Which Version Now?
In recent decades, Christians in the English-speaking world have witnessed the publication of a large number of new Bible translations. In this respect the present era resembles the time preceding the publication of the King James Version in 1611. Prior to the appearance of that version English Bible readers already had had a choice of many translations. This began with the translation of William Tyndale, the first one to use Hebrew and Greek texts for his English rendering of Scripture. Tyndale died a martyr by being burned at the stake in 1536.
Closely following upon Tyndale's version were those of Coverdale (1535) and Thomas Matthew (1537). In the year 1539 the Great Bible appeared, in 1560 the Geneva Bible, beloved among the Pilgrim Fathers, and finally there was the Bishops' Bible (1568). The King James Version, published in 1611, was commissioned by King James I. Sheehan informs us that it "had a board of translators that were not all evangelicals. The leader of the High Church was one as well as the leader of the Puritans in the Church of England" (p. 23). On the other hand, some of the newer versions, such as NASV, NIV and LB had totally evangelical translators. As a footnote to the author's observation it may be noted that those who translated the NIV were required to express their agreement with the following statement on Scripture: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs," or to other similar "strict" statements as found in the Reformation creeds and the Baptist Declarations of Faith.
I suppose the English Christians of the 16th century, being faced with such a multitude of Bible versions, may have felt the same question arising in their heart as is now being raised: "Which Version Now?"
One can only applaud the concern of Christians for having a Bible version that is faithful and God-glorifying. May the day never come when Christians show no interest in this question. God's written Word is precious, it is the anchor for our soul, the road map by which we must walk. What is most important, it speaks to us of the Divine Savior and is motivated by God's redemptive concern. The Belgic Confession, written in 1561, already knew of this redemptive concern when it stated so beautifully in Art. III:
God, from a special care which He has for us and our salvation, commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit his revealed will to writing.cf. also Jeremiah 36:1, 2; John 20:30, 31
Because so much is at stake, Christians should insist that in the translation of the Bible they use there be no tampering with the truth of God and no bias in the handling of the text of Sacred Scripture. It was this same awareness which prompted the NIV translators to insist on subscription to a firm declaration concerning the origin and nature of the Bible.
For several centuries the KJV continued to be the undisputed Bible of the English-speaking world. This version is a true monument to English prose. By it untold generations of men and women have found the Savior and received comfort and light upon their life's way.
Since the end of the 19th century the picture began to be more diversified. In 1881-1901 the American Standard Version appeared. This version has been widely used in the Christian Reformed denomination and is still found in the pews of many of its churches. Then came the Revised Standard Version, the Amplified Bible, the Berkeley Version, the New English Bible, the Living Bible, The Good News Bible, the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version, not to mention some other, Roman Catholic versions, which also appeared in recent years.
The booklet here reviewed takes note of almost all of these recent versions. It shows a thorough acquaintance with them, both as to contents and translation policy, and it discusses in a balanced and charitable fashion the merits or demerits of both the earlier King James Version and its newer successors.
Because the reviewer considers this treatise to be such a worthwhile contribution to the question it raises, he will confine himself chiefly to a summary of the author's presentation without adding much of personal comment.
What should be noted is that the booklet reviewed deals almost exclusively with the New Testament, at least in the part that deals with the text a translator should use. That part addresses itself to questions surrounding the Greek text of the New Testament. In the Old Testament the questions pertaining to the text are quite different. All newer translations have as basis for their Old Testament translation the so-called "Masoretic Text," although some versions adhere to this text more closely than others. It is in the New Testament that one finds a greater lack of unanimity concerning the actual text of the original. Therefore, let not the reader of certain alarmist literature concerning "Which Bible?" overlook this basic distinction. The text underlying the modern translations of the Old Testament is basically the same as that underlying the King James Version.
The only difference lies in the discovery of some early manuscripts of the Hebrew texts and the greater knowledge of comparative language study which has shed light on obscure Hebrew words. These later finds had to be applied to the modern versions. This could not be done by those who translated the KJV.
Sheehan points out that questions of the correct text are important. Even seemingly minor elements such as individual words, verb tenses, etc. can affect the truth of God. But we are faced with the fact that God did not deem it necessary to preserve the first copies of His Word for us. We are also faced with the fact that the text of the Bible suffered from the mistakes made by copyists. On that score there is hardly any disagreement between Christians of whatever persuasion.
Nevertheless, 97% of the text of the New Testament is generally accepted by all scholars as truly representing the original. So the dispute is over 3% of the New Testament only! Sheehan rightly calls attention to this. Says he: "To discuss the problem under the title 'which Bible' is to enlarge the issue out of all proportion and is a reprehensible playing on uninformed fears" (p. 5). See also what was said above about the Old Testament text.
What should further be noted is that the matter of the proper text of the New Testament is not one that divides orthodox from liberal scholars. One finds orthodox scholars on both sides of the fence.
The main options for choosing the Greek text for translating the New Testament are three. Some favor the Received Text (R.T.); others prefer the Majority Text (M.T.), and a third group are committed to an eclectic principle, i.e., they choose the Greek variant reading on the basis of eclectic principles. E. F. Hills is chosen as representing position (1); and W. N. Pickering of position (2). The third viewpoint is found in a variety of handbooks.
