Why are there so many differences between Bible translations?

This website By David Robert Palmer

(If you came to compare different Bible versions and translations, that is at this link.  If you came to download David Robert Palmer’s new translation of the Bible, that is here.  If you came for a table of Greek New Testament manuscripts, that is here.  If you want read about King James Onlyism that is here.)

This is a question of why there are so many differences,  I as a Bible teacher hear often. And the answers to it are important and basic to Christian faith, not solely academic. Because both Jesus Christ himself, as well as his apostles, declared that that very faith is generated from hearing the words of God, John 12:47-50; John 14:23; Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13.

To a person young in the Christian faith, it can be confusing, this existence of so many differences between translations. On the one hand, we believe that all scripture is God-breathed, and that holy men of God wrote them as they were moved by the Spirit of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21), and “For truly I say to you: until the sky and the earth pass away, not one iota, not one serif, will by any means pass away from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18, DRP) But on the other hand, we know that there are roughly 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and not one of them is identical to any of the others; they are all different.  While some of them, such as a mother and daughter manuscript, are identical in text, they are not identical in spelling absolutely, which is the standard set by “not one iota, not one serif” shall pass away.

On this web site you will find discussion of this issue, as well as referral to authoritative writings about them. It is a work in progress. I will add more comments over time. But the primary purpose of this site is to enable those interested in my translations to download them and their updates, easily and at their convenience.

Because I also personally am translating some of the New Testament from Greek to English. I have completed the gospels of Mark, Luke and John, and am working on the gospel of Matthew. The gospels of Mark, Luke and John are available here free of charge, and future editions, updates, and additional books will be posted here for download. After I have completed my translations of the four gospels, I plan to make a harmonization of them; not a 4-column parallel, but an interwoven harmony of them. When that is completed, that will also be available, the Lord willing. But that is still years away. I have already been working on it for seventeen years. I have completed a harmonization of the gospels based on the New International Version, but have subsequently made the decision to base it on my own translations.

Greek Textual Base

The task of translating the Bible differs from translation of other literature in that both I and most of my target readership believe it to be sacred ground. We come with our figurative shoes off and fear lest we put words in God’s mouth he didn’t say, or take away from what he did say. We believe that the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in their original state as those men first wrote them, were inspired by God. “Holy men of God wrote as they were moved by the breath of God.” For that reason, the original documents contain no errors.

But we today cannot read those original documents (called autographs), because they were written on papyrus (pressed reed plant) or on animal skins, with non-permanent inscription methods, and so they disintegrated soon after they were produced. Moreover, the thousands of Greek manuscripts of the four gospels which we do have available to us today all differ from one another. Consequently there is need not only for translation, but also need to decide from which of the thousands of Greek text variants to translate. (But this should not shake your faith; the manuscripts of such works as Homer’s Iliad, the ancient Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit, and even the relatively young scriptures of Islam, the Quran, have a MUCH greater percentage of variants and corruptions than the Greek New Testament.)

Not one of the Greek manuscripts is perfect. Over the two thousand years of the process of copies being made from copies, and so on, the texts got longer and longer. The copyists, sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally, added things to the text. The accidental varieties I will not go into, since that would be long and technical. Suffice it to say that you or I, no matter how careful and prayerful we were, would not have been able to hand copy a long document like the New Testament without making mistakes. It simply is not humanly possible. Especially without computer spell checks and grammar checkers, which those copyists did not have. “But,” some people say, “I believe God has preserved his perfect word for us, without any errors, down to this day.” I also believe in the inspiration of scripture by God. The problem is, if God preserved his word perfectly to the letter, in which of the 5,000+ manuscripts is it preserved, since not one is identical to the other? You simply cannot hold the position that the Textus Receptus, or any Greek New Testament edition, or any single Greek manuscript, contains absolutely no mistakes. This is a belief cherished by some, but God has not told us this is true. (I do believe in Biblical inerrancy, as stated in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.  I also agree with the CARM statement of Faith.)

Another cherished belief of many, is that the King James Version of the Bible is the one error-free, preserved word of God for the English language.  But for that to be true, the men who translated it would have to be inspired like the prophets and authors themselves, and workers of miracles, to some degree.  Because it is humanly impossible for them not to have made any mistakes.  And they did make mistakes.  The Bible says that the original authors were inspired, not subsequent translators.  The translators of the KJV had no extraordinary pipeline to God for inspiration to solve vexing translation problems, no more than translators today have.  Here is an example of a problem they did not solve correctly.

