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