When asked where to start, the obvious answer is, “At the beginning.” By that, I’m not meaning to simply open the Bible to the first page and start with, “In the beginning…” Rather, I’m speaking of the most basic need to any Bible study – a Bible. With approximately nine hundred English translations available today, simply picking out a Bible to study could be a rather daunting task.
Before you actually decide which version of the Bible that you wish to focus on, it would be good to have at least a rudimentary understanding of why there is such a plethora of editions to choose from. One of the first reasons that so many translations have been made is the evolution of language. As our language develops, words take on new nuances and even totally different meanings; therefore, the Bible needs to be “refreshed” frequently so that its original message is not lost in this evolution. Let me give you a couple of nonbiblical examples that can help explain this shift in language. In asking my sons if they wanted to do a certain activity with me, I phrased the question, “Who’s up for …?” Their response was, “We’re down for that.” Two different generations used words that are actually opposites to express the same idea. When the popular Christmas carol, Deck the Halls, was penned in 1862, “gay apparel” meant colorful and festive clothing; however, I would advise against doing an internet search for the current usage of the term. The images that you will be exposed to will necessitate some serious mind renewal! If words can take on such radically different meanings in that short a period of time, imagine how much change must have occurred since the King James Bible was released in 1611. For example, Proverbs 18:8 in the King James Version reads, The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly. The immediate impression that we get when we read this version of the verse is that of someone socking us really hard – or even stabbing us – in the belly. We immediately interpret the verse to be a commentary on how injurious gossip can be. However, if we know that in seventeenth-century England, the word “wound” was a name for a kind of pastry, we get a totally different understanding of the verse. Now it says that gossip is as irresistible as a delicious pastry. No matter how hard we try to resist, the temptation is just too much. Studies showing that the most common cause for breaking our willpower to stick to a diet is doughnuts are proof positive of the millennial-old truth conveyed in this passage.
Cameron Townsend, affectionately known as “Uncle Cam,” was a pioneer in the modern endeavor of translating the Bible into the languages of the world. He said that reading the Bible in a language other than your own “heart language” was like eating soup with a fork – you get a taste, but no nourishment. He then followed up with the conclusion that the scriptures in a person’s “mother tongue” is the most effective missionary. Even though Uncle Cam was talking about translations into foreign languages, the principles he propounded also apply to various translations in the English language. His terms “heart language” and “mother tongue” speak to the necessity of not simply making the Bible accessible in a language that the people can read as a second language but in the language that they feel inside their hearts and the language that their mothers used when singing lullabies to them. Uncle Cam came to this revelation when he handed a Spanish Bible to a man from an indigenous tribe in Guatemala. The tribesman looked back at the missionary and asked, “If your God is so smart, why can’t He speak my language?” Yes, the tribesman could understand Spanish, but he wanted to read the Word of God in his primary language, not one that he had to force himself to rethink as he read. This same principle is one reason why there are so many English translations of the Bible – translators are trying to keep the Bible relevant to each generation by rewording it to match the English language as it evolves.
I personally prefer the King James Version because I grew up “old school” – reading the “thee”s and “thou”s. No, Elizabethan English is not my native language or mother tongue; however, it is not unnerving to me, and I basically feel comfortable reading it. However, I realize that I’m a rather “rare bird” in today’s society; therefore, I would advise you to browse a number of different translations until you come across one that you resonate with – one that speaks the same language that you are accustomed to.
Before we go any further, let me ask if you’ve ever been “wowed” by the preacher who proved his point by saying that what he was telling you was based on the original Greek or Hebrew text. Yes, that is a pretty impressive statement, and it certainly lends an ominous sense of authority to his message. However, the plain and simple truth is that there is no such thing as the original Greek or Hebrew texts. The actual parchments that Paul penned and the documents that Moses composed vanished centuries before anyone even thought of translating the Bible into English. Although hundreds of ancient manuscripts do exist, even the earliest ones date hundreds of years later than the original documents. Yes, these texts were considered sacred and were meticulously preserved and painstakingly reproduced to ensure that the integrity of the message was preserved without alteration. However, errors did occur. As I have already pointed out, they were few and mostly minor – but the fact that these errors did occur leaves us with an uncertainty as to the exact wording of the long-lost original documents. In fact, there are actually several different versions of the “original” Greek Bible available today – each one based on what the scholar who comprised the volume felt to be the most accurate ancient texts. However, there would still be a layer of uncertainty that must be dealt with even if we were to find the actual papers that the apostles and prophets wrote.