The King James Version translators could not figure out what English word to use to translate the Hebrew word “pim.” That was because there was only one known occurrence of it in any literature in the world, and that was in the Bible in 1 Samuel 13:21. So they took a guess, from the context of the Samuel passage, about Israelite farmers taking their farming tools to Philistine blacksmiths to be sharpened, that the word meant “file,” the tool.  But in the early 1900’s, archaeologists found in Palestine some sets of weights, having paleo-Hebrew words inscribed on them. One of the words was the Hebrew word “pim.” This revealed that a “pim” was the name for one of those measurements of weight, 7.61 metric to 7.8 grams. (See Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 1990, p. 55.) So now, modern translations of the Bible correctly state that the Philistines charged the Israelites one “pim” in exchange for sharpening a plowshare or a mattock.  And the King James Version is wrong in that verse.  God did not give them revelation to prevent that mistake.

People sometimes email me, and insist, that God would not allow his word to be corrupted, that He would not allow words to be added to his word. This is simply wishful thinking. Take for example, John 10:16. The Greek says, “and there shall be one flock (poimnee), one shepherd.” But the KJV says, “and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

But, as the United Bible Societies’ textual commentary says, “All known witnesses except the Latin Vulgate read ‘one flock.’ Jerome’s erroneous rendering, unum ovile (one fold) was followed by Wycliffe and the translators of Cromwell’s Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Rheims-Douay Bible, and the Authorized or King James Bible.”

God allowed this corruption to be put into the English Bible for over a thousand years. This cannot be denied. Even the New King James admits this, and restores the original text of John in the case, correcting the King James Version.  Some have denied this to me, however, showing me dictionary entries that say that a “fold” is a synonym to a “flock.”  No, what that shows, is the great influence the King James Version and the Latin Vulgate had on the English language.  That does not address the question of what God’s original meaning was, and what Jesus meant when he said it, and what exactly it was that John wrote down.

Consider also how Christ’s apostles themselves quoted scripture. When you compare the places in the New Testament where its writers quote the Old Testament, you see that they reword the scriptures, sometimes so much so that it is barely recognizable. Sometimes the apostles blended two verses together; for example, blended verses from Malachi and Isaiah, as in Mark 1:2-3. Sometimes, as in John 7:38 in the King James Version, the passage in the Old Testament that the writer is referring to, cannot be found at all. In view of the apostles’ standard of inerrancy, some people today would cast them out as heretics and workers of Satan, because of how they handled the scriptures. But remember, the Torah Scholars and Pharisees remarked about the apostles that they were uneducated and simple men, fishermen. They did not take classes in homiletics, exegesis, nor subscribe to today’s inerrancy shiboleths. Certainly, God used them, with all their scholarly weakness.

As for the intentional varieties of additions to the Greek New Testament text, words were intentionally added to the text for various reasons, among which are the following. Copyists wished to make an account in one gospel say the same thing as the parallel account in the other gospels. Copyists who were members of a cult added text to prove their beliefs; for example, many little fantasies about angels were added to various parts of the New Testament, including the gospels of Luke and John. The apostle Paul warned us about these angel worshipers in Colossians 2:18. Other intentional additions were supplied by copyists who knew of stories widely accepted by Christians as true yet which had not been written by the original authors of the gospels. One story was added almost 500 years after Christ, the story of the woman caught in adultery. Much later, in the 16th century, verse divisions and verse numbers were added. Unfortunately, verse numbers were given to passages that were not authentic parts of the Bible, so later, when translations take back out those parts, a resultant interruption in the verse numbers is very noticeable, and the uninformed pounce on this, crying, “You are taking verses out of the Bible!”

When I began this work, I had no strong preference in the debate between those, on the one hand, who prefer the “majority text” and disregard the Bodmer Papyri and Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, versus on the other hand those who believe that, generally speaking, the shorter and earlier the text, the better. What formal training I had in theology was taught by members of the former persuasion, and we were forbidden to use anything but the King James Version in public. Some four years later, I found myself struggling to reconcile the four gospel accounts to each other. I sought God’s help, and I tell you, I believe I received God’s help and illumination. If you were there in my shoes, you would know that my testimony is true. Now I also tell you: you cannot reconcile the four gospels without removing spurious passages, that is to say, passages added to scripture later by copyists, and not found in the earlier and shorter manuscripts, and by so removing, you restore the scripture to its original reading. For a prominent example of this, see in my translation of the gospel of Mark, the long endnote concerning the various endings of the gospel of Mark. I have excerpted it for you and put it on My Translations Page.

