English Bible Translations and their Reliability
Is the English Bible reliable? Which version should I read?
Which Bible translation should we use? After all, there are quite a few of them. How do we know that the Bible is reliable as an ancient document?
Personally, I needed to do some research to find the answers to these questions.
Studying this has been a very eye-opening experience for me, so I wanted to share a short summary of what I’ve learned. I hope it will be as encouraging to you as it has been to me and maybe help you to make a more informed decision. To God alone be the glory!
The Original Languages
What really matters is what was originally written down thousands of years ago in the original languages by the original writers. Today, we read translations into English from Hebrew and a bit of Aramaic for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. So, our first question should be whether or not the manuscripts (handwritten copies) in these languages are a reliable base to translate from, then we can consider the translations themselves.
Regarding the Old Testament, the Masoretic Text is widely accepted as the authoritative text. It is the basis for the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Hebrew Bible, as well as most Protestant Christian Bible translations.
This text is named after a group of Jewish scholars, known as the Masoretes, who were active from A.D. 600 to 1000. Their purpose was to ensure the accurate preservation of the ancient Hebrew text. They were very serious about their work, meticulously counting the number of letters in an Old Testament book and noting the middle word of a book.
For many years, however, it was impossible for scholars to know how faithful the Masoretic Text was to the original Hebrew text, since there were no older manuscript copies to which the Masoretic Text could be compared.
That all changed in A.D. 1947.
That year, archeologists and biblical scholars discovered what we know today as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eventually, more than 200 scrolls of Hebrew biblical manuscripts were discovered that were copied between 250 B.C. and A.D. 70.
What makes this discovery so significant? After years of comparing the newly discovered scrolls with the Masoretic Text, they found astonishing unanimity.
An example of this is in the book of Isaiah, where they found only a dozen or so minor differences, usually involving only modifying one or two letters in Hebrew. None of these differences (textual variants) affect our doctrinal understanding. This shows that the Masoretic Text accurately preserved the original Hebrew text, and why it is widely considered the authoritative text to translate from for the English Old Testament.
With that background, we understand why translators use this text with such confidence to translate the original Old Testament into English for us. Through all of the many years of hard work done in comparing these ancient Hebrew manuscripts, we may rest assured that this text is none other than the Word of God, sovereignly preserved by His own hand and for our own good. Yes, God has mightily preserved His Word for us in the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Hallelujah!
Regarding the New Testament, there are three major competing Greek manuscript tradition sources for translating the New Testament: the Critical Text, the Majority Text, and the Textus Receptus. Among these three, there are approximately 400,000 textual variants. This was very discouraging and alarming to me at first, until I learned:
Over 99% of these 400,000 textual variants have absolutely no effect on the meaning of the text whatsoever. This means that among all Greek New Testament manuscript traditions there exists incredible unanimity. But what of the less than 1% textual variants? Do any of these variants affect Christian doctrine? I am excited to share with you the following point:
Among the Critical, Majority, and Textus Receptus Greek textual variants, there are none that affect essential Christian doctrine. Even leading anti-Christian apologist, Bart Ehrman, admits that, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” – This quote is from his paperback version of “Misquoting Jesus” page 252.
Among these few textual variants are Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, 1 John 5:7-8, and Romans 8:1. There are a few other minor variants, but just remember that whether or not these passages are original Scripture does not essentially matter. For example, 1 John 5:7-8 bolsters the doctrine of the Trinity in the Majority Greek text and the Textus Receptus, but that doesn’t mean that the doctrine of the Trinity is not also taught in the Critical Greek text. This doctrine is absolutely taught in these manuscript families. Therefore, the doctrine is not affected.
There are over 5,800 Greek manuscripts that scholars use to confirm the authenticity of the Greek New Testament, some of which date to within the first century! To compare, the next runner up as the most reliable, ancient document that we have is Homer’s Iliad, which has 643 manuscripts that date about 500 years after Homer originally penned his work. As you can see, the Greek New Testament embarrasses our most attested, ancient, historical document by over nine times, and this number is growing every year. In addition to Greek manuscripts, there are over 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages, bringing the total supporting New Testament manuscript base to over 24,800! To add on to the mountain of evidence, we also have countless citations of the New Testament preserved in the writings of the early church fathers—so many, in fact, that we could almost reconstruct the entire New Testament text from these citations alone! The evidence is overwhelming, and this is all without considering how archeology, science, history, and the remarkably harmonious story of the books of the Bible (written over 1,500 years and by about 40 authors of diverse backgrounds) have all confirmed the reliability and accuracy of the Bible again and again.
