Pitfalls in the Use of English Translations
for Bible Study

Part I: “Original” Texts
Used for the Translations
By Ike Tennison

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Years ago, when I was teaching Latin grammar, the textbook contained the following sentence: Verbum semel emissum volat irrevocabile.  Roughly translated, this sentence means, “Once a word has been spoken, it goes forth without being able to be called back.”  This statement made such a profound impression on me that I have made a conscious attempt since then to be careful about the comments I verbally make about anybody or anything.  However true or false my words may be, even if I try to retract them or apologize for them, the words actually spoken cannot be unspoken.  This lesson about spoken words is even more important about written words, since that which is written reaches a far larger audience than spoken words and stays around much, much longer!

Ever since the King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611, as the first and only authorized translation into English for more than two and a half centuries,[i] millions of people have used and continue to use it or one or more of the hundreds of other English translations for Bible study.[ii]  While it is commendable that so many have engaged and do engage in Bible study, there are some pitfalls in the sole use of the King James Version or any other English translation.  The purpose of Part I of this series of studies is to point out one not-so-obvious pitfall: the “original” texts used for the translations.

The translator(s) of every English translation of the Bible had to use some source(s) from which to make the translation.  The source could have been another English translation, some modern language translation, some ancient language translation, the “original” Hebrew and Greek texts, or a combination of these.  It is assumed that most translations have been based on the “original” Hebrew and Greek.  Of course, no originals or autographs of the Hebrew and Greek texts still exist; rather, we are dependent on reconstructed texts—i.e., trained scholars, known as textual critics, study all of the existing manuscripts and attempt to reconstruct the original text (the autograph).  These reconstructions are an on-going proposition.[iii]

Some have considered the King James Version to be the “the” word of God,[iv] but a cursory investigation into the “original” texts used for this translation may suggest otherwise.  In the Preface to The Oxford Annotated Bible: Revised Standard Version Containing the Old and New Testaments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), for example, the following comments about the King James Version are made (p. xii).

The King James Version of the New Testament was based upon a Greek text that was marred by mistakes, containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries of manuscript copying.  It was essentially the Greek text of the New Testament as edited by Beza, 1589, who closely followed that published by Erasmus, 1516-1535, which was based upon a few medieval manuscripts.  The earliest and best of the eight manuscripts which Erasmus consulted was from the tenth century, and he made the least use of it because it differed most from the commonly received text; Beza had access to two manuscripts of great value, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, but he made very little use of them because they differed from the text published by Erasmus.

 

In spite of this criticism of the King James Version and the Greek texts used for its translation, there are still those who believe that the Textus Receptus itself is “the” word of God.[v]  The number and quality of the Greek manuscripts used for the Textus Receptus are also suspect, especially in view of the work textual critics have been doing for the past hundred years or so.  For a detailed look at the number and quality of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament used by textual critics up to the beginning of the 1980’s, one must review the book by Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987).

Of no minor moment there is included in the Alands’ book the number of Greek manuscripts existing at the time: “The total number of manuscripts now stands at 5,366 according to the official registry of manuscripts maintained by Aland in the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster” (p. 74).  Even more significant is the comment made by Bruce M. Metzger in the Introduction to his book, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1971) in reference to all Greek manuscripts of the New Testament known at the time (emphasis added): “Of the approximately five thousand Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament that are known today, no two agree exactly in all particulars” (p. xxiv).  What these observations mean, of course, is that the “original” texts of the Greek New Testament are in a constant state of flux—the actual reconstructed Greek text used by a translator will be one of the several which textual critics have put together over the course of the last century and a half (unless the translation is made from the Textus Receptus).

The Hebrew text of the Tanakh has not posed nearly so many problems as the Greek texts of the New Testament.  The unvocalized text used by the Masoretes from the sixth to the ninth centuries C.E. seems to have been the “Textus Receptus” of the Jews.  The Masoretes meticulously added vowels to the text so as not to disturb the consonantal structure.  The Masoretic Text became and still is the standard Hebrew text of the Tanakh.  Nonetheless, three major areas that have had, have, and will continue to have an impact on this text are these:

1. the Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text existing in the mid-third century B.C.E. that does not agree with the Masoretic Text in many particulars;

 2. quotations of the Tanakh in the New Testament sometimes agree with the Masoretic text, sometimes with the Septuagint, and sometimes with neither;

3. the Dead Sea Scrolls contain at least fragments of all of the books of the Tanakh with the exception of Esther, and these Hebrew texts antedate the text used by the Masoretes by about 1,000 years and open many questions about points of differences between the two. 

So, even the Hebrew texts have not been finally reconstructed into a representation of the “original” texts.

What does all of this have to do with the sentence, “Verbum semel emissum volat irrevocabile”?  When an English translation is published, with rare exceptions of republications because of errors and/or omissions (usually typographical in nature), the words have gone forth “…without being able to be called back.”  People who use the translation for Bible study accept it as it is—with no question about the “original” texts behind the translation.

A part of the biblical heritage of English-speaking people everywhere has been the proliferation of translations of the Bible.  There are many reason why new translations are made—changes in the “original” text as determined by textual critics, changes in the English language over a period of time, the need for a more “user-friendly” translation, etc.  Sometimes, also, the reason is directly related to the belief system of a particular group.  This, too, is a part of the biblical heritage, but it does beg the question of the “original” texts of the Bible and, especially, the meaning of those texts.

Endnotes: 

[1] Bibles had been translated into English before the publication of the King James Version; but, the translators did so without authorization.  For the consequences on those brave translators, see, e.g., “The Path Toward an Authorized English Bible,” The Bible Through The Ages (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1996), pp. 308-315.

2 This is not a criticism per se, especially since native English-speaking people tend to be monolingual.  To view a listing of such English translations, see #1.: “A Few Questions For You” in Lesson One of the Bible Study Program.

3 For a general presentation on this subject, see David Ewert, From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translations (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academie Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).

4 For example, the title of an article in Flashpoint: A Newsletter Ministry of Texe Marrs (Living Truth Ministries, Austin, Texas, March, 1996) is “God Wrote the King James Bible.”

For example, in two paragraphs of the article, “Textus Receptus Computer Project Complete,” appearing in Vol I, No. 1 (October, 1990) of the Baptist International Schools News&Views newsletter, the following comments are made: “All present Bible software programs are based on the Nestle or United Bible Society Greek texts, which are for all purposes the Westcott/Hort text – or the Alexandrian school Greek text.  These corrupted texts have been and are those used by modern liberal scholars to make all the so called modern translations of the Bible, including the recent ‘New King James Version’….Baptist International Schools stand with the Textus Receptus, as being the correct text of the New Testament.  This is the Greek text used in the translation of the 1611 Authorized Version.”

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