Q: Which Bible version should we use?

The following paragraphs are a summary of the history of Bible translations.

Original works
One of the advantages the Jews had was that the Scriptures were given in their own language. They had no need to translate God's directives and encouragements into another language in which the nuances of meaning could be somewhat ambiguous at times. However, they often neglected the benefits they were given. Do we treat the Scriptures as lightly and as neglectfully as they often did? Do we wait for someone else to tell us what to think, or do we search the Scriptures daily as the Bereans did?

Questions and doubts
The many English translations of the Bible available today have often been at the center of controversy, questions and doubt. Since the Bible is the precious Word of God--indeed, the very "breath" of God (2 Tim. 3:16)--believers would do well to at least be aware of the issues behind the translation of the English Bible. What about the authenticity of the Bible? Is there a translation we can read with full confidence?

Language equivalency
Bible translation is a complex task of studying the vocabulary, grammar and syntax equivalency of both the original language (Hebrew in the Old Testament, Greek in the New Testament, and Aramaic in a few chapters in the Old Testament) and the destination language (e.g., English). Part of the complexity is due to the fact that words in one language often do not have an exact equivalent in another language. Two major translation philosophies seek to overcome this difficulty.

Formal equivalency seeks a word-for-word literal equivalency as often as possible. However, this sometimes makes no sense in the destination language because of differences between languages in sentence structure and grammar. Dynamic equivalency seeks to communicate the exact meaning of the words. However, this sometimes results in an interpretive translation which is more subject to the interpreter's bias.

No translation completely conforms to either method. To calculate how closely various translations conform to either method, a deviation test has been developed.(1) This test has shown the KJV, NKJV and NASB to be fairly similar literal translations. The NIV falls in the free translation category with the goal of translating ideas, and the Living Bible and Phillips Modern English Bible are paraphrases. The American Standard Version of 1901 is the most literal. Literal translations generally make more reliable study tools. More recently the English Standard Version has been a welcome new literal translation in paragraph style. It tends to read more like the NIV while retaining larger vocabulary words.

(1) The deviation test first assigns consecutive numbers to the original Hebrew or Greek words. Each word is translated into its nearest English equivalent, keeping the Greek or Hebrew word order intact. The English word order is then adjusted along with whatever other changes are necessary to achieve readable English. The original sequential number remains with the original words. This produces the closest accurate and meaningful English equivalent of the Hebrew or Greek text which becomes the norm for comparing other translations.

English translations are then compared with this translation by noting five kinds of deviations: changes in word order, omissions  from the text, lexical alterations, syntactical alterations and additions to the  text. Each deviation is assigned a numerical value depending on the kind and degree of difference between the closest equivalent and the version under investigation. The values are totaled to establish the deviation value for the section. This number is adjusted to reflect the deviation value per one hundred words. The process is repeated for other samplings, and the values are averaged to obtain a single deviation for the whole book. Then versions can be compared. (Thomas, Robert L., An Introductory Guide for Choosing English Bible Translations, 1988, p. 52)

Attempting to capture the nuances of the source language sometimes results in awkward English. The ideal is to eliminate distortion and awkwardness without sacrificing faithfulness to the original text as much as possible.

Text families
The basic text families from which the literal translations have been derived are the same for the KJV and the NKJV and are known as Byzantine. More recent versions are based on the Alexandrian text which was not available when the KJV was originally translated. There have been numerous discussions by many scholars about which original text is most accurate. 

The Alexandrian text family was hidden away and untouched for several hundred years while the Byzantine texts were copied and recopied for centuries. The end result is two families of texts that vary little in actual communicative content. Despite the variances in capitalization, punctuation, spellings, etc., the Biblical truth is sound and consistent in both text families. While the Byzantine text is considered to be "fuller," most of its fullness appears due to such things as restatements of thoughts and fuller names for Christ (e.g., Lord Jesus Christ). 

