All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
God’s Word is amazing! Through it we understand His character and plan of Salvation. Our goal is to be perfect, mature, complete. Scripture provides us with everything we need to accomplish that.
What is the best English translation of God’s Word?
It’s a fair question.
A more important question: are you reading the translation you have? It could be the ESV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV(1984), TNIV, ASV, The Living Bible or the Message – if it is unread, it will do you no good. What if there are FIVE Bible apps on your phone, all unopened since the day they were downloaded?
Paul cautioned Titus about foolish controversies that are unprofitable and worthless (Titus 3:9). Paul recommended that Titus avoid the person who “stirs up division”. Division of the body of believers because of debating which Bible translation to read is a loss for the kingdom of God and a win for the evil one.
We will investigate the origins of the English Bible, specifically looking at the King James Version, contrasted with more recent translations. We will ask and answer this question with the love of Christ as the backdrop. It is of utmost importance that you read the Bible you have - far more important than reading this post.
James became the king of England in 1603. In 1604 he convened the Hampton Court Conference and requested a new English translation of the Bible. Fifty-four translators were appointed and divided into six groups. Five of the groups were assigned to translate the inspired scriptures and one group worked on the Apocrypha.
The Hampton Court group of translators had multiple sources to compile their translation. Existing English translations included the Tyndale Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishop’s Bible (1). The Bishop’s Bible was the starting point. It was compared, word by word, with Greek New Testaments compiled by Erasmus, Stephanus and Beza (2). The job of a translator is to evaluate the source material and carry forward the words and phrasing best established as valid. The incredible responsibility of handling the Word of God was not lost on these fifty-four men.
A list of fifteen specific requirements was given these translators. They were instructed to avoid marginal notes. They were to translate all terms of Ecclesiology as “church” and not “congregation” or “gathering”. The state church of England considered the concept of lay leadership, independent gatherings of believers and even individual Bible study to be somewhat subversive.
Acts 1:20 is an example of word choice unique to the King James version (KJV).
For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. (Acts 1:20, KJV)
For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office.’ (Acts 1:20, ESV)
Judas abandoned his position as one of the twelve disciples and killed himself. After the ascension of Jesus, Mathias was chosen and numbered with the eleven apostles. In Acts 1:20, Luke records a quote from Psalm 109:8. The early gathering of believers felt God leading them to fill the position of authority. The Psalmist would not have described a vacant leadership position with a term (bishoprick) specific to the seventeenth century Anglican church.
The King James translation of the Bible was completed in 1611. As is true of each new Bible translation, it was slightly different from every English translation and Greek manuscript that preceded it.
Initial reception was not great. King James banned the printing of the Geneva Bible in 1616, allowing his “Authorized Version” to be distributed without competition. The KJV became the most common English translation, having a huge impact on both the church and the English language. It is the only book in the history of the world to have over a billion copies printed.
Erasmus completed and published a Greek version of the New Testament in 1516. The next hundred years brought minor changes to the Greek New Testament. Elziever printed a total of seven versions of the Greek NT. Their second edition, dated 1633, has the following sentence in the preface: “Textum ergo habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum, in quo nihil immuta-tum aut corruptum damus”. This is a statement by the publisher to the reader, that nothing has been changed or corrupted. All the text that was received has been passed on (3).
The term “Textus Receptus” emerged from that 1633 preface and is used for all Greek NT from Erasmus through the mid 17th century.
Accurate transmission of the Word of God is an ongoing pursuit. Discovery of manuscripts has happened almost constantly through the centuries. The four hundred years since completion of the KJV have not been without discovery of ancient scrolls and papyrus containing scripture. The KJV translators used the best and oldest manuscripts available to them to compile their translation.
We have about 50 manuscripts that date to prior to the fourth century. The church fathers from the same time period often quoted from God’s Word. When we compare the Textus Receptus with early manuscripts we find about 98% consistency! God has accurately and completely transmitted His words through the centuries to us.
We should pause and note that there are differences between the KJV and newer translations. Multiple verses are present in the KJV which are not supported by the earliest manuscripts. Recent Bible translations will typically leave the verse out of the text, but include a notation. John 5:3-4 is a great example of this. John tells the story of the lame man who is healed at the pool of Bethesda. The ESV leaves out verse four of the chapter but includes the following note:
Some manuscripts insert, wholly or in part - waiting for the moving of the water; (4) for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had
The description of the angel stirring the water in the pool and the mad rush of bodies into the water is accurate. John 5:7 tells us as much. The helpful information seems to have been added at least four hundred years after John wrote it. Revelation 22:18-19 speaks to the gravity of adding, or taking away from God’s Word.
There are thousands of small differences between the KJV and the newer translations. These differences are the heart of the question of which translation is the best. You can find online resources which speak to these differences in considerable detail. If your curiosity is piqued, you could engage in hours of reading on this topic!
There are at least two current translations which deliberately paraphrase the original text: The Message and The Living Bible. We should be clear that these are NOT the inspired word of God. We do read books about faith which are NOT the Bible.
I love the King James Version. I grew up reading, studying and memorizing it. I have nothing but love and respect for brothers who choose to read and study only the KJV. The English Standard Version (ESV) is an accurate, word for word transmission of the Bible. The ESV includes detailed notes regarding passages for which the source material over the centuries differ.
Three points should be stated in conclusion. First, we have an accurate and complete transmission of the word of God. Second, love is vital to discussions which could become contentious. Jesus prayed (John 17:21) that his people would be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. Third, we are given God’s word to read and study. Whether it’s a physical book or an app, open it. Treasure this amazing gift every day.
1. Old Bibles – an account of the various versions of the English Bible, second edition, JR Dore, Vintage Archives, 1896
2. http://www.equip.org/article/is-your-modern-translation-corrupt/, accessed 5/7/17
3. https://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_1/ERASMUS.PDF, accessed 5/8/17
4. https://bible.org/article/majority-text-and-original-text-are-they-identical, accessed 5/8/17