After examining the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament, I have come to conclude this: If I cannot receive the New Testament of the Bible as a reliable, ancient document, then I have no grounds for receiving any ancient document as reliable. God has chosen to leave us with a wealth of evidence for His Word which embarrasses all other ancient documents. That is not an overstatement. Hallelujah!
So far, we have only examined the reliability of the biblical text in the original languages. But for those who can’t read and understand the original languages (like myself), we read English Bible translations. So, which one(s) should we use? Well, much to our benefit, we live in a time where English translations are in abundance. As Americans, we remember the great voyage that a church congregation made across the Atlantic Ocean to spread the good news of Jesus, arriving in Plymouth Harbor on December 16th, 1620. The story of the Pilgrims is an exciting and scary one, but what did they carry with them? The Geneva Bible. While it was the first English study Bible and the first English Bible to use verse numbers, today it is a bit hard to read. It uses quite a few archaic words, similar to the most famous book and Bible translation of all time: The Authorized Version (better known as the King James Version). While these translations are understandable, modern translations have thankfully updated some of the older English words so that we may better understand the Bible today.
Here is a list of ten modern English Bible translations that are well known:
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- New International Version (NIV)
- New King James Version (NKJV)
- New Living Translation (NLT)
- New American Standard Bible (NASB)
- Legacy Standard Bible (LSB)
- Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- The Message (MSG)
- New English Translation (NET)
- Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)
This is only ten of many English translations that have been produced. So, how do you pick one? Well, there are three main types of Bible translations: word-for-word, thought-for-thought, and paraphrase.
Word-for-word translations attempt to translate each Hebrew or Greek word into the corresponding English word.
Thought-for-thought translations want to express the meaning of each section of Scripture from the original languages in simple, up-to-date, and easy-to-read English without being tied to translating every word.
A paraphrased translation is mainly trying to convey the Bible in a simple, easy-to-understand language without regard to word-for-word or even thought-for-thought expressions of the original Hebrew and Greek words. A lot of license is taken by the translator to interpret Scripture how they wish.
In order to find out which translations are word-for-word or thought-for-thought, a quick internet search for “Bible translation chart” will categorize them for you to see where each belong.
My personal opinion is to stick with a word-for-word translation. As someone who can’t read the original languages, it’s important for me to know that I’m reading as closely as possible the original Hebrew and Greek in my own language. That being said, I do like to see how some of the thought-for-thought translations render certain passages in comparison to word-for-word. It can be helpful in trying to understand different passages.
My two favorite English translations are the Legacy Standard Bible and the English Standard Version. The vast majority of my reading is between these two. I encourage you to compare several different translations to see which one(s) you prefer. The only translation that I would warn you to stay away from in the above list is The Message (MSG), as it is a paraphrase translation.
The LSB is unique because it translates God’s name as “Yahweh” in the Old Testament instead of the all capitalized “LORD” that other translations use.
It also capitalizes personal pronouns referring to deity (He/Him vs he/him, etc.)
One other extremely helpful tool the LSB has is that it puts Old Testament quotations found in the New Testament in all small caps to make the quote stand out from the rest of the text. This is an excellent Bible study tool that helps the reader see how the Old Testament and New Testament are one, unified narrative.
The ESV, in my opinion, reads better than the LSB. By better, I mean the sentences seem to flow better in English. The ESV also retains many of the words used in the King James Version that so many Christians are familiar with, making certain verses sound more at home with us. The LSB uses a few different words that simply don’t sound like Bible words to me. For example, compare Romans 5:2 in the ESV and LSB:
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. – ESV
Through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we boast in hope of the glory of God. – LSB
You can see that the sentence structure is a bit more rigid in the LSB than the ESV. A couple different words are also used. In this passage, I prefer the ESV to the LSB for the flow of the words in English, as well as the usage of “access” instead of “introduction”. However, there are other passages that I think the LSB reads better. Hopefully this can help you see the value in comparing multiple translations and why I am split between these two translations.
The Original Languages
In summary, both the Old and New Testaments in the original languages are extremely reliable for numerous reasons. God has preserved His Word in the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek textual tradition. We also have, by the grace of God, an abundance of excellent English translations to choose from. The Bible is meant to be read as a whole, book by book from the beginning. It is one, unified story that points the reader to the Lord Jesus, the Savior of sinful people like you and me. I pray that this information will bolster your faith in God’s Word as reliable and that it will help you in choosing one or more translations to read from. May God bless us as we continue to hear His voice in the reading of His Word.
To God alone be the glory!