Bible version debate

Bible version debate

Although there have been various debates concerning the proper medium and translation of Christian scripture since the first translations of the Old Testament (Hebrew, Aramaic) into Greek (see Septuagint) and Aramaic (see Targum), the phrase "Bible versions debate" usually refers only to the English Bible. The first debate to be discussed in this article will be that which surrounded the translation of the King James Version or "Authorized Version," published in 1611. Then, several highlights of English translation debates will be traced, giving special emphasis to the modern arguments between "King James Only" advocates and those who consider the King James Version to be inferior. Each section will contain a "history" of the debate, including socio-political aspects where necessary; an "issues" section, putting forth the arguments, as far as they are known, of the various parties involved; and a "conclusions" section where appropriate.

The first King James Version debate

The first time the King James Version (KJV) was used in a debate, it was by various people advocating for its existence. Following the death of William Tyndale in 1536, there existed a complete translation of the New Testament from Greek into English for the first time, and in several editions. The various events of Tyndale's flight from Roman Catholic clergy fall into the most tumultuous period of the Reformation: Henry VIII and Martin Luther were both his contemporaries, and the young John Calvin was in training.

From this point on, with the English Reformation in full swing, other publications of English translations began to appear, often with sponsorship from businessmen on the continent (e.g., Jacob van Meteren for the Coverdale Bible; "Coverdale, Miles" in "Encyclopedia Britannica" 11th ed. [1911] ). The most notable of these are the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and the Geneva Bible.

The Great Bible, first published in 1539 and so called due to its large, folio size, was the only English bible ever to be formally "authorized" for use in churches throughout the country.Kenyon,"English Versions", in "Dictionary of the Bible", ed. Hastings, (Scribner's Sons: 1909).]

The Geneva Bible (1557), named for the place of its translation, became the "bible of the Puritans" and made an enormous impression on English bible translation, second only to Tyndale. Part of this was due to its issue as a small book, an octavo size; part due to the extensive commentary; and part due to the work and endorsement of Calvin and Theodore Beza, two of the most important continental scholars of the Reformation.

The politics of the time were such that there was a marked frustration between the clergy of the continent and the clergy of England; what's more, there already was a formally-accepted Great Bible used in the church, but the fact was that the Geneva Bible was enormously popular. This sparked in the mind of both Elizabeth and especially in Canterbury the concept of revising the Great Bible. As attempts went, it was relatively valiant: the NT contained notes like the Geneva Bible, and use was made of both the previous versions. Nevertheless, the version never superseded the popularity of the Geneva Bible—partly due to its enormous size, being even larger than the Great Bible.

Thus it is clear that there were marked problems for the English monarchy and for Canterbury, both which wanted a united Church of England. Each faction appeared to have its own version: the exiled Roman Catholics had the Douay-Rheims Version, the Puritans had the Geneva Bible, and the official book for Canterbury was the Bishop's Bible. Enter then James I, the first Scot to sit on the English throne.

James I began his reign in the hope that he could reconcile the huge Puritan/Anglican divide—a divide that was as much political as it was religious. This attempt was embodied by the Hampton Court Conference (1604) during which a Puritan from Oxford noted the imperfections of the current versions. This appealed strongly to James' sense of self-importance (see his Wikipedia link above) and he embarked on it with all the zeal that such a man would. The KJV was probably the first Committee-translated English version. Perhaps James' best move was to give the translation to the universities, rather than to Canterbury, in order to keep the translation as clean as possible.

Thus, it should be seen as no surprise that it took some time for the translation to be accepted by all; in fact, it was not until 1661 that the Book of Common Prayer was finally updated with KJV readings, rather than the Bishop's Bible. Further, it was never, at least on record, as promised by James I, royally proclaimed as the Bible of the Church of England. The specifics of the "controversy" which was involved in this version will be surveyed presently.

Types of translation

In translating any ancient text, a translator must determine how literal the translation should be.Translations may tend to be formal equivalents (e.g., literal), tend to be free translations (dynamic equivalence), or even be a paraphrase. In practice, translations can be placed on a spectrum along these points; the following subsections show how these differences affect translations of the Bible.

Formal equivalence

A literal translation tries to remain as close to the original text as possible, without adding the translators' ideas and thoughts into the translation. Thus, the argument goes, the more literal the translation is, the less danger there is of corrupting the original message. This is therefore much more of a word-for-word view of translation. The problem with this form of translation is that it assumes a moderate degree of familiarity with the subject matter on the part of the reader. The King James Version (KJV) and English Standard Version (ESV) are two examples of this kind of translation. For example, most printings of the KJV italicize words that are implied but not actually in the original source text, since words must sometimes be added to have valid English grammar. Thus, even a formal equivalence translation has at least "some" modification of sentence structure and regard for contextual usage of words.

The only extensive formal equivalence that is the first translation of the Ancient Hebrew Bible into English that does not regard English grammar over the Hebrew understanding of the text is a book entitled “THIS REPORT: The Hebrew/Phoenician History called the Bible” [ [ THIS REPORT: The Hebrew/Phoenician History called the Bible] ] . This work was done in 1999 by Rabbi Howshua Amariel and placed in the Library of Congress [ [ U.S. Copyright Office - Search Records Results] ] [ [ U.S. Copyright Office] ] [ [ amarielfamily - Guinness World Records Member] ] .

