The Necessity and Purpose of Bible Translations

This past Sunday night I began a series at the church where I pastor on the issue of Bible translations. You may ask, Why this series? I choose to teach this series because there is a lot of misunderstanding and therefore needless divisions among Christians about the issue of which translation one uses. There is a small segment of Christians who believe and teach that the King James Version of 1611 is the only Bible for English speaking people and many of them are actively opposed to anyone who uses any other translation of the Bible.

Some have associated new translations with those who deny essential doctrines of the Christian faith. But those who deny the authority and inspiration of the Word of God are, by and large, not committed to translating it into English. They are too busy denying what the Bible actually teaches in any translation: Creation, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, Miracles, the Resurrection, Salvation by Grace through Faith, and the Second Coming. They are not, by and large, committing their time to providing a translation of the Bible into English to make the Word of God more accessible to others.

Do you realize that to be King James Only, you have to believe that gifted preachers like:

  • John MacArthur
  • Adrian Rogers
  • R.C. Sproul
  • Charles Stanley
  • John Piper
  • Chuck Swindoll
  • Billy Graham
  • David Jeremiah
  • W.A. Criswell
  • John R. Rice
  • Jerry Falwell
  • D. James Kennedy

are or were either all dummies, deceived or deceivers, because none of them were King James Only. That’s ok, they could all be wrong! I think it’s very unlikely, but it is a possibility. But they are not the final authority, I just want you to realize what those who are King James Only have to affirm, albeit it many times unconsciously.

What all those men have in common is a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture! They’ve devoted their life to the study and proclamation of God’s Word! I too, am committed to the Word of God! Why else would I put such an emphasis on it? Why would I spend 20+ hours a week to studying to know exactly what a particular passage of Scripture teaches? Let’s look at 2 Timothy 3:16 which states, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” In this passage we find that Scripture claims for itself that it is “given by inspiration of God”. This means that all the words were given by inspiration of God. The word translated “scripture” in this verse is the Greek word graphe. It literally means the “writings”. They are all theospneustos “God-breathed” (which is how the phrase “given by inspiration of God” is literally stated in the Greek). This means that all the “writings” of Scripture are the very breath of God. In other words, all the words of Scripture come from the mouth of God! While I affirm this teaching of Scripture, I realize that this inspiration applies only to the original manuscripts (the “writings” graphe) and does not address any translation in any language.

The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy (which was signed by over 300 Christian leaders who were seeking to defend biblical inerrancy against the trend toward liberal and neo-orthodox conceptions of Scripture) states this concerning the inspiration of translations:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. (Article X)

John R. Rice, popular editor for many years of the Fundamentalist paper The Sword of the Lord wrote:

A perfect translation of the Bible is humanly impossible. The words in one language do not have exactly the same color and meaning as opposite words in another language, and human frailty and imperfection enter in. So, let us say, there are no perfect translations. [John R. Rice, Our God-Breathed Book — The Bible, pg. 376]

The translators of the King James Version of 1611 were not King James only either. They wrote in their preface to their translation:

We affirm and avow, that the very meanest [poorest or least esteemed] translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession… contains the Word of God, nay, is the Word of God. Though it be not interpreted by every Translator with like grace, the King’s speech is still the King’s speech; no cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be currant [used], notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth [translating] of it. Variety of translations is profitable for finding out of the sense of the scriptures.
[Translators to the Readers Preface of the King James Version 1611]

In other words, even though some translations of the King’s words are better than others, they are still the King’s words! Implication: Even though some translations are better than others, they can still be said to be the words of God!

There is nothing wrong with liking the King James better than other translations. That’s a matter of personal preference. But there is something wrong with forcing everyone else to only use the King James!

The Necessity of Bible Translations
Let me begin by saying something really simple. I hope this doesn’t insult your intelligence, but it can’t be assumed and must be stated: “The Bible was not written in English. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Therefore if anyone besides Greek and Hebrew speaking people are going to be able to read and/or hear the Word of God intelligibly it must be translated into other languages.”

This is nothing new, the Greek speaking authors of the New Testament used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint (LXX). Quotes used in the New Testament of the Old Testament were mostly taken from this translation, not from the original Hebrew.

