Dr. Mike Lester
March 18, 2021
In theology and ministry, there are a few questions that each generation faces – ones that do not go away with time. For example, Christians have been discussing the merits of Calvinism and Arminianism for centuries. For nearly as long, believers have discussed the trustworthiness of, as well as the need for a standard in, Bible translations.
For both examples, the issues reach further than just English-speaking churches. Missionaries want to protect their flocks from those things which “minister questions, rather than godly edifying…” (1 Timothy 1.4). Further, regardless of the language in which we minister, we want to preach and teach from a Bible we can trust – and we want to instill that confidence in those we disciple.
It’s doubtful that anyone reading this has read the entire Old Testament in Hebrew / Aramaic and the New Testament in Greek! We need translations, and we need translations that we deem trustworthy. In this short article, five tests are provided that should help bolster our faith in God’s Word. Not all tests are equal in value, but cumulatively they help to produce a confidence in the Scriptures in each language.
The Test of the TEXT
Simplistically speaking, two distinct texts are used today when it comes to Bible translations: the Byzantine (or, Received, Traditional) Text and the Alexandrian (or, Critical, Nestles-Aland, UBS) Text. Regardless of the name you use, it’s bound to offend someone. Each name is loaded with pre-conceived nuances. For sake of distinction, we’ll group them by their primary locations, Byzantine and Alexandrian.
In Bible translation history, the Byzantine family has been the standard until recently. It formed the basis for the French Olivetan (1535), the Spanish Reina (1602), the Italian Diodati (1603), the English Tyndale (1526), Geneva (1550), and King James Bible (1611).
It was not until 1881, with the introduction of the British Revised Version, that the world received a New Testament from a distinctively new text. This version was printed in America as the American Standard Version (1901). For the last 100+ years, at least 100 English translations have been published, and the overwhelming majority of these translations have been from the Alexandrian / Critical text family.
When I am considering a translation – in any language – my first question is always, “What text is this translation from?” A translation cannot be any better than the textual foundation upon which it is built.
The Test of THEOLOGY
Here, we use the term theology in its more general sense. We want to know which translations are theologically sound. For example, I know of no Baptist preacher who uses the Watchtower’s Bible to preach about the deity of Christ! This particular Bible is not only from a different text, it is also translated with a theological agenda. It’s not theologically sound.
This test of theology actually fleshes out the test of the text as well. The competing texts say different things – which produce differences in English. Consider just a few of the differences:
1. The Genealogy of Jesus. Look at Matthew 1.7-9 and textual differences come through. Should it be Asa or Asaph; Amon or Amos? Alexandrian-based texts introduce errors into the genealogy of Jesus. Neither Asaph nor Amos belong in these lists. Byzantine-based Bibles preserve inerrancy and accuracy here.
2. The Words of Jesus. In John 7.8, translations differ here at one word: yet. Does Jesus say, “I’m not going yet”? Or, does He say, “I’m not going”? In the Byzantine-based manuscripts, Jesus isn’t going yet, but He does go later. In the Alexandrian-based manuscripts, He says that He isn’t going, but goes anyway. The Byzantine family protects the integrity of Jesus better here.
3. The Missing Angel. In Revelation, two verses are often read over quickly: Revelation 8.13 and 14.6. Both texts agree concerning Revelation 14.6 – both point to “another angel.” The problem is, the Alexandrian family has no reference point. The key verse, 8.13, refers to either an angel (Byzantine) or an eagle (Alexandrian) flying through the midst of Heaven. In 14.6, when John sees “another angel,” it’s because he has already seen the first one in that spot (8.13). In the Alexandrian manuscript, 14.6 is the first mention of angels flying in the midst of heaven. Granted, our salvation doesn’t rest on this! But, it does point out that one text protects inerrancy and accuracy, preserves the integrity of Jesus, and produces internal consistency within itself.
The Test of TECHNIQUE
Two different styles of translation exist on the extremes: a formal approach or a dynamic approach. No Bible is entirely formal or dynamic – translation work that is not flexible produces a work that is not readable or understandable in the new language. However, all translations lean toward one of these extremes and are thus characterized by one of these approaches.
When it comes to the dynamic approach, the New International Version is popular and The Message serves as an extreme. On the formal approach, both the King James (Byzantine) and the New American Standard (Alexandrian) are recognized as being faithful to their respective texts.
The difference in approach can be characterized as providing the meaning of the original language thought-by-thought (dynamic) or word-by-word (formal). This is an oversimplification, to be sure. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses. For the dynamic approach, a strength is readability, but it comes with a weakness of providing more interpretation than translation. The formal approach has a strength in providing a translation that is true to what was originally given, but at the expense of sometimes not being easily understood.
We believe the formal approach is best because inspiration is at the word level, not the thought level. We do not want just the “Word of God,” but also the words of God. Further, we want these words translated, not interpreted for us. Man’s interpretation is not infallible. When the work of translation sometimes provides a passage difficult to understand, we recognize that it was difficult in the original language as well. Our responsibility here is the same as the original hearers: we must study and seek out a matter.
The Test of TRANSLATORS
These final two tests are more subjective (and thus weaker) than the first three. While their value may be less, it doesn’t mean that these tests have no value at all. In our 21st century world, anyone can be a potential translator. We go to Google translate, put in our phrase, and it spits out a translation! However, if you’ve tried this, you know that its productions aren’t always perfect!
So, when it comes to Bible translations, what are the credentials of the people involved? Are they spiritually qualified? Are they academically qualified? I don’t worship the translators appointed at the 1604 Hampton Court Conference, but I’m always encouraged when I read their biographies. These men weren’t distracted by entertainment and amusement. They were fervent in preaching against heresy and Catholicism. Their stories can be read in books such as Translators Revived (Alexander McClure), and the legacy of the King James Bible can be read in God’s Secretaries (Adam Nicholson) as well as In the Beginning (Alister McGrath).
The Test of TIME
The era of new Bible translations has not ceased. Personally, I’m not one to try an “unproven sword” when it comes to preaching God’s Word authoritatively. In English, I have a Bible I can trust that has impacted our language for over 400 years. This is subjective – I know it! – but, I do not discount the providence of God in allowing the King James Bible to outlast so many other translations, across all linguistic boundaries.
When it comes to choosing a Bible translation you can trust, the source is important. What text is being translated? Is it a text recognized as authoritative throughout church history, or a relatively new-comer to the scene?
Is the translation under consideration theologically sound? Does it protect inerrancy and accuracy? Does it preserve the integrity of Jesus? Does it produce internal consistency? These are important considerations.
What technique is used? Are the translators interpreting or translating for me? Are they giving me their understanding of the thoughts, or the translations of the words? A Bible translation is not a commentary. I need to know I have God’s words in my language, rather than someone’s biased interpretation.
What do I know about the translators? Were they orthodox? Did they demonstrate a genuine walk with God? Were they academically qualified to take on this mammoth task? What were the checks and balances they used to filter out theological blind spots to insure accuracy?
Finally, how long has this translation been in existence? With translations coming out on a regular basis, how many times am I willing to change translations in a 40-50 year ministry? If I am always looking for the next “best” translation, how does that affect Bible memory and responsive reading during worship services?
Because I’m looking for a Bible that’s from the Byzantine family, that is theologically consistent, translated with a formal equivalence, from spiritually and academically qualified scholars that has stood the test of time, my confidence in the King James Bible remains solid.
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