This week we’re going to continue talking about how we go from the biblical manuscripts and their copies to the Bibles on our coffee tables.
Even you weren’t able to listen to last week’s episode, this week’s episode will still be helpful to you on its own. I want to quickly recap where we went, and what we covered last time. We talked about the fact that there are thousands and thousands of New Testament Greek manuscripts, and even thousands more in other languages, and these date very early. There are enough of these that we can tell that even though there are changes, there are no large changes. There are no changes that depart from essential Christian doctrine. While there may be differences in word order, or spelling, no difference between manuscripts, between these copies, alters the meaning in a substantial way.
That’s important because we can have confidence that we can recreate, through a scientific process called textual criticism, what the originals most likely said, with a high degree of confidence. We talked about how we worked through those differences in manuscripts last week, and this week we’re going to continue on talking about how do we go from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament to our english Bibles.
One of the early english translations was the King James Bible, and this translation was made from about six Greek manuscripts. These six manuscripts don’t agree in all places. More than that, these six manuscripts come from a larger group of manuscripts called the Byzantine Text. This is a group of manuscripts that were created by the monks at Byzantium. (It turns out that while we have xerox machines today, they had them in the past, they were just called monks.)
These monks in Byzantium turned out a large number of manuscripts, by far the largest group of manuscripts that all have similar attributes and characteristics, came from these monks in Byzantium. Remember like we talked about last week, just because something exists in a larger quantity, just because there are more copies that agree, that doesn’t mean they are more accurate. From this very large group of manuscripts six were chosen, and that is what drove the translation of the King James Bible. Most of these manuscripts came from the 12th Century.
Now let’s refresh ourselves briefly, the New Testament was written in the 1st Century. A lot of the copies that are very close to the originals are from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th Centuries. Yet the ones for the KJV are from the 12th, that’s very far removed. This speaks to why there are several decently sized differences between the KJV and other translations. The KJV has verses, whole verses, that are not in other translations. Not because later, modern translations have removed the verses, but because they should have never been in the KJV to start with, because the manuscripts that they worked from were very far removed from the originals.
Now, for its time, it was excellent. I mean, it’s remarkable what people did so early on without the wealth of information and scholarly insight we have today.
In the same way that the translators of the KJV went to Greek manuscripts to make their translation, today we do the same thing. We don’t necessarily go those same manuscripts, but we choose the manuscripts that have the best readings at different places. We assemble those into what’s called a “critical text.” This is a text that doesn’t exist anywhere out there in the world. There’s not a manuscript that contains this “text.” We look at the differences between manuscripts—the variants—the places where these differ between each other, and we say, “This one has the best evidence for this reading of this part of this verse, and this one has the best evidence for this part of this verse.” We take all of those and we assemble them into a text that best represents the originals based on this scientific process of textual criticism. From this text, which represents the oldest and best manuscripts, we translate any new translation.
Sometimes you’ll hear that “the Bible is a translation, of a translation, of a translation, of a translation.” That’s simply not true. That sounds really good if you’re an atheist, or some other religion, or cult, and you toss that out, but it’s simply false. For instance, when the New English Translation came out in the last decade or so, that wasn’t somehow a translation of the NIV before that, which wasn’t a translation of RSV before that, which wasn’t a translation of the KJV. At each point scholars go back to the oldest and best manuscripts at that time, and they’re going from one language, Greek, to one other language, english. There’s no intermediate step. There’s not a translation, of a translation, of a translation.
Because this is how the process works, we can address some of those claims we talked about at the very beginning of last week’s episode. Some people will say that the Bible has been changed over time to make it seem like there’s a male and a female complementarity. People say that type of thing has been added. When you realize that we always go back to the oldest and best manuscripts, that we have that data, you see there is no evidence for that claim. In fact, all of the evidence contradicts that claim.
When the Muslim says that the Bible has been corrupted over time, and that we can’t trust it. Well the fact is, is that when the Quran was written in the 7th Century, but we have manuscripts from that century, and the century before, and the century before that. We can compare that to the earlier manuscripts and the way that we translate it today and show that there’s been no change.
