The Expository Files

Why So Many Translations?

"Why are there all those translations?" How do we know that mistakes have not crept in over the last 1900 years? Which translation is best? Why? And what makes a bad translation bad?

First, we can have confidence that accurate and reliable translations are available for us today. The Lord would not go to so much trouble to send us His word only to have it become so muddled that we could not know it. In fact He has made us that very promise; that we would always have His word (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:23-25; Isaiah 55:10,11).

But Jesus meant His gospel to go into the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20). This meant that it must be translated into the different languages of the nations of the world, those that were and those who were yet to be. Jesus even read from a translation! Luke records that in Nazareth, Jesus did not read from the original Hebrew but from the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Scriptures (Luke 4:17-19).

The Original Manuscripts of the New Testament
"When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments." (2 Timothy 4:13).

The original manuscripts were those which the original authors, Peter, James, Paul, Luke and others, wrote down by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul, in the above verse, asks Timothy to bring the "parchments" with him. Parchments were treated animal skins used as we would use paper. Sometimes, papyrus was used instead, but was less durable. The Scriptures which became our New testament were originally written in Greek and sent out into the world, first to the intended recipient (individuals such as Titus, Timothy, Gaius or Theophilus; or churches such as Corinth or Rome; or groups such as the Hebrews). These would be read, copied and passed on to others, who would do likewise.

Copying the Originals
"And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodeceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from the Laodeceans." (Colossians 4:16; cf. Galatians 1:2).

Copies had to be made if there were to be multiple recipients. First century Christians became very busy reading and copying Scriptures. Sometimes they would do so individually, but sometimes they would have a reader and a roomful of writers. Because they were so prolific, even today there exists over 5500 Greek manuscripts, 2,000 early translations, 8,000 Latin translations, and numerous quotes from the early Scriptures in other writings. These date back to the end of the first century, and it is possible that we have some dating to about 60-70 AD. When translations are made today into English, it is these early manuscripts that are used.

English Translations
"Now these were more noble minded than those at Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so." (Acts 17:11).

It was very unusual for the common people to possess the Scriptures in their native tongue during the middle ages. This is because church authorities had decided that they had a monopoly on the right to read the Bible. It was not for the common folk. Of course, this violates the very spirit of the principle set forth in the above quoted Bible verse.

John Wycliffe translated the Bible into Old English about 1300 A.D. At this time, the Catholic Church had made reading the Bible punishable by death. But there was a hunger and thirst for reading the word of God, and many would not be thwarted even in the face of such persecution.

In all of these source texts (the original Greek manuscripts from which translators work), about 7/8th of the material is in agreement. Of the remaining 1/8th, most differences are insignificant. For example, some read "church of God" while others read "church of the Lord" which is not significant because the Lord is God. Of the remaining 1/460th differences that are "significant" it is easy to compare all the manuscripts and see where the mistake was made. If you have 4,000 manuscripts reading one way, and 2 reading another way, you translate using the 4,000, not the 2.

What Makes a Good translation?
"And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ." (Ephesians 3:4).

Of course, as suggested above, a good translation had s to be understandable to its intended audience. But just being easy to understand does not necessarily make it a good translation.

To be a good translation, there must be the following three things:

Good Sources -  This would mean having access to early Greek manuscripts, the more the better, as well as early Latin translations and early quotes. But the manuscripts are the most important.

Good Method - Will the translators be highly literal, or will they take liberties with the text adding words that "help" folks understand the text? The more liberties they take, the more likely their own doctrinal prejudices will sneak in.

Good Translators  - This would mean those who are knowledgeable, who have access to good source documents and are honest. Many translators from multiple backgrounds help insure against doctrinal bias.
A translation that is easy to understand and meets the above three qualifications is a good translation. You can trust its message for what it really is; the word of God.

 By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 9.6; June 2002