Dynamic equivalence

A dynamic equivalence (free) translation tries to clearly convey the thoughts and ideas of the source text. A literal translation, it is argued, may obscure the intention of the original author. A free translator attempts to convey the subtleties of context and subtext in the work, so that the reader is presented with both a translation of the language and the context. The New Living Translation (NLT) is an example of a translation that uses dynamic equivalence. The New International Version (NIV) attempts to strike a balance between dynamic and formal equivalence; some place it as a "dynamic equivalence" translation, while others place it as leaning more towards "formal equivalence".


A paraphrase, or thought-for-thought, translation goes even further than dynamic equivalence, and attempts to convey some key concepts while not retaining even a dynamic equivalence with the text. Paraphrases may even omit large sections of text, or add other explanatory material not in the original as part of the main text.Paraphrases are typically not intended for in-depth study, but are instead intended to put the basic truths of the Bible in language which could readily be understood by the typical reader without a theological or linguistic background. The Message Bible is an example of this kind of translation. The Living Bible is a paraphrase in the sense of rewording an English translation, rather than a translation using the paraphrase method.

An example

An example of these differences can be found in John reports that when Joseph was made second only to the Pharaoh in Egypt, "Abrek" was shouted out in front of Joseph as he rode in a chariot. While the word itself is not in doubt, and it is clear that this was a way of giving praise or respect to Joseph, the exact meaning of "Abrek" (also "Abrech") is uncertain.T. Lambdin, in: JAOS, 73 (1953), 146; J. Vergote, Joseph en Egypte (1959), 135ff., 151., , downloaded 2006-11-26] [ Jewish Encyclopedia] ABRECH (Levi, Ginzberg) - 1901]

Various Biblical translations of this word use phrases such as "bow the knee" (ESV and KJV) or "make way" (NIV), both of which interpret Abrek as a command to the crowd. Since a crowd in front of a chariot procession would be commanded to "make way" and not "bow the knee" (to prevent being run over), while a crowd alongside would likely be commanded in the opposite way, a logical comparison of these two translations seems to suggest that "Abrek" can't mean both. The NIV scholars indicate the uncertainty in interpretation by noting another possible reading of "Bow down", which is a near consensus with ESV and KJV.

Translations typically include footnotes to indicate translation difficulties in such cases. In this particular example, the ESV authors state that they believe that Abrek was probably an Egyptian word, similar in sound to the Hebrew word meaning "to kneel" ("brk"). One root of this interpretation, also "brk" (from Semitic), means “render homage” in Egyptian. The Hebrew aleph (rendered as "A") prefixed to "-brek" may possibly be understood as the Egyptian imperative prefix symbol, thus making "Abrek" able to be translated as "Render homage!"

An alternative scholars' view [attributed to Delitzsch, "Hebrew Language," p. 25 (cited in ABRECH, Jewish Encyclopedia 1901)] is that Abrek is a title derived from the Assyrian "abarakku", meaning, "chief steward of a private or royal household”. [I. J. Gelb et al., The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, vol. 1, pt. I, pp. 32–5] This meaning of Abrek as a title is contextually supported by Gen. 41:40a: “You shall be in charge of my house...”.

In various forms, the debate about Abrek as a command versus a title has persisted since the second century C.E. in rabbinical literature. Abrek as a command appears to have persuaded Biblical translators.

electing source text

Another key issue in translating the Bible is selecting the source text.The Bible far predates printing presses, so every book had to be copied by hand for many centuries.Every copy introduced the risk of error.Thus, a key step in performing a translation is to establish what the "original" text was, typically by comparing extant copies. This process is called textual criticism.

Textual criticism of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) centers on the comparison of the manuscript versions of the Masoretic text to early witnesses such as the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Samaritan Pentateuch, various Syriac texts, and the Biblical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, creating a challenge in handling so many different texts when performing these comparisons. The King James Version (or Authorized Version) was based on the Textus Receptus, an eclectic Greek text prepared by Erasmus based primarily on Byzantine text Greek manuscripts, which make up the majority of existing copies of the NT.The majority of New Testament textual critics now favor a text that is Alexandrian in complexion, especially after the publication of Westcott and Hort's edition. There remain some proponents of the Byzantine text-type as the type of text most similar to the autographs. These include the editors of the Hodges and Farstad text and the Robinson and Pierpoint text. [ The modern World English Bible translation is based on the Greek Majority (Byzantine) text. ]

King James Version defenders

Many English speaking Christian fundamentalists have suggested that the King James Version is the only version of the Bible English speakers should use. Some who follow this belief have formed a King-James-Only Movement. Similarly some non-English speakers prefer translations based upon Textus Receptus.

However, the vast majority of biblical scholars believe that knowledge of ancient Hebrew and Greek has improved over the centuries, as well as advances in the fields of textual criticism, biblical archaeology, and linguistics. Therefore a more accurate translation is possible, whichever texts are chosen to base the translation upon.

acred name translations

In the last few decades, there has been a growing number of translations that strove to convey into English the original name of God and of Jesus. This often results in trying to find a way to spell out an English pronunciation of the tetragrammaton. Some of these translations have come from the Sacred Name Movement. A listing of these is found under Modern English Bible translations.

Traditional practice in most English versions has been to write the word "LORD" in all capital letters for the sacred name of God, not to try to show a pronunciation.


*Bullard, Roger. 1977. Sex-Oriented Language in the Bible. The Bible Translator 28.2:243-245.
*Gaus, Andy. 1991. The Unvarnished New Testament. Grand Rapids: Phanes Press.
*The Inclusive New Testament. 1994. W. Hyattsville, MD: Priests for Equality.
*The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version. 1995. Oxford University Press.

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