I puzzled for several minutes over the meaning of a “lan downer” and even went to the trouble to look up the term in my dictionary. Finally, it dawned on me that either the typist or the automatic correction program had divided the word incorrectly at the end of the line. Rather than being divided into “lan” and “downer,” it should have been separated as “land” and “owner” – a simple, understandable mistake, but one that made a world of difference in trying to make sense of the sentence. That incident reminded me of the old illustration in which readers were asked to interpret the letters, “Godisnowhere.” Prior to the days of emails and websites, most people would have seen only a bunch of meaningless letters. Now that we are accustomed to seeing phrases with no spaces between the words, it is a bit easier; however, not everyone will agree on the message in these letters. My immediate response would be, “God is now here.” However, an atheist could see those same letters and answer, “God is nowhere.” This little exercise can help us see the confusion that we would still have to work through even if we had access to the original documents from the hands of the Old Testament authors. But before I explain that, let’s look at one more example: “th ct t th ms.” I’m certain that no one has the slightest idea that this conglomeration of letters could possibly mean – “the cat ate the mouse.” The first puzzle has to do with uncials, an ancient form of Hebrew writing with all capital letters and with no spaces between the words. It was up to the reader to determine how the author intended the words to be divided. The second riddle was an example of traditional Hebrew script that divided the words but did not include vowels, leaving the reader to determine what letters were omitted. Consider the possible suggestions for just the two-letter combination “ct”: “cat,” “cot,” “cut,” “cute,” “acute.” Now imagine how to construct a sentence around each of these possibilities using the other words that could be built around the other arrangements of consonants! Fortunately, the Jewish rabbis, who depended upon centuries of oral tradition, broke up the uncials and added vowel pointing to the consonants in order to make the Old Testament readable. However, disagreement in how these changes were made explains why there are variants in our translations. In the New Testament, we don’t have such difficult conundrums to unravel, but there are still issues with the fact that the Greek of the period when Paul and his contemporaries were writing did not use capital letters and punctuation – issues which we’ll address as we get to some specific examples later in this study.
As the various versions of the copies were preserved and further reproduced, the variations that occurred from scribal errors became accepted as the actual text – leading to different traditions or schools of thought that held the different renditions as the accurate renderings. In addition, there were occasionally pieces of the documents that were ripped off – just like we occasionally lose a page out of a book. As copies were made from these incomplete versions, it appeared as if the missing part had never even existed. Additionally, there were also incidents in which statements that were originally intended to be marginal notes were incorporated into the text in subsequent reproductions with the assumption that these additions had been there from “day one.” Although there are only a handful of such omissions and additions, there are enough variations to influence different scholars to give their “seal of approval” to the different streams of versions that resulted from these variants. One significant omission is the concluding section of Mark chapter sixteen – a favorite of charismatics in that it contains Jesus’ promise that signs and wonders would accompany believers. There is no way to ascertain whether the section was part of the original as is assumed by the King James translators or whether it is a later addition to fill in the apparent void left by the loss of the evangelist’s actual ending as is assumed by the translators of the New International Version. The decision of the New International Version’s editors to discredit these verses has caused many within the Pentecostal or charismatic persuasion to reject this translation as having tampered with the Holy Scripture and, therefore, being under the anathema of Revelation 22:19, And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” However, there is one redeeming factor in the New International Version and many of the other translations that are more judicious in their decisions as to whether to accept or reject these questionable sections – there is an explanation in the footnotes giving the reasonings behind their decision. This brings me to my second point in selecting a Bible. After having found one that seems to resonate with your heart, make sure that the version you have chosen is honest enough to admit when it has made a judgment call by providing some clarification as to why the controversial decision was made and gives the readers enough information so that they can weigh the options on their own.
