Bible version debate

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There have been various debates concerning the proper medium and translation of the Bible since the first translations of the Hebrew Bible (Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic) into Greek (see Septuagint) and Aramaic (see Targum). Until the late Middle Ages the Western Church used the Latin Vulgate almost entirely while the Eastern Church centered in Constantinople mostly used the Greek Byzantine text, but from the 14th century there were increasing numbers of vernacular translations into various languages. With the arrival of printing these increased enormously. The English King James Version or "Authorized Version", published in 1611, has been one of the most discussed versions in the English language.

The first King James Version debate[edit]

Following the execution of William Tyndale in 1536, there existed a complete translation of the New Testament from Greek into English for the first time, and in several editions. From this point on, with the English Reformation in full swing, other publications of English translations began to appear, often with sponsorship from businessmen on the continent (e.g., Jacob van Meteren for the Coverdale Bible).[1] The most notable of these were the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and the Geneva Bible.

The Great Bible, first published in 1539, was the only English Bible whose use was made compulsory in churches throughout the country[clarification needed - England?].[2] The Geneva Bible (1557) became the "Bible of the Puritans" and made an enormous impression on English Bible translation, second only to Tyndale. Part of this was due to its issue as a small book, an octavo size; part due to the extensive commentary; and part due to the work and endorsement of John Calvin and Theodore Beza, two of the most important continental Christian theologians of the Reformation.[2]

The politics of the time were such that there was a marked frustration between the clergy of the continent and the clergy of England; there already was a formally accepted Great Bible used in the church, but the Geneva Bible was enormously popular. This sparked in the mind of both Elizabeth I and especially in Canterbury the concept of revising the Great Bible. The resulting Bishop's Bible never superseded the popularity of the Geneva Bible—partly due to its enormous size, being even larger than the Great Bible.

Thus it is clear that there were marked problems for the English monarchy and for Canterbury, both which wanted a united Church of England. Each faction appeared to have its own version: the exiled Catholics had the Douay-Rheims Version, the Puritans had the Geneva Bible, and the official book for Canterbury was the Bishop's Bible. Enter then James I, the first Scot to sit on the English throne.

James I began his reign in the hope that he could reconcile the huge Puritan/Anglican divide — a divide that was as much political as it was religious. This attempt was embodied by the Hampton Court Conference (1604) during which a Puritan from Oxford noted the imperfections of the current versions. This appealed strongly to James' sense of self-importance[citation needed] and he embarked on it with zeal. The KJV was probably the first Committee-translated English version. Perhaps James' best move was to give the translation to the universities, rather than to Canterbury, in order to keep the translation as clean as possible.

Thus, it should be seen as no surprise that it took some time for the translation to be accepted by all; in fact, it was not until 1661 that the Book of Common Prayer was finally updated with readings from the King James Version, rather than from the Bishop's Bible. Further, it was never, at least on record, as promised by James I, royally proclaimed as the Bible of the Church of England.

Types of translation[edit]

In translating any ancient text, a translator must determine how literal the translation should be. Translations may tend to be formal equivalents (e.g., literal), tend to be free translations (dynamic equivalence), or even be a paraphrase. In practice, translations can be placed on a spectrum along these points; the following subsections show how these differences affect translations of the Bible.

Formal equivalence[edit]

A literal translation tries to remain as close to the original text as possible, without adding the translators' ideas and thoughts into the translation. Thus, the argument goes, the more literal the translation is, the less danger there is of corrupting the original message. This is therefore much more of a word-for-word view of translation. The problem with this form of translation is that it assumes a moderate degree of familiarity with the subject matter on the part of the reader. The New American Standard Version (NAS, commonly called NASB), King James Version (KJV), Modern Literal Version (MLV), Revised Standard Version (RSV) and its offshoots, including the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and English Standard Version (ESV) are - to differing degrees - examples of this kind of translation. For example, most printings of the KJV italicize words that are implied but are not actually in the original source text, since words must sometimes be added to have valid English grammar. Thus, even a formal equivalence translation has at least some modification of sentence structure and regard for contextual usage of words. One of the most literal translations in English is the aptly named Young's Literal Translation: in this version, John 3:16 reads: "For God did so love the world, that His Son — the only begotten — He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during," which is very stilted and ungrammatical in English, although maintaining more of the original tense and word order of the original Greek.

Dynamic equivalence[edit]

A dynamic equivalence (free) translation tries to clearly convey the thoughts and ideas of the source text. A literal translation, it is argued, may obscure the intention of the original author. A free translator attempts to convey the subtleties of context and subtext in the work, so that the reader is presented with both a translation of the language and the context. The New Living Translation (NLT) is an example of a translation that uses dynamic equivalence. The New International Version (NIV) attempts to strike a balance between dynamic and formal equivalence; some place it as a "dynamic equivalence" translation, while others place it as leaning more towards "formal equivalence".

