This is based on a talk I gave at Church explaining why there are so many Bibles.
At Christmas you may well find among your cards one with a verse reading something like "peace on earth, good will toward men", which you might recognise as being from Luke Chapter 2, verses 8-16. However if you look that up in your bibles, you may find it says something rather different. It could say something along the lines of "Glory to God in the highest, On earth peace, good will toward men." Or it might say something like "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." Did you spot the difference? One has that the peace it talks about is for everybody, the other that the peace is only for those God is pleased with.

OK, so the question is, which is right? And why are there so many translations anyway? Lets leave which is right for a while, and look at why there are so many translations. It's partly a question of style, and its partly a question of Greek manuscripts. Now if you were under the impression the King James Bible dropped out of heaven on a parachute then you're probably wondering what Greek has got to do with anything. Lets have a quick history lesson.

When Alexander the Great conquered most of the Mediterranean, not to mention a big slice of Asia, he needed a common language to govern such a diverse area efficiently. So what he did was to take his Greek dialect (called Attic) and produce a cut down simplified version of it, a sort of ancient Esperanto if you like. It was called Koine Greek. When the Romans took over the Mediterranean rather than trying to teach everybody Latin they just went with the flow and used Greek themselves. Those Romans who didn't know Greek themselves simply hired secretaries who did.

Of course the old classical Greek didn't vanish. It was still around and was probably much preferred by older people who didn't approve of the sloppy way these young people speak nowadays. Classical Greek was older and sounded much more majestic than the Koine Greek, so it was still used by poets and high government officials. Koine Greek was used for things like shopping lists.

Now the question is, when the people who wrote the letters that eventually became our Bible wrote them, which version of Greek did they use? The majestic and beautiful Classical Greek, the language of the poets? or Koine Greek, the language of the common people, the language of shopping lists? Well they chose Koine Greek. it was more important to them that what they were saying was clearly understood than it sounded beautiful and majestic. they chose the language of the common people - in fact most of the writers were the common people.

Now time passed, the Roman Empire split in to 2 halves, and the Church split into 2 halves as well. One half was based in Greece, it kept itself to itself and basically existed unmolested until the 1800's. It is from that half that we get the Eastern or Greek Orthodox, a part of the Church that most of us in the west know very little about, to our loss.

The other half was based in Rome, and the priest of Rome eventually became known as the pope. This is the half that most of our parts of the Church are descended from. Now this church was based in Rome, and since the Empire was split so they didn't need to talk Greek anymore - they made Latin their official language. The Bible was translated into Latin - called the Vulgate- and so things stayed for hundreds of years through the medieval period.

Now we get a bit more modern. In 1516 a guy called Erasmus of Rotterdam was a big fan of translating the bible into the language of the common people rather than Latin which hardly anybody spoke anymore. He wasn't the first, he certainly wasn't the last. What made him special was he didn't translate from Latin to Dutch or whatever. Instead he got half a dozen of the oldest Greek manuscripts he could find (they weren't all that old, say a couple of hundred years, but they were the oldest he had), and he combined those together to form one Greek manuscript which would be the basis for his new translation. Actually some bits of Revelation were missing from his manuscripts, so he just translated the Latin back into Greek for those bits. It was wasn't brilliant, but he did the best he could. This Greek text was called the Received Text, or in Latin, the Textus Receptus. Erasmus' text was still the official text when almost a hundred years later the King James Bible was translated into English, in the year 1611.

Now the King James Bible wasn't the first bible to be translated into English, but the translators wanted an up to date version in the language of the common people. In fact they were criticised for making it sound too common. There were probably some people round saying they much preferred the old Latin because it sounded so much more majestic. There were other English versions of course, but the King James was the best seller for the next 300 years.

