Q: #192. Why are there so many versions of the Bible?
A: Isn’t it amazing that there are so many versions of the Bible today? I tried to find out if someone had an exact count of how many “English only” versions of the Bible we have, and no one seemed to agree. I saw anywhere from 50 to 1000’s. I guess this can be both good and bad. At least it shows that a lot of people are interested in the Bible, and of course, it is the best selling book of all time BY FAR!
So why do we have all of these versions? Let me give you some reasons.
1. The original manuscripts (“the autographa”) of the Bible (originally written in Hebrew, Greek and a little Aramaic) are no longer in existence today. This being the case, different versions have been written in different languages using the best available copies of these originals that were available at the time they were written.
As I understand it, the first English Bible was not written until 1382 by John Wycliff, who translated the Latin Vulgate (Bible) into English. However, in 1523, William Tyndale actually translated ancient Greek copies into English (he was martyred before he could finish). In 1604, King James assembled a team of 57 scholars to create an English Bible. These scholars primarily used a set of manuscripts called the Byzantine Texts (Textus Receptus)(which dated from app. 500-1000 A.D.) and translated them into English. The resulting work, finished in 1611, eventually became the primary English Bible for several hundred years, and is the best selling version of the Bible (KJV Bible) of all time (1 billion copies).
In the late 1800’s, England commissioned over 50 scholars to revise and update the KJV Bible, adapting it to “the present standard of Bible scholarship.” Quoting a document issued for this revision, it was said, “The Greek text followed by these Revisers is of far higher authority than that known and followed by the King James’ revisers. Their Greek text was based on manuscripts of the later parts of the Mediaeval Ages, but ours has been Perfected by the discovery of far more ancient manuscripts, and by an abundance of quotations from the early fathers of the Church, and use of ancient versions.” In other words, they were going to create a Bible that used a number of new manuscripts that had been found since the KJV Bible was written (i.e. the Codex Sinaticus found in the mid 1800’s at a Greek monastery) that were believed to be from an earlier time than the Byzantine Texts, and thereby believed to be more reliable. The result of this work was a Bible named the English Revised Version, released in 1885. (It should be noted that only cosmetic changes were made, not any major changes in wording or doctrine.)
Englanders who had come to America before this was written, took this work and adopted their own version of it, and called it the American Standard Version, releasing it in 1901. This was the forerunner to the many versions we have today. In fact, this version was later updated in 1971 to become the NASB (New American Standard Bible) we have today.
A few controversies also arose from this time as well. Among the more significant was that the “Apocryphal” books were removed from the KJV and also a number of verses were not considered to be a part of scripture because they were not found in the more ancient texts. Some modern versions (i.e. the NIV or NLT) leave out these verses altogether (adding them to the footnotes), while others (i.e. the NASB) put parenthesis around them and say in the footnotes “Early MSS do not contain this v.” In total there are 16 verses left out (i.e. Mt 17:21, Mt 18:11) and a few which are left in but have a heading above them (i.e. the NIV) “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witness do not have (Mark 16:9-20) or (John 7:53-8:1-11).”
2. Another reason why different versions have been written is along the same lines as we just discussed above. Just as the KJV Bible was updated because new manuscripts had been found since it had been written, so today we have found and continue to find 1000’s of new ancient fragments and manuscripts in various places. The most famous of these was the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in 1947 in caves along the western shore of the Dead Sea near Qumran. These contained about 100,000 fragments of every book of the Old Testament except Esther and date from app. 250 B.C. to 65 A.D. Again, it is important to state that NO MAJOR doctrinal changes have needed to be made based upon what has been found in any of these fragments or manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, there have been cosmetic changes in punctuation and grammar.
3. These grammatical changes are another big reason why we have different versions. However, this is can be a positive thing. Words change in meaning over time, and updating a Bible to more contemporary language can be useful and helpful. For example, what do these words from the KJV Bible (written in the 1600’s) mean: 1. wimples (Isa 3:22), 2. ouches of gold Ex 28:11), 3. collops of fat (Job 15:27), 4. sackbut (Dan 3:5), 5. old cast clouts (Jer 38:11-12)? (Answer: 1. shawl/scarf, 2. a setting in which gems were set, 3. a fold of fat or flesh, 4. a lyre or harp, 5. worn out clothes) This is just a FEW of many grammar differences (not to mention 1000’s of “ye’s” and “thee’s). Languages evolve over time. A word that means something today may not mean the same thing to the next generation, or may not even exist at all.
