Lesson 5

Thus far in our study we have considered the major English translations of the Bible that culminated in the work known as the King James Bible.   Of necessity, I have included some information about the basic tools of translation, including the texts of the original language(s) from which translators render their translation into the receptor language.  Last week’s discussion of the King James Bible included some information about one such text, known as the Textus Receptus.  Before proceeding to modern translations, and a discussion of translation philosophies, I wish to clarify a couple points about Scripture texts in general, and the Textus Receptus in particular. 

First, in the context of Bible translation, when one reads, or speaks, about a “text,” that word does not refer to a single manuscript, such as the Codex Vaticanus, but rather a compilation of multiple manuscripts to which biblical scholars have applied the principles of textual criticism with the goal of arriving at as close an approximation to the original inspired manuscripts as possible.  In the preface to most Bible versions you will read that the translators used such-and-such texts in translating from the original languages.  Typically this is the Hebrew Masoretic text for the OT (Biblia Hebraica), and one or more of the modern Greek texts—such  as Nestle’s, Kittel’s, or United Bible Society—for the NT.   When you see the word “eclectic” in a preface, this tells you that the translators of that particular version of the Bible used more than one text, which is quite common in modern translations. 

In the case of the KJV, we saw last week that the text used for the NT was the Textus Receptus; technically speaking, this is an anachronism, for the name TR was not applied to this text until about two decades after the KJV was completed.  Another technicality is the fact that there were multiple NT texts circulating at the time the KJV was translated (recall that Erasmus, Stephanus[1], and Beza had each produced a NT text and revisions thereof).  We know that the KJV translators used not one, but several, of these texts.  “The King James translators used as their chief sources the 1550 and 1551 editions of Stephanus and Beza’s editions of 1589 and 1598.  They did not, however, as is generally believed, work from a single homogeneous text known as the ‘Textus Receptus’.”[2]

So when “KJV only” advocates speak of the superiority of the TR over modern texts, exactly which TR are they referring to? 

Finally, I wish to emphasize that all of this talk about the TR concerns only the NT.   The text of the OT that is used by modern translators—the Masoretic Text—is the same as that used in the time of the KJV.   Having said this, it should be noted that translation of the OT is not free of textual issues.  Jack Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, explained it to me this way in a recent email reply to a question of mine: “The main textual question comes up when you are faced with a difficulty, and scholars differ in how to solve these.  All translators do some level of textual criticism (even the Masoretic tradition has a small level of variation in it).” 

Peak Periods of Translation Activity

Recall from one of our prior studies that the history of English Bible translation is marked by two periods of heavy activity, with relatively little activity of any lasting significance in between.   The first period was from the time of Tyndale to the KJV/AV (1520-1611).   The second period was in the latter half of the 20th century.  Also, there was a short burst of translation activity by committees at the end of the 19th century, and beginning of the 20th century, which resulted in revisions of the AV known as the RV (Revision Version) and the ASV (American Standard Version).  Essentially all the various translations that were done between the time of KJV and the RV were done by individuals, and had no lasting impact on later translations. 

Before discussing 20th century translations, I wish to mention just a couple developments in the 19th century that I consider to be worthy of our attention. 

Evolution of English language

All of us are familiar with “Webster’s dictionary,” named for lexicologist Noah Webster who compiled the American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.  Shortly thereafter, he gave attention to revising the King James Version of the Bible.  He had a high regard for the language of the KJV, but believed that the English language had changed sufficiently since the early 17th century to warrant a fresh translation.

“…in the lapse of two or three centuries changes have taken place…Some words have fallen into disuse; and the signification of others, incurrent popular use, is not the same now as it was when they were introduced into the version…Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that of the original languages, they do no present the reader the Word of God…A version of the Scriptures for popular use should consist of words expressing the sense which is most common in popular usage, so that the first ideas suggested to the reader should be the true meaning of such words according to the original languages…That many words in the present version fail to do this, is certain.  My principal aim is to remedy this evil.”[3] (underline my own)

Webster was not alone in his opinion that the English Bible needed updating that would reflect changes in modern language.  Recall from week one during the discussion of the driving forces behind translations, I mentioned that another translation was attempted in America at about the same time as Webster.  This was the work of Alexander Campbell, who also felt compelled to update the language.  Campbell offered the same justification for a new translation as did Webster.  In Campbell’s words, “this constant mutation in a living language will probably render new translations, or corrections of old translations, necessary every two or three hundred years.” 

