The Best English Bible Translation (2)

In our quest to determine which of the many available translations is best, we are faced with many options (to see the introductory post in this brief series, CLICK HERE).  One of the primary considerations has to do with the original document from which one is going to make a translation.  What is that document and where did it come from?

Translated From What?

What many people don’t realize is that the actual, original documents penned by the writers of the individual books of the Bible–these are referred to as autographs–don’t exist any more.  They are gone.  What we do have, though, are copies of those autographs, and copies of those copies, and so on.  These copies are called manuscripts.  There are literally thousands of them.  They range from little scraps of portions of a single verse to entire books of the Bible, and even entire New or Old Testaments.

Here’s the challenge in all of this.  All of these copies were made by hand.  As you can well imagine, sometimes the copyists made mistakes.  This means there are some variations from manuscript to manuscript.  The mistakes made are the same kind you and I make if we’re writing or even copying something by hand; misspelling, word order, skipping a line, and so on.  These are the vast majority of manuscript variations.  Understand, these copyists were trying very hard to make accurate copies and did a remarkable job of doing so.

There were also times though, when the manuscript being copied had had some notations made in the margins.  These might have been explanatory or supplementary notes.  Apparently, on occasion, the person copying, for whatever reason, incorporated those notes into the text of what he was copying.  Then, later, someone made a copy of what he had copied, unknowingly keeping those additions or changes.

So, we have many original language manuscripts of the Bible.  But there are variations between those manuscripts.  This circumstance has given rise to the scholarly discipline of textual criticism.  This is an effort to essentially recreate an original language text that is as close as possible to what the autograph would have been.  The end result is called a critical text.  From that, then, a translation of the Bible is made.

This discipline is relatively new.   For many centuries translations of the Bible were actually translations of translations.   That is, what they started with was an already translated Bible instead of an original language text.  As you can imagine, that’s not the best scenario.

Which Critical Text?

Not everyone agrees on the process as to how to arrive at a text as close as possible to the original.  Consequently, there are primarily two different original language texts used from which most translations have been made.  One is known as the received text, the other is the critical text.

The idea behind the received text (and this is an oversimplified explanation) is that you simply tally the number of textual variations and whichever variation has the most manuscript support, that’s the best one.  So if five manuscripts said “abcdef” and two said “abgdef” then the reading of the five would be favored.  This is the approach of the textual basis for the King James Version.

The other approach suggests that there are other criteria that give some manuscripts more “weight” than others.  For instance, older manuscripts are thought to be more likely to have fewer changes from the original than are more later manuscripts.  Though there are many more of the recent manuscripts than older manuscripts, the older ones are given more credence in determining the content of the original autograph

So, back to our question of which version is best.  My first recommendation is a translation that is a translation from an original language text (not a translation of a translation).  And then, a translation based on either the United Bible Society’s Greek Text or the Nestle-Aland Text for the New Testament and the Biblia Hebraica for the Old Testament as opposed to the received text. This is true of virtually all modern English translations.

This rules out, in my recommendation, the King James and New King James Versions.  It certainly isn’t that these are bad translations, far from it.  As a matter of fact, I believe them to be better than a number of modern-speech translations because of what we’re going to discuss next, the translation philosophy.

I’m not a King James basher–far from it.  Undoubtedly the King James Version of the Bible is responsible an immeasurable amount of good for the cause of Christ in the English-speaking world.  It is also a piece of literary art.  But, I do believe there are better options for those interested in reading and studying God’s word today.

Next, we’ll turn out attention to the actual translators and their ideas about how best to translate the Bible (CLICK HERE).

What are your thoughts?  Please leave a comment below!

God bless,


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