If you simply look at the evidence, and you can get a Muslim to look at the evidence, you can show them that when Muhammad affirmed the gospel, that it’s the same gospel we have today. That we can show you that what the gospel was in the 7th Century, how it was written, what the manuscripts were, that matches how we translate it today. That matches what we have from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, Centuries. There’s been no change. The evidence is there to show, and debunk that claim.
The same way with Mormosn who will say, “Well, yes I affirm that the Bible’s scripture, and as much as it has been translated correctly.” What they actually don’t mean is translated, they mean transmitted. This is actually a very important point that we’ll have to spend time on another day. You can ask “which parts of the Bible don’t you read, since they’ve been translated incorrectly.” Well they can’t tell you that often either. The point is we can look all the back through the centuries, and show there has been no change. There has been no deviation in what the Bible says from the originals. That is an incredibly important point.
We’ve now established how we create what’s called a critical text. We take the best readings; variants, are evaluated on a case by case basis, but still, how do we go to the english? Well there are two was to translate any language. There is a formally equivalent type of translation and a dynamically equivalent type of translation.
A formal equivalent translation is what you might expect for formal, it’s a word for word. If there were ten words in the original, then we’re going to try to have ten words in the target language. If you’re going from Greek to english, the target language is english. The source language is Greek. It’s kind of like if you had Spanish as a foreign language, you sometimes would translate from english to Spanish, and Spanish to english.
Well what you probably realized in that process is that sometimes a word for word translation, a formal equivalent translation, has some strengths and it has some weaknesses. If you translate from english the phrase, “Does the cat have your tongue,” into Spanish, it’s not going to translate well. The words will translate, but the meaning is lost. That’s because for idioms and other phrases, while a word for word translation conveys the original words, it doesn’t convey the meaning. That’s an important distinction. Sometimes, and often times, a formally equivalent translation leaves interpretation to the often uninformed reader. By uninformed I mean that we’re not necessarily in tune to the original context, and idiom, and culture, that these texts and their languages were written in. A formally equivalent translation leaves more work to the reader.
What are examples of a formal equivalent translation? The KJV is formally equivalent. The New American Standard Bible is formally equivalent. The ESV is formally equivalent also. Just like many things, formal and dynamic equivalence exists on a spectrum, it’s not “are you one or are you the other,” but “how much of one are you.” Some translations are more formally equivalent than another.
Like I said, on the other end of the spectrum is dynamic equivalence. This a phrase for phrase translation. It’s really a translation based on meaning. Let’s say in the original Greek a a word for word translation would be, “God’s nostrils enlarged.” That is what those words said in Greek, literally. Well you could translate that into English as, “God’s nostrils enlarged,” or you could translate it as, “God became angry,” because that was what was meant by it. Well the more helpful translation, at least in this case, is, “God became angry,” because God doesn’t have nostrils. Of course there is anthropomorphic language—language about God that conveys attributes of him in human terms, even though he is not human. A better translation that’s going to communicate most effectively to the average person today is, “God became angry.”
There are several dynamic equivalent translations. The NIV is certainly dynamically equivalent. The New English Translation is somewhere in between formal and dynamic. Now sometimes dynamic equivalent translations get a bad rap today. I’m not sure how deserved that is. Let me explain.
Most of the time when a New Testament author is quoting the Old Testament, they’re not quoting the Hebrew, or at least a lot of the time this is the case. They’re quoting the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. They’re quoting a translation, and most of the Greek translations of the Old Testament were dynamically equivalent. Isn’t that interesting that for Paul he was comfortable using a dynamic equivalent translation of the Old Testament, but many people today are not comfortable using a dynamic equivalent translation of the New Testament? I think there’s a point there to consider, that translating based on meaning is the best way to translate for the average person. For people like you and for people like me. What we really care about is not the original words, verbatim, but what those words mean.
After all, it’s not just that there are letters and groupings of letters that are important, but it’s the meaning that is conveyed by those that is important. Obviously the meaning is conveyed through the vehicle of words and sentences, and so I’m not saying words and sentences are not important, but ultimately the gospel is the power of salvation. That is communicated through meaning, the gospel is meaning that is communicated through words. Words are a vehicle. It is the meanings that are important.
