved from just about all the myriad works.
II. The received text versus the Westcott and Hort text.
A. When one considers the work of translating the Hebrew and Greek text, one is inevitably faced with the Received Text versus the Westcott/Hort text controversy.
B. The term Received Text (Textus Receptus) was first used in reference to the popular Greek text of the Bible, in Elzevir's second edition, Published in 1633. The following preface to that edition is the Latin words, "Textum ergo habes nunc ab ominbus receptum." The translation into English is, "the text presently possessed by all received." It soon was simply known as the "Received Text" or the "the Text Received by all." For the most part, the Received Text was very limited in manuscript number and variety, compared to what would later be available.
C. The Westcott/Hort text. Two scholars came to light during the 1800s by the name of Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. They undertook the task of arranging the greatest collection of manuscripts known to scholars. After about twenty-eight years of labor, the Westcott and Hort text was presented to the world. When one considers these two texts, one is faced with a great host of claims and accusations as to which text is better, and if better, how much better.
a. Some believe that the Received Text should be the only recognized text used by translators; others maintain that the Westcott and Hort text is so vastly superior that the Received Text should not even be consider. These are patently extreme views. Wise translators take advantage of both texts. (The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament by Berry is a good example of the Received Text, while the Interlinear Greek-English New Testament by Nestle/Marshall is an example of the Received Text and the Westcott/Hort text combined).
Conclusion: The work of translating and preserving the integrity of the Hebrew and Greek texts is a remarkable undertaking. We are indebted today to some of the greatest scholarship the world has ever known. Great men have made great sacrifices, some even giving their lives. The translation and preservation of God's word also exhibits God's providence (I Pet. 1: 24, 25). How deprived and doomed man would be without the guidance and sustenance of the Bible. The Bible is the only book that reveals the Creator and his will for man.
Addendum: There are a number of classifications of translations. Here is a brief sample along with a few examples of each grouping. (1) Strictly literal, the American Standard, New American Standard; (2) literal, New King James Version; (3) literal with freedom to be idiomatic, New Revised Standard Version; (4) thought-for-thought, New International Version, New Jerusalem Bible, Revised English Bible, New Jewish Version; (5) dynamic equivalent or modern speech, Today's English Version, (6) and paraphrastic, The Living Bible.
As a rule, attendant to the increase numeric group there is a decrease in the accuracy of the translating of the Hebrew and Greek into English. Some works such as the Reader's Digest Condensed Bible and some of the modern street language "renderings" are not even worth mentioning.