This is part of a lesson I prepared for my Sunday School class. We needed to start with the basics, and after agreeing (though not proving) that God DOES exist and agreeing (though not proving) that He WOULD reveal himself to us in some way, and finding that the events of the Bible are historically accurate(if they are, then logically the first two fall into place), we turned our attention to which Bible is the "right" Bible. That's where this lesson comes in. I cannot vouch for 100% accuracy here, but the information presented is accurate for the sources I had. In places where it is vague, it is by design, encouraging the reader to seek for themselves.
If this shows any bias, that is NOT by design and I would appreciate any feedback. It was never my intention to turn the reader toward any particular translation, only to provide the facts behind the translations as I could find them. So, without further ado, here it is (the format for the chart doesn't seem to want to transfer, so you can download the whole lesson here)....
Roots of the Bible (before English)
Approx. 1,400 BC: The first written Word of God: The Ten Commandments delivered to Moses.
Approx. 500 BC: Completion of All Original Hebrew Manuscripts which make up The 39 Books of the Old Testament.
Approx. 200 BC: Completion of the Septuagint Greek Manuscripts which contain The 39 Old Testament Books AND 14 Apocrypha Books. (First “official” translation from Hebrew.) (The apocrypha are a set of Hebrew writings that are very much related to the Bible, but were never considered “inspired”. They are still used by some groups today and are published in some Bibles used today.)
1st Century AD: Completion of All Original Greek Manuscripts which make up The 27 Books of the New Testament.
315 AD: Athenasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, identifies the 27 books of the New Testament which are today recognized as the canon of scripture. (In other words, the institutionalized church finally got it).
382 AD: Jerome's Latin Vulgate Manuscripts Produced which contain All 80 Books (39 Old Test. + 14 Apocrypha + 27 New Testament) – Latin becomes the official language of scripture used by the institutionalized church which eventually tried to suppress all attempts to translate scripture into English or any other language – even attempts to publish in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek).
The Bible in English
The chart below will give you the basics of the earliest English translations of the Bible. It’s important to know that translating the Bible into any language, other than those “approved” by the institutionalized church (as it existed at the time), has always been met with opposition. Men have been killed for just possessing pieces of the Bible in “unofficial” formats. A study of how the Bible came to us in English should not be made without acknowledging the sacrifices made by those who brought it to us. Many books have been written on the history of the Bible and the author encourages you to refer to those published works. The purpose of this lesson is to examine the Bible as it is available to us today in English.
The original writers of the books and letters that make up the Bible wrote in the common languages of the people would be the first readers of them. The original writings, or autographs, are lost to us (or at least have yet to be discovered). Instead we have copies, or manuscripts, that have been made over the years. The manuscripts that exist today are copies of copies of copies. Early translators had fewer manuscripts available while modern translators have many more. Today, thousands of manuscripts that have been discovered, many are in Greek or Hebrew (depending on which testament they are from) but others are early translations from the original languages into Latin or other languages. As well as manuscripts we have quotations of the Bible from early Christian writers. In fact we have so many quotes that if all manuscripts were gone, we could reproduce the Bible just from those quotations.
However, none of these manuscripts and quotations are in English and must be translated. Translation is basically taking a word or phrase in one language and finding a word or phrase in the target language that means the same thing.
All translation from one language to another, whether it’s for the Bible or something else, especially when you are dealing with a language as it existed hundreds or thousands of years ago, requires a certain degree of interpretation. Most languages do not use the same sentence structure as the target language. Some words do not have an exact match in the new language. Some figures of speech or turns of phrase will not make sense in the new language. The translator must make a decision about what word or phrase to use in the target language.
In some cases a word is “transliterated”. A transliterated is not translated at all, but presented in the new language with a spelling that tells you how to pronounce it. Many words in the English language as it exists today are from other languages and sound almost the same as they do in the original language. The word “baptize” is the most obvious example that you will see in the Bible. The word did not exist in English until translators chose to transliterate it from the Greek work “baptizo”.
In most cases, translators will try to find an equivalent word or phrase in the target language. There are basically three ways to translate something. While no translation is exactly one way or the other, the following are the basics of the translation philosophies. The methods are “form-driven” (word for word or literal), “meaning-driven” (thought for thought) and “paraphrase” (in someone’s own words). To explain the differences, consider the following example.
Let’s use this transliterated (that is, spelled how it’s pronounced) Latin text as our original:
Velox frons vulpes volpes tripudios super ignavus canis.
