Which Bible is the Word of God?
By Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr.
Timothy and Maura had been married only three weeks when the persecution of Emperor Diocletian reached Mauritania in Northern Africa. In A.D. 303 Diocletian had ordered that all Scripture be destroyed. Some Christians complied with the emperor’s order and as a result, a new word entered into the vocabulary - traitors (traditores - those who delivered).
As a deacon, one of Timothy’s jobs was to keep the Scriptures and knowing this, the authorities had him arrested. When Timothy refused to turn over the Scriptures, he was blinded with red hot irons so that "The books shall at least be useless to you."(1) When, after further torture, Timothy continued his refusal to surrender the scriptures, he and his new bride were crucified.
Down through the years many Christians, like Timothy, have given their lives for the Word of God. The Bible is the foundation for our beliefs and doctrines. The dissemination and teachings of the Bible are some of the main jobs of the Church. In order to make the Bible more accessible, it has been translated, in whole or in part, into more than 1,000 languages.(2)
Until recently, the Authorized Version (AV) (which is more commonly referred to as the King James Version (KJV)) was considered to be the English translation of the Bible. In fact for many it was not even seen as a translation, it simply was "the Bible." While the KJV is a good translation, two factors have pushed for newer translations.
Why A New Translation?
The most important factor for a new translation is that, over the nearly four hundred years since the KJV was translated, the English language has changed to the point where many people have trouble understanding it. For example, few people today would know what "and anon with joy receiveth" (Matt 13:20) or "I trow not" (Luke 17:9) means unless they were raised reading the KJV.
The other factor pushing for newer translations was of concern mainly to scholars. Since the translation of the KJV in 1611, our understanding of ancient languages, and the number of early manuscripts on which to base a translation has increased tremendously.
As a result, over the last 100 years there has been a flood of new translations, with an alphabet soup of initials. Some of the more notable ones are the English Revised Version (RV - 1885), The American Standard Version (ASV - 1901), The Revised Standard Version (RSV - 1952), The New American Standard Bible (NASB - 1967) The New English Bible (NEB - 1970), The New International Version (NIV - 1978), and more recently the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV - 1990).
Yet all of this effort to make the Bible more understandable has not been without controversy. Some simply prefer the KJV as the version they grew up with (either literally, or in the faith, or both). Others, however, take a much more divisive stance. They claim that these new translations are not just updating, but changing the Word of God. These proponents have "defended the KJV and its text and unashamedly call for their re-instatement as the Bible for the English-speaking world."(3) Still others take a more extreme position of KJV-only and outright condemn these modern translations. G. A. Riplinger, for example, recently charged that there exists "an alliance between the new versions of the Bible (NIV, NASB, Living Bible and others) and the chief conspirators in the New Age movement’s push for a One World Religion."(4) Are these charges true? Is the KJV the only true word of God?
One of the factors that makes this debate so difficult for most people is that much of the discussion does not center on the translations themselves, but on the underlying Greek text on which the translations are based. For example, in 1 Tim 3:16 the KJV reads: "God was manifested in the flesh" while the NASB reads "He who was revealed in the flesh." The difference is not in the translation but in the fact that the Greek text used to translated the KJV reads "God" (theos) while the text used to translate the NASB reads "He who" (hos). As such, the problem is not really a question of the translation, but is a textual issue - a question about the Greek text itself. In order to simplify the discussion, this article will concern itself solely with the New Testament.
The Text of the New Testament
Currently we have over 5,000 early Greek manuscript portions and over 20,000 early translations of the New Testament. While most of the time these manuscripts agree, there are some places where they differ. When they do, a decision must be made as to which reading is most likely the original reading. This process is called Textual Criticism. Generally, there is little difficulty in determining the original reading, but sometimes scholars are not completely sure. This is why you sometimes will see a footnote on a verse indicating there is a variation in the Greek texts at that point.
The early Greek manuscripts of the Bible can be categorized into three groups depending on their readings: Western, Alexandrian, and Byzantine. The Alexandrian texts centered around Alexandria, Egypt. Because of the dry climate of Egypt, these texts tend to be the oldest. The Byzantine texts centered in the Byzantine Empire. Since the West church switched to Latin, and Alexandria fell to the Arabs, the Byzantine texts tend to be the most numerous.
