Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Vision (1/24/13): A Brief Guide to Bible Translations

Note:  Many of you have already heard this material from me (perhaps more times than you care to remember!).  I still, however, frequently get asked about the question of English translations (most recently from students I am teaching) and thought it might be helpful to write this brief guide. 

In the English speaking world, we have an abundance of translations and there seem to be several new ones coming out each year.  Why are there so many different modern translations?  How does one translation differ from another? How do I choose a good translation for my personal reading and study?  Let’s look at these three questions in turn:

First:   Why are there so many different modern translations?

One reason there are so many English translations of the Bible is the fact that English is perhaps the most widely spoken and written language on the planet.  Like Greek, Latin, and French before it, English is the lingua franca (common language) of our times.

Another reason is that there are various book publishing and ministry organizations that see financial and practical benefit in producing new translations.

Finally, some believe that there have been advances in textual study and translation philosophy, and this leads them to want to produce what they believe are new and improved translations.

Second:  How does one translation differ from another?

There are two key factors that distinguish translations of the Bible:

1.      The first significant issue is that of text.

From what base text of the original language Scriptures (Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament) will the translation be made?   There are two foundational texts from which translations are made:

(1) The traditional text which generally represents the vast majority of Biblical manuscripts and from which the various translations of the Protestant Reformation era were made; and

(2) The modern critical text, which has emerged since the late nineteenth century.

The choice of the underlying text from which to make a translation will be critical.  In general, the modern critical text is shorter than the traditional text, either omitting altogether, removing to footnotes, or placing in brackets various verses, words, and phrases.  The two biggest examples of textual differences are the account of the woman caught in adultery (the pericope adulterae) in John 7:53—8:11 and the traditional ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20).  The modern critical text puts both these passages in brackets and modern translations made from this text usually do the same, adding a note suggesting that these passages were not part of the earliest and best texts of the New Testament.

At present, there are only three English translations that are consistently based on the traditional text: The Geneva Bible, The King James Version (KJV), and the New King James Version (NKJV).  All other contemporary English translations are based on the modern critical text.

2.      Translation philosophy:

There are two schools of thought:

(1)  The Formal Correspondence method.  This approach attempts to translate “word for word” from the original language text.


(2)  The Dynamic Equivalence method.  This approach attempts to translate “thought for thought” from the original language text.

Among translations that attempt the “word for word” method are the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB).  Among translations that attempt the “thought for thought” method are the Today’s English Version (TEV or Good News Bible) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV).  Some translations, like the New International Version (NIV) and the English Standard Version (ESV), are a mixture of both approaches.

I recommend that when examining any Bible translation you take a few minutes to read carefully the brief preface (usually no more than 2-3 pages) at the front of most editions.  In that preface the editors will generally tell you both the text and translation philosophy of that particular version.

Third:  How do I choose a good translation for my personal reading and study?

Most of you know that my preference in English Bibles is for a translation that (1) follows the traditional original language texts and that (2) is based on the Formal Correspondence translation method.  I prefer the traditional text, because I believe it best reflects the doctrine of the divine preservation of Scripture (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, article one on the Scriptures).  I also prefer the Formal Correspondence Method, because I believe it best reflects a belief in the verbal plenary (full) inspiration of Scripture where every jot and tittle of Scripture is significant (see Matthew 5:18:  “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”).  When it comes to English translations this leaves our best current choices as the Geneva Bible, the King James Version, and the New King James Version.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle   


AJ said...

Dr. Riddle,

You had given a list of reading on this subject once in previous blog. Would you mind providing a link to that post or re-posting the list again.

Thanks, and God bless!

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Brother Armand,

I will try to update and repost that reading list soon. Till then, you can find the old list by entering "annotated bibliography" in the search engine on the blog.


Phil Brown said...

I appreciate your position. I am a Reformed Baptist now who grew up in the Lutheran tradition, and hold to the same convictions on the Biblical texts as you do. There is a lot of good textual and historical evidence to support our position, even though it may not be as popular as it once was. Thank you for your stand and honesty. May God bless you and keep you.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for the encouragement.


James Snapp Jr said...

Don't forget the World Enlgish Bible (WEB) and the English Majority Text Version EMTV); they both use the Byzantine Text as their NT base-text.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

Kipp Soncek said...


Found this article from the "New Tract Available" post, so I'm a bit late to the discussion. What I found interesting, and am in agreement with, is your putting of the ESV in the "middle ground" territory of translation philosophy. Many of the charts and much of the literature you read regarding the ESV places it at the "Word For Word" end of the translation spectrum. In my times interacting with the ESV it seems to incorporate a fair amount of interpretation in its translation, certainly far more than the NAS and NKV which it is claimed to be on par with.

