Which is the most accurate translation of the Bible in contemporary English?
Answer (Part 2 of 4):
Please remember the “Disclaimer” in the first post.
Different Testament, different language
In the previous post we examined some issues regarding the text of the Old Testament. Here we look at similar issues regarding the New Testament. We noticed that translating the Old Testament has the challenge that Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language and that it has a very limited vocabulary. This, of course, does not limit the divine expression but it certainly gives the Old Testament its own style. The Old Testament makes heavy use of historical events and poetry, with its highly metaphorical expressions, to convey divine truth. Overall the style of the New Testament is quite different.
The New Testament is primarily written in Greek, which is readily accessible through the relatively modern Greek writers. In God’s providence, the Greek culture was highly developed in the areas of science and philosophy. The language reflected this culture. This allowed the New Testament to express divine truth much more explicitly. This fact is truly amazing when we think about it. There is a veil, so to speak, over divine truth in the Old Testament, but in the New the Light of the World has come and so truth is spoken in the light. How wonderfully God has provided in the very languages used in these Testaments for the clear expression of His mind!
Different Testament, different verification.
One of the most striking differences between the Old Testament and the New is the means that God used to bring down to us the text and give us confidence that what we have is indeed His Word. But, first we must ask the question: “Why not give to us the actual copy (called the “autograph”) of what the authors wrote?” A little Old Testament history readily answers this question. Here I give some references and the conclusion for you to consider on your own. See Judges 8:27; 2 Kings 18:4; and 1 Samuel 4:3. These examples show how even what God gives we can turn into idols. So, the simple answer is that God would not give us what we would undoubtedly turn into an idol.
However, the way He has preserved to us the text of Scripture without giving it to us directly is even more marvelous. We considered in the previous post how God preserved to us the text of the Old Testament autograph without actually giving us the autograph itself. Now, I want to contrast that method with the method of the New Testament.
One of the remarkable features of the difference between these methods is that in the Old Testament God instituted a theocracy which depended on authority. In the New Testament, the Church owns Christ as the Head of the Assembly and believers are all priests. To use political terminology, the Church is egalitarian. There is no earthly central authority to maintain the Scripture’s integrity. So, God used a totally different means that is perfectly consistent with the nature of the Church as well as the more general availability of literacy. Individuals made copies of the Scriptures and sent them far and wide.
A criticism of asserting the reliability of the New Testament Scripture is that it is like the familiar game of “telephone.” We know that the message gets more and more garbled as it goes from person to person. But, the distribution of the Scriptures was totally different. To understand this, suppose the Apostle Paul gave a talk at Corinth. Two people copied the talk and each sent their copy to Ephesus. If one of them made an error the discrepancy would readily be noticed. Because copies of Scripture were copied multiple times and sent to different locations, scholars have been able to collect many of these copies and correct errors. It is generally accepted among scholars that what we have is very, very close to the autograph. Critics emphasize the differences, but in fact, almost all the differences are very trivial having no effect on the meaning.1
Why are there different translations?
Greek is a more modern language than Biblical Hebrew so there is less uncertainty of what words and phrases mean. There are many manuscripts so scholars can arrive at a Greek text that they have confidence in. So, what is the problem?
One of the main problems is that the text is just a lot more complex. So, it is not always obvious what exact expression in English would best express the thought that the translator has before him in the Greek manuscripts. Because of this, most modern translations are done by committee. There are obvious difficulties with this, but the objective is to avoid the bias that a particular translator might have. I don’t imply here anything sinister. We all read expressions slightly differently. This is one of the main reasons I personally examine more than one translation when studying a particular passage. Some translations seem better in some places than others.
Are there legitimate differences between translations?
In spite of these problems, the main source of differences is likely the simple and legitimate attempt to make the Scriptures understandable to the modern reader. There is also a legitimate debate whether to emphasize readability to the English reader or literal correspondence to the original. Overemphasis on the latter leads to a translation that may not be very understandable to a modern reader and may in fact be so literal as to be misleading. Of course, I reject what is actually just pandering to modern cultural currents, which Scripture will necessarily be at variance with. Yet, anyone who knows multiple languages and attempts to express the same thoughts in both languages is familiar with this difficulty. Once again, later posts will examine some examples.
If some feel that I have been too vague, I want to close this post with an admonition. We cannot arrive at true confidence in God and His Word without true humility. Our confidence must be in the living God. (Jn. 7:17) We must realize that the Scripture is inspired, not our interpretation. We must always be humble enough to change our minds. We learn “here a little, there a little”. We must seek to gain an understanding of the grand themes that run from beginning to end. This is a great help in being able to discern the best reading of a particular passage. Often, differences may be a matter of perceived emphasis where both views are correct in different ways.
Please “stay tuned” for the next two posts where we look more specifically at a few translations.
1. Those who know something about the many “variants” in manuscripts or who have been troubled by footnotes questioning various passages (e.g, the beginning of John chapter 8 or the end of Mark) will be unhappy with my passing over these differences. Please be patient. I have decided that these differences are too complex to be addressed here and must be left to an addendum as a fifth post in this series. I believe my statement as it stands is still true.