The Bible: A Firm Foundation (Part 7)


There is only one Bible, divinely inspired, inerrant, and infallible. I guess there are two main questions that remain: 1) Do we have it today? (Check the previous blog in this series for the answer to that question.) 2) If there is only one Bible, then why are there different versions that contain differences? That is the question that I will be answering now.


Now when we talk about the Bible, we have to start with the original. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, except for half of Daniel and two passages in Ezra that were written in Aramaic (a sister language to Hebrew that is similar). The New Testament was written completely in Greek. So to have anything other than that is having a translation.


The problem with translations is that it puts you at the mercy of the translators, who often had to make choices as to what the original language was intending to say (i.e., interpretation). This is inevitable, and we will see why in a moment. With that alone in mind, it can be seen that different translations may vary. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 7:36, the New King James Version (NKJV) translates a word as “virgin,” while the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates it as “virgin daughter,” and Today’s New International Version (TNIV) translates it as “virgin he is engaged to.” The word can mean any of those things, but the question that lies with the translators is which meaning best fits the context of the passage.


So let’s look at the translation process a little more in depth. The first question that a translator must be concerned with is to be sure that the Hebrew and Greek text they are using is as close as possible to the original words as they left the author’s pen. (Just a note, these are believed by most to be contained in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and The Greek New Testament both done by United Bible Societies.) How do they accomplish this goal? It is through what we call textual criticism.


There are three things that we need to know about textual criticism, as it relates to the Bible. First, it is done on the basis of external and internal evidence. For external evidence, they look to the character and quality of the manuscripts (see last blog post). For internal evidence, they think about the style and vocabulary of the author, as well as the kinds of mistakes copyists were susceptible to, because one letter could change the meaning of the word entirely. (For instance, in 1 Samuel 8:16, the NKJV translates bḥrykm as “young men,” while the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the same word as “donkeys” believing that it was supposed to be bqrykm but an error was made by a copyist.


Second, we need to understand that textual criticism is not an exact science, because of human variables. Finally, we need to realize something about translation. There is an original language (i.e., Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) that is being translated into a receptor language (i.e., English) where there is historical distance (i.e., different words, grammar, syntax, idioms, etc.). How do we deal with that? There are three ways.


1) Formal Equivalence (i.e., literal)—attempts to keep as close to the “form” of the Hebrew and Greek, both words and grammar, but in understandable English


2) Functional Equivalence (i.e., dynamic)—attempts to keep the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English


3) Free Translation (i.e., paraphrase)—attempts to translate ideas from one language to another, with less concern about using the exact words of the original


Here is a rough graph of where some of the more popular translations appear:


Formal                                                            Functional                                           Free


KJV                             RSV                                NIV                         NLT                LB


NKJV                          NRSV                             TNIV                                              The Message


NASB                         ESV                                GNB


NASU                         HCSB




Now before I move on, we need to note problems with all three. First, the problem with a literal translation is that is keeps the distance between the original language and the receptor language in its use of language and grammar. Along the same lines, there is ambiguity in that phrases, sayings, idioms, etc. that were clear to the original readers in the original languages might not be clear to us. Second, the problem with a paraphrase is that it updates the original too often. Finally, the problem with a dynamic translation is that the reader has to wonder did the translators, who sought to correct the problems mentioned about the literal, give in to the receptor language in areas that it should not have.




With that said, our goal is to have a translation that remains faithful to both the original and receptor languages, while giving in to the receptor language (as long as the meaning remains faithful to the original) so we can understand it better. The biggest problem areas here are: 1) weights, measures, and money; 2) euphemisms; 3) vocabulary; 4) word plays; and 5) grammar and syntax.




The best thing to do, therefore, is to use several translations, note where they differ, and then research to find what fits best (don’t just choose which one you think sounds better, says what you want it to say, or even is the word used by your “favored” translation). I will tell you what I do as an example. My preferred version for reading is the English Standard Version (ESV). Alongside of that, I read the KJV, NASB, Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), TNIV (although I do not recommend it), and The Message.




Now this still does not answer the question, “Is there more than one Bible?” The answer is no! Although we have differing versions, the sixty-six books that make up all of them are the same Bible. There are a lot of manuscripts and some of them differ. The fact remains that none of the differences change the meaning of the text and they are all doctrinally sound. Two examples are the end of Mark. Some manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9-20, but what is taught there is taught elsewhere in the gospels, so it does not cause a problem. Also, there is the Comma Johanneum in 1 John 5:7. The KJV and NKJV include it, but other versions do not. Is it a problem? No, because what is taught there is taught elsewhere in Scripture, so it is not a problem that the KJV and NKJV add it into their translation while others do not. Regardless of these few differences that have no affect on the meaning or doctrine of Scripture, we can be sure that we have the true Word of God and that it is contained in our modern translations.


Please let me know what you think in the comments!


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