Some examples of Webster’s changes include the substitution of “who” for “which” when it refers to persons, and “Holy Spirit” instead of “Holy Ghost”.   Metzger, in his book entitled The Bible in Translation, describes Webster’s contribution in the following manner: “the New England grammarian did yeoman service, and the later Revision Version took over nearly every one of his changes, although no credit for his previous labors was given.”[4]

British Revised Version (1881-1885) and American Standard Version (1901)

In addition to changes in the English language over time, and the resulting recognition of the need for an updated English Bible, the other key factor that spurred translation activity in the 19th century and beyond was biblical scholarship, specifically advances in textual criticism made possible by manuscript discoveries.  For example, earlier in this study I mentioned the serendipitous discovery of Codex Sinaiticus in a monastery in the Holy Land in the latter half of the 19th century.  As textual discoveries accumulated, and scholars articulated principles of textual criticism, momentum was building for the production of a significant revision of the KJV.  Like the KJV, the RV was the work of British scholars (principally at Oxford and Cambridge) including the NT scholars Westcott and Hart, who were responsible for a significant modern text of the Greek NT.

(Incidentally, the task of revising the KJV took twice as long as it had taken to produce the 1611 AV.  This may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that there were British committees and an American committee; the latter offered suggestions for revision that required a 2/3 vote of the British committees to be adopted.  In addition, there was a 14- year provision which stipulated that “If any differences shall still remain, the American committee will yield its preferences for the sake of harmony…during a term of 14 years from the date of publication.”)[5]

The RV was greeted with widespread enthusiasm when it was published in Victorian England.  Copies were telegraphed to the US, where thousands of copies of the NT sold very quickly.   Despite the initial fanfare, this translation enjoyed no lasting success, likely due to its strict literalism at the expense of aesthetic considerations.  Westcott described the goal of the NT translators in this way: “The endeavor after faithfulness was indeed the ruling principle of the whole work.  From first to last, the single object of the Revisers was to allow the written words to speak for themselves to Englishmen, without any…suppression of roughness.  Faithfulness must, indeed, be the supreme aim of the Bible translator.”[6] Charles Spurgeon, the leading pulpit minister of this time, described the RV as “strong in Greek, but weak in English.”  For this reason, “the inartistic translation fell stillborn from the press” in the words of Ryken. 

Once the 14-year ban expired, the American committee exercised its right to publish a translation known as the American Standard Version, which appeared in 1901.  This contained some 600 changes from the RV.  A few notes of interest in the version include the fact that the title “Saint” was dropped from the Gospel authors, and the book of Hebrew was no longer attributed to the Apostle Paul.  The ASV was copyrighted to protect it from look-alikes and sound-alikes  that were cropping up. 

Translation Legacy: Two Families

We will now begin to take a look at some of the major 20th century translations.  As we do so, the emphasis will be on the fact that modern translations tend to fall into one of two “families”: those that are heirs to the classic tradition of Tyndale-King James-RV/ASV, and those that belong to the modern trend characterized by a translation style that is variously described as “free,” “new,” “contemporary,” and “relevant.”  The key to distinguishing the proper family to which a particular translation belongs is found in its translation theory.  Some translations are what you might consider hybrids, with elements from more than one family. 

The language used to describe translation theories is anything but precise, owing to the fact that the enterprise of translation is an ongoing endeavor that is not static but in flux.  Even when considering an individual version of the Bible, the work does not end with the publication of the first edition; the work of revision begins almost immediately as feedback comes in.  Despite the flux inherent in translation work, distinct translation theories are at play all the time, although these theories (or philosophies) may go by different names at different times. 

Definitions of Translation Theories

At the root level, translations may be classified by their “ruling principle” (to borrow Westcott’s phrase) which boils down to this: what is most important to the translators?

In the case of the RV, we saw in the words of Wescott that “the endeavor after faithfulness was indeed the ruling principle of the whole work.”  By “faithfulness” he means maintaining a close fidelity to the original texts.  In the 20th century this particular method of translation became known as the “formal equivalence” theory.   According to this theory, the translator attempts to render each word of the original language into the receptor language and seeks to preserve the original word order and sentence structure as much as possible.  In reality, this is an overstatement, because in the realm of Bible translation, a true word-for-word translation is an impossibility, at least if the goal is for it to make sense to the English reader. 