The R.T. bears this name because this text was generally accepted (received) in the 16th century. The name should not be understood as expressing the idea that this text was "received" directly from God. This text was published by the great humanist Erasmus. This scholar, though critical of the R.C. church, never broke with the church, as did Luther. To the reviewer it is somewhat strange to see people, who are devoted to the King James Bible as the "true Reformation Bible," and who point to the alleged Romanism of other N.T. texts, accept the Received Text, a text which was published by the Roman Catholic humanist Erasmus!
The R.T. is based on a comparison of six Greek manuscripts (actually there are some 5338 manuscripts of the Greek N.T. known to us). These six were checked and corrected by reference to the Latin translation, called Vulgate. In other words, the R.T. is not the majority text as such. Dr. Hills believes that the R.T. must be used as base for translating the N.T. God preserves His Word, so he argues, and He also preserved the way in which the manuscripts were transmitted, even though today we have no representatives of this text from before the 4th century A.D. Yet, so Hills contends, the Holy Spirit bears witness to this text as the true one.
Sheehan points out the following weaknesses in Dr. Hills' arguments.
- Hills has not demonstrated that the Holy Spirit also made sure that this good text was always used in the church. In fact, he has to admit that for 1200 years (from the 4th to the 16th century) this text was not recognized by the church.
- Dr. Hills' theory is short on facts.
- It gets rid of inconvenient evidence and downgrades material to be gleaned from ancient Bible versions and from western church sources.
- The appeal to the guidance of the Spirit as extending to this matter is very questionable.
- Hills admits that one may sometimes go against the testimony of the majority of Greek manuscripts, as did Erasmus. What, then, remains of his appeal to the Spirit's guidance in preserving the text?
Modern Bible versions, for good reasons, do not follow the R.T. in the 3% of the disputed readings. See, for example, the footnotes in the NIV on Matthew 27:35; Acts 8:37 and 1 John 5:7-8.
The second view examined is that of W. N. Pickering, who holds that the Majority Text must be followed. This term is used for N.T. manuscripts dating from the 5th to the 16th century. A smaller group of manuscripts dates from before the 4th century.
Why follow the M.T.? It is alleged that the church fathers had such a high regard for Scripture that they would not tolerate any deliberate changes in the text. When, in the 5th century, the major heresies had been put down the true text of the New Testament emerged and was copied faithfully since that time. The reason why we have no early copies of the true text is because these copies were worn out by their much use, or they were destroyed after copies were made. Moreover, the church fathers do contain quotes from this majority text in their writings.
Mr. Sheehan refutes these contentions one by one. For one thing, it simply is not so that the church fathers quoted from this M.T. (p. 12). Mr. Pickering's position is unsubstantiated on all points.
The third approach to the text of the N.T. is the eclectic one. This is the one favored by the author. This approach asks questions such as these: Does this reading have ancient support? How widespread is this reading? Does it occur only in Egyptian documents or also elsewhere? What is the actual weight of this reading as compared with other readings?
All newer versions follow this eclectic approach. Those who cannot accept it are necessarily limited to the use of the King James Version. Even the modernized KJV is not acceptable to these people since it is largely the work of one man.
The second part of this study is no less important than the first. It deals with the proper principles of Bible translation. Granted that one has the proper text, how is this text to be translated in understandable English? A good bit of current criticism of the newer versions such as the NIV stems from a failure to understand the need to present the truth of God in language that can be grasped by the modern reader. This is why Sheehan's contribution is so worthwhile at this point.
Sheehan points out that the KJV does not always render the same Hebrew word with the same English word. For the word chesed it used no less than eleven different meanings, because the translators recognized that "there be some words that be not of the same sense everywhere" (p. 25).
It may also surprise some readers that in the matter of recognizing the Deity of Christ the KJV sometimes receives less points than do some of the newer versions. In the translation of John 1:1; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8 and 2 Peter 1:1, the KJV scores three out of five points since it does not give a "high Christology" in Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1. But the NIV scores five out of five. Yet it is alleged by some that the NIV, as do other modern versions, "humanizes" our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sheehan makes us see that all Bible versions in use among us, including the KJV, reject a word-for-word translation approach (p. 21). But some versions put greater store by words, while others favor meaning. This is how Sheehan evaluates some leading versions:
In the KJV the words are given greater importance than the meaning; in the RSV meaning is a little more important; in the NEB and GNB, meaning is all-important; with the NASV words are again emphasized; but in the NW meaning has greater priority; in the LB meaning is again all important.p. 21
Space forbids quoting further from this eminently sane and balanced presentation which we hope will receive wide circulation among the readers of this periodical. Let me conclude with Sheehan's final word regarding the future of Bible translations among us.
From this survey NEB comes out the worst. Its use by evangelicals is surely questionable. While the KJV and RSV still have much to commend them the NASV AND NIV lead the field. If the present trends continue the NIV will prevail where the Received Majority issue does not win through.p. 30
As one who from the very beginning was involved in the NIV translation project the reviewer can only express the prayer that Sheehan's prognostication will prove to be correct. And let us then jointly move on to better things and promote God's cause and kingdom with one consent and one accord.