Functional equivalence[edit]

A functional equivalence, or thought-for-thought, translation goes even further than dynamic equivalence, and attempts to give the meaning of entire phrases, sentences, or even passages rather than individual words. While necessarily less precise, functional equivalence can be a more accurate translation method for certain passages, e.g. passages with ancient idioms that a modern reader would not pick up on. Paraphrases are typically not intended for in-depth study, but are instead intended to put the basic message of the Bible into language which could be readily understood by the typical reader without a theological or linguistic background. The Message Bible is an example of this kind of translation. The Living Bible is a paraphrase in the sense of rewording an English translation, rather than a translation using the functional equivalence method.

Contrast of formal and dynamic equivalence[edit]

Those who prefer formal equivalence believe that a literal translation is better since it is closer to the structure of the original; those who prefer dynamic equivalence suggest that a freer translation is better since it more clearly communicates the meaning of the original.[3] Those who prefer formal equivalence also argue that some ambiguity of the original text is usually ironed out by the translators; some of the interpretation work is already done.

Paraphrases are usually identified as such, and they are typically not intended for in-depth study.

Source text[edit]

Main articles: Majority Text and Textual criticism

Another key issue in translating the Bible is selecting the source text. The Bible far predates printing presses, so every book had to be copied by hand for many centuries. Every copy introduced the risk of error. Thus, a key step in performing a translation is to establish what the original text was, typically by comparing extant copies. This process is called textual criticism.

Textual criticism of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) centers on the comparison of the manuscript versions of the Masoretic text to early witnesses such as the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Samaritan Pentateuch, various Syriac texts, and the Biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, creating a challenge in handling so many different texts when performing these comparisons. The King James Version (or Authorized Version) was based on the Textus Receptus, an eclectic Greek text prepared by Erasmus based primarily on Byzantine text Greek manuscripts, which make up the majority of existing copies of the New Testament.

The majority of New Testament textual critics now favor a text that is Alexandrian in complexion, especially after the publication of Westcott and Hort's edition. There remain some proponents of the Byzantine text-type as the type of text most similar to the autographs. These include the editors of the Hodges and Farstad text and the Robinson and Pierpoint text.[4]

Unknown word meanings[edit]

Some words (particularly in the Hebrew Bible) occur only once, and nowhere else in any ancient literature (that is, hapax legomena). As a result, their meanings can sometimes be obscure and can only be partly determined through context.


For example, Genesis 41:43 reports that when Joseph was made second only to the Pharaoh in Egypt, "Abrek" was shouted out in front of Joseph as he rode in a chariot. While the word itself is not in doubt, and it is clear that this was a way of giving praise or respect to Joseph, the exact meaning of "Abrek" (also "Abrech") is uncertain.[5][6]

Various Biblical translations of this word use phrases such as "bow the knee" (ESV and KJV) or "make way" (NIV), both of which interpret Abrek as a command to the crowd. Since a crowd in front of a chariot procession would be commanded to "make way" and not "bow the knee" (to prevent being run over), while a crowd alongside would likely be commanded in the opposite way, a logical comparison of these two translations seems to suggest that "Abrek" can't mean both. The NIV scholars indicate the uncertainty in interpretation by noting another possible reading of "Bow down", which is a near consensus with ESV and KJV.

Translations typically include footnotes to indicate translation difficulties in such cases. In this particular example, the ESV authors state that they believe that Abrek was probably an Egyptian word, similar in sound to the Hebrew word meaning "to kneel" (brk). One root of this interpretation, also brk (from Semitic), means “render homage” in Egyptian. The Hebrew aleph (rendered as A) prefixed to -brek may possibly be understood as the Egyptian imperative prefix symbol, thus making "Abrek" able to be translated as "Render homage!"[5]

An alternative scholars' view[7] is that Abrek is a title derived from the Assyrian abarakku, meaning, "chief steward of a private or royal household”.[8] This meaning of Abrek as a title is contextually supported by Gen. 41:40a: “You shall be in charge of my house...”.

In various forms, the debate about Abrek as a command versus a title has persisted since the 2nd century CE in rabbinical literature.[6] Abrek as a command appears to have persuaded Biblical translators.

Taḥash תחש[edit]

Main article: Badger skins

The term וערות תחשים, 'orot taḥashim (plural form), עור תחש, 'or taḥash (singular form), "skins taḥash", appears only 14 times in the Hebrew Bible,[9] and may be based on a foreign loanword from Egypt or from Assyria.[10] It has been variously translated as colored skins, for example, "blue skins" (Septuagint), "violet skins" (Vulgate), based on a shared biliteral Semitic root underlying taḥash תחש and teḥelet תכלת, and as a multitude of different kinds of animal skins, including the legendary Tahash unicorn.

