Reader Questions: How Accurate are Bible Translations?

ancient antique architectural design architecture

I recently added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

Hi Pastor Nick. I have heard you talk about your study of other languages and various Bible translations. Can you help me with a response to a Jewish man who is convinced the English translation is completely inaccurate and can’t be trusted?

Bible Translation Basics

I wrote a series on Bible Translation to explain some of the inherent difficulties in doing it, as well as some relevant issues related to some particular English translations:

  1. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1
  2. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible
  3. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

Response to the Question

I would start by asking which English translation he thinks cannot be trusted, and my next question would be why he believes they cannot be trusted.

There is not just one English Translation of the Bible, but hundreds of translations – many of which have been carried out by teams of scholars whose work was then reviewed, checked, proofread and scrutinized by other scholars in order to assure accurate translation.

Basically, his claim that a translation of the Bible into English (or presumably any language?) is not trustworthy is intellectually untenable.

These translations are made by groups of scholars who have devoted their lives to studying these ancient languages, cultures, and beliefs. Furthermore, there have been multiple groups over the past 2000 years who have translated the Scriptures into various languages, and these translations all say the same things. Where they differ is based on different possible translations of words or phrases in the original language, but there are a finite number of options, and the options are usually recorded in the footnotes or in textual commentaries. All that would be needed in order to refute a translation would be someone who could prove that they are in error. So a challenge to anyone who claims that a particular translation is not trustworthy or accurate would be to simply invite them to make their case publicly, and contribute their insights and knowledge to help make a better translation!

What is Inspired: the Original Text or the Translation?

It should be noted that we as Christians believe the original texts to have been inspired by God, not the copies or translations.

Article X of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy explains it this way:

WE AFFIRM  that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

WE DENY  that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

However, this does not mean we cannot or should not translate the Scriptures into languages other than the originals – to the best of our collective abilities – in order that people who do not speak ancient Hebrew and Greek (the vast majority of the world’s population) can understand God’s Word to them.

Bible Translation Has Precedent: the Septuagint and Jesus

Lastly, there is precedent in Scripture itself for the translation of the Bible into other languages. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and it was widely used in antiquity. The New Testament writers often quote from the Septuagint and record Jesus as having quoted from the Septuagint. Being that Aramaic was widespread in Israel at the time of Jesus, we can be quite sure that Jesus would have spoken to crowds in Aramaic, meaning that when he referenced or quoted from the Hebrew Bible (AKA Old Testament), he would have translated those verses into Aramaic.

In conclusion, we can be quite confident in the translations that we have in English and other languages. While it may be helpful to acquaint yourself with the original languages, you can be sure that when you read your English translation of the Bible, you are getting the essence of the original text and its meaning, especially if you are supplementing your reading with textual commentaries.

What is a Beatitude?

man jumping from a rock

The Beatitudes are the name given to the opening lines of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, found in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-12. They consist of 9 statements which all begin with the words “Blessed are…”

So what exactly is a “beatitude”?

Not the Be-Attitudes

One common explanation is that the beatitudes are the “be-attitudes”, i.e. “the attitudes you should be.”

Not only is this atrocious grammatically, it’s also incorrect linguistically.

The Happy Sayings

The word beatitude comes from the Latin word beati, which means “happy”, because in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, each of these sayings begins with the word, “Beati” or “Happy are…”

In the original Greek, each of these sayings begins with the word makarios, which also means “happy”.

The beatitudes, therefore, are not a laundry list of attitudes you need to muster up, rather they are a group of sayings, in which Jesus shows us the pathway to true happiness.

Blessed or Happy?

The English translators of the Bible chose to translate the word makarios as “blessed” instead of “happy”.

Other languages, however, retained the simple, straight-forward translation of makarios as “happy” – such as the other language I speak: Hungarian, which translates it as “boldog”, the regular word for “happy”, as opposed to the word “áldott” which means “blessed”. In Hungarian, the beatitudes are called “A Boldog Mondások”, literally “the happy sayings” – which is what beatitudes actually means.

Recently I was teaching at Ravencrest Bible College in Estes Park, and asked a student from Scandinavia how her Bible translated it, and sure enough, makarios was translated as a word meaning “happiness” rather than one referring to “blessedness”.

So, why did the English translators of the Bible translate makarios as “blessed” rather than as “happy”? Many people believe that it was because they felt that the word “happy” was too trite, and not religious enough. Some English translators have translated makarios as “happy” – such as the Good News Translation, but most have kept with the tradition of using “blessed” instead because it is so engrained in the English linguistic heritage.

However, I believe that translating makarios as “blessed”, something is lost in translation. The word “happy” has a different tone than the word “blessed”. After all, you can be blessed without being happy. Blessed doesn’t communicate elationit doesn’t evoke the image of a smile on your face and lightness in your heart!

When Jesus spoke these words, he was using a word that was common and relatable, and not a religious word: “happy”!

The Pathway to Happiness

The beatitudes would have been surprising to their original hearers! They would have caused people to do a double-take, and listen closely, perhaps wondering if maybe they had misunderstood Jesus in what he said!

Think about it:  “Oh how happy are the poor in spirit.”  “Oh how happy are you who weep.”

The first listeners would have said, Wait…what?! Poor people aren’t happy! People who weep are literally NOT happy!

