(July 31, 2020) Dr Jim McClure, highly respected theologian, responds to an often asked question…
My state of Victoria is in lockdown again – but even if it wasn’t, with the pandemic that we’re all facing there are those who are taking opportunity to get back to fundamental Christian basics, such as Bible reading and scripture meditation.
A question that I often hear about Bible reading and study is this: ‘Which is the best English translation of the Holy Bible? Someone insisted that the best is the King James Version.’ And this is often followed with this comment, ‘But I find the KJV difficult to read’ and a further question, ‘Which is a good modern version?’
When asked my opinion, I respond by firstly state all the earliest manuscripts we have today are copies of the originals – we do not have one original handwritten copy – or even a small portion – of any of the books of the Old or New Testaments.
Copied handwritten copies
What we do have, though, is a number of excellent copies that were faithfully hand-written over many centuries. Admittedly there are some minor variations in many of those copies, but none that in any way changes the Bible’s message.
Our English versions are ‘translations’ from the original Hebrew (and Aramaic) Old Testament and Greek New Testament. It must always be remembered that even the ‘best’ translation is, at best, only a translation! A word-for-word translation would be unreadable because of the different structure of the languages!
Not only that, but some words and phrases in one language are untranslatable or meaningless in another; for example idioms are usually meaningless if literally translated. An example is Jonah 3:9 where the phrase referring to God’s ‘fierce anger’ in both the ‘old’ KJV and new’ NIV literally means ‘the heat of his nose’!
In their judgment translators often have to use words or phrases that best explains the meaning of the original. They also must consider the fact that living languages change. Words can become outdated, even change in meaning. Something is always lost in a translation!
Three types of Bible translations…
1) Dynamic Equivalent
This attempts to use contemporary English words and phrases to express the meaning of the original but which also seeks to retain a similar response in today’s reader as the original text did. Examples include Good News Bible (GNB) and Contemporary English Version (CEV).
This is more concerned about trying to convey the original meaning and intention rather than rendering the exact wording. Examples include The Message Bible and JB Phillips. And of course…
Literal translations try to follow the original as closely as possible (making the translation stilted and, sometimes, more difficult to read). Also some words have more than one meaning, and, as previously noted a strictly literal translation is impossible. Examples include Young’s Literal, Revised Standard Version (RSV) and, of course, the King James Version (KJV).
Other translations, such as the NIV, use a combination of Dynamic Equivalence and Literal methods.
About the King James Version
In 2011the KJV celebrated its 400th year from its first publication: Without a doubt it rightly holds an honoured place in the English speaking world and has been an inexpressible blessing for countless millions of people.
Written at a time when the English language was at its most beautiful, it is unsurpassed as a piece of literature. However, since it was first published many thousands and significantly older manuscripts have been discovered. And, words and phrases which meant one thing in1611 often mean something totally different today.
One example is in Psalm 59:10 KJV where we read, ‘The God of my mercy shall prevent me.’ In 1611 the word ‘prevent’ meant ‘go before’ whereas today it means ‘stop.’ Some words are clearly mistranslated; for example, nine times the KJV refers to unicorns which never existed! Also, the KJV has had a number of editions since 1611, so there isn’t just one ‘version’ of it.
But isn’t there a perfect translation of the Bible?
No! In order to have such a translation three things (at least) would be required:
- Perfect manuscripts from which the translation is made
- Perfect translation accurately rendering Hebrew and Greek words and phrases into English
- Static language that doesn’t change.
So, which translation is the best? There is no simple answer to that question. Personally I recommend that you use a modern translation.
Sometimes it is argued that behind modern translations there is a conspiracy to corrupt the true word of God. This allegation is quite wrong and, unfortunately, some over-zealous defenders of the KJV have made false and mischievous statements about some scholars and some translations.
There is no translation that is significantly better that all others – although there are some translations that are better avoided because they are more interpretations than translations!
However there is value in having different translation in the three categories mentioned above.
Reading your Bible, whatever translation, is the priority!
The NIV is favoured Bible among many Christians today and I would suggest that you use that as your principal translation. But most important of all is that you actually read whatever translation you have!
Only then will you discover that Paul declared in 2 Timothy 3:16: ‘All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’
And that what the writer of Hebrews meant in Hebrews 4:12: ‘The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.’
Let’s all make the best use of this season of concerns, distractions… and opportunities!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several highly recommended publications such as the following, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James and Grace Revisited. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org