Choosing a Bible Translation (2)
In my previous “President’s Page,” I described three types of Bible translations that people often read and ask questions about. The three types are word-for-word translations, dynamic-equivalence translations, and paraphrase translations. We noted the characteristics and uses of all three types for different situations.
But such a discussion raises a question that many have heard discussed, sometimes with quite some vigor. This is the idea that the only version we should use and read in our churches is the King James Version or the New King James Version. What are the issues in this discussion?
The King-James-Version-Only (KJVO) Position
This position teaches that the only Bible we should use is the King James Version. A number of arguments are presented to support this view. One is the idea that God has preserved His Word through the centuries. Psalm 12:6, 7 is often cited: “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (KJV). The argument goes that all the changes from the KJV that we see in modern translations would be a denial of the truth of these verses, and thus the modern versions must be wrong.
Another argument is somewhat of a corollary to the above. It indicates that preservation of the Bible by God through the centuries would be seen in the vast majority of manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments passed on to later generations. Otherwise, so the argument goes, how could it be said that the Lord had preserved His Word for them? Since the majority of New Testament manuscripts, known in their most common textual form as the Received Text (Textus Receptus) were the basis for the KJV New Testament, then the later versions that rely on older and much fewer manuscripts that differ from the Received Text must be wrong.
Other arguments are presented that disparage the manuscripts on which modern translations are based. These oldest manuscripts come from Egypt, where, it is maintained, heresies abounded. Furthermore, these manuscripts come to us well preserved. Therefore, they must not have been used much, probably, so it is argued, because they were full of errors. Further disparaging remarks are made about scholars involved in textual criticism, who are claimed to be heretics or unbelievers.
Responses to Arguments
It is not possible to respond to all of these arguments in detail in this short article, but several points should be made. To begin, I applaud the confidence in God’s Word and trust in His power to preserve it that the KVJO advocates display. I agree with them that God’s Word is reliable and that He has watched over it through the centuries.
But I find their argumentation lacking regarding how God has accomplished this preservation. KVJO advocates begin with a theological premise based on a particular understanding of Psalm 12:6, 7 and use this thesis as the lens through which they view manuscript evidence and translations. Such argumentation will always arrive at the desired end, because it begins with the premise it wishes to prove.
Instead, we should look at the evidence first and seek to describe what we see and then ponder how this fits with understanding such passages as Psalm 12:6, 7. It may surprise many, but actually the stories of manuscript preservation that come to us and the evidence that textual criticism presents about the preservation of the Word of God are highly encouraging.
First, the manuscripts we have, particularly of the New Testament, are very numerous (more than 5,700 with all or part of the New Testament, with some dating from as early as the second century A.D.).1 Amazing findings of manuscripts such as the Chester Beatty and Bodimer Papyri for the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Old Testament actually broke down destructive theories of scholars who felt the text of the Bible was hopelessly riddled with modifications and errors.
Second, because there are so many manuscripts, we can assert that the original text of the New Testament is recoverable through careful study of the manuscript evidence. This wealth of evidence is the real amazing way that God preserved His Word. In comparison with the New Testament, most other books from the ancient world come to us in few manuscripts. In some cases we have only the names of books that ancient authors wrote or translations in other languages. Nothing compares with the wealth of manuscript evidence we have for the New Testament, and much can be said in the same manner for the Old Testament.
Third, we do not have to fear the evidence. While the number of variations in manuscripts of the New Testament alone number in the hundreds of thousands (remember, there are a lot of manuscripts), the vast majority of these variations are simple things like word spellings, a matter of the copyist skipping a line, word transposition and the like. With careful analysis, it is possible to wend our way through the evidence to arrive at the logical case for the original reading.
Fourth, Ellen G. White and the original translators of the KJV give us good guidance in how to approach questions of manuscript evidence and translation.
Ellen White said the following: “Some look to us gravely and say, ‘Don't you think there might have been some mistake in the copyist or in the translators?’ This is all probable, and the mind that is so narrow that it will hesitate and stumble over this possibility or probability would be just as ready to stumble over the mysteries of the Inspired Word, because their feeble minds cannot see through the purposes of God.”2
And the original translators of the KJV expressed belief in the preservation of God’s Word in whatever translation it is given. In the preface to the KJV, they used the following analogy: “We affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King's speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King's speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere.”3
Have errors crept into Bible manuscripts over the centuries? Yes, without a doubt. But we are able to recognize these as errors because of the vast number of manuscripts available for our study. Praise God, these manuscripts have been preserved through a long history of copying the precious Word of God, sometimes at risk of life.
Should we use only one version of the Bible in our study? To do so would be to limit ourselves to one understanding, one set of manuscript evidence, one phraseology. No! I want all I can get. I want the Word of God in all its hues with all the intimacy with His Word that this brings. I am thankful that scholars continue to study and work on bringing before us the precious Word of God. God has preserved His Word and it continues to illumine our lives. Let us open it daily in whatever translation and allow its rich truths to transform our lives into the likeness of the Lord Jesus. It is still the “King’s Speech” today!
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. I am a New Testament scholar and so mention the New Testament evidence here more. But wonderful finds in Old Testament manuscripts have also been made.
2. Selected Messages, Book 1, p. 16.