It was a set-up, for Jesus to instruct them about his “upside-down kingdom”.

In the beatitudes, the “happy sayings”, Jesus is laying out the pathway to true and lasting happiness. Unlike what many people in the world popularly believe about how to attain happiness, Jesus shows us the true and better way:

Happiness begins, Jesus said, with recognizing and acknowledging your spiritual poverty, and then weeping over that spiritually poor condition. It continues by you humbling yourself before God and hungering and thirsting after righteousness: which if you do, God will give to you as a gift of his grace (His righteousness, not your own!).

For more on how the beatitudes, the “happy sayings”, show the pathway to happiness, check out this message I taught on this section called “How to Be Happy – Matthew 5:1-12”

May we be those who hear what Jesus has to say in these Happy Sayings, and may we follow him down the pathway to true, lasting happiness, which begins with humility and repentance!

Further Reading

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible

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In Part 1 of this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, we looked at the fundamentals of how Bible translation is done, why so many translations exist and some guidelines for choosing a good translation.

Here in Part 2, we will be looking at the King James Version (KJV) specifically. In Part 3, we will look at the New International Version (NIV) and the question of gender-inclusive language.

When it comes to the King James Version of the Bible, some people feel very strongly that it is the only Bible that English speakers should use. Why is that, and is that a good position to hold? Let’s consider the main issues at stake in this discussion:

Manuscripts: Textus Receptus

The King James Version was translated based on a collection of Greek New Testament manuscripts called the Textus Receptus (Received Text). The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 1500’s by Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, a Catholic priest and humanist.

Although he was a humanist and his work played a significant role in the Reformation, by putting the Word of God back into the hands of the people, Erasmus remained loyal to the pope. Martin Luther disputed with Erasmus over theology, which you can read more about here.

There are two kinds of KJV adherents: those who trust the Textus Receptus, and those who trust the KJV itself.

As discussed in Part 1, the Bible doesn’t change, but language does. As a result, new translations of the Textus Receptus have been done, most notably the New King James Version (NKJV), which also uses the Textus Receptus as its basis, but which translates it into modern English. Those who are trust in the Textus Receptus are happy to use the NKJV and other translations of the Textus Receptus which use current rather than archaic English, such as KJ21 and MEV.

However, there are some KJV Only loyalists who reject any translation other than the original KJV, showing that they are not loyal to the Textus Receptus, but to the KJV itself. This brings up several problems:

KJV Only Problem #1: Which King James Version?

The King James Bible has undergone three revisions since its first publication in 1611, which updated the spelling and use of many words – in order to make them more comprehensible in the common language of the people. If you buy a KJV Bible today, you will be getting the 1769 version, unless you go out of your way to get a 1611. So the question for KJV loyalists is: which KJV are you loyal to? If you accept the 1769 (which is almost all KJV’s available for sale today), then you are dealing with what was essentially the NEW King James Version of the 18th century. There seems no reason in this case then to reject the New King James Version of the 20th century either.

KJV Only Problem #2: What About Other Languages?

As a missionary in Hungary, I remember times when people would come from America to serve at our youth camp, and they would bring English KJV Bibles to give out to the kids… Hungarian kids, who not only don’t speak English, but who certainly don’t understand Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. I have heard stories of American churches buying boxes of KJV Bibles to send to orphanages in Mexico.

Do people need to learn English, and specifically archaic English, in order to read and understand the Word of God?

Other languages have translations of the Textus Receptus which predate the KJV, including the German Luther Bible (1522) the  the Spanish Reina translation (1569), and the Hungarian Vizsoly Bible (1590).

Furthermore, when the KJV was first introduced in 1611, it was criticized for being too easy to understand, because it was written in the common language of the people at that time. When the Bible is translated for the first time into a new language today, it is translated into the language the cultures speaks today, not the way they spoke 400 years ago.

Thus, it seems unreasonable to be loyal to the KJV itself, rather than the Textus Receptus. Next, let’s look at the Textus Receptus:

Is the Textus Receptus the best manuscript of the New Testament?

Since Erasmus assembled the Textus Receptus in the early 1500’s, many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered which are older and more accurate than the manuscripts in the Textus Receptus. What these manuscripts show is that the later Textus Receptus manuscripts contained several additions to the text, which were not present in the older manuscripts.

It should be noted: none of these “textual variants” have any significance for Christian theology. They were added, it seems, as forms of commentary, or to help bring clarity – but they seem to have been added nonetheless.

Do Newer Translations Remove Verses?

As explained in the section above, the Textus Receptus includes some verses which older manuscripts show us were later additions to the text by zealous scribes who were trying to help, but which were not a part of the original manuscripts.

So, rather than newer translations “removing verses”, what you actually have is that the KJV (or the Textus Receptus, rather) has added verses to the Bible – something which is also forbidden by Revelation 22:18-19.

See: On Those Missing Verses and Why are newer translations of the Bible missing verses?

Both the KJV and more modern translations are upfront about these facts. The KJV indicates words which have been added for clarity by using italics, and newer translations use brackets or footnotes to show places where the Textus Receptus includes text which is not found in the oldest manuscripts.

Landing the Plane

Our loyalties as Christians should be the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not to any particular translation of those words which God inspired. It is often helpful to look at several translations in order to get a full understanding of the meaning of a text.

Further reading: The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White