There are approximately 450 Bible translations in English, each one unique. The most popular of these include the NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, NKJV, NASB, and CSB. All of these utilize different translation methodologies, and all of these are either revisions from earlier translations, or follow the translational choices of previous translations. Among conservatives, the KJV and ESV reign supreme, though the ESV has largely won the hearts of the modern Calvinist camp. Prior to the late 19th century, there was really only one Bible used by all English speaking churches, the King James Version (KJV), also known as the Authorized Version (AV). We’ve come a long way in just over 100 years. It is easy to get bogged down in discussions over which version is the best, and that certainly does happen, often. It is often said that the English speaking world has an “embarrassment of riches” as it pertains to Bible versions, and I suppose that is true if we’re counting noses. Unfortunately, the quality of this multitude of versions should cause the sound minded Christian to see the hundreds of versions for what they are – simply an embarrassment. So how did we get here? How did we get from a church with one text to a church with more texts than there are genders recognized by the state of New York?
A Short History of English Translations
Prior to taking a trip through time, it is important to evaluate the state of affairs of Bible versions, and the fruit of such Bible versions. In the first place, it should be apparent to all that the number of Bible translations are not a blessing, but a blight to the English speaking church. Not only is it common, but inevitable, that you will encounter a multitude of translations wherever you go to fellowship. I could write several blog posts chronicling the various occasions on which an NASB devotee and an ESV reader went at it, ultimately resulting in the Bible study devolving into a shoddy attempt to do word studies using some online lexicon. Rather than going back to the Greek, let’s go back in history and see how this all started.
In 1881, a revision of the Authorized Version was completed, and the product was called the Revised Version. The committee responsible for this effort were authorized with the simple task of removing the “plain and clear errors” in the AV. Some of the rules for such a revision included:
- To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the AV
- To indicate such alteration in the margin
- Only necessary changes were to be made
Not only did the “revision” team not follow these rules, they broke them in excess. They didn’t just “revise” the AV, they created an entirely new underlying Greek text, an entirely new translation, and the notes which they left in the margin to detail such additions and subtractions were so inadequate that even the most learned reader could be misled by them. The vague statements such as “some ancient authorities” in the margins have been carried over in spirit into the beloved modern versions, most notably the ESV, NIV, and NASB. These kinds of footnotes are not only bewildering, they introduce doubt where doubt need not be introduced. That is not to say that the intentions of the revision team were malicious, but if they were graded on how well they could follow directions, they would have failed. This is relevant because almost all of the modern versions stand in this textual tradition.
In the preface of the ESV, it reads that it “stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium. The fountainhead of that stream was William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526; marking its course were the King James Version of 1611 (KJV), the English Revised Version of 1885 (RV), the American Standard Version of 1901 (ASV), and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and 1971 (RSV).”
If you’ve read both the ESV and KJV, you’re probably thinking what I thought when I read that: What loose definition of “classic mainstream” is being used?
If by “classic mainstream” it is meant that it has 66 books in it, then it certainly does stand in the same stream. Yet, anybody who has read these two versions knows that this is a plain abuse of the term which only serves to obfuscate the reality to the reader. The reality is that the ESV, and almost every modern version stands in the stream of either the RSV or the ASV, and only the KJV can properly claim to stand in the tradition of Tyndale. One cannot say responsibly that a text is in the same tradition as another when they are different in hundreds of places, and those Bibles which stand in the RV stream omit over forty verses from the KJV stream. See, the English Bibles leading up to the KJV in 1611 all had the Longer Ending of Mark, the Pericope Adulterae, the Comma Johanneum, John 5:4, Acts 8:37, Romans 16:24, and so on. They all translated the same reading at John 1:18 and 1 Timothy 3:16. They all stood in the same textual tradition. So it is rather disingenuous when the revision team first introduced their text, advertising it as a “revision,” and again disingenuous when Crossway published their preface saying that the ESV was in the “Classic Mainstream” going back to Tyndale. This same strategy is still employed today by many top scholars who consistently prop up this idea that the two streams are essentially the same.
It is important to note that not only is the text vastly different between the RV tradition and the KJV tradition, the textual methodologies are completely different as well. If the two streams are different, every Christian should be asking three questions:
- Why is there such a concentrated effort to mitigate the differences between the two streams?
- Why is it so important that the two streams stand in the same tradition?
- If the “revision” effort resulted in an entirely new Greek text, should we adopt that text?
Answering the Difficult Questions
The reason there is an effort to mitigate the differences between the two streams is due to the fact that if the streams are truly significantly different, the classic Protestant doctrine of inspiration and preservation is incorrect. If the Scriptures have been kept pure in all ages, there wouldn’t be, and cannot be, two textual traditions that are both valid. And if the modern textual tradition is valid, then the sum of classic Protestant doctrine was built on an incorrect text. That is why it is so important that the two texts stand in the same tradition. If we were talking about a handful of insignificant readings which were simply ignored for a hundred years or so, that is easily written off by the fallibility of the textual criticism done in the 16th century. That is not the case, however. The reality is, that we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of differences. So many differences, in fact, that the two text platforms are entirely different Bibles. That should cause every single Christian who cares about Inspiration and Preservation to give serious thought to the reality of two different textual platforms. If the ESV, for example, does not stand in the “classic mainstream” of Scripture, what should we think of it?
Rather than viewing the discussion over translation as a matter of preference, we need to revisit the history of translations and see if that first “revision” was even warranted, and what exactly was done as a part of the effort. The reality is, if the revision team had followed instructions, it is likely that I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. We’d all be reading a faithful update to the Authorized Version. That of course, did not happen. Instead, we have hundreds of Bible versions, endless debates over which translation is best, the enemies of the faith constantly attacking our embarrassing situation, and utter chaos in our churches as a result of our multitude of Bible versions. Yet these are not the only products of that fateful “revision” effort. As a result of the modern textual methodology, pastors and layman alike are taught to read their Bibles critically and subjectively, picking and choosing verses to believe and not to believe. The common opinion is that “no translation can adequately bring forth the original,” resulting in people utilizing Greek lexicons to warp the text into what they want it to say. The plain fruit of this is that people simply do not trust their Bible translation. Even worse, the latest textual methodology that has evolved from the 19th century has brought the levels of skepticism to dire extremes. Not only is it the conservative position to approach the text skeptically and subjectively, it is perfectly normal to reject the preservation of Scripture altogether. In fact, it is naive, and even considered fundamentalism to affirm that God has preserved the matter of Scripture perfectly into the 21st century.
The reality is that the “revision” done in 1881 has led to an embarrassment of problems for the modern church. It has given license for people to not only doubt their translation, but to doubt the text it was translated from. It has introduced division by forcing the church to take a stand on the traditional text against the modern text. It has created controversies, debates, strife, confusion, chaos, and has opened the door for not only the enemies of the faith to discredit the Scriptures, but given full license for Christians to do the same. Look around, Christian. There is not a Bible anymore, just bibles. Rather than squabbling for hours on Facebook over textual variants, perhaps it is a good idea to back up for a second and look around. Which text is the real problem? Which text really needs to be justified? Who is the burden of proof really on? It is abundantly clear which text has caused more problems. The question to ask, and an important one at that, is: Was it justified for the church to adopt a text that was conceived in scandal, and should we adopt the children of that text today?
In the following blog posts, I will be exploring these questions. Happy New Year!