Textus Receptus: Inspired?
Neither side of this debate question the inspiration of the apostles and prophets who wrote the Bible. But in addition to this, most supporters of the KJV-only position also claim that the Greek text used to translate the KJV, the Textus Receptus (TR), was either protected by God, or that those who assembled the TR were also inspired. Some even go as far as to claim that the translators of the KJV were inspired.(5)
Because of this, KJV-only supporters see any variation from the readings found in the TR (and thus the KJV) as a change in God’s Word. As such, the real question in this whole debate is: Does the TR hold some special status above all other Greek texts of the NT?
The origin of the TR can be traced to a Dutch scholar, Erasmus who in 1516 published the first Greek New Testament using the newly invented printing press. (6) Erasmus was not able to find a single Greek manuscript that contained all of the New Testament. As such, he had to combine the few manuscripts he had in order to make one complete text.
Erasmus had only one copy of the book of Revelation, from which the last page was missing. To get around this problem, he translated the missing six verses from the Latin. Erasmus published five editions of his Greek New Testament which became the basis for the text used to translate the KJV.
From its origin it is hard to see how the TR can lay claim to being the only true Word of God. Since Erasmus combined several manuscripts and translated some portions from the Latin, the resulting text was in many ways unique. An identical text had never existed before. Thus if the TR is the only true word of God, the true word of God did not exist until the 16th century!
Of course one could argue that Erasmus was inspired by God to recreate the original Greek New Testament, and as such his translations from the Latin only restored the original. But this raises the question, what claim had Erasmus to being a prophet? Also, if Erasmus were inspired by God, which of his five versions should be considered inspired since they all have minor differences between them?
KJV: A Perfect Translation?
Perhaps the clearest example of an error made by the translators of the KJV is in 1 John 5:7-8. Actually, as we will see, it was not the translators who made the error, but Erasmus, when he printed the Greek text that was later used by the translators. In the KJV this verse reads:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. (Italics added to mark disputed portion)
The same verses in the NIV reads:
For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
It is quite apparent that some of the words in the KJV (referred to as either the Comma Johanneum, or the Heavenly Witness passage) do not appear in the NIV. The question is: were these words part of the original text written by John, or were they added by someone else later? (6)
To date, this passage has been found in only four Greek manuscripts (manuscripts are designated by number)
61 - 1520 A.D.
2318 - 1592 A.D.
629 - 14th -16th century A.D.
918 - 16th century A.D.
In addition it has been found written in the margins of four other Greek manuscripts
221 - 10th century A.D.
635 - 11th century A.D.
88 - 12th century A.D.
429 - 14th century A.D.
The first time we hear of the passage quoted as being from John is in a fourth century Latin work Liber Apologeticus written by the Spanish heretic Priscillian, or one of his followers. After that, the passage is quoted by some of the Latin fathers, and from the sixth century forward it begins appearing in Latin manuscripts of the Bible. The passage was not quoted by any of the Greek fathers, which would be most unlikely when one considers the controversy concerning the Trinity. Furthermore, as Bruce Metzger has pointed out "The passage is absent from the manuscripts of all ancient versions (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic), except the Latin."(7)
Thus it would seem clear that the passage was added to the Latin versions of the Bible. (Perhaps an early scribe wrote it in the margins as a note, and a later scribe copying the manuscript thought it was a correction and included it in the text). If as it appears, the Heavenly Witness passage was an addition to 1 John, then Erasmus could not have been inspired when he assembled his Greek text, nor can we consider the translators of the KJV to have been inspired when they translated the KJV.
