New Bible Translations: Confusion Or Clarification?

Two bibles published in 1982, the New King James Version and the Reader’s Digest Bible, have created a national interest.

The “Dedication” at the beginning of the New King James Version (NKJV) reveals that “over one hundred scholars representing the majority of English-speaking nations” labored for seven years to produce this revision and updating of the venerable “Authorized” Version of 1611.

Hailed as the “fifth major edition” since 1611 (the editors reject the idea that the Revised Standard Version is one), the NKJV attempts to update the language of the King James Version (KJV) for today “while preserving the majesty and rhythm of the respected giant among all Bibles.” Four major and numerous minor earlier revisions of the KJV have been published, the one most Christians are familiar with today published as far back as 1769.

How successful has the NKJV revision been? A comparison of familiar sections reveals that differences are minimal. In Genesis 1, for example, God is said to create the “heavens” (KJV “heaven”), darkness was “on” (KJV “upon”) the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God “was hovering over” (KJV “moved upon”) the face of the waters.

In place of “thou” and “thy” the NKJV has “You” and “Your.” Quotation marks are used to enclose what people say. And modern punctuation has replaced the now unusual punctuation of the KJV.

If changes are minimal, why has controversy surrounded the publication of the NKJV? First, have enough changes been made to make this translation a good twentieth-century translation? Many scholars feel that the NKJV does not speak twentieth-century English and that a twentieth-century Bible should.

Second, will those who have through the years of new Bible translations clung to the KJV accept the NKJV, or will they reject it because it has too many changes? The publishers are clearly expecting them to adopt the NKJV, and they may be right in their expectations.

A more serious cause for controversy centers on the reliability of the Greek text on which the KJV of 1611 was based. The details of the argument become extremely complex and technical. In its simplest terms, most scholars today argue that the best Greek text of the New Testament is the so-called eclectic text British scholars Westcott and Hort published in 1882. This text is basically that found in two groups of manuscripts dating from the fourth century.

These texts were not known in 1611. The translators of the KJV had to depend on a later group of Greek manuscripts. This group, called the Textus Receptus or “Received Text,” includes many verses in the New Testament that are not contained in the Westcott-Hort tradition. For example, John 5:4 in the KJV and NKJV says an angel went down into the waters of the “Pool of Bethesda” at a certain time and stirred them up. Most of the newer translations, based on Westcott-Hort, omit this verse as a late addition to the New Testament and so not part of the inspired text.

Article continues below

Those responsible for the publication of the NKJV insist, however, that the manuscripts of the Textus Receptus may be more accurate and ancient than most scholars will admit. As the Preface of the NKJV says, “A growing number of scholars now regard the Received Text as far more reliable than previously thought.”

Most of the scholars we contacted do not agree and note that the vast majority of New Testament scholars support the eclectic Greek text.

At issue are certain portions of the Bible, such as Matthew 6:13b; Mark 16:9–20; Luke 23:34a; John 5:3b–4; John 7:53–8:11; Acts 8:37, and 1 John 5:7–8. The Textus Receptus includes these portions while the eclectic text generally does not. Ultimately, which are included determines what is in the inspired Word of God.

The Reader’s Digest Bible (RDB) has already been the subject of an equal amount of controversy, but for a different reason. It claims to be “the only true condensation of the Bible,” as opposed to an abridgment. That means instead of omitting entire passages and even books as abridgments do, the RDB has shortened the Bible by about 40 percent by eliminating words, phrases, verses, and short blocks of text it deemed extraneous to the basic message. The Old Testament has been shortened by half, the New Testament by a quarter. The method is the one Reader’s Digest has perfected over half a century with other books. Seven editors worked three years to complete the condensation.

As the editors point out in the preface, people in ancient times were far more enamored of repetition than we are. General editor Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary assures the reader that “nothing has been changed, nothing added to or removed from the text that in any way diminished its spirit, its teachings, or the familiar ring of its language.” He also insists that the work contains no bias toward or against any particular set of beliefs, though some evangelicals have objected to some of the introductions that precede each book. Would it not have been more politic and irenic to recognize that a substantial number of evangelical scholars reject the theory that post-Mosaic sources contributed to Genesis? Many evangelical scholars also reject a postexilic date for Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon; a later date for the latter part of Isaiah; and a Maccabean date (about 165 B.C.) for Daniel.

Article continues below

In his field of greatest expertise, the New Testament, Metzger’s introductions are less at odds with the views of most evangelicals. Though he mentions that some scholars hold that John’s teachings “may have been edited by another,” he also mentions the tradition that the aged apostle John wrote them near the close of the first century. There is not even a hint of the view that II Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians may not have been by Paul, as some German and American scholars argue. The position that the Pastoral Letters may have “expanded several previously unpublished messages of Paul” is accepted also by a number of evangelical scholars, though they would not be happy about the idea that the author may have lived a generation after Paul’s death.

