Are Translations Reliable?


A Study Guide

“If the Bible has been translated and retranslated over and over again how do we know when we open up a modern English Bible that we are actually reading the words of Jesus and not something else?" - Dr. Ed Gravely

Are Translations Accurate?

Textual criticism defined: The science of trying to reconstruct the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. 

Our modern translations have been based on older and even older manuscripts. For example, the King James is a fantastic translation - in its day a landmark translation of the Bible into English - but it was only based on a handful of Greek manuscripts and those were very late. Not to fault Erasmus or the King James translators who put that together - they were using the Greek manuscripts that they had. 

Modern translations of the Bible are going back even further into the history of the text because we now have available to us even older manuscripts, whereas Erasmus only had medieval manuscripts available to him. We have manuscripts that go all the way back to the 2nd century. We have fragments that go back to the early part of the 2nd century and all of those have been taken into account when new translations are made.The King James is not the foundation for any modern translation - ancient Greek manuscripts are. 

With modern English translations, you are getting a more reliable translation based on more data, based on more scientific discovery, and based on more available manuscripts which are older and which are considered by most experts to be even more reliable than the medieval manuscripts used by Erasmus. Now most modern translations use that same Greek text that Greek that been produced by scholars from the most ancient of sources. 

But the question still remains: "How do I know which translation I ought to buy?" "How do I know which one I ought to use?" Well that is not an easy question, and it’s not an easy question because translations are not all produced for the same purpose. Some are hammers and some are screwdrivers, and if you need a hammer, a screwdriver is not going to do the job. When you think in terms of translation philosophy, you have got a continuum. On one side of the continuum you’ve got the formal equivalence approach. They are striving for pure accuracy to get as close to one English word for one Greek word if possible and they have produced some excellent scholarly translations. 

Types of Formal Equivalence Translations

-       New American Standard Bible

-       Revised Standard Version 

Problems with Formal Equivalence

-       A little bit hard to read

-       It is a little stilted

-       A little wooden

-       It is not great for reading in public

-       Not public for church use necessarily

At the other end of the continuum is the paraphrase, and unlike the formal equivalent where you have a Greek word, English word, Greek word, English word, the paraphrase attempts to capture the thought. We read the words of Paul in Greek and we ask the question, "What the best way to translate this into English?" It’s not always a correspondence to words or sometimes even sentences, it's thought for thought.

Benefits of Paraphrase Translations

-       They make good children’s Bibles

-       They make great bibles for reading

-       If you want to read through the whole passages of the Bible at one time

Negative of Paraphrase Translation

-       Probably not going to be great for study

In the middle of that continuum, we have what we call the dynamic equivalence, and that is trying to strike a balance between the two extremes. Probably the most popular translation of all falls into that category, and that is the NIV. It is word for word in the sense that they try to capture Greek word, English word, Greek word, English, but they also try to employ idioms, where we have a phase in Greek that is idiomatic and try to capture that as an idiom in English. Not as precise as the formal equivalence, not as loose as the paraphrase, but it does strike a happy medium between hard to read and easy to read that probably why it so popular. 

Supporters of Formal Equivalence 

-       Most scholars

-       Most students of the Bible

-       Most New Testament professors

So what does this all mean? Well it means this: read your Bible. The Bible that you have in front of you if you have one of these translations that we have talked about really is a reader translation. It’s a very accurate representation in English of the words of Jesus, the words of Paul, the words of the prophets, the word of God and you don’t need to fear that maybe you’re getting some convoluted message because of translation history is not the case at all. We now know more about what the ancient Greek manuscripts said we have older manuscripts available to us and we have some of the finest translations techniques ever available and those we all employed in the production of the Bible you have in front of you. So READ it!!!

Caesar, earliest copy around AD 900, 10 copies

Livy, 20 copies

Plato, earliest copy around AD 900, 7 copies

Tacitus, earliest copy around AD 1100, 20 copies

Pliny the Younger, earliest copy around AD 850, 7 copies

Thucydides, earliest copy around AD 900, 8 copies

Suetonius - earliest copy around AD 950 - 8 copies

Herodotus - earliest copy around AD 900 - 8 copies

Sophocles - earliest copy around AD 100 - 193 copies

Catullus - earliest copy around AD 1550 - 3 copies

Euripides - earliest copy around AD 1100 - 9 copies

Demosthenes - earliest copy around AD 1100 - 200 copies

Aristotle - earliest copy around AD 1100 - 49 copies

Aristophanes - earliest copy around AD 900 - 10 copies

Homer (Iliad) - earliest copy around 400 BC - 643 copies

New Testament - earliest copy AD 125 - 24,000 COPIES

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