Another charge that is often leveled against the modern translations is that they corrupt the doctrines of the Bible. Allen Roberts and P. A. Hall concluded that "Our comparison of the various English translations shows a weakening of the major doctrines." (8) Riplinger charges that those in the New Age movement are "gradually changing the bible to conform to its One World Religion." (9)
There is a major problem with the approach taken by some of the KJV-only supporters. They make doctrine more important than the Word of God. In other words, they are judging the Bible by doctrines instead of judging doctrines by the Bible. One cannot have it both ways. If we are to judge our translations by how they conform to a set of doctrines, we could easily end up with a Bible like that of the Jehovah Witnesses’ New World Translation (NWT) in which all difficult passages are written in such a way as to eliminate any difficulty.
Deity of Christ: Weakened?
While we do not have space here to examine all of the doctrines, we will look at one of the most important, the deity of Christ. Do modern versions weaken Jesus’ claim to be God? To show that they do, supporters of KJV-only cite verses which support the deity of Christ in the KJV but have been changed in modern translations. There are two problems with such an approach.
One is that, by selecting different verses, the argument could be turned completely around. Consider John 1:18
KJV - No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (Italics added)
NIV - No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (Italics added)
Here the NIV refers to Jesus as God, while the KJV refers to him as the Son. If we were to follow the logic of the KJV-only supporters we would have to conclude that the translators of the KJV were trying to weaken the doctrine of the deity of Christ.
Difference or Contradiction
The second major problem with the approach of the KJV-only supporters is that a change in one verse does not necessarily affect the overall teaching of the Bible. Changing 1 Tim 3:16 from "God was manifest in the flesh"(KJV) to "He who was revealed in the flesh" (NASB), does not affect the teaching of the Bible on the deity of Jesus, for there are many other verses (such as John 1:1) which do support this doctrine and which have not been changed. Roberts and Hall base their criticism on a belief that "a change in one verse renders the concept at least contradictory to other verses," (10) but this is simply not the case.
The NASB version of 1 Tim 3:16 does not say that Jesus is not God, or even that God was not manifest in the flesh, it simply says "he" was manifest in the flesh. If we ask who this "he" was, we will find that the NASB version of John 1:14 still says "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us," and the NASB version of John 1:1 tells us that "the Word was God." Thus the NASB still teaches that it was God who was manifest in the flesh. We may have to do a little more studying to discover this (which may account for the addition of the word "God" in 1 Tim 3:16), but the doctrine is identical.
You Can Trust the Bible
The bottom line is that it really does not make much difference which of the major Bible translations you use. It is true that, because of the vast increase in our understanding of ancient languages and the number of manuscripts upon which to base translation, there are some differences between the KJV and the modern translations. For the most part, these differences are minor.
In fact, the important point that so often goes overlooked in such discussions is that with over 5,000 early Greek manuscripts, there really is very little variation. Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks noted, "There are less than 40 places in the New Testament where we are really not certain which reading is original, but not one of these has any effect on a central doctrine of the faith. Note: the problem is not that we don’t know what the text is, but that we are not certain which text has the right reading. We have 100 percent of the New Testament and we are sure about 99.5 percent of it."(11)
The KJV is a good translation, but so are the NIV, NASB, NRSV, etc. All of the major translations have their good points. All major translations, including the KJV, have their problems.
When choosing a translation, as long as you are considering a major translation, you do not have to worry if it really is the Word of God. The only real concern is whether or not this is a Bible you will read and study. For if you don’t bother to read and study the Bible, then the accuracy of the translation is of little importance.
1 Fox’s Book of Martyrs ( Grand Rapids, Zondervan) p. 29
2 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1979) p. 19
3 Allen S. Roberts and P. A. Hall, Take Heed Unto Doctrine: The Degrading of Doctrine in Modern Bible Translations (Warburton, Victoria, Australia: Good News Literature Centre, 1987) p. 83
4 G. A. Riplinger, New Age Bible Versions (Munroe Falls, Ohio: AV Publications, 1993) p. 1
5 Riplinger, New p. 510
6 The often heard story of Erasmus including this passage based on a challenge has been called into question by recent scholarship and cannot be considered reliable.
7 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1975) p. 716
8 Roberts, Take p. 36
9 Riplinger, New, p. 1
10 Roberts, Take, p. xi
11 Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (Wheaton, ILL: Victor Books, 1989) p. 160