Bible Manuscripts and Translations

The copies of the Bible that we study in English are translations from the original languages in which the Bible was written. For the Old Testament this was Hebrew, with small portions of later books written in Aramaic, a kindred language. Our New Testament has been translated from the Greek language.

The Old Testament scriptures were entrusted by God to the Jewish community for preservation (Romans 3:1-3). They have been faithfully preserved in handwritten manuscripts by scribes called Masoretes. The official text preserved by the Jews is called the Masoretic text. These ancient scribes went to great lengths to preserve the accuracy of the text. They maintained a count of all of the words in a given book, as well as of all of the letters. They knew which word and which letter was, for instance, middle of a given book. When making handwritten copies of a book, they would compare the count to make sure that there was not so much as a one-letter variation in the text. Jesus Christ bore witness of their carefulness in preserving the text by stating in Matthew 5:18 that not “one jot or one tittle” would be lost. The “jot” referred to the letter yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is similar to an apostrophe. The “tittle” referred to the decorative flourish on certain letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The authoritative Hebrew text is the one officially preserved in the Jewish community, the Masoretic text. Anciently written on vellum made from specially treated sheepskins, these texts were hand-copied by carefully trained scribes and preserved as scrolls. While many sects maintained their own copies of the Scriptures, none of these should be accorded the respect given the official Masoretic text.

Our New Testament was completed by the Apostle John just prior to his death at the end of the first century. At that time he was living in Ephesus, a Greek-speaking city located near the western coast of ancient Asia Minor (modern Turkey). This is the same city which had served as the repository of the copies of Paul’s writings decades earlier (2 Timothy 4:13). It is the city used in Revelation 2 to represent the entire first stage of the Church of God. The Greek manuscripts, which originated in Asia Minor, are classified by modern scholars as the Antiochian or Byzantine type. This was the text used in the Greek world, differing somewhat from the Western and Alexandrian types preserved in Rome and Egypt.

Copies of the Byzantine texts were brought west by scholars fleeing from the Turkish invasion in the 15th century. Many of these Greek scholars, and the manuscripts that they brought with them, ended up in the area of Basel, Switzerland, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is from these manuscripts that printed texts of Erasmus (1516) and Stephen (1520) were primarily derived. Stephen’s text was known as the Textus Receptus (Received Text) and was the accepted standard of the Greek New Testament for about three centuries.

With widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution and the advent of “higher criticism” in scholarly circles in the latter nineteenth century, Bible translation underwent a change. Dismissing the idea that the Bible was supernaturally inspired and preserved, scholars decided that the oldest manuscripts, whatever their source, were closer to the original and therefore must be more accurate. They then began to give special credence to texts and text fragments that had hitherto been regarded as inferior. Most twentieth-century Bible translators have used texts touted by the higher critics, and relegated the readings of officially preserved texts to footnotes.

The Authorized Version or King James Version, long the standard in the English-speaking world, was first printed in 1611 after a seven-year effort by 54 scholars. It was primarily translated from the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Received Text, drawing on the work of earlier scholars such as William Tyndale. Though there are a few serious errors—for instance, the use of “Easter” instead of “Passover” to translate the Greek pascha in Acts 12:4—the KJV translators strove to be carefully faithful to the texts available to them.

The primary problem with the KJV for many modern readers is the use of English words that are no longer common in our language (“thee” and “thou,” for instance), or English words that have actually changed in meaning in the four centuries since translation began. As an example, the word “let” in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 meant “to prevent or hinder” to the King James translators. Though still retaining this meaning in specialized legal usage, in virtually all other modern contexts this word means “to allow ‘—the very opposite of its earlier meaning.

Completed in 1982, the New King James Version (NKJV) represents an attempt to update the original KJV. It is easier to use for most modern readers, yet retains much of the beauty and faithfulness to the text of the original KJV. Most other recent translations, such as the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version, give precedence to manuscripts favored by the “higher critics.” Though the overwhelming majority of the content of all manuscripts is the same, there are a few significant variations in certain passages. While these translations can be useful, they should not be used to estab!ish doctrine in areas where they disagree with the KJV or NKJV.

There are many other translations that are really paraphrases. That is, they represent the author’s attempt to simplify the text by putting it into his own words, using contemporary language. While these often make for easy reading, they are not reliable for the study of technical subjects or to establish doctrine. some other paraphrases are trendy and simply cater to special interest groups and modern prejudices. Examples of paraphrases are the Living Bible and the Contemporary English Version.