How many translations did your Bible go through?

bible5.gifOne. 

Really. Just one time from the original language to the language and version of your Bible.  The original writings were copied many times, but the Bible you hold was only translated once.

Many people – including some Christians – are quick to say that the Bible has been translated and changed so many times over the centuries that we don’t know what the original writings said.  For example, I just saw a video clip where Deepak Chopra (alleged religious expert) claims that the King James was the 13th iteration of the Bible.

But contrary to that myth, the books of the Bible have only been translated once and the copying process was very robust, dependable and verifiable.   

For example, Paul wrote in Greek, and we have Greek manuscripts to make translations from.  That is one translation. 

Conventional wisdom: Tranlations from one language to another to another . . .

Greek original ==> Latin translation ==> other translations ==> King James version ==> New International Version, etc. 

What actually happened

Greek original ==> copies of Greek original ==> Latin version

Greek original ==> copies of Greek original ==> King James version

Greek original ==> copies of Greek original ==> New International Version

Etc.

So the real issue is how accurate and reliable the copying process was.  The science of textual criticism shows that the copies of the New Testament are 99.5% accurate and that the differences are minor and have no impact on Christian theology. 

Regarding the Old Testament, here are some notes from the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry:

The OT does not have as many supporting manuscripts as the NT but it is, nevertheless, remarkably reliable.

  1. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew OT done around 250 B.C., attests to the reliability and consistency of the OT when it is compared to existing Hebrew manuscripts.
  2. The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 also verify the reliability of the OT manuscripts.
  3. The Dead Sea Scrolls were ancient documents that were hidden in a cave in Israel about 2000 years ago. The scrolls contained many OT books, one of them being Isaiah.
    1. Before the Dead Sea scrolls, the earliest existing manuscript of the OT was dated around 900 A.D. called the Masoretic Text. The Scrolls contained OT documents 1000 years earlier. A comparison between the manuscripts revealed an incredible accuracy of transmission through copying, so much so that critics were silenced.

In summary, the Bible you hold has only been translated once, and the copying process was very robust, dependable and verifiable. 

Also see Is The New Testament Reliable? and Has the Bible been rewritten so many times that we can’t trust it anymore?

22 thoughts on “How many translations did your Bible go through?”

  1. I’m in agreement up to a point. What I have learned and studied tells me that the new translations are based on a Minority Text that is not reliable, so I do not trust them to be accurate. However, the King James and several other older Bibles were translated from the Majority Text, which is much more reliable and of which there are vastly more documents of this Majority Text, which are in over 99% agreement with each other, whereas the Minority Text consists primarily of 3 texts which do not even agree with each other.

    I have many Bibles, including RSV, NIV and KJV – but when I want to make absolutely sure I’m getting the correct translation of a passage, I use my KJV because the others are based on the Minority Texts.

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  2. Good post Neil (I said already back in 2006) 🙂

    but Serioulsy – we need to drive this point home over and over again.

    We should get tickets to the Oprah show and bring this up!

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  3. Yes Neil, this is one of those things that does need to be brought up, over and over again… as Edgar said, over and over again! 🙂

    The Bible is far more accurate than any other ancient manuscript we have, yet historians etc., never question their reliability. It’s good to remind them of this.
    Blessings

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  4. Would it hurt something if it turned out that the Bibles we have today are a second translation? There are, for instance, a group of people (with very interesting arguments) who hold that the New Testament was likely FIRST written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek. I am not so convinced, but neither do I see it as an assault on the reliability of my Bible. Would it matter if there was an intermediate translation?

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  5. To the extent that this presents the way translations of the Bible come about, it is true. Yet, there are issues with variances among the many different extant MS copies of various books. For example, most copies of the Gospel of St. Mark leave off what is often included after the empty tomb discovery. There are also comparisons made between the original Hebrew manuscripts and the Septuagint (Greek) translations of the Old Testament.

    The more recent translations – the New Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible, and others – are a complete revamp of the originals, using contemporary scholarship as far as possible to render the text both clear and faithful (not always possible).

    I have never heard about the whole “multiple translation” thing. Multiple texts that differ? Of course, because it is true. Incidentally, there is a copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel written in Aramaic which predates the extant Greek manuscripts, so there might be something to the multiple translation thing.