The “formal equivalence” theory, which is on the literal end of the translation spectrum,  recently has been modified and presented under two different names: “transparent translation” and “essentially literal translation”.  In a Christianity Today article in Oct. 2001, Raymond Van Leeuwen defines a “transparent translation” as one that “conveys as much as possible of what was said, and how it was said, in as near word-for-word form as the target language allows, though inevitably with some difference and imperfectly.”[7]

The designation “essentially literal translation” is also recent, appearing for the first time (that I am aware of) in the preface to the ESV (English Standard Version) in the past 2-3 years.  This philosophy of translation is explained in detail by Leland Ryken in his latest book The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation

Ryken does not hold back any punches.  He makes claims that truly are eye-opening and give reason for pause.  For example, in the preface to this book he claims that “the average reader of the English Bible is ignorant of the rival translation theories and of how much has been lost and changed from the original text in most modern translations.”[8]

The body of his book constitutes a vigorous apologetic for an “essentially literal” translation theory, which Ryken defines as “a translation that strives to translate the exact words of the original-language text…but not in such a rigid way as to violate the normal rules of language and syntax in the receptor language.”  His apologetic includes a detailed critique of the prevailing translation theory today known as “dynamic equivalence.”  Ryken defines DE as “a theory of translation based on the premise that whenever something in the native-language text is foreign or unclear to a contemporary reader, the original text should be translated in terms of a dynamic equivalent” which is “a meaning in the receptor language corresponds to (is “equivalent” to) a meaning in the native-language text.”

All sincere Bible translators purport to convey the meaning of what the Bible actually says, so you might ask, what difference does it make what translation theory they follow?  Bible scholars in the know—and whom we know—would say that it makes a big difference.  Listen, for example, to what Jack Collins says on this subject:  “There are four specific ways that I, as a Bible specialist, find dynamic equivalence to be opposed to accuracy: 1) such translations make interpretive decisions for the reader, and run the risk of deciding wrongly; 2) such a philosophy requires the translator to resolve ambiguities for the reader; 3) this philosophy urges the translator to interpret images and figures for the reader; and 4) this philosophy generally leads to the loss of important repetitions.  The feature these defects have in common is that the reader is limited to what the translator allows him to see.” (underline my own)[9]

With this introduction to translation theories as background, let’s proceed with a brief look at some modern versions of the English Bible.   In the interest of time, we will limit our discussion to versions that you are currently using (according to survey done in week one of this study) in chronological order of their publications.   

RSV (Revised Standard Version) 1946-NT  1952-OT

War efforts delayed a long anticipated revision of the ASV of 1901, which was generally considered good for scholars but not for general Bible readers because of its “wooden” construction.  “The demand for revision was strengthened by the fact that several important biblical manuscripts had been discovered in the 1930’s and 1940’s—namely, the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Old Testament and the Chester Beatty Papyri for the New Testament.  It was felt that the fresh evidence displayed in these documents should be reflected in a revision.”[10] 

Thomas Nelson and Sons published the NT translation in 1946, and the entire Bible in 1952.  The reader is told in the preface that this is “a thorough revision of the version of 1901, which will stay as close to the Tyndale-King James tradition as it can in the light of our present knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek texts and their meaning on the one hand, and our present understanding of English on the other.”[11]  Elsewhere in the preface the reader is given the following information about the Greek text: “We now possess many more ancient MSS of the NT, and are far better equipped to seek to recover the original working of the Greek text…The revisers in the 1870s had most of the evidence that we now have for the Greek text, though the most ancient of all extant manuscripts of the Greek NT were not discovered until 1931.” This preface—like any good preface to a Bible translation—supplies the reasons for a new translation/revision, as well as the philosophy of translation, which in this case falls within the “formal equivalence” camp by its allegiance to the Tyndale-King James tradition. 

The translation committee consisted of 32 scholars working under the auspices of the National Council of Churches.  Given the ecumenical nature of this organization, it is no coincidence that this translation earned the “ecumenical” label, which is one reason it did not garner the support of conservative evangelicals. Another reason is the use of controversial words in certain key passages, most notably Isa. 7:14 (“young woman” instead of “virgin”)[12], as well as the dropping of phrases, most notably “through his blood” which was no longer included in Col 1:14, and exclusion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11)[13].  Charges of “modernism” were leveled against the translation; in one case, a North Carolina pastor burned with a blow-torch a copy of the RSV Bible which he labeled “an heretical, communist-inspired Bible” and sent the ashes to the dean of the Yale Divinity School, Luther Weigle, who had served as the translation committee chair.  As Metzger quips, “though in previous centuries Bible translators were sometimes burned, today it is happily only a copy of the translation that meets such a fate.”[14]  In fairness to the RSV NT translators, the words “through his blood” do not appear in the best manuscripts at Col 1:14.  But try to tell this to those who had grown accustomed to hearing this particular verse in the KJV.[15] 