Translation Philosophy

As for myself, as time has gone by, I have moved somewhat away from the “Dynamic Equivalent” (D-E) philosophy and closer to the “Formal Equivalent” (F-E) philosophy. I have moved in this direction for two reasons: (1.), I started out as a D-Eer, but in the course of my consulting both the Greek and many English translations, I observed abuses in the D-E philosophy, which caused me to distrust D-E translations, and (2.), I remember the Lord Jesus Christ’s solemn pronouncement that: “Not one iota, not one serif, shall by any means pass from the Law until everything is fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:18; Diatessaron 9:10) Jesus here refers to some of the smallest strokes of the pen in both the Greek and Hebrew languages. In the Greek language, the iota is the smallest letter (and even smaller, when it is “subscript”). In the Hebrew language, sometimes the only difference between two different Hebrew letters is a “serif” or a little horn attached, just a slight little appendage. In the case of an iota subscript, the difference it makes is the part of speech of the word, or the “case.” Thus it seems to me that if not one iota is going to pass from the Law, and I claim to translate that Law, then I should endeavor to stay as equivalent as possible, both word to word, and part of speech to part of speech.

An example of what I consider an abuse in a “dynamic equivalence” translation is in the gospel of Luke in the NIV translation. You will find that three Greek words which would be expected to be rendered ‘womb’ in English, gasthr, Luke 1:31; koilia, Lk 1:15, 41*, 42, 44*, 2:21, 11:27; and mhtra, Lk 2:23, are translated as ‘womb’ only two times out of the eight occurrences (the two instances rendered ‘womb’ have an asterisk).

Look for example at Luke 2:21. “And when the eighth day had arrived, the time to circumcise him, he was called the name Jesus, the name called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” The NIV says, “…before he had been conceived.” It simply leaves out the words “in the womb.” But this verse was an explicit fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy in Luke 1:31, which said: “You shall conceive in your womb, and shall bear a son, and you are to call his name Jesus.” (And in this verse also, the subject translation did not use the English word ‘womb.’)

Another example is Luke 1:15, speaking of John the Baptizer: “…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.” I will now speak in mathematical terms as in the theory of ‘sets,’ and ask: is this word ‘from,’ inclusive or exclusive? Or to put it another way, does it mean “starting from, including while still in the womb, or from, starting after the womb? The NIV says, “…even from birth.” It leaves out ‘mother.’ It leaves out ‘womb.’ But we know it means that John would be filled with the Spirit even while still in the womb, because in Luke 1:41, 44, John, while he was a 6-month in utero fetus, leaped “in exultation” (v. 44) when he heard the voice of the mother of his Lord. The angel predicted that he would be filled with the Spirit “yet from his mother’s womb.” That means “starting in his mother’s womb onward.” John was filled with the Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. Not just “from birth.” There is quite a difference. Luke used the words “mother’s womb,” because that is what he meant. If “from birth” is what he meant, he could have said that in Greek. But Luke, ‘the beloved physician,’ is attentive to the medical details for us. In Isaiah in the Septuagint, in chapter 44 verses 2 and 44, God said, “I am the one who formed you from the womb.” There, the Greek words are the same as here in the Luke passage, ek koiliaV. We know the forming began while still in the womb. The addition of the word eti in the Luke passage just makes it all the more clear that God meant that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb, and forward from then on.

Another example is Luke 1:42, where Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This is an agricultural metaphor that contrasts to the state of “barren,” of which Elizabeth, the one speaking these words, had been painfully aware (Lk 1:24, 25, 36). The NIV says, “Blessed is the child you will bear.” I wouldn’t dare strip the holy scriptures of this metaphor about barrenness versus fruitfulness. For in the very creation of humankind, God ordered the man and woman to “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Another example of what I consider to be an abuse by a “Dynamic Equivalent” translation, is the New Living Translation’s rendering of  “and there was evening, and there was morning, the first day,” etc., in Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31, that concludes the account for each of the six days of creation in Genesis. The NLT instead simply says, “This all happened on the first (or whichever) day.”   The fact is, God took great pains to inform us that each day of creation comprised one revolution (not one orbit; one spin) of the earth; i.e., the cycle of evening and morning; thus, 24 hours. But, people then respond, “There would not yet have been a cycle of evening and morning, because the sun was not created until the 4th day.”  But, I respond, that that does not mean there was no light shining onto the earth as it spun. Genesis tells us that light was created on the first day, and that it was separated from the darkness, that is, day was separated from night. There is no reason to believe that the earth was not spinning on the first day of creation.

