Modern English translations (those from the past century) differ from older translations of the Bible in several ways. Wording has been updated due to normal language changes in grammar, spelling, and meaning that occur over time. Increased understanding of the original Greek through study of its usage in other literature from around the time of Christ has also brought about some changes. Careful readers will even notice that there are some areas where whole verses are missing, or at least marked out as being of questionable authenticity. This change may be the most difficult one to accept. Are modern translators taking scissors to the Word of God? The reason for such discrepancy is the topic of this article.
The basis of our Bible is the manuscripts (manu = hand, script = writing) which have been preserved through time. The New Testament has been preserved in almost 6000 known different manuscripts and fragments in Greek, and in more than twice as many copies of translations in different languages. Interestingly, approximately 20 additional manuscripts are discovered every year. Old and worn ones were sometimes washed and reused – many were burned, since they were considered sacred – and others were just stashed away in libraries. Since these are handwritten copies, no two are exactly alike due to the human element present in their transmission. Manuscripts are classified to determine their individual relative importance with respect to how closely they mirror what was originally recorded by the authors of the New Testament.
Age – It is generally accepted that the quality of a manuscript increases with its age since it has had less opportunity for copyist errors to be introduced. Newer manuscripts tend to be longer, and additions to the text are more likely copyist error.
Location – Manuscripts from specific geographical areas tend to be similar, since they were likely copied from one another. Therefore, copyist errors tend to be propagated within a geographical region. The presence of similarities between manuscripts in disparate geographical regions is often indicative that the original wording has been maintained.
Number – Quantity of similar manuscripts is not generally recognized as a predictor of similarity to the original, but it does speak to the degree to which these manuscripts were in use.
The Reformation led to renewed interest in the Bible and its translation into the language of the people. Translations were based on the Greek New Testament compiled by Erasmus. Erasmus used the manuscripts which were readily available to him and published his first edition in 1516. These manuscripts originated from what is now called the Byzantine text-type, and dated back to the 12th century. This manuscript tradition was prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and approximately 95% of the known manuscripts to date belong to this text-type, including what is known as the Textus Receptus (Received Text) which forms the basis for the King James Version.
Interest in Bible scholarship and the rediscovery of old manuscripts in the intervening centuries in monasteries across Europe and North Africa led to the discovery of two other major text-types: the Alexandrian and the Western. The Alexandrian text-type is old; its manuscripts date back to the 2nd-4th centuries. The Western text-type is disparate, and found over a large geographical area, generally dating back to the 3rd-9th centuries. The Byzantine text-type yielded many manuscripts, but they were later in date (5th-16th centuries).
For this reason, more recent translations deviate from what became the standard English Bible – the King James Version. The KJV was based on the best Greek manuscripts available at the time. Later discoveries and scholarship have led to newer translations, based more on Alexandrian text-type. This particular text-type is shorter, more terse, and less harmonious then the Byzantine text-type, and accounts for missing words and verses.
In Colossians 1:14, the KJV contains the addition “through his blood,” likely due to a copyist addition from the verse’s similarity to Ephesians 1:7.
In the KJV, Acts 9 contains details that are likely due to copyist additions based on Paul’s recounting of his conversion in Acts 22 and 26.
More significant sections in question include the ending of Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:9-20) and the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8. Generally speaking, the historicity of these sections is unquestioned, but the fact that they are not found in the older manuscripts has raised questions as to their inspiration. Admittedly, however, as with all disputed or missing sections, no doctrine is in danger or dependent upon the verses in question. In fact, if you consider Mark 16 as an example, you will find that every piece of information in it can be cross referenced to another verse in the Bible (save for those items relating to snakes and poison – which seems dubious at best and bordering on putting the Lord to the test at worst.)
A similar discussion could be undertaken with respect to the Old Testament. Hebrew language texts were limited to copies from around 1000AD until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. These scrolls allowed comparisons with manuscripts dating as far back as 150 BC.
Modern translators are no different than ancient translators. All have sought to translate into English, as accurately and precisely as possible, what they consider to be the best representation of the originally transcribed Word of God. Neither modern nor ancient would want to be guilty of adding to or subtracting from God’s Word. Ancient copyists need to be commended for their faithfulness in copying the Scriptures; the errors are relatively few and the task was great. Early translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale would be overjoyed that their burden to have the Word of God made available to the common ploughboy has come to fruition. The sheer number and diversity of translations in the English language is an embarrassment of riches in comparison to the rest of the languages in the world. The degree of scholarship behind Bible translation assures us that what we read is an accurate reflection of the original “writings.”