Original scribal families?
What about copyists' or scribal errors in the basic text families? Sometimes multiple copies were produced by one individual reading the  Scripture from a "master" document and a group of scribes writing down what they heard. Obviously this led to variations in spelling, punctuation, capitalization and the like. Sometimes marginal notes might be incorporated into the text even though they could either be textual corrections or simply thoughts of a scribe. Sometimes a scribe would inadvertently add what he thought he was hearing based on his knowledge of similar passages. In checking such work another person might later add what he thought it should say. By comparing various copies the correct rendition is more likely found. The additional passages found in the Byzantine-derived KJV do not alter the theology or create a contradiction with other portions of Scripture. 

Format variations
Text formatting issues include punctuation, capitalization, arrangement (one verse per line versus paragraphs) and print styles, such as the use of italics for smoothing out English sentences.

The capitalization of a pronoun referring to Jesus has some difficulties. This is not part of the original Hebrew which does not have any capitalization anywhere. The NASB, MLB (Modern Language Bible) and NKJV do use capitalization of these pronouns. While it is intended to refer to deity, sometimes the person in a particular passage does not intend to consider Christ to be God. To capitalize a pronoun used by such a person is to reflect the opinion of the translator.

Quotation marks were first added to the American Standard Version of 1901. For a translator to include these, he must make an interpretive decision about where the quote begins and ends. Sometimes it is unclear whether part of the section may be the writer's commentary rather than a complete quote (e.g. Gal. 2:14-21).

What do the italic letters in some translations mean? The italic lettering indicates words which do not translate a specific Hebrew or Greek word. They are implied by the sense of the original, but not explicitly expressed. They are used to complete an English sentence properly. The Geneva Bible (1560), the KJV (1611), the ASV (1901) and NASB (1971) use this convention, but the RSV (1881-85) and NKJV (1982) do not.  The KJV initiated the custom of beginning each new verse on its own line. This is useful in finding the beginning of a particular verse in contrast to a paragraph style. Poetry is usually indicated by indentation with each poetic line on its own line.

What about a single translator versus a committee? One translator has the advantage of consistency from one passage to another. He will make the same kinds of decisions throughout regarding wording. A group of translators does not have this consistency of vocabulary; however, a group will have less inclination to maintain personal prejudices, pet doctrines and individual peculiarities. 

Theological bias
Theological bias in translation work is more serious and is observable in several ways: general knowledge, nformation in introductory sections, accompanying notes, and the text itself. Issues include the view of Scripture itself--is it verbally inspired with a word-for-word or a meaning-for-meaning focus? How is Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment handled? How well does the choice of renderings illuminate these facts when legitimate options exist? What is the view of Christ's deity? (In the 1901 ASV a Unitarian left his mark in a note for John 9:30 indicating that Jesus was a mere creature.)
The translators' view of the Holy Spirit can been seen by whether the "S" is capitalized or not. The use of the word for "fallen angels" has been translated "devils," which obscures the issue of one devil and many demons.

The saving work of Christ at Calvary is sometimes obscured by using expiation for propitiation, eliminating the connotation of wrath. The security of the believer is another issue that can show the translator's bias. The identity of the church and the view of the end times are also issues open to bias in translation work. Other factors influencing different types of translations include the age of the reader, the stage of English language development, geographical locations, educational backgrounds, focus on the mode of communication, degree of formality and varying interests (such as whether the translators attend church or not).

Greek Old Testament
The common Greek translation of the Old Testament is the Septuagint (LXX). The Greek version probably arose to fill the needs of the large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. Many of them, only conversant in Greek, had lost familiarity with written Hebrew. However, they wanted to understand the Scriptures on which their faith and life depended. Similarities between the Septuagint and Egyptian Greek, used in vernacular Egyptian papyri of the area, support this possibility. The Pentateuch was translated first and became somewhat of a basis for other parts. Some parts render a literal translation while others are a free translation. The arrangement of books differs from the Hebrew Bible and includes additional books and supplements while deleting some portions of text. New Testament quotes come largely from this Greek translation. Later, this version was viewed as a calamity by Talmudic scholars. 

Latin Old Testament
In the 5th century Jerome used the original Hebrew to make a fresh Latin translation of the Old Testament. This became known as the Vulgate. Eleven hundred years later Lorenzo Valla discovered that the text then being used in the Roman Catholic church (having endured many handwritten copies) differed from Jerome's original work. Valla then produced a corrected version.