Now a real original may be handwritten and have other issues, but let’s assume we can read this clearly and are certain of what it says in the original language.
A form driven translation might read like this:
The expeditious tawny vulpes gamboled traversely the dilatory canine
Now we can read it in English, but while accurate, it may not be the best translation for everyone. Word for word translators strive to find the best word to communicate the meaning in the target language while keeping as close to the original’s word order as possible. Reading can sometimes be difficult since the best word in the target language may not be a commonly used word to most people who speak that language. Proponents of the form driven method say that accuracy in preserving the words themselves should be of utmost importance.
A meaning driven translation would read like this:
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
Very clear to read and gets the meaning across. Meaning driven translations fall somewhere between Literal and Paraphrase but strive to keep the meaning of the words that were originally written. Proponents of thought-for-thought translation say that subtle meaning of words in the original may actually be better communicated using a meaning driven method, while a word-for-word method might be technically correct but might lose the color and flavor of the meaning.
A paraphrase might read like this:
That speedy fox, the brown one, you won’t believe it, but he jumped over that dog that was sleeping.
That might be a little wordy, but you get the idea. Paraphrases can be very free and can drift from what was originally written. While not very useful for study, paraphrases can bring light to texts that can otherwise be rather dull. Paraphrases are usually the work of one person and represent that person’s opinion of what the text says.
Here’s a real example of John 3:16:
English Standard Version (+)
(Literal, Form Driven or
Word for Word)
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten
Son, that whoever elieves in Him shall not perish, but have
Good News Translation (++)
(Form Driven or
Thought for Thought)
For God loved the world
so much that he gave his
only Son, so that everyone
who believes in him may
not die but have eternal life
The Message (+++)
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.
There is also a question of which originals we have available today are “best” or “most accurate”. This is a complicated issue that can not be easily explained.
It’s important to know that there is no perfect English translation. Every translation we have today is the work of men and in spite of our best efforts, men make mistakes. Any translation from one language to another involves the translator using his opinion at some point as to what is the best word to use and sometimes that opinion may not be the best one. While it is possible for us to learn Greek and Hebrew, even to make our own translation, there is still no way to be sure what you are translating is exactly what the original author intended.
It is the opinion of the author that a true student of the Bible will study multiple translations and not depend on any single Bible. Subtle differences in wording and phrasing between translations can reveal to you, in a way you can understand, what the true word of God is.
The manuscripts that we have today can be divided into “families” based on the differences between them. And while there are differences, the manuscripts that have the most differences are still 99.5% alike. The remaining half percent of differences are mostly scribal errors – things like minor spelling variations, slips of the pen, or stray drops of ink. The remaining differences are things like repeated words or phrases or missing words or phrases. Without going into the process of producing manuscripts, it’s enough to know that any differences that exist from one original to another have no bearing on who God is or how we are to respond to Him. The places where there is a difference in meaning are very few but can be figured out using a science called “textual criticism”.
Textual criticism is a complex science that can be best explained as using multiple manuscripts (which are copies of copies of copies) to figure out what the original most likely was. The issues under consideration are the age of the manuscript (how many years it’s been since the original), the number of manuscripts of a certain type, where it was found and most importantly what the manuscript actually says and comparing problem areas with other areas that are not problems. Textual critics then take what they believe the original said and compile it into a new “manuscript”. An interesting fact is that today there are two compilations of the New testament that are typically used by translators, the only difference between the compilations is punctuation.
Even with these practices, there are still ongoing debates about where the true word of God is. You will hear arguments about “King James Only” and “Byzantine is better than Alexandrian” and “the received text is the only one we should use”. You might even hear arguments against the practice textual criticism. You will have to make your own decision in these issues, but keep in mind that these arguments are dealing with very very minor differences in the manuscripts, none of which have any bearing on how God has revealed himself or how we are to respond to Him. (†)
Now, when you take all these things together, - different translation methods, different originals, textual criticism – it’s no wonder we have so many different English translations. So what’s the difference? Which one should I use? The following chart gives you most of the English versions of the Bible that are available today, how they are related, and other pertinent information to help you make a decision as to which one is best. This list is by no means all inclusive, but includes most translations that can be found on the shelves of your average bookstore. The reader is encouraged to dig deeper than the information provided here as there is not space explore all differences.