I will always remember a rather embarrassing incident that happened when I worked with Dr. Lester Sumrall. One of his secretaries decided to “update” his material by inserting verses from a more modern version of the Bible into his notes. Her efforts went well until the day that he taught on Proverbs 18:24. Since she had substituted the American Standard Version for the King James wording, there was considerable confusion when he read the verse as, He that maketh many friends doeth it to his own destruction but taught a lesson with all the points based on, A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly. Of course, everyone was left wondering how the two translations could come up with not only different nuances and emphases but radically different messages. The simple answer is that the two translations were based on two different “original Greek” texts – different manuscripts that had been preserved in two different cultures in which the scribes who copied the texts understood them to say different things. Both were legitimate ways of translating the materials available and were, therefore, honest renderings. However, this story can serve as a good transition to mention some not-so-noble reasons that various translations exist. The motivation behind the translation may actually disqualify – or, at least, lessen the value of – certain versions. There are political and theological reasons behind many versions. For example, feminists deliberately alter verses to take away the male-dominated nature of the Bible. Certainly, their message is legitimate; however, rather than to actually tamper with the wording of the Bible, there is a much more legitimate way to communicate it – a simple commentary explaining the masculine orientation of the worldview of the time the Bible was written and the clarification that the use of masculine terms is not actually gender specific but more generic in nature. It is necessary to eliminate the references to slavery in the Bible because the readers understand that the culture at the time condoned the practice where our present culture does not and that we must apply the lessons about masters and their slaves to our current culture of employers and their employees. Although the example that I wish to share next isn’t about an actual translation, the point of the story will certainly apply. One Bible teacher who often came up with unorthodox interpretations of scriptures always prefaced the explanation with the words, “the original Greek says…” or “the original Hebrew says…” Being a bit suspicious that no one else had ever seen these great revelations before, I decided to actually follow up on the claim that the original texts validated these new revelations. My discovery did, indeed, validate the teacher’s new insights. However – and this is a really big “however” – every variant rendering of the Greek or Hebrew word was the sixth or seventh meaning given. In other words, this teacher kept looking through all the possible options until he found one that pleased him – bypassing all the more logical and legitimate words in favor of an obscure possibility. When one translation runs countercurrent to the standard insight given in the majority of other translations, it is likely that the translator has done something similar. This leads me to my third suggestion in selecting a Bible – avoid the ones that seem to be radically different from the other accepted versions; they are probably promoting a personal agenda of one individual or political group.
Having made the point that some renderings of the Bible are skewed by personal motives and agendas, I need to be perfectly honest and restate that observation by saying that all versions of the Bible are skewed. There is no such thing as a true translation from one language to another; therefore, we must recognize that even the best translation is essentially an interpretation, colored by the worldview of the translator. Since there is never an apples-to-apples correlation between languages, the translator has to do his best to pick the words that he feels communicate in the new language what was intended in the original language. Different theological slants, personalities, and mental perspectives will cause different translators to add in various nuances and shades of meaning as they make their selection of words. Since there is not a one-to-one correlation between languages, there are always numerous options as to how to express each thought as it is carried over from one language and culture to another; therefore, each translator has to make a judgment call with each word and concept that he translates. The result is that there really is no such thing as a translation; there are simply interpretations – and each rendering depends upon the personal perspective of the translator. Thus, a Baptist will inevitably produce a translation that mirrors his culture, bias, and theological bent. Of course, the same thing goes for a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Pentecostal, a liberal, a conservative, and the list goes on endlessly. Therefore, it is advisable to read the Bible in as many translations as possible. Since each writer will view the text from a little different angle, the more translations we read, the better perspective we’ll get on the passage. If we read enough translations, we’ll eventually begin to get a “holographic” view of the passage; it will begin to come alive in 3-D with vivid color.
Another important factor to remember when considering a Bible translation is that there has been much advancement in archeology and historical science over the four centuries between the time that the King James Bible was published and the publication of the more recent versions. Not the least significant advance is the discovery of a number of ancient manuscripts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, that actually predate the documents that were available to the scholars in 1611. Because translators of the modern versions have the advantage of these new discoveries, their translations can turn out to be very different – not only because they are working with different ancient documents but also because they have a fuller understanding of the historical settings and cultural contexts in which they were written. For example, the discovery of non-biblical documents that use the same idioms that were difficult to understand and translate gives the translator insight into what they were actually saying; thus, making more accurate translations possible. This fact can lead to yet another factor to consider when picking a Bible – look for one that was published recently with some built-in annotations explaining insights from archeological studies. This suggestion does not eliminate the King James Version simply because it was translated over four centuries ago; it simply begs that the publisher has updated the study notes.