Printed Greek
Erasmus found Valla's work in 1504 and immediately had it published in Paris. In 1516 he produced the first printed Greek text which went through several revisions by 1535 because of its rapid initial production. He also published a fresh Latin translation. Erasmus only had a few texts to research. This text (through Stephanus and Beza) led to the text that became known as the Textus Receptus which was labeled the basis for the KJV. The term Textus Receptus was associated with the Greek New Testament produced by the Elzevir brothers edition of 1633 which was described as the "textum. . . ab omnibus receptum," (the text . . . now received by all). This text mainly followed Beza, but included others as well. This text is close to the Majority Text (Byzantine) but not identical to it.


It appears that the first complete English Bible, based on the Latin, was due to John Wycliffe (c. 1330-84) through his students in 1382 and 1388. In 1415 it was condemned and burned. Roman Catholic pressure had brought strong English opposition.  


William Tyndale later intended to publish a new English version of the Bible based on the original languages. He left England in 1524 to pursue that work, and the New Testament was completed in 1525. He published the Pentateuch in 1530 and Jonah in 1531. After imprisonment he probably completed the work through Chronicles. When he was executed in 1536, a complete English Bible was in circulation based on his work in the New Testament and pentateuch. It was openly being read in England having been published in 1535 by the priest Miles Coverdale with King Henry's permission. Coverdale had graciously dedicated the volume to the king and queen. Tyndale's work became foundational for all English Bibles through the Revised Version with as much as 80 percent or more of the portions he had completed still in use. The Tyndale Bible used the Vulgate order of books and separated out the Apocrypha into an appendix


Other versions include Matthew's Bible (1537), Taverner's Bible (1539, the Great Bible (first authorized version 1539-41) and the Geneva Bible (1560). The Geneva Bible used numbered verses first and introduced italicized English words to represent words not in the original text. This Bible had immediate and widespread acceptance with new editions appearing every year from 1560 to 1616. It was used by Shakespeare, John Bunyan, the Puritan pilgrims to the New World and even King James. Still other versions include the Bishops' Bible (second authorized version, based on the Great Bible-1568) and the Rheims-Douay Bible, a Catholic rendition (1582-1610).


In 1604 work began on a new translation. King James supported the work which gained some fifty scholars. They were given a list of rules and procedures. They were to alter the Bishops' Bible as little as possible (... "to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one" ...) as permitted by the truth of the original. They were to consult other translations where they agreed better with the text including Tyndale, Matthew, Coverdale, the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible. Old ecclesiastical words were to be kept (church versus congregation). The preface explains the translator's intent to use only marginal notes to indicate uncertainties in original wording. They intended to be reserved about uncertainties rather than dogmatic when the uncertainties did not relate to doctrinal issues of salvation. One goal was to use a variety of English synonyms to translate the same word in the original Greek or Hebrew as much as possible. Unfortunately, this variety led to ambiguity at times and precludes the use of exact wording for clarity and emphasis when appropriate. 

The work was divided among the men in six panels. As one panel completed a section, they distributed it to the other panels for review. Chief members of each panel made final decisions. The strong team of revisers included professors of Hebrew and Greek from Oxford and Cambridge. The work began in 1607 and was printed in 1611. It was made under royal authority and bore the title page statement of "being appointed to be read in churches," but was not officially authorized by ecclesiastical or legislative sanction. Its popularity eventually obtained its "authorized" status. It was dedicated to King James and included a preface explaining its purpose, procedures and principles. 

Subsequent printings (1629, 1638, 1762 and 1769-today's standard, differing in an estimated 75,000 details) corrected numerous typographical errors including eliminating multiple lines, inserting omitted words and correcting wrong wording. The 1611 version appealed to both scholars and the common people. In 1847 the American Bible Society intended to prepare a standard text from among the 24,000 variations, but they decided that none of the variations hindered the integrity of the text or affected any doctrine or the Bible. In 1861 various changes (mostly spelling) were introduced. In 1932 further spelling changes (along with pronunciation marks over names) were made to conform to American usage. No further changes were made until 1962 when changes such as paragraph formatting, section headings and a new system of references were instituted.