Comparison of English Bible translations**
Based on previous
some on Wycliffe
Luther’s (German, from Vulgate)
circa 1526 – Much of Tyndale’s original wording and phrasing survives today in the King James Version.
Vulgate – Erasmus’ Greek (from 1100’s)
1537 First printed Bible in English, first Authorized version (by King of England)
Coverdale and Tyndale
Same as Coverdale and Tyndale
“Grandfather” of the King James Bible – very little change from Matthew to KJV
See Coverdale’s above
Second “official” English Bible, first authorized for use in churches. Basically Coverdale’s Bible.
Committee of scholars – including Coverdale
See Coverdale’s above
1557 - Bible of the common people of England and the early Americans – Used by Shakespeare, Bunyan, and the Pilgrims
First edition with verse numberings
Great Bible and Geneva
Bishops of church of England
Coverdale – some reference to Greek and Hebrew
1568 – produced by a committee of Bishops in an attempt to erase heresies they felt the Geneva Bible was promoting.
1611 – still published today
Church of England
NT- Westcott and Hort (first to include new transcripts discovered since King James Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus)
1885 – A scholarly translation that never received widespread acceptance. Literal, but modern English for the time.
King James (Revised Version)
Church of England
Americanized version of Revised Version – first copyrighted version
King James (American Standard)
International Council of Religious studies (multidenominational US and Canada)
Same as KJV
1952 First Bible widely accepted by protestant, Catholic and Orthodox congregations.
Literal with alternate meanings
See revised version
1955 – Can be difficult to read, but provides alternate translation of words and phrases in the text itself.
See revised version, but the work Taylor did involved no original language transcripts.
First time the bible was published in an individuals own words
A very free-form paraphrase.
New American Standard (1971)
OT - Biblica Hebraica compiled by Rudolf Kittel
NT - Eberhard Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece
Update of American Standard, but still carried traces of old english and was much like King James in many places.
Based on previous
Bishop’s Bible, Geneva Bible, but consulting the Greek and Hebrew where available
Scholars and Bishops working under the authority of King James of England.
First attempt to go back to the Greek and Hebrew (Textus Receptus – a conglomeration of every Greek text discovered up to that time and the Masoretic text, the Hebrew text that is still the accepted baseline of the Old Testament ), but ended up copying much of the work of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale as it existed in the Geneva Bible.
1611 - Hailed as the Best English translation at the time and by many still today, but really “solidified” the English bible that was already in existence. Much of the King james is Tyndale’s work as preserved in the Geneva Bible. (King James is almost 80% word for word with the Geneva Bible)
New King James
And Masoretic (see King James)
1979 – in essence this is the King James in Modern English (‘you are’ for ‘thou art’)
New Revised standard
King James (revised standard, American standard)
International Council of Religious studies (multidenominational)
OT:Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Masoretic text as published in 1977) with reference to Dead Sea Scrolls.
NT: Greek New Testament –United Bible Society - 1966
New revised was an update of the American Standard/Revised standard tradition. First translation to make use of recent manuscript discoveries (Dead Sea Scrolls)
New World Translation
Not explained, but basically King James
Unknown, but probably a same as King James, as it is basically the same.
Distributed only by Jehovah’s witnesses. Questionable translations of certain passages show a clear bias toward JW teachings. (Included in this list only because it is commonly available and it may show up on your doorstep someday)
New American (not to be confused with American Standard)
Not explained – previous English Translations by Catholic Church
Latin Vulgate – with reference to Greek and Hebrew and Dead Sea Scrolls
Bible specifically prepared for Catholic Church members in the United States.
Todays English (good news)
Thought for thought – almost a paraphrase
Not explained – new translation?
American Bible Society
OT: Biblia Hebraica (3rd edition, 1937 -Masoretic text)
NT: Greek new testament (united Bile Society, 1975) and other manuscripts consulted
First bible that used the thought-for-thought method. Target audience was those speak English as a second language, but adopted by many seeking to understand the Word of God.
New American Standard (1995)
See NAS (1971)
A much more consistent version of the American standard tradition. No “old english” is carried into the text.
New International Version
On the fence between Literal and Thought for thought
No previous – new translation, similar in some ways to Good News Bible, but with the formality of KJV
International Bible Society – multidenominational , international, committee -
OT -Masoretic Text – Dead Sea Scrolls – and others
NT – “best current Greek New Testaments” (from preface.)
1978 – most common in use today
Panned by some because of “omissions”, but extensive footnotes provide alternate readings where necessary.