Using a dynamically equivalent translation can be very helpful. Now you do need to realize, though, that your starting position in reading the Bible is the ending position for someone else’s work. You have received the product of a lot of work. There is a lot of work that goes into these translation decisions of what do these original words mean if we’re going to translate based on meaning. Even a formally equivalent translation has these types of concerns. You are receiving the product of someone else’s work, that you are only then beginning to use for your studies. You need to know the types of decisions that were made for you.
How does your Bible translate, for instance, Paul’s use of the word flesh in Greek, which is sarx? Does it leave it as flesh and potentially confuse someone such that they might think that in Romans 8 someone who is in their skin-and-bones flesh can’t please God? Or does your translation translate it, “sinful nature?” There are some theological ramifications from that. There are decisions that have been made for you. Sometimes those are right decisions, unequivocally, no questions asked. Sometimes there are more questions about if the right translation was made. You need to realize that some of those decisions have been made for you depending on the translation you use.
Often times the preface, or the translators website, will tell you about some of the ways they’ve approached the translation. You need to know those types of things. It’s kind of like if you’re going to go dig around in your yard, you need to know where the gas line is, and the electrical lines are, so you don’t hit those, so you can work around them, so you can maybe even tap into them if you need to run an extension off of it. It’s the same way with translations. You need to know the decisions that have been made before you. You need to know the landscape so you can more effectively use that translation.
Really the easiest way to get the most bang for you buck out of a Bible translation is not to use one, but to use two. Chose a formally equivalent translation, and a dynamically equivalent translation, and read both. Read them side by side when you want to better understand the text. Choose something like the ESV, and choose something like the NIV, and read a passage in both. Simply by seeing how two different groups of people translated the same verse, you will almost instantly better understand the depth of meaning of that verse. Sometimes this is simply because different translations are going to use synonyms for the same word to translate. Now you get a better idea of the actual usage of the word in that case.
Sometimes a translation, like I said, may use, “flesh.” Another may use, “sinful nature.” Well the fact that you can see both of those side by side gives you a better indication of what’s being talked about there. It’s the same way with other terms like, “righteousness,” and, “justification,” and those types of things. When we see synonyms, it gives us a broader, and yet still deeper, idea of what’s being talked about.
To recap, we can have great confidence in what the original manuscripts said, and the fact that that’s reflected in the manuscripts copies we have today. More than that, the English translations that we have today are not translations of translations, of translations; they go back to the earliest and best manuscripts all the time whenever a new translation is made.
We make new translations because languages changes. We need to always be communicating the meaning of the originals in the currently understandable way of our day, and the language as it’s spoken and understood. That’s why we have new translations.
More than that, there are different ways to translate. There is a formally equivalent way and a dynamically equivalent way. I think there’s a lot of merit in the dynamically equivalent way, but there are liabilities with it too because decisions are being made for you, before you get the text and work with it, so use both.
I hope this series has been helpful. In the future we’ll also talk about do we have the right books in our Bible? How did we end up with those? Is that book list inspired too?
I hope you’ll join me next week for Unapologetic.
One thought on “Episode 87 – From Copies to the Coffee Table (Part 2)”
Excellent. I often use 5 or more translations. Even so, there are still times where comparing say Greek or Hebrew words to themselves in other areas of Scripture is helpful. With the online and other resources available today this is no longer something just left to "scholars" but readily available to "ordinary" Christians.
I recognize the value in having learned men but we also have to recognize they are still men. The learned men and scholars were the one’s who gave Jesus Christ the most trouble. Biblical knowledge can lead to faith but Biblical knowledge without faith is as dead as anything else without faith. We all have the same access to the Holy Spirit as the translation scholars; though deference should be made to their pursuits. Long story short: trust but verify. I say that the most about anything I would ever speak or write. As per Romans 14, we are accountable to God for ourselves; not the scholars. They may be accountable for misleading but not for us following.
But excellent…thank you.