Even so, all translation requires some interpretation. And the Word of God is living, and not dead letters. As the King James Version translators said: “For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables?

Elsewhere on this web site, I spend time pointing out problems with the King James Version. However, there is of course much good to be said about the King James Version. I think that one of the shortcomings of translations that are put into normal every-day English, is that they are hard to memorize from. Is this good? What is wrong with the Bible being put in very memorable and for that reason, unusual English? I have read that Jesus’ sayings were put into a rhythmic Aramaic, calculatedly so, so that his sayings would stick in the memories of the hearers. For the same reason, I enjoy reading the King James Version, especially in the New Testament. The words stay in my memory. The King James Version has rhythm.

On Greek Verb Tenses

People have made some condescending comments that I must be a novice at New Testament Greek, because of the fact that I apparently think that present tense in the verbs means “continuous.” One man in Illinois said, “Show me just one authority on New Testament Greek, that says this is so.” So, here are some lessons in N.T. Greek verb tenses, from two authorities that do say this is so.

The first is from “A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,” by Blass and DeBrunner, and translated and edited by Funk, the University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London (1961). This is one of the top two or three advanced grammars of New Testament Greek. You won’t find a higher authority than this. In my footnotes in my translation, I refer to it as “BDF” for Blass-DeBrunner-Funk. Here is what they have to say about the Greek tenses, in Section 318, in pertinent part.

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318 Introduction The original function of the so-called tense stems of the verb in Indo-European languages was not that of levels of time (present, past, future) but that of Aktionsarten (kinds of action) or aspects (points of view). Cf. Hebrew. Past time (past from the standpoint of the speaker or narrator) was designated within the several tense stems by a prefixed, originally independent (but not obligatory) particle, the so-called augment. The old and common temporal significance (contemporary time) assigned to the unaugmented indicative (present, perfect) grew out of the contrast to augmented forms. In Greek the temporal significance of the corresponding indicatives has been carried over to a much smaller degree to the moods (subjunctive and optative, also the the infinitive and participle), and then it is, of course, so-called relative time, i.e. the temporal relationship is determined by something else appearing in the speech or narrative…

The most important kinds of action (Aktionsarten) retained in Greek (including the NT) are the following: (1) The punctiliar (momentary) in the aorist stem: the action is conceived as a point with either the beginning or the end of the action emphasized (ingressive and effective aorist): ebasileusen ‘became king’, ebalen ‘hit’), or the action is conceived as a whole irrespective of its duration (constative or complexive aorist: epoihsen ‘he made it’). (2) The durative (linear or progressive) in the present stem: the action is represented as durative (in progress) and either as timeless (estin o qeoV) or as taking place in present time (including, of course, duration on one side or the other of the present moment: grafw ‘I am writing [now]’… (3) The present stem may also be iterative: eballen ‘threw repeatedly’ (or ‘each time’)… 327. Imperfect used to portray the manner of the action, i.e. a past action is represented as being in progress

Edward W. Goodrick in his “Do It Yourself Hebrew and Greek,” Multnomah Press, (1976) has made a nice and simple chart or paradigm on page 4:13 showing the eight tenses of N.T. Greek verbs (Aorist, Imperfect, Pluperfect, Present, Perfect, Future, Periphrastic Future, Future Perfect), and then a nice list of the six question you must ask of a N.T. Greek verb: (1) What is its Person? Options: First Person, or Second Person, or Third Person. (2) What is its Number? Options: Singular or Plural. (3) What is its Voice? Options: Active Voice, or Middle Voice, or Passive Voice. (4) What is its Aspect? Options: Punctiliar Aspect, or Linear Aspect, or Combined Aspect. (5) What is its Mood? Options: Indicative Mood, or Subjunctive Mood, or Imperative Mood, or Optative Mood. (6) AND ONLY IF YOUR ANSWER TO QUESTION FIVE IS “INDICATIVE MOOD” CAN YOU ASK THE SIXTH QUESTION, “What is its Time? Options: Past Time, or Present Time, or Future Time.