The fact that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek has caused many throughout history who have been committed to the importance of the Word of God to translate it into their own language. In the 1300’s, John Wycliffe prepared the first English translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate. In the 1500’s, William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. Also, in the 1500’s Martin Luther translated the Bible into German for the first time and a translation of the Bible in Spanish was made for the first time. Up to this point in history, the Bible had only been available in Latin (I’ll say much more about this next week when we talk about the history of Bible translations.). This work of Bible translation continues today. There are still people around the world who do not have a translation of the Bible in their own language. There are missionaries whose life work is to translate the Bible into their languages.

But why do we need new Bible translations today? Isn’t the King James good enough?

This brings us to discuss the changing English language. The English spoken today is not the English spoken in 1611. This is why between 1629 and 1769 there were five major revisions of the King James Version resulting in approximately 100,000 changes (mostly spelling, some words). But the English language has continued to change, even since 1769.

I recently heard the phrase from the King James Version of Matthew 19:14, “Suffer little children” in a movie quoted by a person who wanted to harm children. Obviously, the word suffer has changed meanings since 1769.

In fact, 300 words in the King James Version have changed their meanings since 1769. Here are some examples:

Numbers 12:7-8 My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. (8) With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?

In 1769, the word “apparently” meant “clearly or plainly.” Today it means “something that appears to have happened , but may not have.”

Luke 10:41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

In 1769, the word “careful” meant “anxious or worrying.” Today it means “cautious.”

2 Thessalonians 2:7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.

In 1769, the word “let” meant “to hinder or prevent.” Today it means “to allow or permit.”

Question: Why was the language allowed to be updated for the first 160 years, but not in the last 230 years?

The Purpose of Bible Translations
The purpose has always been to get the Bible into the language of the people. This goes all the way back to the fact that the New Testament was originally written not in Classical Greek, but in Koine Greek: the Greek of the average person. The purpose of the Latin Vulgate was to get the Bible in the language that people spoke. The English translations of the 17th century were translated in order to put the language in the common language of the people. 17th Century English is not the language of the average person today. We don’t say, “If thou wilt, thou mayest come hither.” We say, “Come here!”

This is not to make fun of KJV, people used to speak that way. It’s still a good translation! In fact, when the KJV was first published, it was resisted because it was too easy to understand! Note on 1 Corinthians 2:13-16. This is not about who is spiritual. The reason why the unsaved do not understand the Bible is because they reject its teachings! I love the King James. All the Scripture I have memorized is in the King James. I have trouble reading anything else because I automatically read the King James. But the King James is not the only translation and it is not even the best translation for modern English speakers.

Here are a couple of stories from two of the most important translators of the Bible into English that highlight the purpose of Bible translation:

John Wycliffe (1330-1384), the first translator of the Bible into English, believed:

that every Christian should have access to Scripture (only Latin translations were available at the time), he began translating the Bible into English, with the help of his good friend John Purvey.

The church bitterly opposed it: “By this translation, the Scriptures have become vulgar, and they are more available to lay, and even to women who can read, than they were to learned scholars, who have a high intelligence. So the pearl of the gospel is scattered and trodden underfoot by swine.”

Wycliffe replied, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.”
From 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, p. 212

William Tyndale (1494-1536) was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. The following account details his commitment to providing the common people a copy of the Bible in their own language.

A clergyman hopelessly entrenched in Roman Catholic dogma once taunted Tyndale with the statement, “We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s”. Tyndale was infuriated by such Roman Catholic heresies, and he replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”

The purpose of Bible translation has always been to put it in the language of the common people. The common people of today do not speak the English of 1611 or even of 1769. Therefore new translations of the Bible into English are still necessary today.

In conclusion, what’s the best translation of the Bible? The one that is read and obeyed, not the one that is gathering dust on the shelf!

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10 comments

  1. As long as language keeps changing there will be a need for translations.

    For instance, what is the first definition that comes to mind when the word “gay” is spoken?

    That was not the first definition in 1611.

  2. Amen Pastor, I really enjoyed this blog. I have studied this issue quite a bit myself and must say, “dido”. I have just recently in the past few months obeyed Gods leading and left a very legalistic fundamental, 1611 King James Only Bible believing,Independant Baptist Church. I love my old pastor but this and many other issues that we did not see eye to eye on are the reasons I left. I would like to say that I love the King James Translation. I study mostly out of it, I still preach out of it, Memorize scriptres from it etc…Keep up the good work, I have book marked your blog and plan on coming back.

