When we say the Bible is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) – the inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word of God – we are referring to the original autographs, not to translations. For example, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 NASB) is not God-breathed, but “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος,” (John 1:1 UBS 4th) is God-breathed. The latter selection is koine Greek, the authorial language of the New Testament. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew.[1] God directly inspired the writings in their original form and context, but He has not inspired various translations of these texts.[2]

Here is an example of a New Testament Manuscript: Codex Vaticanus from the 4th century, opened to the end of Luke and beginning of John. The enlarged portion is John 1:1-3.

Books (in contrast to unbound works) were brought into use much quicker than otherwise because of Christian demand for accurate and lasting transmission mediums. These early transmitters of the New Testament were more disciplined and trained than has been believed in recent centuries. For example, the Tetragrammaton (a short-script for “God” written as two letters under a horizontal line, seen in the enlarged portion below) quickly became standard throughout Mediterranean copyists, suggesting even as early as the first century strong, intentional contact existed between Christian communities concerning viable transmission practices.
Notice the verse markers on the left. Take verse 1 and compare it to the Greek text I typed in the first paragraph of this article. You will notice several differences. The manuscript does not vary between capital/lowercase, has no spacing between words, nor does it contain punctuation or accent marks. Such script was standard in the time of the early church. Many ancient manuscripts are not as well preserved as Vaticanus.

However, this is not to say translations of the Bible are unreliable. Each translation of Scripture must be judged individually and at specific locations. In order to illustrate the general equity of various translations, consider the following five examples of John 1:1-3.

  • King James Version (KJV): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
  • American Standard Version (ASV): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made.
  • Revised Standard Version (RSV): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God;  3 all things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that was made.
  • New American Standard Bible (NASB): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart form Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
  • New International Version (NIV): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

First, take note of the variations among these translations. KJV, ASV favor “the same” in verse 2 where RSV, NASB, NIV favor “He.” NASB favors “came into being” and “apart from” in verse 3 where others favor “made” and “without.” KJV, NASB favor the preposition “by” in verse 3 where ASV, RSV, NIV favor “through.”

Second, take note of the similarities among these translations. In all five translations, verse 1 is identical. Despite the differences in verses 2-3, we can clearly see a similarity of characters and structure among these texts. Even the differences themselves manifest similarity. The distinctions between these translations only serve to represent other viable shades of meaning in the original Greek John wrote. For example, the ASV and NIV both understand John 1:2 to be in reference to the “Word” mentioned in verse 1, though they translate the Greek pronoun outos (οὗτος) differently. Further, the NASB’s unique “came into being” communicates nothing contrast to “made,” and is a viable rendering of the verb egeneto/gegonen (ἐγένετο/γέγονεν). This exercise is an illustration in the general equity and reliability of translations of the Bible. They are not perfect, divine works, but they can be very accurate and dependable for memorization and study.

I say, “they can be” because they are not necessarily dependable. Which is to say: not every English translation of the Bible is worth your time. English translations I recommend reading, studying, memorizing, and teaching from, are the English Standard Version or the New American Standard Bible.[3] The Christian Standard Bible (formerly HCSB) contributes some good to the English translation stratosphere, but is ultimately an unnecessary translation.[4] The NIV is perhaps the most widely used among professing believers, but I disagree with its general translation philosophy.[5] The NET is much to be preferred over the NIV, fitting its intention more comfortably and with the advantage of superb translation notes.[6]

Paraphrases of the Bible are not translations and should not be substituted for them. Paraphrases have a place as study tools, similar to commentaries, but should never be used as alternative translations. A paraphrase interprets Scripture to communicate it in modern, contemporary language.[7] For example, consider the following three paraphrases of John 1:1-3.[8]

  • The Message (MSG): The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing – not one thing! – came into being without him.
  • New Living Translation (NLT): In the beginning the Word already existed. He was with God, and he was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 He created everything there is. Nothing exists that he didn’t make.
  • New English Bible (NEB): When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and trough him all things came to be; no single things was created without him.

Since translations are not God-breathed works, as mentioned above, they should never be expected to be perfect. Nor should we be surprised when various wolves clasp God’s book and irreverently produce horrible translations. One example of such debauchery is the New World Translation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a cult most commonly associated with their door-to-door evangelism tactics. The NWT reads in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” Adding the indefinite article “a” in this verse explains the Word as divine yet not equivalent in substance to God. Whereas all translations (even paraphrases) we have examined thus far clearly equate the Word with God in verse 1, the NWT does not. This is a convenient translation for Jehovah’s Witnesses, because their doctrine denies the oneness of the Father and Son, making Christ out to be less-divine than the Father.

The conclusion of the matter must be these three assertions, which I submit to you in full confidence and faith. First, what God inspired is perfectly reliable. Second, we have at our disposal an historic plethora of reliable English translations, profitable for study and memorization. Third, not every translation is equitable, and we should all have our guards up against such works.

[1] Below is an example of O.T. Hebrew taken from Genesis 1:1 (note: Hebrew reads right-to-left):              בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃[1]

[2] There are also some small portions of the Old and New Testaments which are in Aramaic.

[3] The King James Version and New King James Version are good translations, but they differ from others by what MSS tradition they utilize.

[4] In what likely is the most unpopular opinion of this article, I must express my deep disappointment in the HCSB/CSB. It seems very clear to me that the motivating factors behind this translation have been SBC tribalism and money from the beginning. Some very good, well-meaning scholars have done work on the HCSB/CSB, which is why I readily admit it possesses some value. However, because of my skepticism over the intentions behind its very existence, I do not recommend nor use it.

[5] Before the NIV ’11, my only qualm was with its dynamic equivalence principle, which favors translating thought-for-thought rather than strictly word-for-word. I prefer my translation to be as word-for-word as possible. For example, I believe idioms should be literally translated. After the NIV ’11, the translation took on further problems, such as gender inclusive language.

[6] The NET is an essential resource for any modern English translator. This translation is the first viral, scholarly work of its kind and seeks to balance fundamental and functional equivalence by providing both between the text and notes.

[7] Paraphrase could be viewed as an extreme utilization of the dynamic equivalence principle.

[8] One danger with paraphrases is the translator is inevitably interpreting Scripture for you.

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