Having pointed out so many different aspects in which translations can “go south” due to factors such as changes to the texts over the years, the possibility of misinterpreting the ancient languages, and the personal agendas of the translators, I wish to suggest that we have to realize that we just have to trust someone. Yes, we have to trust the translators, the archeologists, and the biblical scholars – but, most of all, we have to trust the Holy Spirit. He is the one who moved on the men of old to pen the sacred words, and He continues to work through men to transmit them to us, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (II Timothy 3:16) Even the best of men are fallible. If Martin Luther had his way, we would not have the book of Revelation in the Bible today. Here is his evaluation of the Apocalypse, “To my mind it bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character…Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it.” Yet, the Holy Spirit overruled even this great leader and scholar – and we can trust Him to do the same as we continue to study the Word of God.
Before I close this chapter, I need to at least touch on two more factors that need to be considered when picking Bible translations. The first is paraphrases, those very loose renditions of the Bible that are totally in modern English. They certainly give life to the texts and make them “user friendly.” Therefore, I suggest that you have them handy at all times so that you can always sense the heartbeat of a passage. However, it is absolutely compulsory that you remember that they are not actual translations and are not intended to be the foundation for doctrine; rather, they are to serve as a “fleshed out” expression of biblical truths. For example, in his disclaimer concerning grace in Romans 6:1, Paul tried hard to communicate that God’s grace was not an excuse for us to continue to live in sin. Yet, somehow, the expression, God forbid, just doesn’t have the punch of the Cottonpatch Version’s rendering, Hell, no! We can learn the theology from other scholarly translations and then elaborate the point with the Living Bible and the Message.
The other aspect that we need to consider is formatting. A number of years ago, Readers Digest published a condensed version of the Bible – omitting many of the less interesting (let’s be honest – boring) parts of the Bible such as the genealogies and the details of the design of Moses’ tabernacle. Unfortunately, it failed tragically once it hit the market – probably because of the exact thing that happened when a lady saw a copy on my desk. She immediately accused me of blasphemy because I permitted a book that had “taken away from the words of the book of this prophecy” into my office. Unfortunately – for her at least – I had a ready answer by asking her when was the last time she read Zephaniah. Her response was that she never reads the Old Testament because she always focuses on the New Testament. I then offered her the book and said that it would be better for her to read a third of the Old Testament than to not read it at all. I also have another set of Bible books that are unusually formatted. They have no chapters and verses and are not in the normal order that we are accustomed to. Rather than being grouped together according to topic and size as we have in other Bibles – all the gospels first, followed by the history of the early church, then the epistles of Paul followed by the epistles of the other apostles, concluding with the prophetic book of Revelation; with each section containing the longest book first and all the rest ordered according to their diminishing lengths – the books are arranged according to genre. Matthew is coupled with Hebrews since both books have a distinct Jewish flavor and were likely preserved by the Jewish sector in the early church. Luke, Acts, and the letters of Paul are grouped together since the gospel and Acts were written by Luke who was a companion of the Apostle Paul. Mark and the epistles of Peter and Jude comprise another division since Mark was a disciple of Peter and Jude’s epistle mirrors much of the same themes as in Peter’s letters. The gospel of John, his three letters, and the book of Revelation make up a section on its own since all came from the pen of the same author. Chapters and verses are eliminated because they were not part of the original manuscripts; they were added later to make it easier for students to find specific points in the text. The objective to regrouping the books and eliminating the divisions is simple – it makes the Bible take on a form that is more like how it originally appeared. Interestingly enough, when the version was released to a test market, it was discovered that people actually read significantly more of the Bible than they were accustomed to when given the same translation in traditional formatting. They felt more comfortable with the new format since it looked and felt more like the books they were accustomed to reading.
Personally, I find the Amplified Bible uncomfortable because it is too wordy, and I have a hard time concentrating when reading most of the modern paraphrases because I’m always questioning how much of the message is actually from the biblical text and how much is the author’s enhancement as he attempts to make it contemporary – issues that are more disturbing than the “thee”s and “thou”s of the King James Version. The point that I wish to communicate with these concluding comments is that you must find a Bible that you feel comfortable with and enjoy reading – even if it is not the most widely accepted version. After all, if you don’t find it enjoyable, it will not be spirit and life to you!