Further, I find the ESV's handling of certain variant texts (consigning them to the footnotes) problematic. In my opinion, that puts an immediate hurdle up when an unbeliever, or a new believer who is struggling with understanding issues of inspiration, canonicity and the like, come to a passage where the verses skip from 36 to 38 (Acts 8). I find the removal of the texts from the text-proper to be objectionable and certainly ahistorical.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for your comment. If you do some searching on the blog you'll find other article critiquing the ESV. Yes, the promotion of the ESV has been relentless by Crossway, and, I believe, the degree to which it follows "formal equivalency" is frequently overstated by its advocates. Also understated is the fact that the ESV is an evangelical revision of the RSV, and so it has more in common with the RSV/NRSV tradition that the Tyndale/KJV tradition.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Riddle,

Thank you for your work. I have a question though. Would you use the NKJV for Sunday worship? Are there any issues with the NKJV we should be aware of? Thank you for your thoughts.


Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Bryant, thanks for your comment. My personal preference is for the KJV as is my fellow elder. Our deacon sometimes reads from the NKJV. I'm ok with this. The NKJV, IMHO, has some issues with the OT, some dynamic renderings, and the capitalized divine pronouns, which I do not prefer. I used it for a while in making my transition to use of the AV. I think it is helpful for some for this reason. Here is our church's statement on Bible usage:

"We affirm the infallibility, total trustworthiness, and sufficiency of the Bible as our primary source of authority on all issues of doctrine and practice. We also affirm the providential preservation of God’s Word in the received or traditional text of Scripture. We shall prefer to make use of Bible translations based on the traditional text of Scripture in our public teaching and worship."

Anonymous said...

Brother Riddle,

I wanted to ask a few more questions. Are there any issues with the NKJV NT similar to the OT? Any major (or minor) differences in the NT from the KJV worth noting? Do you also think there will be a new modern english translation based on the received or traditional text in the future that would be worth considering or is the KJV our best English translation to use? Lastly, would you ever consider writing a book responding to James R. White’s book on KJV Onlyism? I would personally love to see such a work done to address the issues with his popular view and popular book amongst evangelicals. Thank you for your time in responding. Appreciate your answers and recommendations.

- Bryant

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Bryant, thanks for your comment. Follow ups:

I have not done an extensive study of the NKJV. The TBS has two articles on the NKJV that you might find helpful:

I'd also suggest Alan J. Macgregor, Three Modern Versions: A Critical Assessment of the NIV, ESV, and NKJV (The Bible League, 2004).

I agree that a work responding to JW's KJV_only book would be good, but I am not sure I will be the one to do it. I have heard that such a book will be produced at some time from TBS.

Hope this helps.

Andrew said...

To add to the above, including what was contained the articles linked by Dr Riddle here, the NKJV has a few issues of note in the New Testament.

The New King James (NKJV) agrees with the Alexandrian text in a few more places beyond what was already mentioned in the article, such as in 2 Corinthians 4:14. Here the Greek preposition "dia" (= "by" in English) is changed to the preposition "syn" in the critical text. This is based on the Alexandrian reading. The NKJV therefore follows the Alexandrian reading in this verse, since it uses the word "with" instead of the word "by" in 2 Corinthians 4:14.

Also in Jude v. 3, the phrase "the common salvation" is changed to the phrase "our common salvation" in the NKJV, based on the interpolation of the word "ἡμῶν" in the critical text version of Jude. In the Textus Receptus, this word is omitted and the phrase is therefore translated "the common salvation." It is abundantly clear that the NKJV (New King James) follows the critical or Alexandrian text in this place, the third verse of the Jude's epistle.

The article Dr Riddle linked gives some good examples of this as well which convincingly demonstrate this same thing, such as Acts 19:9, the seventh verse of Second John, and Revelation 6:11. There are also known cases of less-accurate translations, such as in Hebrews 3:16, where the NKJV completely inverts the meaning of the sentence, despite being based on the same Greek underlying text.

Similarly in the Old Testament we find complete inversions (compared to the "Old King James" or Authorized translation) in passages such as 2 Kings 23:29 ("went to the aid" instead of "went up against"), which also contradicts the parallel narrative in 2 Chronicles 35:20. In all versions of 2 Chron. 35:20, the narrative still says "went up against," creating a contradiction with the NKJV version of 2 Kings 23:29. Another complete inversion occurs in Nahum 2:2, where the phrase "hath turned away," is instead rendered "will restore" by the NKJV.

There are also inaccuracies introduced to the NKJV due to interpretive changes, such as in 1 Chronicles 5:26, where "the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria," is changed to "the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria." This makes Pul the same person instead of a separate person. And also in Psalm 109:6, "Satan" is changed to "accuser" in the NKJV. The underlying word here is literally "Satan," though.

Worst of all perhaps is the NKJV rendering of Genesis 22:17, which directly contradicts the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:16. Paul specifically hinges his point in Galatians 3:16 on the specific fact that "seed" in this prophecy is singular, which the NKJV changes to plural.

The NKJV (New King James) also uses a divergent base text in the Old Testament in addition to the above. This leads to meaningful changes here as well, such as "ashes" changed to "bandage" in 1 Kings 20:38,41. This is based on a translation of the Ben Asher Masoretic text (Biblia Hebraica Kittel/Stuttgartensia), instead of the 1525 Bomberg text. This change seems to erase a miracle from the Bible. Likewise, "all their sins" is changed to "all our sins" in Micah 7:19 of the NKJV, apparently based on the LXX and Vulgate. These are a few of the issues that I would immediately point out without a moment's hesitation.