The Word of God: A View on Versions

“Versions!” For some, that word sounds like the starting bell at a boxing match, and they leap into the ring with fists swinging. For others, it sounds like a fire alarm, and they run for the nearest exit. We will try to remain seated as this article begins a series, by various authors, that hopes to objectively consider some key questions, including:

  • How can I evaluate a translation?
  • How do committees translate the Bible?
  • What advantages and disadvantages are there if I use multiple translations?
  • Why do some modern translations not have verses that are found in older translations?
  • If the original Scriptures don’t exist, how do we know a Bible translation is accurate?
  • Is there a perfect translation of the Bible?
  • Why are there so many versions out there?
  • What should I do if I like a specific version and the assembly I am in, or visiting, uses a different one?
  • Why do people get upset and argue over versions of the Bible?
  • What is the background for some of the versions and Bibles we use?

First, consider two basic observations about the New Testament:

  • The Spirit of God chose1 to include quotations from a translation of the original Old Testament text.
  • The Spirit of God chose an easily understood form of the Greek language, even though a more formal and robust version of Greek was available.

These may seem insignificant, but they help answer two important questions:

1. Can a Translation be called the Word of God?

The Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, the language used by Israel for centuries. But, by the 3rd century BC, “More Jews lived outside of Palestine than in it. Communities of Jews could be found in Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. Very few of them spoke Hebrew or even read it. Their language was Greek.”2 A Greek translation of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint (also called the LXX), was produced. Although Hebrew scholars would have been keenly aware of its shortcomings, this translation was widely accepted, used in the synagogues of Greek-speaking Jews, and treated as the Word of God.3

Most significantly, the Lord Jesus quoted from the Septuagint, using portions authoritatively as the Word of God.4  For example, the Lord Jesus’ words to Satan match the Septuagint in Matthew 4:4. The apostles also quoted from this translation, again using the text as the Word of God.5

The translators of the King James Version (or Authorized Version) also viewed translations as the Word of God. “We affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession … containeth the Word of God, nay, is the Word of God. As the King’s Speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s Speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere. … No cause therefore why the Word translated should be denied to be the Word.”6

Though the Septuagint and other translations were considered the Word of God, there is no suggestion that these versions were inspired and inerrant.7 Only original texts could claim these qualities. However, while conscious of a translation’s shortcomings, we should read it as the Word of God – the Lord Himself speaking to us!

Sadly, there are “versions” of the Bible that deviate in purpose and principles from sound translations and cannot be rightly called the Word of God. Evaluating translations is a topic for a future article.

2. How Important are Readability and Understandability?

Their use of the Septuagint in the New Testament obviate that the Lord and His apostles thought it important to quote familiar wording to specific audiences. There are also lessons to be learned from the Spirit of God’s choice of Koine Greek for the text of the New Testament when Classical Greek, a more formal and robust version of the language, was available. A New Testament Greek scholar helpfully explains Koine Greek:

“As the Greek language spread across the world and met other languages, it was altered (which is true of any language). The dialects also interacted with each other. Eventually, this adaptation resulted in what today we call Koine Greek. ‘Koine’ means ‘common’ and describes the common, everyday form of the language, used by everyday people. It was not considered a polished literary form of the language, and, in fact, some writers of this era purposefully imitated the older style of Greek. … Koine was a simplified form of Classical Greek and unfortunately, many of the subtleties of Classical Greek were lost.”8

Christ spoke, and the apostles wrote, what would become our New Testament in the form of the language most easily read and best understood by most people in their day. This establishes another helpful precedent for us – readability and understandability for our audience should be key factors in our choice of translations.

How wonderful that the Lord desires to speak to us through His written Word, and His desire extends to translations in our language, in words that we can comprehend! “So shall my Word be that goes out from My mouth … it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11, ESV).

1 2 Peter 1:21

2 van Bruggen, Jakob. The Future of the Bible. Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson, 1978. p. 37.

3 van Bruggen, pp. 37-38.

4 Some suggest that Christ and the apostles were not quoting the Septuagint, giving various other explanations, but the traditional and majority view is that they were.

5 For example, 1 Peter 4:18 contains the Septuagint version of Proverbs 11:31.

6 The Translators to the Reader: Being a Reprint of the Original Preface to the Authorized Version of 1611 (London, England: the Trinitarian Bible Society, 1911, 1998), p. 20.

7 It is also important to note that the quoting of phrases from the Septuagint by Christ and the apostles was not an endorsement of the whole translation.  There are, for example, no quotes from the Apocrypha in the New Testament, though it was also included in the Septuagint translation.

8 Mounce, William D. Greek For The Rest Of Us. Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2013. p. 2.