Ever wondered where all the different translations come from, and why there are so many of them? After all, if the Bible is the Bible (which it is), and there’s only one (which there is), how can there possibly so many variations of it? On the surface that one just doesn’t click for me. Here’s another question: how can I know that one is better than another? We’re going to limit everything to English translations as we try to answer these questions.
The beginning of the story obviously goes back to the original letter written by the inspired writer. As the letters were spread around, people would copy them for their personal use or for their ekklesia (assembly). All the copying then was done by hand. So if you heard that a friend had a copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans, you might borrow it to copy it for yourself. Of course, this continued for more than a thousand years. I should probably point out here that it wasn’t quite as easy as I just made it sound. The “tools” used to write then could be expensive – parchment, papyrus, ink, etc. Plus, only a small number of the population was literate. It may have been as low as 7-10%. Education was not free or cheap. So in reality, only the wealthy were able (education and resources) to read and write. The only exception might be if you were from a Scribal family (i.e. your Dad was a Scribe and taught you at home).
Many of these copies were somehow preserved and have been found. These are called manuscripts. These are what we have to use when creating or revising a translation of the Bible; generally speaking, the older the manuscript the better. That is, the manuscript that is closest to the original is thought to be the most accurate because it has been touched by the fewest hands and has the fewer opportunities to have been “messed up” by a copyist.
Jump forward to the early 1500s. A man named William Tyndale translated the first English Bible directly from the original languages. Then another translation called the Great Bible was created by using much of the work that Tyndale had done. This translation became extremely popular for use in churches throughout England. In fact, Henry VIII “authorized” this translation and made sure that a copy was in every church. Not too long after that, the Geneva Bible was created and because it was slanted towards Reformation doctrine it was popular with the people but not so much with the church. And the first controversy over translations was born.
In 1604 King James brought together 48 scholars to revise a translation that was only a couple of years old. He intended for it to be a neutral Bible (free of any doctrinal references or bias) that everyone could use and be happy with. Coincidentally, many people did not like this new translation so the translators included a preface that tried to explain their good intentions. Ironic huh, that the translators of the KJV now have so many supporters that are so dogmatic for the translation that was intended to put an end to that type of thinking? Even with the initial animosity working against it, the KJV quickly became the translation for English speaking people.
There were a couple things in particular that set the KJV apart from the other translations of that era. Greek and Hebrew scholarship had excelled greatly. And all the other translations were done by one, or at the most, a few men. The KJV was translated by a committee of 48 Bible scholars. This kept bias and doctrinal preferences to a minimum. We’ll consider the other side of the KJV and the translations that followed on the next post.