Martin Luther, and after him the KJV translators, rendered וערות תחשים as "badgers' skins", based on the phonetic similarity of Hebrew taḥaš and Latin taxus (a badger), two languages that are unrelated.[11] However, the badger is classed with the swine as an unclean animal according to Leviticus 11: "all that go on their paws, among the animals that go on all fours, are unclean to you". The Israelites could not have made the outer coverings over the Tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, and the sacred objects for worship, of badgers' skins without touching the carcasses of this unclean creature and defiling themselves with it. This would have involved a great inconsistency.[12] More recent proposals have included various sea mammals, such as the seal, dolphin, porpoise and manatee, based on the similarity to the Arabic ثخش duchash, tukhesh, dolphin. These too would have violated the holiness code in Leviticus:[12] "Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is an abomination to you." (Lev. 11:12)

Encyclopaedia Judaica says the AV and JPS translation badger has no basis in fact, and states conclusively that all proposed interpretations have been conjectural only and that the original meaning of taḥash remains obscure.[13]

Gender controversies[edit]

There have been a number of books and articles written about how and whether to indicate gender in translating the Bible. The topic is broad and not always discussed irenically (but see Bullard 1977 for a thoughtful example). It is interesting to note that the King James Version had already translated at least one passage using a technique that many now reject in other translations, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). The Greek word υἱοὶ that appears in the original is usually translated as "sons", but in this passage, the translators chose to use the term "children" that included both genders.

A number of recent Bible translations have taken a variety of steps to deal with current moves to prescribe changes related to gender marking in English; like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New Century Version (NCV), Contemporary English Version (CEV) and Today's New International Version (TNIV). Gender inclusivity is used in varying degrees by different translations.

In Jewish circles, the Jewish Publication Society's translation (NJPS) is the basis for The Contemporary Torah: A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation (2006, JPS, ISBN 0-8276-0796-2), also known as CJPS.

There are two translations that are particularly notable for their efforts to take radical steps in this regard, both explaining their reasons and their techniques in their front matter. The titles of the two translations are similar, but the two translations are distinct. The first is The Inclusive New Testament (1994), the second is The New Testament and Psalms: an Inclusive Version (1995). The first one deliberately tried to make the message agree with their creed, pointing out that when they saw problems with the message of the text "it becomes our license to introduce midrash into the text" (p. xxi). It is an original translation. The second one, however, is based on the NRSV, making changes as the editorial team saw fit, but being less radical to change the message of the original.

King James Version defenders[edit]

Some Christian fundamentalists believe that the King James Version is the only version of the Bible English speakers should use. Some who follow this belief have formed a King James Only movement. Similarly some non-English speakers prefer translations based upon Textus Receptus, or "Received Text", instead of the Alexandrian text edited by Wescott and Hort in 1881. Proponents of this belief system point to verses such as Ps. 12:6-7, Matt. 24:35, and others, claiming that "perfect preservation" was promised, often basing this reasoning on the fact that these verses utilize the plural form "words", supposedly indicating that it is more than merely "the word" that will be preserved. The issue also extends to which edition is being used, particularly, the Pure Cambridge Edition.[14]

Most biblical scholars, however, believe that knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Greek has improved over the centuries. Coupled with advances in the fields of textual criticism, biblical archaeology, and linguistics, this has enabled the creation of more accurate translations, whichever texts are chosen as the basis.

Sacred name translations[edit]

In the last few decades, there has been a growing number of translations that strive to convey into English the "original names" of God and of Jesus, for example trying to find a way to spell out an English pronunciation of the tetragrammaton (Hebrew: יהוה), usually spelled in English as "Jehovah," "Yahweh," or "Yehovah." (Traditional practice in most English versions has been to write the word "Lord" in small caps for this sacred name of God.) Some of these translations have come from the Sacred Name Movement. A listing of these is found under Sacred name Bibles.

Non-traditional translations[edit]

Some translators deliberately translated in a way that is a break with tradition, seeking to recover what they saw as an original meaning that had become obscured by previous translations. Such translations sought to give more ordinary meanings to words, rather than follow meanings that they see as imposed on the text by church history. One of the clearest examples of this is The Unvarnished New Testament (Gaus 1991). Instead of "disciple" he used the word "student", instead of "sin" he used "do wrong", instead "blessed" he sometimes used "lucky".

