Your Bible is not a copy of a copy of a copy.

October 10, 2012

by Dr. Adam Harwood
Assistant Professor of Christian Studies
Truett-McConnell College

Have you ever heard a comment like this? “The Bible contains mistakes which crept in because it was translated from one language to another over the centuries.” Sadly, this demonstrates a flawed understanding of Bible translation. Why does it matter?

Beside the facts that Jesus lived, died, and had followers who claimed He rose from the grave, everything we know about Jesus comes from the Bible. Also, God speaks through His Word (Psalm 119:105) and faith comes by hearing the Word (Rom 10:17). The Bible provides the content for pastors’ sermons and Christians’ devotions. Knowing how it came to be in its present form strengthens our confidence in Scripture.

The Bible’s 66 books were inspired by God and written by men, who were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). The Baptist Faith and Message declares of Scripture, “It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” Was the Bible translated from one language to another over the centuries? No. Your Bible is not a copy of a copy of a copy. That would be a misunderstanding of Bible translation.

Did you play the game “telephone” as a child? The first player whispers a statement into the ear of his neighbor, who whispers the message into the ear of his neighbor. The message moves around the circle. By the time the statement returns to the first player, the message has changed. It’s now different than the original message. Thankfully, that’s not how Bible translation works. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. Translators work from ancient texts, not later translations. If Bible translation were a game of telephone, then each player would take turns listening to the original message without passing it to his neighbor.

Bible translations are usually undertaken by committees of scholars with expertise in biblical languages, history, and theology. These committees don’t begin by consulting recent translations but ancient texts. Translators read standard Hebrew and Greek critical texts, which are based on thousands of manuscripts from various periods of history and geographic locations. Although these manuscripts are housed in universities and museums around the world, images of many early manuscripts can be viewed online. None of the manuscripts contain the handwriting of Moses or Paul; all are subsequent copies. Some New Testament manuscripts have been copied in the early-100’s AD. A small number of variants exist among thousands of manuscripts and they raise no theological problems.

Typically, translation committees adopt one of two translation philosophies, formal or functional equivalence. Both philosophies are legitimate and attempt to faithfully render the original Hebrew or Greek text into a “CAN” (Clear, Accurate, and Natural) translation. The formal equivalence translations (such as KJV, ESV, and NASB) attempt to maintain the original form of the biblical text by translating and replicating the order of the Hebrew or Greek words. The functional equivalence translations (such as NIV and NLT) seek to translate the meaning of the biblical words, regardless of their original order.

Technically, a paraphrase (such as The Message) is not considered a translation because it is not limited to the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek text; ideas may be imported. Also, the discussion above excludes the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation, which is not based on standard critical texts.

Because English Bible translations have always been made by consulting the earliest texts rather than later translations, we can know that when we open our English Bible we are opening the Word of God.

Basic Recommended Resource: Clinton Arnold, How We Got the Bible

Advanced Recommended Resource: Philip Ryken, The Word of God in English


Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

 characters available

Steve Martin

We the Bible as we view our Lord Himself. Fully a product of man…and fully a product of God.

It is God’s Word. 100%.

The finite contains the infinite.

I like this quote from Luther:

“All upright sacred books agree on one thing, that they all collectively preach and promote Christ. Likewise, the true criterion for criticizing all books is to see whether they promote Christ or not, since all scripture manifests Christ. Whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter and Paul should teach it. On the other hand, whatever preaches Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod should do it!” (LW 35:396)

He also said, “If they use the Bible against Christ, we will use Christ against the Bible.”


This view preserves the pure gospel. But the law is also God’s Word. We do not throw it out, as do many liberal Christians. That law is 100% of God, as well. Just not for righteousness sake. “Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith.”

This Lutheran view is radical (there are a great many “Lutherans” who don’t buy it).
But we do.

Norm Miller

Dr. Harwood:
Thank you for your thoughtful scholarship. I CAN dig it. — Norm

Calvin S.

A good word brother Harwood. Thank you for this.


Have you read Mark Strauss’ paper on the ESV? I found a link to it on Better Bibles Translation blog a few years back and it was extremely interesting. You might want to check it out in your spare time (ha!). Here is a link to the zondervan blog pdf:


    Adam Harwood


    I have read Dr. Strauss’ paper. In fact, I highlight portions of that paper each semester with my Hermeneutics classes. He is an experienced translator who makes several insightful observations.

