|Dr. Rick Flanders|
June 1, 2015
“The Levites caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”
Something was missed by the church-going public when ecclesiastical authorities, biblical scholars, and religious publishing houses began producing new English versions of the Bible more than a century ago. That important factor was the change in the text of the scripture from the traditional wording that has been followed for centuries. The new Bibles did not just give us updated language; they gave us (beginning with the Revised Version of 1886) significantly altered readings, re-wording passages in the original, as well as re-translating them into more current English. So the Lord’s Prayer, both in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, was shortened. The end of the book of Mark, which includes one statement of the Great Commission (Mark 16:15), is removed from credibility. The classic story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53 through 8:11) is questioned as to its validity. And hundreds of other verses are omitted or radically altered. So the new Bibles were significantly different from the old Bible.
It wasn’t surprising then when a grassroots challenge to the new Bibles rose up about fifty years ago. The surprise was that there had not been a significant protest over the text issue from the Bible-reading public much sooner. But thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles have been published in the past half-century in defense of the King James Bible and in protest against the textual changes in the new Bibles. It has been proven that the new texts are considerably different from the traditional text, that the changes are not justified by the evidence, that the Bible promises that its wording will be preserved providentially, and that a Christian’s approach to the Biblical text will have important affects upon his life. The defense of the old Bible has been a good thing overall.
The “King James Version” issue is valid. There is good reason for churches to keep the old Bible for preaching, teaching, memorization, and quotation. There are also valid reasons for individual Christians and families to maintain the King James Version as their standard English Bible. However, in the conflict, many foolish and harmful things have been said on the right side. This development has complicated the discussion and done some damage to the Cause. The false impression has been given by some unwise statements that the exact English wording of the Authorized (King James) Version was dictated from heaven during production of the translation in the early seventeenth century.
We know that God has promised to preserve the very wording of the Bible books, which He gave to the prophets in the original languages. Every Christian should remember the New Testament’s teaching about how the scripture was inspired. Read again Matthew 4:3-4, First Corinthians 7-13, Second Timothy 3:15-17; and Second Peter 1:20-21. The Bible came from God, word for word, through human writers, and is the infallible Word of God. In the languages of the prophets it is divinely inspired, and in any accurate rendering into another language it is also inspired. Certainly He providentially assisted the good men who worked at translating these words into English, but the promises of exact and direct inspiration cannot reasonably be applied to every translation choice and word spelling of the English version. Jesus said, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). That, of course, is one of the great promises of the divine preservation of scripture, and it applies obviously to the words in the original languages. English does not have jots and tittles (although Hebrew does), and so the promise of Jesus is for the original languages.
Saying unwarranted things about the English translation can be the source of many problems. Our overstatement of the case can actually provoke reaction against the truth. Missionaries from the church will struggle with requirements that the English be the final authority in countries where the people speak other languages. What if the Spanish translation is not exactly the same as the English in every place? The truth is that whole books put into two different languages cannot be precisely alike in every definition, every implication, and every possibility on every page. Words in another tongue are not always capable of exact duplication of meaning. Isn’t it better to compare both translations with the traditional Hebrew and Greek? Young people from the church will have problems with double-inspiration when they figure out in college that people they love have been saying without scriptural warrant that both the original scriptures and the English translation were dictated by God Himself. The truth is that the translators of the King James Version had the correct a balanced view of their own work and the product of their work. They never claimed that they produced our English Bible by having the words given to them as they were given to the prophets in the original tongues. We create problems when we make claims for the English Bible that the 1611 translators did not make.
Fortunately the translators wrote a preface to the Authorized Version for the first edition in 1611. It is titled “The Translators to the Reader,” and is available for us today. The translators of the King James Bible were good men, dedicated churchmen, and genuine scholars. They took the responsibility of putting the Bible into English seriously. The king of England chose highly qualified men to do the job of producing a standard Bible for English-speaking people through the translation of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures and the revision of older popular English versions. Their work became the most revered book in the language, as well as the standard English Bible without any serious completion for more than three centuries. In their lengthy preface, the translators defended their work and its product, and made many things clear about their views in regard to the Authorized Version and how it came to be. We need to be reminded of at least five points they made.
1. THE BIBLE IS PERFECT
The translators saw their task as a great privilege as well as a monumental responsibility. As they wrote the preface and defended their work, they emphasized the importance of the work because of how important the writings are which they were putting into the language of the people. The scriptures comprise the written Word of God, which is the source of everything good in society. “What piety without truth?” they asked rhetorically. “What truth, what saving truth, without the word of God? What word of God, whereof we may be sure, without the Scripture?” The Bible is the collection of sacred writings which have been penned under divine inspiration and preserved in purity for all generations. The translators of the King James Bible, it is clear from the Preface, had no doubt about the truth, the divine origin, and the purity of the scriptures. It is the “sure” Word of God. Unlike many Bible translators in modern times, these men had no doubts about the divine origin and accurate preservation of the Bible. This is why it was vital that the translation into English be faithful and accurate.
2. TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE ARE GOOD
God gave His Word in three ancient languages, Hebrew, Syriac (Aramaic or Chaldean), and Greek. However the translators were convinced that translating it into the common tongues of the people of the world was not only a good thing but also something critical to man’s wellbeing. “Happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night. But how shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?...the godly learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the language which themselves understood, Greek and Latin… but also for the behoof and edifying of the unlearned which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and their countrymen, insomuch that most nations under heaven did shortly after their conversion hear Christ speaking unto them in their mother tongue, not by the voice of their minister only, but also by the written word translated.” It is foolish to say (although some who ought to know better do) that we would be better off if the scriptures had been left in the original tongues, and men had to learn Hebrew and Greek to read them. As far as the meaning of the words is conveyed from the original through the language into which it was translated, a translation is the Word of God. It is also foolish to say that translations are precisely identical to the writings in the original languages. Translation is a wonderfully good thing for the purpose of getting the Word to the world, but it is not the same as inspiration, the process by which the Holy Spirit moved the prophets to write down the very words of God. It is the duty of those gifted, trained, and called to put the Bible into the tongues of the people.
3. TRANSLATION FROM THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGES IS BEST
Of course, the translation of the scriptures from the original languages into the other tongues of the world went on long before the King James Version was produced. Some of the translations were made directly from the original languages, and some were made from other translations. The so-called “Latin Vulgate” produced by Jerome, for example, was translated from the Hebrew Old Testament and from the Greek New Testament, rather than from the Greek translation of the Old Testament or one of the previous Latin versions of the New Testament scriptures. The translators remark, “S. Hierome [St. Jerome] maketh no mention of the Greek tongue, wherein he did excel; because he translated not the Old Testament out of Greek, but out of Hebrew. And in what sort did these [translators of older versions] assemble? In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of wit, or deepness of judgment, as it were in an arm of flesh? At no hand. They trusted in him that hath the key of David, opening, and no man shutting; they trusted to the Lord…If you ask what they had before them, truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New. These are the two golden pipes, or rather conduits, wherethrough the olive branches empty themselves into the gold. Saint Augustine calleth them precedent, or original, tongues; Saint Hierome, fountains.” The best translations will come from the original texts, our translators insisted. This is why they announced on the title page that their work had been “Translated Out of the Original Sacred Tongues.” The King James translators would not have insisted that Bibles put into new languages on the mission field be translated from their English text. They would have recommended (if possible) translation from Hebrew and Greek. And I agree with them!
4. ALTERNATE TRANSLATIONS ARE ACCEPTABLE
The 1611 King James Bible included alternative translations of some words in the margins, giving the reader the opportunity to consider other ways certain words in the original might have been correctly put into English. The marginal notes were not suggesting textual revisions, but rather translation alternatives. And changing a sentence or a word from one language into another always involves making choices. There is not always only one right word in the second language for the word in the original. Also some words are particularly difficult to translate. The Preface states, “It hath pleased God in his Divine Providence here and there to scatter words of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we resolve upon modesty…There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once…so that we cannot be holpen by conference of places…Now in such a case doth not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?” They were giving us their honest opinion, along with alternative views, of how the text can best be rendered. So other choices put in the margins were appropriate. It was their honesty and humility that motivated them to do this, and also to put the words into italics which they had inserted for continuity in English although they did not appear in the original. They were being honest with us and giving us the opportunity to make the best interpretation. We must remember that the supreme issue in the modern version controversy is the text. We fight for the purity of the traditional text, and not always for the validity of a particular way of translating it in a certain place.
5. GOD HELPED US IN OUR WORK
“Truly, good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one…but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.” The translators assured us that they had done their very best to put the Bible into English, using the minds and the training God had given them, and asking the Lord to help them. They described their work in terms of “honest and Christian endeavors.” God helped them as He helps us do our service for Him. They did not claim that God had dictated the words of the English version, as the prophets “were moved by the Holy Ghost” (Second Peter 1:2). The miracle of divine inspiration was reserved to the prophets. Certainly Providence gave the King James translators remarkable success in their work. Albert Barnes, the remarkable commentator of the early nineteenth century, said of the King James Version,
“No translation of the Bible was ever made under more happy auspices; and it would now be impossible to furnish another translation in our language under circumstances so propitious. Whether we contemplate the number, the learning, or the piety of the men employed in it; the cool deliberation with which it was executed; the care taken that it should secure the approbation of the most learned men, in a country that embosomed a vast amount of literature; the harmony with which they conducted their work, or the comparative perfection of the translation, we see equal cause of gratitude to the great Author of the Bible that we have so pure a translation of his word.”
But to talk as if the precise translation choices and even the spelling of the words (which, by the way, has been improved, updated, and revised several times over the years) were divinely inspired is to go beyond what the godly translators claimed for themselves.
When Ezra the priest brought a copy of the Law of Moses to be read before the congregation of pilgrims that had gathered before the water gate of the restored city of Jerusalem, he had the reading in Hebrew translated and explained in the common tongue of the empire by certain godly Levites who “caused them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8). This reading and interpreting of the Word of God had a powerful effect on the people. When the holy scriptures were put into English, first by Wycliffe, then by Tyndale, then by later revisers, and then by those who gave us the King James Version, the world was powerfully effected as the learning of truth made men free. There are many reasons for Christians in our turbulent times to keep the treasure they gave us, but also to regard their work of translation with them same reserve and humility as they did.
Dr. Rick Flanders