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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Bible Translations

Don Stewart :: Why Have There Been So Many Translations of the Bible?

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Why Have There Been So Many Translations of the Bible?

Bible Translations – Question 4

Why does there seem to be new translations of the Bible coming out all the time? Are all of them really necessary? Doesn’t this add to the confusion of the person who wants to read the Bible?

The truth is that all translations are done to meet some practical need. New translations of the Bible will always be necessary for the following reasons:

1. There Are Always Changes in Language

One of the reasons for the need of new translations of the Scripture is the changes that take place in all languages. Languages are not static; they are always in a state of flux. There are changes in vocabulary, changes in grammar, as well as changes in how words are pronounced. The English language is no exception. There are slow, ongoing changes of English that are constantly occurring. These changes cannot be prevented. Consequently, new translations must be produced in order to let the people read God’s Word in the language they are currently using. Therefore, as languages change, so will the need for translating the Scripture in up-to-date language. Indeed, because language is changing all the time, there can be no final translation of the Bible in any language. New translations will always be necessary to bring the Bible in a meaningful way to each generation of readers.

For example, for modern readers, it is difficult to understand some parts of the King James Version because it was written four centuries ago. English has undergone many changes during that time. Two hundred years before the King James Bible, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales. To read Chaucer is much more difficult than to read the KJV. However, if one would go back some five hundred years before Chaucer to what is called “Old English,” we could not read any of it in the original. Such is the nature of language.

There are changes that happen naturally in language, but there are also other changes which are not necessarily happening naturally. One case in point is the change from male oriented language to a more neutral language. Charges are made that people are insensitive to the feelings of others if they continue to use male oriented terms such as man and mankind for both men and women. The traditional way is replaced by a more acceptable way in many translations in order to be sensitive to the modern reader. Whether or not this is a good idea, it is something which has been done.

2. Words Change in Meaning Through Time

With the passage of time, some words change in meaning. There are many English words that have a different meaning today from their meaning in the past. We will cite a few examples of words found in translations of the past that do not have the same meaning today.

The King James Version has Jesus saying the following:

Suffer the little children to come unto me. (Mark 10:14 KJV)

In the seventeenth century, the word, “suffer” had the meaning of “allow,” or “permit.” Yet many modern-day readers would not be aware of this fact because the word “suffer” now has an altogether different meaning.

In the King James Version we read the following in the Book of James:

And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool. (James 2:3 KJV)

Today, “gay clothing” means something entirely different than it did in 1611!

3. Ambiguous Words and Phrases Need to Be Updated

There are a number of words and phrases in translations that need to be updated so that the reader will not misunderstand what it being said.

The Revised Standard Version translates a phrase in the Psalms as follows:

I will accept no bull from your house. (Psalm 50:9 RSV)

Although the RSV is a recent translation, the way the verse is translated can cause the reader to misunderstand what is being meant.

Sometimes the translation renders the text in such a way that would be offensive to modern readers. For example, Darby’s translation has Jacob saying the following:

And Jacob saith unto Simeon and unto Levi, ‘Ye have troubled me, by causing me to stink among the inhabitants of the land.’ (Genesis 34:30 Darby)

Young’s literal translation in 1 Samuel reads as follows:

And they rise early in the morning on the morrow, and lo, Dagon is fallen on its face to the earth, before the ark of Jehovah, and the head of Dagon, and the two palms of its hands are cut off at the threshold, only the fishy part hath been left to him. (1 Samuel 5:4 Darby)

This translation needs updating on a couple of counts. We now know that Dagon was not the fish-god, as was once thought, but rather the grain-god. Therefore, the “fishy part” is entirely inappropriate. It was the trunk of his body that was left, not the fishy part.

In 2 Corinthians 11:25, the Revised Standard Version reads as follows:

Once I was stoned. (2 Corinthians 11:25 RSV)

This phrase definitely has a different meaning today than what Paul meant!

These words and phrases, once considered appropriate, have a new meaning today. Therefore, the language needs to be updated.

4. There Are New Manuscript Discoveries

In times past, new manuscript discoveries called for a fresh translation of the Scriptures. When the King James Version was translated in 1611, only a few Greek manuscripts were available to use in translating the New Testament. In 1881, there were about 1,500 Greek manuscripts that were known. Therefore, the Revised Version of 1881 took advantage of the newest evidence.

The twentieth century has seen the discovery of over one hundred early Greek manuscripts written on papyrus. Translations made before 1948 did not have the advantage of the discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Therefore, these new discoveries call for the updating of the text of Scripture.

5. We Now Know the Meaning of Some Terms

In the past, there have been a number of terms found in the Hebrew and Greek texts that had uncertain meaning. Fortunately, the meanings of many of these terms are now known. However, there are a number of examples where the translator guessed at the meaning and made an incorrect guess. One example of this can be found in First Samuel. The King James Version reads as follows:

Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads. (1 Samuel 13:21 KJV)

The Hebrew word translated “file” is pim. It was thought that this referred to a file used by a blacksmith to sharpen tools. However, it was discovered in the twentieth century that a pim was actually an ancient set of weights that were used in business transactions. Now the translators realize that pim refers to the amount the blacksmith charged when he sharpened the tools — it was not a file he used to sharpen the tools. Therefore, modern translations will read something like the following:

The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and one-third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. (1 Samuel 13:21 NRSV)

From an ancient Greek papyrus we learn of the custom of committing a boy to the care of a trusted slave. This slave brought the boy to school and watched over his conduct until he became an adult. This was the person that Paul refers to in Galatians 3:24. The KJV translates the word as “schoolmaster.” However, rather than being the teacher, this was actually the person who took the boy to the teacher. Thus, he was more like a guardian than a teacher or schoolmaster. It is only in recent times that this has been understood.

Many more examples can be given. Hence, there is always the need for updating Bible translations.

6. Some Ancient Customs Are Now More Understandable

Many biblical customs are now more understandable because of the findings of archaeology. In 1968, for example, while builders were excavating for apartment buildings in Jerusalem, they found the skeleton of a man who had been crucified. The iron nail was still in the heel bones, and the calf bones had been broken. We now know the position of the victim as he hung on the cross. This new knowledge can be reflected in the way certain words are translated which deal with the crucifixion of Jesus.

7. They All Give the Same Basic Account

It cannot be emphasized enough that every translation, except for a corrupt few, says virtually the same thing. This is because the text behind the translations has not appreciably changed. All one must do is compare the renderings of different verses or passages in different translations and one will readily see that the message is always the same. The great number of Bible translations should not cause anyone to lose confidence in God’s Word.

Summary – Question 4
Why Have There Been So Many Bible Translations?

There have been, and continue to be, numerous translations of the Bible. The main reason is that most people do not read biblical Hebrew or biblical Greek. Therefore, there is the need to translate the Scripture into a language the person can understand.

However, languages are always changing. Words change meaning and new words are added to the language. If the Bible is going to communicate to the modern reader, then these changes must be reflected in the latest translations.

Furthermore, many phrases that were used in past translations have now changed in meaning. Therefore, any new translation has to reflect these changes.

In addition, many advances have been made in the understanding of ancient words and customs. These need to be reflected in the latest translations.

The good news is that while translations of the Bible are constantly changing, the message remains the same. Thus, the fact that new translations are coming out all the time should not bother the Bible-believer.

What Are Some of the Key Issues Involved with Translating the Bible? ← Prior Section
How Does a Person Know If a Bible Translation Is a Good One? Next Section →
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