    Blessings, sister.


hariette petersen

Adam, informative article. thanks. what particular Bible would you recommend. and what study Bible do you think is best? I had a friend ask me this recently. hariette

    Adam Harwood


    Thanks for your note. If God provides the opportunity, my first recommendation is that anyone who teaches the Bible study the original languages. Even so, my work in the original languages has reinforced my confidence in our standard English translations. Basically, the text says in English what it says in Hebrew and Greek.

    My second recommendation is that people read and study from multiple English translations, including at least one Bible from each translation philosophy mentioned in the article above. For example, someone who reads from a formal translation will benefit from also checking the NLT and NIV84. Someone who reads from a functional translation will benefit from reading the NASB and ESV.

    I think there are many good study Bibles. The goal, of course, is to provide notes, charts, and articles which help the reader understand literary, historical, and cultural issues surrounding the biblical text. Over the years, I have benefited from a variety of study Bibles, some of which are no longer in print. A recommendation depends on the age of the reader. Last Christmas, I bought my teenage son the Apologetics Study Bible for Students (Holman). For an adult, I recommend the Life Application Study Bible (Tyndale). But there are many other fine study Bibles.

    Blessings, sister.


Bart Barber

A great word! Thank you for this excellent article. Just yesterday I was looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls at SWBTS, pondering the miraculous way that God has preserved the Bible for us. And who knows what may be lying in the desert somewhere, yet to be discovered, that will take the dates back even further, confounding liberal skeptics (as has every major textual discovery).

    Adam Harwood

    Thanks for your note, Dr. Barber. I have not had the opportunity to see the DSS exhibit but have heard wonderful reports about the exhibit and lectures. I am glad to know that you were able to feast your eyes on some of those treasures. Thanks for your service to the Lord as a trustee at SWBTS.

    In Him,


Mark Sadler

Adam, I had a similar discussion with one of my students this semester. It was your plain vanilla version of “We have more evidence for the existence of Caesar (insert other historical figure here) than Jesus…” He was surprised by my response. First, because he probably assumed “All philosophers are atheists”; and, Second, because I asked him how we knew that Caesar existed and that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and that Caesar died in a physical attack of betrayal. His response was accurate: “Because we have these corroborating reports” (my summary of his 5 minute presentation). I then simply pointed out that the Bible is not merely a single, linear, point of view; but, instead, is the collection of corroborating stories by several people (Gospels & Acts) and that many of the episodes are also corroborated by later nonBiblical authors. After a few days away from me he came back and, to his credit, admitted he needed to rethink his criticism. It is pretty simple, most people reject Jesus because of His demands not His lack of historical evidence.

    Adam Harwood

    Dr. Sadler,

    What a great conversation! I am thankful for your faithful and winsome witness for Christ in a “secular” university.

    Blessings, brother.

    In Him,


Preach BlackMan Preach

Dr. Harwood,

Excellent article, written impeccably, to admonish all of us for “such a time” as this. This sacred Book, the Holy Bible, isn’t referenced much today with this title “lofty”. I find many among those whom I live and serve handle these precious “writings” as only a feel good about yourself on “Sunday Morning Book”. Liberalism has a way of doing that type of thing to the masses. The plenary verbal inspiration of the Holy Scriptures does much more than guarantee the orignal autograph’s are the Word of God but in my personal estimation must include the translation from and into the language of “All Nations”under the Lord’s direction. “Go ye therefore and preach the gospel”, making disciple of “All nations consist not only with logistics but also “linguistics”. Yes, How shall they hear without a preacher? They will “hear” the preacher, the message he brings, in their “own” language. According to Genesis 1, the “sun” rules the day, by light, poviding heat, giving comfort to all the earth inhabitants. So much more the Word of God. As someone has said, If God speaks from Heaven right now, He would only repeat what He has already said to “All’ inhabitants thereof.

This Book contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happinss of believers. It’s doctrine are holy, it’s precepts are binding, it’s histories are true, and it’s decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you and comfort to cheer you. It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword and the christian’s character. Here paradise is restored, heaven opened and the gates of hell disclosed. Christ is it’s grand object, our good is it’s design and the glory of God it’s end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is given you in life and will be opened in the judgment and will be remembered forever. It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labor, and will condemn all who trifle with its sacred contents.
-Author Unknown

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

 characters available