From The King James To Modern Translations

By Dr. Herbert Samworth

The history of the English Bible in the years after the printing of the King James Version differs greatly from what occurred previously. These years lack the drama of translators, printers and merchants who hazarded their lives and fortunes to give the Scriptures to the English people in their vernacular language. Although this period may be void of the dramatic impact of the preceding years and flows in a more tranquil stream, an understanding of its history is important.

A second distinguishing feature of this period is that William Tyndale and his helpers had access to only one printed Greek text of the New Testament from which to translate. This was the text edited by Erasmus and printed by Johannes Froben during the second decade of the sixteenth century. This Greek text, which later became known as the Textus Receptus, remained the standard text of the New Testament until a critical edition, edited by Bishop Brooke F. Westcott and Dr. F. J. A. Hort, was published in 1881.

For this reason our study of the English Bible must trace two interrelated developments: the history and transmission of the Greek text from the time of Erasmus until the present day; and the various modern English translations which use the Westcott and Hort New Testament as their textual base. We will start by giving a brief history of the transmission of the Greek text from its earliest printed editions to the present.

In 1516 when Johannes Froben requested Erasmus to edit the Greek New Testament for publication, there is reason to believe that Erasmus thought a large number of manuscripts would be available for comparison. However, he had access to only five, the oldest of which dated from the tenth century. The work was hastily done and Erasmus himself admitted that it was "precipitously edited." In addition to the Novum Instrumentum printed in 1516, Erasmus edited and corrected four other editions of this Greek text in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535 respectively.

After the death of Erasmus, others continued the work, and editions of the Greek New Testament in the same textual tradition, although with corrections and use of other manuscripts, were printed successively at Paris and Geneva by Robert Stephanus (Estienne) and others, and finally at Leiden by the Elzevir brothers. In the introduction to the second Elzevir edition, the editors claimed that the reader now possessed "the text which is now received by all and in which we give nothing changed or corrupted." It was from this publishers’ blurb that the phrase Textus Receptus, as applied to the Greek text of the New Testament, originated.

The accuracy of this Greek text was challenged by scholars. The paucity of Erasmus’ manuscripts, their late dates and the fact that he did not have any manuscript evidence for the last six verses of the Book of the Revelation cast doubt on its accuracy. Because Erasmus was permitted to choose the readings he considered the most accurate from the manuscripts available to him, others believed that they should have the same liberty if manuscripts were located which contained better attested readings than the ones Erasmus printed.

This is indeed what occurred. Widespread interest in the Bible, an intensification of the study of Greek, and advances in related disciplines such as textual criticism led to the incorporation, in later centuries, of a number of readings from manuscripts that were unavailable when the Textus Receptus was printed. Especially important was the discovery of uncial manuscripts, some of which were dated as early as the middle of the fourth century A.D. (e. g., the Codex Sinaiticus). In many places these manuscripts contained readings that differed from those in the Textus Receptus. Manuscripts written in a cursive or minuscule script were also recovered during this time. As a result, the amount of manuscript evidence for the Greek New Testament increased dramatically, and editors of the Greek New Testament sought to include these readings in subsequent editions of the Greek New Testament in order to produce the most accurate text.

An additional factor that contributed to the reliability and accuracy of the Greek text was advancement in the art of textual criticism itself. While this important subject can be complicated, its basic aim is quite straightforward. It is important to remember that the original manuscripts of the biblical books, technically called the autographa, have not survived, and the copies made from these original documents contain readings, called variants, that do not always agree with one another. The goal of textual criticism is to formulate and apply rules that enable an editor to select the variant reading to achieve the most accurate text.

An illustration of the application of these rules of textual criticism may aid us in understanding what an editor does. For example, one of the rules of textual criticism is that a shorter reading is preferable to a longer reading. The reason for this rule is that a scribe would tend to add words for clarification or explanation rather than deleting them. Another rule of textual criticism is that a more difficult reading is to be preferred to a less difficult one. A scribe would be tempted to add words of explanation that would enable the reader to understand the meaning of a difficult text rather than leaving such a reading unexplained. These are just two of the many rules of textual criticism, and it is important to note that these canons must be applied with discernment and not in a slavish manner.