Now if the king James was so successful, why not just stick with that, why bother making other translations? Why don't we all just use the King James today?

well there are 3 problems: English problems, Style problems, and Manuscript problems

  1. first up, English problems.
    English changes. the translators of the King James wanted it to be in up to date language, not to sound good. I think they'd be spinning in their graves if they knew that there are people today who say we should use the king James because it sounds good, even though its hard to understand. The common English of 1611 is not the common English of today. It's like trying to read Shakespeare - apart from all the "thee's" and "thou's" some words have completely changed their meaning. For example to prevent somebody entering a building didn't mean to stop them, it meant to go in first. Another word that has changed is the word Man. Now in 1611 Man probably meant the whole human race (or maybe it was just the men who thought that! ). Whatever, today when I hear the word man I assume it means a man, a male, as opposed to woman. But the word the King James translates as man doesn't mean a male. The Greeks had a word for a male: andros (that's where we get the word androgen, which is a male hormone), and they had a word for a female: ge-nay, which is where we get the word gynaecologist. And something that is both male and female is called androgynous. But if you look at the Greek word used in this sentence you'll see it isn't the word andros, it is the word anthropos, and that means people. That's where we get the word anthropology - the study of human kind.

  2. As well as English changing there is also the question of style.
    No translation is ever perfect because it trying to do 2 different things:
    • it is trying to mean the same as it meant to the original audience, and
    • it is trying to sound the same as it did to the original audience.

    Now if you take good Greek and swap the words for the closest English equivalent (assuming that there is an equivalent), what you end up with is terrible English, just like trying to read the instructions for your video recorder - its meaningless. But if you start changing things to keep the same meaning you are altering the content.

    A translator who thinks using the right words is more important tends to produce a version that is very formal sounding. The English isn't that good, but its great for looking words up in and studying from. A translator who thinks getting the right thought is more important produces a much more dynamic translation. The english is much better because the translator dosen't have to stick with the same words, they can just write what it means. Or what they think it means.

    I'll give you an example. I know an old missionary who served in Indonesia and she told me they always had trouble when the Bible described Jesus as the lion of Judah because the locals had never seen a lion so they had no idea what that word meant. But they knew what a tiger was! So my friend used to describe Jesus as the tiger of Judah. Now tiger probably had the same sort of meaning for those people as the original lion did for the people it was written for - a dangerous, powerful, but beautiful feline predator. It fact they probably understood it better than we do, since our word lion generally means a cute cartoon character or a pile of fur asleep in a zoo. So I think she did the best thing, but a tiger is not a lion.

    You can certainly go too far in that direction. There was a translation known as the cotton patch version which was begun in America in the 60's. Now since Rome was the capital of the ancient world, the translators changed Rome to Washington, their capital. So Jesus was baptised in the Mississippi, and crucified by Pontius Pilate, the governor of Georgia. Now most of us probably cringe when we hear that, I mean that is an extreme example, but that is the problem every translator faces. Its known as the historical distance versus the linguistic distance.

  3. The third problem is with the Manuscripts
    The manuscripts that Erasmus used were all pretty similar. I mean there were a few minor differences between them, as there always will be when people copy something. spelling mistakes, missing bits out , stuff like that. But by comparing a number of them Erasmus was able to make out which were the mistakes and build up a better idea of the original, just like by comparing several university student's notes, you'll have a better idea of what the lecturer said.

    But archaeologists started digging up heaps of old manuscripts, much older than the ones Erasmus used. Much, much older. Now most of the them were similar to the ones Erasmus used - no problem there. But some of them weren't. The differences weren't huge, but they were bigger than the usual spelling mistakes and so on. it was like there were 2 different families of manuscripts. now 80 - 90% of manuscripts found are similar to those Erasmus used, and they are called Byzantine, after the area in Greece. The ones that are different generally come from around Egypt, so they are called Alexandrine, after the city of Alexandria.

    The question is, which are right?

    The alexandrine are older. Egypt has a dry climate which is wonderful for preserving old documents. Now some people say "the older the better, so the alexandrine must be right". But others say "hang on its not that simple."