An annotated edition of the RSV appeared on its 10th anniversary under the name The Oxford Annotated Bible.  Thomas Nelson’s publishing rights lasted only 10 years, then others, including Oxford University Press, began publishing this version of the Bible.  Of note, this was the first Protestant annotated edition of the Bible to be officially approved for study purposes by a Roman Catholic authority, for Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, gave it his imprimatur in 1966.  This Protestant/ Catholic cooperation took a step forward in 1972, when British Catholic scholars decided to divide the Apocrypha into two sections, one containing those books the Catholic Church regards as deuterocanonical, and one containing those books that are not so regarded.  These two sections were then bound separately between the OT and NT books.   Thus the Bible had four sections.  No Catholic notes were included, since the Bible was to be “common,” for use by Catholics and Protestants alike.[16]

In summary of the RSV, what contribution did this modern version make to general readership of the Bible?  In the opinion of the British scholar, F.F Bruce, writing in 1970: “…for the English-speaking world as a whole there is no modern version of the Bible which comes so near as the RSV does to making the all-purpose provision which the AV made for so many years.”[17] 

NASB (New American Standard Bible) 1971, revised 1990

Among conservative Christians, however, the RSV had a bad rap, and could not be salvaged.  Therefore, a group of conservative scholars under the auspices of the Lockman Foundation in California decided to make their own revision of the ASV, which they believed would have a much better chance of being accepted by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike. 

We turn once again to the preface for valuable information as to the rationale for another translation, and the tradition behind this particular translation: 

In the history of English Bible translations, the King James Version is the most Prestigious. This time-honored version of 1611…became the basis for the English Revised Version appearing in 1881 (NT) and 1885 (OT).  The American counterpart of this last work was published in 1901 as the American Standard Version.  Recognizing the values of the ASV, the Lockman Foundation felt an urgency to update it by incorporating recent discoveries of Hebrew and Greek textual sources and by rendering it into more current English.  Therefore, in 1959 a new translation project was launched, based on the ASV.  The result is the New American Standard Bible.

The Editorial Board assigned to the translators a dual task: to adhere as closely as possible to the original languages of the Holy Scriptures, and to make the translation in a fluent and readable style according to current English usage.  So how well did they succeed in these tasks?  In general, the translators are given good marks for accurately reflecting the wording of the original languages, however in several places it appears that they followed the Textus Receptus rather than the 23rd edition of the Nestle text.  In the opinion of one of the authorities I consulted, “many of the spurious verses eliminated in the ASV and RSV are now back in the text of the NASB.” The list includes Mark 16:9-20 which is bracketed [] indicating that the words are “probably not in the original writings.”

From a readability standpoint, the NASB does not earn high marks.  This is due to its literal construction (not as “wooden” as the ASV, but still lacking stylistically).  It is geared to a 10th grade reading level (compare 12th grade for KJV and 7th grade for NIV). 

Some peculiarities of the NASB include the following:

  1. OT quotations are printed in small capital letters surrounded by quotation marks
  2. All personal pronouns referring to God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are capitalized
  3. Each verse begins a new paragraph (which is a reversion to the traditional format of the Geneva Bible and the AV  of 1611)

Next week…
And gender-neutral (gender-inclusive) language


[1] Stephanus’ 4th edition of 1551 is noteworthy because in it for the first time the text was divided into numbered verses (Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, p. 104)

[2] Martin, Robert, Accuracy of Translation and the New International Version, Banner of Truth, p. 81

[3] Metzger, The Bible in Translation, p.91

Ibid., p.92

[5] Metzger, The Bible in Translation, p. 101

[6] As quoted in Ryken, The Word of God in English, p. 162

[7] Raymond Van Leeuken, “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” Christianity Today, 10/22/01

[8] Ryken, p.10

[9] as quoted in Appendix to Ryken’s book, pp.300-301

[10] Philip Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible versions, p.166

[11] by Lewis Foster, Selecting a Translation of the Bible, p.59

[12] But in Matt 1:23 (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive…”) RSV preserves the traditional wording. 

[13] This section of John was put in the margin because none of the early manuscripts contain it.  “When the RSV was first published, the outcry of protest was so great that in the second printing, the story was inserted back into the text.” (Comfort, p.170)

[14] Metzger, The Bible in Translation, p. 120

[15] “If the critics had looked up Eph 1:7 in the RSV, they would have found the familiar language there in full, “In him we have redemption through his blood”; and in fact it was through the influence of the Ephesians passage that the shorter and original reading of the Colossians passages was expanded in later Greek copies.” (F.F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations, p. 196)

[16] as described by Metzger in The Bible in Translation, p.120-121

[17] F.F Brice, The English Bible: A History of Translations, p.203