Just now, I remembered that maybe 70 years ago men used to say a lady had great “gams.” Gams was a term for legs. I looked up “gams” in an online search. Guess what “gams” is now? It is an abbreviation for the “General Algebraic Modeling System” for mathematical programming problems (whatever that means…). Good luck finding a place that says it means “legs.” Can you imagine the looks you would have gotten 70 years ago if you used the terms “cool” or “groovy” to describe someone or something? In fact, just a few days ago, I beat my daughter’s boyfriend in a game of Scrabble. He said I “poned” him. I said, “I did what?” It turns out that poned means to beat someone badly. Let’s say that someone uses this word in translating the Bible today. (2 Sam 2:17)(NASB) “That day the battle was very severe, and Abner and the men of Israel were poned before the servants of David.” Will people 50 years from now have any idea what this means? Maybe, but I am guessing not. Using this word does not change the meaning of what the original author meant to say, but a new, more contemporary word may be needed to explain it in 50 years.
4. Sometimes, fallible humans make mistakes in translating the original infallible words of God. There have been mistakes in translations over time that have needed to corrected. The KJV Bible has had some of the most famous of these:
(1632 Version) (Ex 20:14) “Thou shalt commit adultery” (leaving out the “not”)
(1717 Version) (Lk 20 heading) “Parable of the Vinegar” (instead of vineyard)
(1716 Version) (Jn 5:20) “Go and sin on more” (instead of sin no more)
(1562 Version) (Mt 5:9) “Blessed are the placemakers” (instead of peacemakers)
(1763 Version) (Ps 14:1) “the fool hath said in his heart there is a God (instead of there is “no” God)
In addition, the KJV Bible uses the words “candle” (16 times) and “brass” (126 times) when neither was in existence in Bible times. They should have been translated “candle” = lamp or light, “brass” = bronze. AGAIN, however, while these and other mistakes have been made in translating, there has never been any mistakes which have been found concerning any central doctrine.
5. There are 3 different ways the Bible can be translated. Let me describe these and give examples of a Bible translation that uses each style.
A word for word translation takes the best available manuscript evidence, and directly translates each word to English. Some examples of this are the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB). A thought for thought translation takes those manuscripts and attempts to translate the thought that each verse was trying to convey. The New International Version (NIV) is an example of this. In a paraphrase, the author basically looks at each verse from existing Bibles and re-words it in his own words to make it easier to understand and more contemporary. The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson is an example of this.
Throughout the ages, word for word translation was always the way translating was done. Thought for thought and paraphrases are a relatively new phenomena. Personally, I much prefer and recommend a word for word translation (the NASB is my favorite). However, I must admit that when I first became a Christian, I started out by reading a Children’s Bible and moved to a paraphrase Bible (the Living Bible, no longer in print) because I had a hard time understanding. Eventually, I moved to word for word translation Bibles. This is why thought for thought and paraphrase Bibles have been written, to help people understand God’s word better. And, different word for word translations have been written for this reason as well.
6. This leads me to my final reason. While I do believe that many Bible versions were written to better help people understand God’s word better, I have to believe that some were written for the sole purpose of making money… There are simply too many versions today that are VERY similar in how they were written and totally unnecessary. The only point I can see to write them is for profit.
In addition, SADLY, there is a phenomena today found in several “versions” to make the Bible “gender neutral.” What the writers of these “versions” do is to take a word in the Bible that is masculine (the Bible generally speaks in masculine terms and the best manuscripts also show this was how God spoke), and they change different words so that females won’t be offended (kind of a woman’s-lib Bible). For example, in one of these “versions,” verses that say “brother” are changed to say “brothers and sisters. “Sons of God” is changed to “children of God.” “If any man teaches” is changed to “If anyone teaches.” In addition, to be “politically correct,” this same version also changes “saints” to “Lord’s people,” “God’s people,” “believers,” or “His holy people,” and changes “Jews” to “Jewish leaders.” In my mind, I truly believe this is blasphemous… (One of the meanings of blasphemy being to intentionally say God said something that He didn’t say.)
We should always remember though, that God promised 1000’s of years ago that He would preserve His Word (Isa 40:8)(1 Pet 1:23,25)(Mt 5:18). He has done just that, and His Word will endure for all time, no matter how may versions are written or how people may try to change what He has said.