This latter, the 6th Question and its rule, is one that throws many English speakers off. It is hard to get it into heads, that the MAJORITY of N.T. Greek verbs DO NOT TELL TIME in the sense of past, present or future. And since participles and infinitives are not in the Indicative Mood, their Time, if any at all, is relative; that is, it must be gleaned from their context. The most important semantic content of a N.T. Greek verb, other than its lexical meaning, is its ASPECT, the “kind of action,” that is, whether Punctiliar, Continous, or Combined. This is true even when in the indicative mood.

The two main tenses having “Continuous Aspect” are the Present and the Imperfect. The Imperfect tense is the verbs with past time and continuous aspect. I handled the Imperfect three ways: the Continuous or Progressive I rendered as “He was walking.” The “iterative” and/or “habitual” imperfect I rendered “He would walk.” And the third way, when it was most agreeable to the context and/or the rhythm required, just a simple past, “He walked.”

There are some verses that simply do not make sense unless you make the imperfect-tense verbs incompleted action.  One obvious one is Luke 22:2.  The entire emphasis of the verb “fearing” is that it was ongoing and incomplete.

Gender Inclusiveness

There are primarily three Greek words in the New Testament that are at issue here: One, the word anthropos; Two, the word aneer; and Three, the masculine pronoun.

1. anthropos. The Greek word anthropos is not meant as a way to distinguish male humans from female humans, nor an adult from a child, and therefore does not mean “adult human male,” except in a few cases where the context clearly indicates so. The word anthropos means a mortal human being as distinguished from God, angels, demons, plants and animals.

So keeping that in mind, is there an English word suitable as a universal replacement for the word “man”? What about the word “person”? Keeping in mind that anthropos is intended to distinguish God from anthropoi, the word “person” does not work very well, since God also is a person. And so is the devil. And corporations, trusts, and partnerships, etc., are also persons. This is one example of the difficulties encountered in the process of translation.

2. aneer. This word in Greek New Testament usually means “adult human male,” or “husband,” and when God inspired his servants to choose this word, it is usually because God intended us to understand it as “adult human male.” I discuss the word “aneer” more fully in footnotes on passages in which the question arises. There are some instances of use of the anhr where some reason that surely, it is being used of people in general, because of the context. But when I look at many of those contexts, I see that it is reasonable that only male adult humans were actually present. People forget how gender-segregated Israeli society was then.

3. The masculine pronoun. Sometimes pronouns are dependent upon the original nouns for which they are substituted. These may be interpreted from finding the noun in the context. If the pronoun is referring back to a truly masculine subject, the pronoun must be left as masculine. Other times when pronouns are used, they are not standing in place of another previously used noun, but stand alone and mean something like, “someone.” For example, in the phrase, “He who asks, receives.” Here, the masculine inflection of the pronoun is simply the default inflection. There is no exclusively masculine subject in mind, so I rendered this pronoun as follows: “The person who asks receives.” This rendering maintains faithfulness to the singular number and the 3rd person of the original Greek.

This is relatively easy to do when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence. But when it is the object of the verb, or the object of the preposition, it is almost impossible. Take for example Luke 9:23: “If someone wants to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. The word “his” here would usually in modern street English usage be replaced with the word “their.” Thus, “they must take up their cross daily…” Problem is, now the “their” disagrees with the subject “someone” as to number: “their” is plural, and “someone” is singular. If “they” take up “their cross,” what does that mean? Are there five people who have one cross, or two to one cross? But Jesus is talking here about an individual decision and each having his own cross.

The proponents of this kind of extreme gender inclusiveness measures, argue that the gender inclusiveness is more important a part of the semantic content than is number. But in this instance that is hard to argue, in my opinion. I certainly sympathize with the desire to put the Bible into colloquial English. But I question whether we should put it into horrible English, even if the majority speak that way. Considering that we are treading on holy ground here, that this is the inspired word of God, this kind of plurality disagreement, and ambiguity as to number, is not appropriate in my opinion. The use of the word “their” in the verse above is unacceptable for the Bible. It is inappropriate to the caliber of literature that is the Bible.

All this said, we can be glad we have so many different translations. We can check one against the other, and get a more complete picture of all of the semantic content of the Greek. Praise God.

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Books for Beginning to Study How We Got the Bible:

Geisler, Norman L. and Nix, William E., From God to Us (Chicago, Moody, 1988)

Kohlenberger III, John R., Words About the Word (Grand Rapids, Regency/Zondervan, 1987)

Metzger, Bruce M., THE NEW TESTAMENT Its Background, Growth, and Content, Second Edition, 1983, Enlarged (Nashville, Abingdon, 1987)


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