Another non-traditional approach has been labeled "adaptive retelling",[15] in which the translator/author retells the story in a way that sets the events much more in the readers' context. Examples of this include The Black Bible Chronicles, The Aussie Bible,[16] and the Cotton Patch version of Clarence Jordan.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Coverdale, Miles" in Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed. [1911].
  2. ^ a b Kenyon,"English Versions", in Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Hastings, (Scribner's Sons: 1909).
  3. ^ Nida, Eugene. 1982. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Brill. p. 5-8.
  4. ^ The modern World English Bible translation is based on the Greek Majority (Byzantine) text.
  5. ^ a b T. Lambdin, in: JAOS, 73 (1953), 146; J. Vergote, Joseph en Egypte (1959), 135ff., 151., , downloaded 2006-11-26
  6. ^ a b Jewish Encyclopedia ABRECH (Levi, Ginzberg) - 1901
  7. ^ attributed to Delitzsch, "Hebrew Language," p. 25 (cited in ABRECH, Jewish Encyclopedia 1901)
  8. ^ I. J. Gelb et al., The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, vol. 1, pt. I, pp. 32–5
  9. ^ Taḥash, KJV Badgers'—Exodus 25:5; 26:14; 35:7; 35:23; 36:19; 39:34; Numbers 4:6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 25; and Ezekiel 16:10.
  10. ^ Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon I תחש; Strong's Concordance, number 8476.
  11. ^ See Afroasiatic languages and Indo-European languages.
  12. ^ a b Hewlett, John Grigg, D.D. (1860) Bible difficulties explained, pp. 159–163. ISBN 9780559757136.
  13. ^ Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd edition (2007) Vol. 19 SOM-TN "TAḤASH".
  14. ^ (2013). "Editorial Report" (PDF). Quarterly Record (Trinitarian Bible Society) 603 (2nd Quarter): 10–20. 
  15. ^ Boswell, Freddy. 2006. Classifying "Cotton Patch Version" and similar renderings as adaptive retelling rather than translation (La clasificación de la "cotton patch version" y de otros tipos de versiones más como reescrituras adaptadoras más traducciones)." Hermēneus, Vol. 8: 45-66
  16. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Bruggen, Jacob van. The Ancient Text of the New Testament. Winnipeg, Man.: Premier, 1976. ISBN 0-88756-005-9
  • Bullard, Roger. 1977. Sex-Oriented Language in the Bible. The Bible Translator 28.2:243-245.
  • Burgon, John William. The Revision Revised: 1883, a Hundred-Year-Old Answer to the Greek Text & [to the] Theories of Westcott & Hort and [to] All Translations Essentially Based upon Them.... Reprinted. Collinswood, N.J.: Bible for Today, 1981. N.B.: A photo-reprint (with new subtitle and brief fore-matter added) of the ed. published ca. 1978, in Paradise, Penn., by Conservative Classics.
  • Dabney, Robert L. 1871. "The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek", Southern Presbyterian Review, April 1871, p. 350-390.
  • Gaus, Andy. 1991. The Unvarnished New Testament. Grand Rapids: Phanes Press.
  • Gutjahr, Paul C. 1999. An American Bible: a History of the Good Book in the United States, 1770-1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3458-9
  • Johnston, Peter J. "The Textual Character of the Textus Receptus (Received Text) Where It Differs from the Majority Text in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark", The Bulletin of the Institute for Reformation Biblical Studies, vol. 1 (1990), no. 2, p. 4-9.
  • Letis, Theodore P. "The Ecclesiastical Text 'Redivivus'?", The Bulletin of the Institute for Reformation Biblical Studies, vol. 1 (1990), no. 2, p. [1]-4.
  • Moorman, Jack A. 1988. When the K.J.V. Departs from the So-Called "Majority Text": a New Twist in the Continuing Attack on the Authorized Version, with Manuscript [Readings] Digest. 2nd ed. Collingswood, N.J.: Bible for Today, [199-?], cop. 1988. N.B.: The citation conflates the wording on the first and 2nd title pages (the latter perhaps that of the earlier ed.).
  • Pickering, Wilbur N. 1980. The Identity of the New Testament Text. Rev. ed. Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson Publishers. ISBN 0-8407-5744-1 pbk.
  • Thuesen, Peter J. 1999. In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible, in the Religion in America Series. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512736-6
  • Ward, Thomas. 1903. Errata to the Protestant Bible [i.e. mostly of the Authorized "King James" Version]; or, The Truth of the English Translations Examined, in a Treatise Showing Some of the Errors That Are to Be Found in the English Translations of the Sacred Scriptures, Used by Protestants.... A new ed., carefully rev. and corr., in which are add[itions].... New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons. N.B.: A polemical Roman Catholic work, first published in the late 17th century.
  • The Inclusive New Testament. 1994. W. Hyattsville, MD: Priests for Equality.
  • The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version. 1995. Oxford University Press.
  • One Book Stands Alone: The Key to Believing the Bible. 2001. McCowen Mills Publishers.