New International Readers version
NIV for younger readers – larger words are broken down to be better understood
Today’s New International Version
Gender inclusive version of NIV – an attempt at politically correct wording. References to “men” are changed to “mankind” or “people”.
Thought for thought
Not given but is very similar to Good News
World Bible Translation Center
From a translation prepared for the deaf
NT: Greek New Testament (United Bible society, 1983)
Gender inclusive – targeted for Teens
Thought for thought
World Bible Translation Center
Childrens version of NCV – first complete translation for preteens
Thought for thought
American bible society
(preface not available to author at time of this writing)
Gender inclusive – not much difference from New Century. Originally intended for children. Translators sought to create a version to be read aloud.
Not mentioned – Eugene Peterson is a Bible professor turned pastor who had taught the Bible for many years in English and the original languages before creating The Message
This is first and formost a reading Bible, not meant to replace study Bibles. It’s meant to be read like a novel, presenting the stories and people in a way the everyone can “get”.
Holman Christian standard
Like NIV – coined the term “optimal equivalence” to describe the balance between Literal and Thought for though
None – new translation
Southern Baptist Convention – Holman publshers
[NT] Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition, United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th corrected edition. [OT] Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 5th edition
Claims to be the first Bible of the Information Age. Technology was used extensively in producing this translation.
New living Translation
Paraphrase – closer to thought for thought than Living Bible
OT Biblia Hebraica (Stuttgart, 1937)
NT Greek New Testament, (UBS, fourth revised edition, 1993),
Novum Testamentum Graece, (NA, twenty-seventh edition, 1993)
Based on the work of Kenneth Taylor’s paraphrase, but totally reworked to be closer to a real translation, suitable for study.
New revised standard
Good News Publishers
OT: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (2nd ed., 1983)
NT Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed. UBS), Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.)
In essence an update of the tradition started with the King James and flowing through the Revised version, American standard, and New revised standard. New discoveries in manuscript evidence have been incorporated as well as updating the language for the modern reader.
New Life Version (not to be confused with New Living Translation)
Thought for thought
Christian literature international
Gleason and Kathryn Ledyard
1969 – based on effort to bring the Bible to those who barely understand English. The vocabulary used is composed of only 850 words.
Various editions since 1982
OT Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
NT Novum Testamentum Graece (twenty-sixth edition)
Claims to be the first bible reviewed by English experts at every step of the translation process.
† There are many excellent books that have been written on the subjects of manuscript differences and textual critcism that can give you a much more detailed view of the issues than what we have room for here. An excellent one to start with is “A User’s Guide to Bible Translations” by Dewey – Intervarsity Press © 2006.
**Most references to original manuscripts and translation styles are from the forwards in the published Bibles themselves. Other sources may tell you that Bible A translators used Manuscript family B, but since these sources vary in what they say, I am depending solely on what the translators had to say for themselves. Information on manuscripts, their sources, and their differences are available from many sources and are not included in this introductory study.
Quotes are cited within the text.
Types (Literal, paraphrase, etc.) that are mentioned are from personal reading and research in comparing the texts and personal study in Geek and Hebrew. I am by no means an expert in those languages, and depend heavily on dictionaries and software resources in arriving at the conclusions I have listed. I use Vine’s Dictionary, the Logos Bible Study Software original language tools (Logos Research Systems, Inc.), and eSword (freeware).
+ Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, are copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
+++ Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
++ Scripture taken from Good News Translation - Second Edition is Copyright (c) 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by permission.
Other sources include:
A User’s Guide to Bible Translations, by David Dewey – Intervarsity Press © 2006
Study articles from The Archeological Study Bible (NIV) – Zondervan © 2006 see copyright information in the published work for information regarding authorship and other information on the study articles.
Stations of the Book (http://www.drgenescott.com/stns.htm) – Dr. Gene Scott
– University of Los Angeles
Why I use the NIV Bible (http://www.anointedlinks.com/why_niv.html) – Graham Pocket, freelance.(There are many great links from here regarding the differences between the NIV and KJV.)
Christian Web Site (http://www.botcw.com/bible/parallel/) – this is a great tool for comparing the Greek text as it exists in different manuscript
families as well as seeing how different English translations have rendered the original. Here you can see what the differences really are.
Bible Gateway (http://www.biblegateway.com/) – complete online versions of many translations, includes the ability to look up passages in multiple versions.