Although the above explanation is greatly simplified, this is basically what occurred in the years following the printing of the Textus Receptus edition of the Greek New Testament. The number of available Greek manuscripts containing additional variant readings increased, and the art of textual criticism was advanced and refined.

In 1881, Bishop Brooke F. Westcott and Dr. F. J. A. Hort published a revised Greek New Testament incorporating the newly available textual evidence. Their edition differed from the Textus Receptus Greek New Testament in numerous places. While most of these changes were minor in nature, several were significant. Prominent among them was a question regarding the ending to the Gospel of Mark. They expressed doubt about whether the last twelve verses of Mark 16 were part of the original Gospel. They also believed that the pericope of the woman taken in adultery, found in John 7:53 to 8:11, was not part of the original text but was added later.

The Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament replaced the Textus Receptus as the standard text of the New Testament. Almost simultaneously with the publication of their Greek New Testament was an English translation called the British Revised Version, also printed in 1881, which used the Westcott and Hort Greek text as its textual base. The translation was done by a committee of scholars from Great Britain and the United States. In a number of places the American Committee disagreed with their British counterparts regarding their choice of words, but promised not to publish their translations for twenty years. In 1901 the American Standard Version was published incorporating the differences that the American Committee had with the British Revised Version.

During the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries papyrus texts from the Greek New Testament were discovered in Egypt, and their readings have been incorporated in the editions of the Greek New Testament printed in the latter part of the twentieth century. In 1947 the discovery of Hebrew documents from the Qumran Community, located on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, added significantly to our knowledge of the text of the Old Testament. In several places they diverge from the Masoretic Text, the standard Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Many of these readings have been included in the newer English translations of the Old Testament and have clarified readings where the Masoretic Text was unclear.

Today, a vast number of manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments are available to us. Responsible scholarship evaluates and incorporates these variant readings to establish the most accurate text of the Bible. Although one may be of the opinion that we now possess a biblical text that is close to the text of the early church, scholars today still debate which variant readings are the better-attested ones.

It is one thing to seek to establish the most accurate text of Scripture in the original languages, but it is another to provide a faithful and readable translation of that text in another language. This work of translating the Scriptures into vernacular languages continues today. In some areas of the world it provides people the Bible in their native language for the first time. In other countries where there is a heritage of Scripture in the vernacular language, such as English, the effort to produce the most accurate translation continues. This work of translation reflects changes of the original text provided by new manuscript evidence, and changes in spoken languages that occur over time.

The task of translating the Scriptures is one of great responsibility. The translator is required to be faithful to the original text of Scripture, known as the source language, and must communicate intelligibly in the receptor language. The work of translation cannot be done in a strictly literal manner. Accurate translation not only involves the words themselves but must also take into account the differences in the syntax and grammar of the respective languages.

There are two basic theories for translating a source language into a receptor language. The first is what is called the formal or verbal equivalence method. Here the translator chooses a word in the receptor language that corresponds closest to the word in the source language. When this word occurs in the original text, the translator uses the corresponding word in the receptor language. This provides a translation that is both accurate and literal. However, there is another method of translation that is called functional or dynamic equivalence. Here the translator seeks to determine the cultural or contextual meaning of the word in the source language and then translates it into the receptor language with this contextual understanding in mind. This enables the reader to understand how this word was used in its historical and cultural context.

An example will help to demonstrate the differences between these two methods. We will use the word "blood" for our illustration. In the Bible this word is frequently used in the context of sacrifices offered to God as atonement for sins. For the sacrifice to be acceptable, the blood of the victim must be shed, causing death. A translator following the formal or verbal equivalence method will use the word "blood" in the English language where it occurs in the source language because it is formally or verbally equivalent to that word. However, a translator using the functional or dynamic equivalence method may use the English word "death" because of its dynamic (i.e., cultural or historical) meaning in the source language.

A third method sometimes used is known as paraphrasing. This is not a translation of individual words, but of concepts; idiomatic language is used to communicate the intent of the original text. In this method the emphasis is on the desire to communicate effectively ideas or concepts in the receptor language rather than on the meanings of individual words in the original text. Advocates of this method have been charged with taking undue liberties with the text of the Bible. Its use has been justified on the basis that it communicates effectively to people who frequently find other translations of the Scripture beyond their understanding.