The KJV helped develop the lineage of the Tyndale tradition. Tyndale contributed much of the idiom and ocabulary, Coverdale contributed the melody and harmony, and Geneva contributed the scholarship and accuracy. The six panels produced varying qualities. It was the best English Bible then available and had a conservative evangelical theological bias. Its literary and punctuation style lends it to public reading. 

Meanwhile, other lesser known versions between the 1611 and the 1870 initiation of the Revised Version include Edward Harwood's New Testament (1768), Charles Thomson's Bible in America (1808), Noah Webster's Bible (1833) and Julia E. Smith's Bible (1876).  

The English Revised Version was initiated in 1870 with the King James Version as the basis instead of the Bishop's Bible. American scholars were invited to contribute but were subordinate to the English scholars. The New Testament was published in 1881 in England.  The Old Testament appeared in 1885 and the Apocrypha in 1895. This became the fourth Authorized Version in English (1539, 1568, 1611 and 1895). Spurgeon described it as strong in Greek, but weak in English. It often retained the Greek word order thus inverting the English order. The English committee disbanded in 1885, but the American committee continued. In 1901 the American committee issued the American Standard Version of the Bible which had more substitutions based on tastefulness. It also changed Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit. It updated the spelling of proper names and dropped archaic wording. Neither of them overtook the popular King James Version. While these formal Revised Versions were not enthusiastically embraced, they opened the door for additional English speaking attempts.

The NKJV New Testament, developed by Thomas Nelson, appeared in 1979, and the entire Bible was published in 1982. The NKJV is similar to the KJV with a variety of conjunctions being used in place of the many occurrences of the conjunction "and" in accordance with original language appropriateness (see Mark 1:29-34). It uses more contemporary English throughout such as replacing "thee" and "thou" with you. Archaic verb forms such as "art" and "shalt" are changed to current forms such as "are" and "shall." Pronouns referring to deity are capitalized "He." The Holy Ghost was changed to Holy Spirit. 

Footnotes include three textual views throughout the New Testament, "TR," "NU," and "M". The New Testament New King James text is the traditional one used by Luther and Calvin and Catholic scholar Erasmus. In 1633 it began to be called Textus Receptus or "TR"  Footnotes include the alternative renderings of specific wording without comment for the reader's comparison and study. "NU" stands for the critical text Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies. "M" stands for the majority text which is close to the TR except in Revelation. See Acts 5:41 for all three options.  

In 1627 the Codex Alexandrinus came to England as a gift to the king from the patriarch of Constantinople. It had been written in the 5th century. In 1830 a new attempt was made to limit the collected errors of the centuries, and active work began in 1872. The New Testament was finished in 1881 with the Old Testament following in 1885. This was the English Revised Version. In 1901 the American Standard Version was issued, based on the English version with about six hundred American preferred renderings. 

The New International Version was produced in 1978. The New American Standard Bible was published in 1971 with an updated edition in 1995. The NASB was intended to revive interest in the fast-disappearing ASV of 1901. These later works are based on the later discovered Alexandrian texts rather than the earlier Byzantine. 

What about the thousands of variants ... some 200,000 in the New Testament? Ten people in a room copying the first five chapters of John would not produce something absolutely identical. There would be skipped words, misspellings, etc. The noted 200,000 variants actually occur in about 10,000 places. How important are they? According to Westcott, Hort and others about one eighth of them have any weight. This makes the text 98 percent pure no matter which Greek text is used. Philip Schaff estimates that only 400 variants affect the sense of the passage, and 50 of those are important. None of them affects an issue of faith or duty that is not abundantly clear either elsewhere or in the whole of Scripture. The differentiation between the most different manuscripts of the New Testament does not fundamentally alter the message of the Scriptures.

The information included here is a brief introduction to the subject of Bible translations. Good resources for a more thorough study of this fascinating history include The Bible in Translation by Bruce M. Metzger, 2001, Baker Book House Co., and The New King James Version: in the Great Tradition by Arthur L. Farstad, 1993, Thomas Nelson, Inc.