How many translations did your Bible go through?

bible5.gifOne. 

Really. Just one time from the original language to the language and version of your Bible.  The original writings were copied many times, but the Bible you hold was probably only translated once.

Many people – including some Christians – are quick to say that the Bible has been translated and changed so many times over the centuries that we don’t know what the original writings said.  For example, I saw a video clip where Deepak Chopra (alleged religious expert) claims that the King James was the 13th iteration of the Bible.

But contrary to that myth, the books of the Bible have only been translated once and the copying process was very robust, dependable and verifiable.   

For example, Paul wrote in Greek, and we have Greek manuscripts to make translations from.  That is one translation. 

Conventional wisdom: Tranlations from one language to another to another . . .

Greek original ==> Latin translation ==> other translations ==> King James version ==> New International Version, etc. 

What actually happened

Greek original ==> copies of Greek original ==> Latin version

Greek original ==> copies of Greek original ==> King James version

Greek original ==> copies of Greek original ==> New International Version

Etc.

So the real issue is how accurate and reliable the copying process was.  The science of textual criticism shows that the copies of the New Testament are 99.5% accurate and that the differences are minor and have no impact on Christian theology. Even atheist textual critics will concede that.

Regarding the Old Testament, here are some notes from the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry:

The OT does not have as many supporting manuscripts as the NT but it is, nevertheless, remarkably reliable.

  1. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew OT done around 250 B.C., attests to the reliability and consistency of the OT when it is compared to existing Hebrew manuscripts.
  2. The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 also verify the reliability of the OT manuscripts.
  3. The Dead Sea Scrolls were ancient documents that were hidden in a cave in Israel about 2000 years ago. The scrolls contained many OT books, one of them being Isaiah.
    1. Before the Dead Sea scrolls, the earliest existing manuscript of the OT was dated around 900 A.D. called the Masoretic Text. The Scrolls contained OT documents 1000 years earlier. A comparison between the manuscripts revealed an incredible accuracy of transmission through copying, so much so that critics were silenced.

In summary, the Bible you hold has only been translated once, and the copying process was very robust, dependable and verifiable. 

Also see Is The New Testament Reliable? and Has the Bible been rewritten so many times that we can’t trust it anymore?

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17 thoughts on “How many translations did your Bible go through?”

  1. First!

    Great post as usual.

    One thing I like to mention is how well the Old Testament was translated, as a comparison. When we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, it contained some manuscripts that were 1000 years earlier than our previous copies. And do you know how different the copies were?

    No significant differences!

    See here:
    http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/holy-post/archive/2009/06/26/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-dead-sea-scrolls.aspx

    Excerpt:
    You know the children’s game called “telephone”? Some kid whispers a message to the kid next to him and it moves down the line until it emerges a garbled version of the original. It turns out the Bible is not like that. Despite endless translations and editions over the centuries, the original message appears to have emerged relatively unscathed. The Dead Sea Scrolls provided Old Testament manuscripts 1,000 years older than the previous oldest manuscript in existence. What the scrolls show is that the texts used at about the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, about 70 years after the death of Jesus, are almost the same as what we read today. Expert Weston W. Fields wrote: “The differences are neither theologically nor historically important. In general the scrolls testify to the amazing accuracy and great care with which ancient scribes passed along the biblical text.”

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    1. Thanks, WK! It got picked up by the Apologetics 315 Twitter, which was nice. Didn’t know they read my site! http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/

      Re. the telephone game: Good points. That is another one of those pesky myths. And no wonder — an Associate Professor of Religious Studies thinks it is a legitimate way to teach how the Bible was transmitted — http://4simpsons.wordpress.com/2009/08/30/telephone-game-part-ii/ . How pathetic. I analyzed the problems with that theory in the link.

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  2. Very good post.

    Another thought on this subject, while we are at it, is that since Jesus spoke Aramaic and the gospels were written in Greek (unless Matthew’s was indeed written originally in Hebrew as the Church Fathers suggest), Jesus’ words come to us, from the get-go, in translation. And the OT Scriptures quoted by the NT writers are generally from the Septuagint, also a translation. So, the Holy Spirit seems quite comfortable with translations.

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  3. I’m sorry, but I didn’t follow this argument. Surely a reading from Greek to Latin, and a reading from Greek to English are 2 translations from Greek to other languages.

    I think you mean the Bible was translated from Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek; this is the one time. This translation was copied afterwards.

    Then, the so-called translation later from Greek to English is not a translation at all? Or it doesn’t matter whether it is a translation, for the copy upon which it is based is reliable?

    At some point, you totally lose me.

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    1. Hi Montag,

      I think James already answered this well, but please let me offer a specific example.

      A man named Luke wrote a Gospel and the Book of Acts. He wrote them in Greek. The Greek manuscripts were copied many times. At various points they were translated to Latin, English and other languages. There are many English translations today — NIV, ESV, Living, etc. — but all of those rely on Greek manuscripts.

      My point isn’t that the Bible was only translated once, just that virtually any Bible translation you’ll come across relies on copies of the original Greek (or Hebrew) manuscripts.

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  4. Insightful post, Neil. Thanks.

    @Montag: The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. That isn’t a translation, that’s the actual writing. We have copies of the original manuscripts (those are NOT translations, they are copies). The English Bible that sits on your desk is a translation from those original Greek copies to the language that you speak today.

    ONE translation = Greek (or Hebrew or Aramaic) to English.

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      1. Little correction regarding number of iterations-translations for what Deepak Chopra claimed. He says, KJV is 19th iterations.

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  5. Neil, an additional argument I heard from Josh McDowell (I started watching Evidence that Demands a Verdict on Youtube Friday) is that even if the telephone effect were more pronounced than we’ve found it, because of the multiplication of copies, we can still tell what was original and what wasn’t.

    The picture Josh uses is that he gives a document to 5 friends, asking each to copy it out by hand 5 times and pass it along to 5 different friends. The number of manuscript copies of Josh’s original letter multiple exponentially, as do expected errors in copying.

    But because the errors are made by different people the errors themselves are different.

    Collecting the documents 10 generations down the line, one simply has to compare and find the outliers, those differences that are unique, and discard them to return to the original document as Josh had first written out.

    This is based on the fact that a faithful transcriptionist will make their best attempt to ensure accuracy in the copy, and therefore errors will likely be few per document. So the errors themselves will remain the exception, and not the rule. Using statistical analysis (or by simply counting all the various errors) it is very easy to find, with authority, the original text.

    And we can be certain the biblical transcriptionists were attempting a faithful duplication, because as a human I could think of a plethora of things I’d have changed were I putting together my own flavor of Christianity:
    > The Israelites would have learned their lessons the first time.
    > Ditto for the disciples.
    > Christianity wouldn’t be so much about denying my baser impulses and would be more about getting along with everybody.
    Etc.

    Even if a significant percentage of the scribes had ulterior motives and modified the text, the likelihood of them modifying it the same way as all the others is infinitesimally small. The majority of the similarities would still be in favor of the original text.

    Regarding translations to and from Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The fact that we have manuscripts now in all these languages to compare with and test has the same effect as the multitude of documents in the same language.

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      1. It’s a mathematical equation Neil. The sum of all bullshit is less than the number of idiots necessary to produce it. This indicates the disturbing possibility that despite the vast amount of bullshit we encounter every day, there’s even more idiots around the corner.

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