Thus with the new readings (concerned more with the Greek New Testament than with the Hebrew Old Testament), the twentieth century has seen a veritable flood of translations. It is impossible within the confines of this article to deal with them all. However, some of the more important will be noted as illustrations.

The King James Version remains popular with a large number of people although it is often criticized because of its archaic language and its use of the Textus Receptus as its textual base, although the term itself was not used until 1633. In an effort to blunt these strictures, a revision called the New King James Bible has been prepared. Its purpose is to maintain the traditional popularity of the original King James Version while modifying the language to reflect current English usage. The NKJB retains the Textus Receptus as its textual base.

An example of a translation from the critical edition of the Greek New Testament that follows the formal or verbal equivalence method of translation is the New American Standard Bible, a revision of the American Standard Version published in 1901. While receiving high marks for its fidelity to the Greek text and accuracy of translation, it has been criticized for its heavy and unwieldy English.

The New International Version is a translation that incorporates the functional or dynamic equivalence method of translation. The English of the NIV is more contemporary and follows current usage. However, it has been subjected to criticism because the translation departs from the formal equivalence method.

In 1937 a committee, under the auspices of the International Council of Religious Education, was organized to revise the American Standard Version "in light of modern scholarship." This revision, known as the Revised Standard Version was printed in 1946 (New Testament), 1952 (Old Testament) with the Apocryphal Books added in 1957. The RSV utilized a modified verbal equivalence translation and retained much of the English style of the King James Version.

In 1990 the Revised Standard Version was updated to include advances in its textual base, contemporary English, and the use of inclusive language where this could be done without distorting passages "that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture and society." Generally this version has been well received in ecumenical circles for the inclusion of the Apocrypha and gender-neutral language. It has been severely criticized by more conservative elements for these same reasons and for perceived mistranslations of certain words such as "young woman" for "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14.

The Message, a contemporary work undertaken by Eugene Peterson of Regent College of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a paraphrase that seeks to put the Scriptures into idiomatic English. Like the versions listed above, it has received its share of both praise and criticism. It has been lauded for its ability to communicate the concepts of Scripture in racy English but it also has been censured for its departure from the traditional norms of verbal translation.

In the 1960’s Kenneth Taylor paraphrased the Scriptures for his children to make them "as meaningful as possible in modern English idiom from a ‘rigid evangelical position.’" This paraphrase was published in 1971 as the Living Bible. While it was an extremely successful publishing venture, it was vilified as distorting the message of Scripture. Despite its weaknesses, it became very popular among evangelicals in the United States.

In 1996 a thorough revision of the Living Bible was published. A team of some seventy biblical scholars, in contrast with the virtual one person production of the Living Bible, was assembled to do the work. The textual base of the translation was up-dated and the language improved to be more readable and accurate. As a result the New Living Translation is more of a dynamic equivalence translation than a paraphrase. It is claimed to be "the first adult-level Bible translated by evangelical scholars using the dynamic equivalence method of translation."

The above are examples taken from the large number of translations and paraphrases available today which demonstrate methods of translation but are not what are called "special interest" Bibles. Special interest Bibles are directed to individuals or groups who share common concerns and interests. They usually use one of the popular translations but emphasize certain passages or verses that highlight the concerns that give the group its identity. For example, there are Bibles that are edited for those recovering from addiction, for those that are interested in a discipling ministry, etc. One has but to look at a Bible catalogue from a major bookstore to note the variety of these Bibles that are available.

Two thoughts come to mind as this article concludes. First, we should be thankful that we have the Bible in our language. There are many who have never seen a copy of the Scriptures in their native tongue. Second, we must be thankful for those who have labored faithfully to provide the Scriptures for us. Some, like John Wyclif and William Tyndale, lived in more dramatic days and hazarded their lives to accomplish this task. However, we must also be thankful for those who faithfully worked in less stressful times and circumstances to insure that a trustworthy translation of the Scriptures is available to us today.