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  6. Stan, if that were true about it being in Aramaic and then Greek it wouldn’t matter, I just hadn’t heard a strong case for that. The main thing I’m rebutting here is the “it was changed many times over the centuries” line.

    “For example, most copies of the Gospel of St. Mark leave off what is often included after the empty tomb discovery. ”

    Agreed, plus the women caught in adultery story has a similar problem. What I find useful in disarming skeptics is to rightly concede that those parts may not have been in the originals, but to point out how that is actually evidence for the rest. The system works, so we know what the originals said.

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  7. Geoffrey,

    Incidentally, there is a copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel written in Aramaic which predates the extant Greek manuscripts

    I hadn’t heard about this particular bit. Are you referring to the Q source? If not, leave us a link so we can read about it. Sounds very interesting.

    if we ever found a manuscript in Aramaic, that predates say – 90 AD… then the liberals would be in big trouble. So lets hope we do find something.

    As far as I know, John P52 is the oldest dated to 90-120 AD.

    The oldest and the more, the better for Christianity.

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  8. Neil,

    I suppose that was exactly my point. Multiple translations or not, there is no reason to doubt the substance or even the content of 99% of the Bibles we read today. They have a high level of correlation with the best possible texts. So … skeptics, drop that argument. It doesn’t work.

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  9. There are subtle, and not so subtle doctrinal differences between the various “versions”. Differences that make folks like Ms Green and I distrustful of “some” translations.

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  10. In response to a couple of the earlier posts …

    ::There is a theoretical Aramaic version of Matthew, predating the Greek one, but no actual manuscript survives. It seems to have existed, however, as late as the 14th century, when Shem Tov Ben Isaac used it to write a refutation of Christianity. For more information, see page 105 of my book _Misquoting Truth_, paying special attention to the sources cited there.

    ::Someone made an earlier statement that the text from which the KJV was translated agrees 99% of the time and that these constitute the majority of manuscripts. The 99% figure is true–all the other NT manuscripts also agree 99% of the time. The “majority” statement is false, however, as it confuses the Textus Receptus (from which the KJV was translated) with the Majority Text. The Textus Receptus is a 16th-century edition of the Greek New Testament, edited by Erasmus and based on a half-dozen texts from the same text _family_ as the Majority Text—but it is not the same thing as the Majority Text. In fact, the Textus Receptus differs in thousands of places from the Majority Text. The Majority Text is the text that’s based on the dominant reading of thousands of texts from the Byzantine text family, and it should be highly regarded in eclectic textual analysis—but it is not the same thing as the Textus Receptus.

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  11. In response to a couple of the earlier posts …

    ::There is a theoretical Aramaic version of Matthew, predating the Greek one, but no actual manuscript survives. Such a document seems to have existed, however, as late as the 14th century, when Shem Tov Ben Isaac used it to write a refutation of Christianity. For more information, see page 105 of my book _Misquoting Truth_, paying special attention to the sources cited there.

    ::Someone made an earlier statement that the text from which the KJV was translated agrees 99% of the time and that these constitute the majority of manuscripts. The 99% figure is true; then again, all the other NT manuscripts also agree 99% of the time too, majority or minority. The “majority” statement is false, however, as it confuses the Textus Receptus (from which the KJV was translated) with the Majority Text. The Textus Receptus is a 16th-century edition of the Greek New Testament, edited by Erasmus and based on a half-dozen texts from the same text _family_ as the Majority Text—but it is not the same thing as the Majority Text. In fact, the Textus Receptus differs in thousands of places from the Majority Text. The Majority Text is the text that’s based on the dominant reading of thousands of texts from the Byzantine text family, and it should be highly regarded in eclectic textual analysis—but it is not the same thing as the Textus Receptus.

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  12. Thanks, Edgar. I was teaching the high school kids at church for a few weeks and I emphasized this point many times. It is easy to understand, bulletproof and arms them with a quick and calm reply to a very common objection.

    They can even make it better by starting off with Koukl’s, “How did you come to that conclusion?” tactic. Most of the people who insist that the original writings have been changed significantly have no facts to back up their claim. None. They’ve just heard it repeated a lot and think it sounds pretty plausible.

    After you get a blank stare to that response you can politely inform them that even radical skeptics who are recognized experts in textual criticism will concede that we know with great confidence what the originals said (they just draw the false conclusion that any changes in transmission, even “typos,” negate the possibility of inspiration. But that’s another topic.

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