Why So Many Translations

The other night, one of our guys asked me about the differences among the various translations of the Scriptures, so I figured it was worth mentioning what is going on with all that stuff. I am going to give some basic, basic thoughts. By its nature, this kind of an entry will leave out a lot of detail, but hopefully you will get the flavor of things.

At the highest possible level, here is the challenge of studying the Bible in the English-speaking world:

The Bible is composed of several books and anthologies written in Hebrew or Greek. (There are also a couple of small portions in Aramaic, a cognate of Hebrew.)

The Old Testament

The Hebrew portion (our Old Testament) was copied by the Hebrew-speaking Jews through their history, but was translated into Greek sometime between 200 BCE and 100 CE. These translations have been compiled into what is called the Septuagint (named after a mythical group of 70 translators and abbreviated with Roman numberals as LXX).

The New Testament

The Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) was written in Greek and transmitted largely through amateur scribes copying out passages for the first 250 years or so. Coupled with LXX, this Greek version of the Old Testament has continued in use in the Greek church for the past two thousand years or so.

Latin

This Greek translation was then translated into Latin in the western part of the Roman empire. The original translations were not very good, so in 400 a bishop named Jerome was commissioned to produce a new version in Latin. This version is today called the Vulgate, meaning “common”. This was the official language of Scripture for the western church for several centuries because western Europe was cut off from the east by the rise of Islam.

The Fall of Constantinople and the Renaissance

In 1204, Norman knights under the leadership of Venice sacked the city of Constantinople, weakening it. Even after restoring their rule, the Roman emperors there (Constantinople was the eastern capital of the Roman empire and continued as Roman for centuries after the fall of Rome) were weak. Between 1204 and the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, many Greek-speaking clergy streamed to the west.

The sudden presence of people who spoke Greek as a living language prompted a number of scholars to learn the language. One in particular, Desiderius Erasmus, put together a polyglot, a Bible with the Latin Vulgate, an edition of the Greek manuscripts he could get his hands on and a new translation into Latin based on those manuscripts.

The editions of the Greek New Testament produced in this period were dubbed the textus receptus, Latin for “received text” by publishers Abraham and Bonaventure Elzevir. This was meant to indicate that their editions were based on what they had received in their hands, the texts they possessed.

English Translation

Work by men like Erasmus resulted in a wave of translations in the “languages of the people”, led primarily by Martin Luther’s work in German 1522. This was followed by works in most of the major European languages.

The Englishman William Tyndale began a translation into English that was cut short by his martyrdom in 1536. The work was finished by other scholars like Miles Coverdale and smuggled into England until Elizabeth I and her successor James I allowed the revision of the English text that resulted in the so-called King James Version, published in 1611.

Problems

The problems with the work of the Renaissance were numerous. For one thing, western Europeans were still largely cut off from the vast majority of available manuscripts. As a result, men like Erasmus were working with relatively few manuscripts available to them at the time. These manuscripts had been carried from the east in the previous couple centuries. These were relatively recent copies since fleeing Orthodox monks could not carry old, disintegrating manuscripts with them.

It was not until the age of nationalism in the 19th century that scholars like Count Constantine von Tischendorf could get into the obscure recesses of the Middle East that scholars got access to the thousands of manuscripts available there.

Amazingly, these manuscripts (particularly the Greek ones) showed unprecendented harmony. While there are variants in the texts, the over 5,000 manuscripts and fragments agree in 98% of their words. The variants are mostly grammatical and spelling issues. There are fewer than 100 sentences that have any kind of controversy about them. (By way of comparison, the next best preserved is either Homer’s Illiad or Caesar’s Gallic Wars, both of which have variant numbers in the thousands!)

Most of what follows deals with the Greek text, which was being uncovered. The Hebrew Old Testament had been preserved exclusively and meticulously by a medieval caste of Jewish scribes called the Masorites. They were so meticulous that the Hebrew Bible we have today is 99.99999% the same as their 9th century CE seed text, known as the Aleppo Codex. And in turn, the Aleppo text has a similar fidelity to texts from before the time of Christ that were discovered at Qumran in the 1950’s (the Dead Sea Scrolls).

New Translations

Based on the uncovered textual evidence, two Anglican churchmen named Brooke Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort produced a new text of the Greek New Testament. Their translation was then used as the basis of a new English translation called the Revised Version, published in the 1880’s.

Westcott and Hort were men of their age, carried away by the romance of the “new” and so their Greek text supplanted much of the text produced by men like Erasmus. This new text, called the critical text, was held to be superior to the textus receptus.

In their translation, Westcott and Hort supplanted much of the theologically Protestant language of the King James version with the language of a more liberal, less literal form of Christianity that was emerging at their time.

These two variants upset conservatives across the spectrum of English-speaking Christianity. This would lead, through a few permutations, to the modern “King James Only” system of belief.

Westcott and Hort’s translation was weak, based on a fadish text. Over the subsequent century, scholars have continued the work of distilling an “authoritative” Greek text as well as advancing translation technique.

(Westcott and Hort’s Greek text has been revised no fewer than 30 times, each time incorporating newly discovered manuscripts. It is currently published as the Nestle-Aland Greek Text, which is in its 27th edition. There are also competing models such as Maurice Robinson’s Majority Text.)

Of course, with new Greek texts available and with advances in translation technique and understanding the original languages, there were a lot of new translations made. Various translations reflected different philosophies of thought and different Greek texts.

Translation Styles

There are basically five approaches to translating the original texts into English. A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts for King James Only Debate that tackled the various philosophies of translation in more depth, so I encourage you to check that series out if you’re interested.

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2 thoughts on “Why So Many Translations

  1. Great post! The story of the English Bible is fascinating . . . and inspirational, as men like Tyndale lost their lives so that WE could read the Bible. Two books that are great on this topic – “The Bible in English” (long and somewhat dense) and “In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture” (more readable and much shorter).

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