    The original letters were mostly to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Colosians, all cities in Greece or round there. The only 2 that weren't were Mark and Romans, which went to Rome. There is no letter to the Egyptians or Alexandrines in the Bible. So the Greeks had access to the originals while they lasted. The alexandrines didn't.

    Also the Byzantine manuscripts are in the vast majority. Now if you had two manuscripts to choose from, wouldn't you copy the best one?

    Also Greek is the Greeks native language, it wasn't the Egyptians native language. You are more likely to make a mistake copying something that is not in your native language.

    Also the alexandrine manuscripts tend to disagree with each other as well. In fact the 2 best ones disagree with each other over 3000 times in the gospels. That's not encouraging.

    Also the church was strongest in the Greek area. That's where Paul went on his journeys, it was in Antioch that Christ followers were first called Christians. Egypt had problems with a bunch of people called Gnostics who disagreed with Christianity. They were a pretty diverse group, but basically they thought the world was evil, so any god who created it must be evil. They thought that dying was good because it meant you escaped. Since death came through the serpent in the garden of Eden, they thought the serpent was the hero. Now Gnostics were a problem for the church all over, but most of what we know about them comes from a library of Gnostic materials discovered in a place called "Nag Hammandi" , in surprise surprise, Egypt. It is possible that those in the Alexandine manuscripts were not accidental mistakes at all, but Gnostics changing things they disagreed with.

    So which is right?
    Did the Byzantines try to "smooth out" the original alexandrine manuscripts, or did some Gnostics or proto-Gnostics corrupt the original Byzantine manuscripts?
    Is the fact that the alexandrine manuscripts are older simply an accident of geography?
    Is the fact that Byzantine manuscripts are the vast majority also an accident of geography?

    The people who think the alexandrine manuscripts are best have produced a Greek text also known as the critical text. Those who think the byzantine are better have produced a greek text known as the majority text. On your handout you can see which manuscripts different versions of the bible use.

    But does it really matter?

    The number of differences between the tow types is not huge, and it dosen't change any of the major doctrines, it just alters a few sentances.

    I think the most important thing is to understand that for those few sentances there is a bit of doubt. Don't try to build huge castles on just one or 2 sentances, especially ones that are in doubt.

    The same goes for the different translating styles. Provided you understand what sort of translation you are reading and understand what its strengths and weakness are I don't think it really matters. If you could afford a couple of Bibles of different types that would be best of all, but the most important thing is to read and understand the bible you do have.

    If you're interested in taking it further you could go to bible college, or learn greek, or read more about it.

And as for Luke 2:14, is the peace it talks about for everybody or is it only for those God is pleased with?

Well the shepards didn't sit round wondering what it meant, they went to see for themselves. My suggestion would be that we do the same.

Why so many Bible Translations?


Translators are torn between being faithful to the original language versus producing good English. By exactly translating the content they lose the style; to exactly reproduce the style they have to alter the content. Each translator comes to a different compromise, but translation styles are generally grouped into 3 categories; Formal Equivalence, Dynamic Equivalence, and Free or Paraphrased. Also there are 3 Greek texts which the New Testament of a Bible can be based on. Here are where some translations fit:
Greek Text Used
Received Text
(Byzantine)
Majority Text
(Byzantine)
Critical Text
(Alexandrine)
S
t
y
l
e
Formal Equivalence
(word for word)
King James (AV)
NKJV
YLT, MKJV
KJ21
NASB
Dynamic Equivalence
(thought for thought)
L21,WEB
NIV
ASV, RSV
Free Translation
(Paraphrase)
CEV
Message

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (AV/MKJV/KJ21)
Glory in the highest to God, and upon earth peace, among men - good will. (YLT)

Glory to God in the highest, On earth peace, good will toward men (WEB)
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased (NASB)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests (NIV)
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. (ASV)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased! (RSV)

Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him (Message)
Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God. (CEV)

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