Traditional and critical views of the authorship of I Peter are given, but Metzger notes that “most modern scholars” feel II Peter “was drawn up in Peter’s name sometime between A.D. 100 and 150.” No connection is made between the “Christian prophet named John” who wrote Revelation and the disciple of Jesus named John.

The Reader’s Digest Bible is explicitly intended for the general reader who is discouraged from reading the Bible by its “formidable length, complexity, or obscurity.” It is not intended for the person who reads the Bible regularly. If evangelicals recognize that the RDB was not in any way intended to replace the full Bible but rather to serve as an introduction to it, they will respond from a more balanced perspective.

Few, if any, of the favorite Bible sections have been touched. Some condensations will be obvious to anyone who knows his Bible well—1 Chronicles 1–9, for instance (the whole of I Chronicles has been condensed to nine pages). A number of psalms have been omitted entirely, as was the last half of Daniel. Wherever Hebrew parallelism occurs, the condensers have tended to eliminate it; for example, Proverbs 1:9 becomes simply, “they are a fair garland for your head,” omitting “and pendants for your neck.”

The editorial team did its work with great skill. Without making a verse-by-verse comparison, most Bible readers will have a difficult time finding what has been omitted.

Article continues below

It is most unfortunate, however, that the editors had to spoil a useful work for a general audience with introductory materials unacceptable to so many evangelicals.

Three Guides To Bible Translation

We are faced with so many translations today that we need authoritative works to guide us in evaluating them. Among the books on the Bible now available are several that review some of the leading Bible translations and suggest their strengths and weaknesses. At an even more basic level, there are books that discuss what makes a good translation, a subject evangelical Christians can debate with the same fervor and intensity of disagreement some people devote to fad diets.

Even the person who has been fortunate enough to take college or seminary Bible courses has selections to challenge his more refined theological interests.

Both Jack P. Lewis’s The English Bible; from KJV to NIV; A History and Evaluation (Baker, 1981) and The Word of God: A Guide to English Versions of the Bible (John Knox, 1982), edited by Lloyd R. Bailey, review the more popular Bible translations on the market today. Lewis’s volume is an amazingly thorough, in-depth survey of 12 translations currently in use. In meticulous detail Lewis analyzes translations and evaluates thousands of specific words and phrases. In addition, he has chapters on the Bible in history and the early English Bible. In a third chapter he grapples magisterially with “Doctrinal Problems in the King James Version.” An evangelical with doctorates from both Harvard and Hebrew Union College, Lewis has written an outstanding analysis of today’s major Bible translations.

The Word of God analyzes nine Bible translations, including the New Jewish Version. It is an expansion of articles that originally appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of the Duke Divinity School Review. Nine different authors write evaluations, and Eugene Nida and Robert Bratcher introduce and conclude the book. Of interest is the inclusion at the end of each article, where available, of the names of the participants in the various translation projects. Many of the authors would not be considered evangelical Christians, and considerable hostility is expressed to the New American Standard Bible. But the New International Version receives a relatively favorable review, and the volume is a helpful addition to Bible translation evaluation.

The Translation Debate: What Makes a Translation Good? by Eugene H. Glassman (IVP, 1981) is a different kind of book. Instead of evaluating individual translations, it reflects on the nature of translations. Glassman, a missionary translator and translations adviser to the United Bible Societies, traces the history of Bible translation (which he calls “the thankless task”!). He also discusses the differences between translating, interpreting, and paraphrasing. Two ways of translating, form oriented and content oriented, are compared. The author, who has graduate degrees from Dallas, Northwestern, and Wheaton, clearly favors the latter, now called “dynamic equivalence.” He concludes with five guidelines to a good translation; it avoids meaninglessness; ambiguity; misleading translation; complicated, heavy, or obscure renderings; and unnaturalness.

Article continues below

The reader who wonders why people argue so much over translations will find The Translation Debate a sound guide to the issues.

A Scholarly Tool

What about that person who wants to dig more deeply into the Greek text? Thomas Nelson Publishers offers him The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text (1982), edited by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad, both associated with Dallas Theological Seminary.

In addition to a clear Greek text with modern English punctuation and headings, the editors provide the reader with detailed manuscript footnotes. They also include an introduction in which the Westcott-Hort tradition of manuscripts is attacked and the superiority of the “Majority Text” defended.

This Greek Testament should receive much use in seminaries and Bible colleges that accept the editors’ textual presuppositions. The majority of schools are more likely, however, to use Greek Testaments based on the Westcott-Hort tradition.

LESLIE R. KEYLOCKMr. Keylock is president of Keylock Editorial Services in Elgin, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.