  3. Thanks PreacherNate! It’s good to have you reading the blog. Feel free to comment any time (even if you disagree).

  4. 2 Tim 3:15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

    Do you think Timothy had copies or the originals?

    Has God promised to preserve his Word?

    Psa 12:6 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
    Psa 12:7 Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

    Is is Word without error?

    Then where is it?

    You need to grapple with that.

    Don’t list a bunch of famous preachers and use that for your argument. God is no respector of persons.

  5. Paul,

    Thanks for your comment. Let me answer your questions:

    Do you think Timothy had copies or the originals?
    I think Timothy had the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

    Has God promised to preserve his Word?
    Yes.

    Is is [sic] Word without error?
    Yes.

    Then where is it?
    It is not in any one manuscript, but has been preserved through the thousands of manuscripts which are still in existence today. Bible scholars compare these manuscripts to find the original text through the science of textual criticism (This is exactly what Erasmus did with a small number of manuscripts in the 16th century to produce the Textus Receptus upon which the KJV is based.). More manuscripts are available today than ever before, and many older manuscripts have been discovered. We can be confident that the best modern translations (e.g. NKJV, NASB, and ESV) are faithful translations of the original manuscripts which are preserved through the abundance of manuscripts available today.

    You need to grapple with that.
    I have, and do. I’m not sure why you assume that I have not. Is it because I don’t come to the same conclusion that you have? I think there are some things that you need to grapple with: Why is the KJV the preservation of the Word of God and not the earlier English translations like the Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Geneva Bibles? Where was God’s Word at before 1611? Where is the one manuscript or family of manuscripts through which God’s Word has been preserved (there are variations in all of them)?

    Don’t list a bunch of famous preachers and use that for your argument. God is no respector [sic] of persons.
    I agree that God is no respecter of persons. I did not list a bunch of famous preachers and use them as my argument. If you had read the post, you would have read: “they could all be wrong! I think it’s very unlikely, but it is a possibility. But they are not the final authority, I just want you to realize what those who are King James Only have to affirm, albeit it many times unconsciously.” That was not an argument, just information to force people to realize what they are assuming. If you’re ok with the assumption, fine. Just be sure that you realize what you are assuming. The argument of the post was to explain the purpose and the necessity of Bible translations. I believe that if one understands these things, the need of some modern translations to do the same thing today which the KJV did in the 17th century is obvious. If I were as ungracious as you I could say,”Don’t list a bunch of verses with an assumed interpretation and use them for your argument.” Oops. I guess I am as ungracious as you. Sorry.

  6. On a personal level, it’s hard for me to imagine how one can feel close to a heavenly father who doesn’t “speak our language” I know lots of people who aren’t strictly King James only, but who do prefer the King James because they feel like the elevated language gives God his due, establishes a sense of reverence, etc.
    I think it’s fine that this works for them, but it doesn’t for me. When half my brain is busy translating the archaic language into contemporary meanings I think I lose so much, but the most precious thing I think I lose is closeness with him.
    Jesus didn’t use words that were archaic and stilted and absurdly formal in his communications with God or with others. He spoke the way “people on the street” actually spoke. This seems instructive to me.

    By the way, the fact that the translators of the King James version weren’t King James-only is fascinating and quite funny. It establishes an interesting quandry, I think, for those who are King James only. I’d be interested to hear what they say to this fact.

    Interesting blog, thanks for sharing!

  7. Jeff,

    Facts mean absolutely nothing to these people. I had a conversation with one recently who gave me all of his arguments and I answered them all with facts that he could not refute, and all he could say is, “See? You’ve got me checked any way I go!” Isn’t that checkmate?

  8. For people who are King James Only. What are people who do not speak English supposed to do? Learn Old English and read the King James. If you want to get so legalistic about it, Then every Christian should learn Greek and Hebrew and only read from the “originals”. I mean the King James version didn’t come around until 1611…

    Do you think Timothy had copies or the originals?
    No

    Has God promised to preserve his Word?
    Yes

    Is is Word without error?
    Yes, but what is the Word? The Word was with God and the Word was God….

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