November 11, 2020 Emmanuel Reformed Church (RCUS)

My Thoughts on the State of English Bible Translations (Part 2)

My Thoughts on the State of English Bible Translations (Part 2)

Last week I began a series of posts about my thoughts regarding English Bible translations (you can read that here). I have been thinking and studying a lot lately over the state of English Bible translations. Some of the questions I’ve been wrestling with are:

  • Why are there so many English translations of the Bible?
  • Which English translation is “the best?”
  • Which English translation is “the most accurate?”
  • Does it really matter which translation of the Bible I read?
  • Should I read the same translation as my church? My pastor?
  • Is there any value in reading multiple English translations?

Last week we looked at the question of translation philosophy. This speaks to what are the underlying principles governing a Bible translation. There are really only two broad translation philosophies: (1) Formal Equivalence (i.e., “word-for-word” translations), and (2) Functional Equivalence (i.e., “thought-for-thought” translations). At the end, we argued that a formally equivalent translation of the Bible is best for it attempts to (as closely as possible) translate each word from the source language into an equivalent word in the receptor language. The reason why we argued for this position is because the Bible itself places a premium on the very words of God.

We’re now going to look at another thing to consider when discussing the topic of Bible translations (regardless of language), and that is which underlying text is used for the translation. Before we get too deep into this, I want to say something I said last week and it’s this: Whichever translation gets you reading the Bible is a good translation. While I’m eventually going to argue for one particular translation over the others, the main point isn’t that everyone must read the same translation as I do. Rather, I want people to read their Bibles.

Textual Basis for Translation

When we talk about the “textual basis for translation,” we’re talking about what are the underlying Greek and Hebrew texts that we use to translate the Bible into English. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (OT, with some portions of Daniel in Aramaic) and Greek (NT). Furthermore, those original documents (the “autographs”) are the ones that God inspired the Bible writers to write (see 2 Timothy 3:16 & 2 Peter 1:20-21). These autographs no longer exist, they have been lost. But what we do have are thousands of copies of these original writings in fragments, scrolls, codices, and manuscripts.

When it comes to the OT, virtually all English translations make use of the Hebrew Bible that has been preserved and passed down by a group of Jewish scribes and scholars from the 7th to 11th centuries called the Masoretes. The text they preserved is called the Masoretic Text. The first printed edition of the Masoretic Text was done by Jacob ben Chayyim and Daniel Bomberg in 1524-25 and was called the Bomberg Text. The Bomberg Text formed the basis for today’s Biblia Hebraica (a critical text of the OT), which is now in its 4th edition. 

The situation for the NT is a little different. Even though there are several dozens of English translations of the Bible, when you boil it all down, there are really only two translations of the Bible. The English Bible you hold in your hands either uses the Traditional Text (commonly called the Textus Receptus or “Received Text”, or “TR” for short) of the NT, or the Critical Text (CT) of the NT. Odds are, your Bible uses the CT because ever since 1881, the vast, overwhelming number of English translations use the CT. There are only three English translations (that I’m aware of) that use the TR. They are: The King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the Modern English Version (MEV). Every other English version (regardless if they use formal or functional equivalence in their translations philosophy) uses the CT.

“Traditional Text” (TR) vs “Critical Text” (CT)

In the space that I have left, I’m going to try (to the best of my ability) to boil down and summarize some pretty technical material, so buckle up! The TR follows a line of NT manuscripts (mss.) called the Byzantine Textual Tradition. It is named the “Byzantine” tradition because the mss that form this tradition mainly come from what used to be called the Byzantine Empire (the eastern half of the old Roman Empire). The Byzantine tradition carried on the tradition of the early Greek speaking churches of the eastern empire that centered itself in the ancient city of Antioch in Syria. Now depending on what source you cite, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,700 extant Greek mss of the NT. The vast majority of these mss (~90%) are from the Byzantine Textual Tradition from which the TR was formed. As such, the Byzantine Tradition represents the majority reading of all extant Greek mss. Most of these mss are dated somewhere between the 9th and 12th centuries AD (with some earlier). There is a large amount (>95%) of agreement between the mss of this tradition.

The CT is what is called an “eclectic” text. That means it’s an amalgam of various texts in which scholars employed the principles of textual criticism (hence the name “Critical Text”) to determine which reading is the “best” reading. For example, let’s consider John 1:18 in both the NKJV (TR) and the ESV (CT)

  • John 1:18 (NKJV) No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared [Him.]
  • John 1:18 (ESV) No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

The italicized portions denote where there is a variant in the text (a “variant” is where there are differences in the mss). In this case, does the text read “only begotten Son,” or “only God?” The CT weighs the mss evidence based on certain criteria and determines which reading is “most likely” the original reading.

Which is Better? TR or CT?

I’m not going to be able to fully answer this question in this post because I want to examine in a little more depth the CT and the principles of textual criticism which undergird the CT. But one thing (I hope) stands out when considering the TR vs the CT. The TR is the fruit of a long and established textual tradition going all the way back to the very beginning of the Christian church. We read about the church in Antioch in the pages of the Book of Acts. The church of Antioch was the church that sent Paul and Barnabas and later Paul and Silas out on their missionary journeys. It was at the church of Antioch that believers were first called “Christians.”

The CT is, as one person called it, a “Frankenstein” text. It is a text comprised of a little bit of this and a little bit of that. In actuality as we’ll see next time, the CT is really largely based on two early mss (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus) “discovered” in the mid 19th century. Although these two mss are old (4th century) they disagree quite a bit with one another especially in the Gospels. Moreover, they are part of a textual tradition that comes out of Alexandria in Egypt. But the CT takes the “best” reading based on the criteria of textual criticism. What that means, if you really think about it, is that the CT presents you with a NT that never, ever really existed. For example, have you ever seen a “Harmony of the Gospels?” These Gospel Harmonies are a “Gospel” that is comprised of a little bit of Matthew, a little bit of Mark, a little bit of Luke, and a little bit of John (usually arranged in a chronological order). In the end though, what you have is a Gospel that has never existed.

As such, while I can appreciate the work and scholarship that has gone into the CT, I find it hard to recommend a Bible that is based on a NT text that has never existed outside of the various editions of the CT (which can be found in the 28th edition of the Novum Testementum Graece by Nestle-Aland, and the 5th edition of the Greek New Testament by the United Bible Society). As I said earlier, we’ll go more into detail with the TR vs the CT, but my initial assessment is that I would recommend a Bible that is based on the TR over a Bible that is based on the CT.

We’ll stop here for now. Until next time, keep reading your Bibles!

~Pastor Carl