The most frequent question I’ve received since I started learning Greek is simply why am I doing this? To me the answer is obvious: Because I want to read the New Testament in the language it was originally written. Then the next question is usually, “What for? the Bible has already been translated into English. By reading it in Greek wouldn’t you be retranslating it into English again thereby reinventing the wheel?”
People are not incorrect when they tell me that the Bible has already been translated into my language, but I fear that some important data points are being missed when this assertion is made. Translated by whom? when? and for what purpose?
Let’s start with the “by whom” question. Right off the bat my line of logic splits into two directions depending on who I’m talking to, namely those who hold to the “King James Only” position, and those who don’t.
The King James Version
Those who take the position that the King James Version is the only authorized version by God tend to believe that God’s inspiration was present, not only in the original writing of the Scriptures, but in the translation of them into English as well. They also believe that the only God-Inspired scriptures that exist today is the King James Version. Consequently, even non-English speaking people would need to first learn English before they can read the Word of God.
I have nothing against the King James Version. Preference is the only real reason I don’t use it. I figure, if I’m going to have to condition myself to be comfortable reading the Bible in an old dialect (such as the Elizabethan-like style of the King James version) then I might as well condition myself to be comfortable reading Koine Greek instead since that’s the language it was actually written in.
I just have a problem when people tell me that the King James Version is the only version, or as some would say, the superior version. Such a view is not able to withstand the attacks of someone like Bart Ehrman, who has made himself famous by demonstrating the changes that have occurred in the Bible during its transmission. Anyone who debates one of Bart Ehrman’s disciples while holding the view that the King James Version is a perfect translation of the autographs will simply lose. Just consider the following verses that exist in the King James Version but do not exist in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament.
- “The longer ending of Mark” (Mark 16:9-20)
- “The angel stirring the waters” (John 5:4)
- “The woman caught in adulatory” (John 7:58 – 8:11)
- “The Comma Johanneum” (1 John 5:7)
Anyone who believes that the King James Version is representative of the autographs is thereby committed to the idea that these verses were in the autographs. But simply looking at the earliest extant manuscripts demonstrates that they were not. For these and other reasons, I do not hold the view that God exclusively inspired the creation of the King James Version.
The Modern Versions
King James Onlyism aside, when a person tells me that learning the original language is not necessary because the Bible has already been translated into English, my immediate response is to ask “Translated by who? and for what purpose?” The one benefit of the KJV Onlyist’s position is that it includes the doctrine that the English version that we read is just as divinely inspired as the original Greek/Hebrew. But without that presupposition, if we’re going to rely 100% on our English translation, then we should know a thing or two about the people who produced the translation we are using and what their translation philosophies are. Since my point is that we should not rely 100% on our English translation, I’m not going to go through the trouble of listing out ever translation committee behind every translation and what their translation philosophies are. Suffice to say that, because every translation is an act of interpretation, the translators are making decisions based on their philosophies as to how they believe the Greek sentence they are translating should be portrayed in English.
Why So Many Translations?
Regardless of the philosophies of the translators, one question needs to be addressed. Namely, why are there so many different English translations? Let’s take a step back for a second and take a look at what a translation is.
A translation of the Bible is the result of a committee of translators (or a in few cases, a single translator) working with the Masoretic Text (Hebrew) and the Novum Testamentum Graece (Greek). Let’s take the New International Version as an example. The NIV was produced by a team of over 100 scholars from different denominations over a period of 10 years. Because of the enormous amount of work put into this project, the team had the work they produced copyrighted. As a result there is a list of rules that we all have to follow when quoting from the NIV. For example, you are not allowed to quote more that 500 verses in total in a production without obtaining permission. Well, what if you wanted to create a Bible that has your commentary in the bottom half of the page? Based on the NIV’s rules you would have to get permission from Zondervan, the company that holds the copyright for the NIV. They might grant your request to produce a Bible with their text, but not without charging you royalties. So you have two options: A) Pay the royalties to Zondervan thereby inflating the price of the Bible you are producing, or B) create a brand new translation. Needless to say that many companies opted for option B, and thus many translations were created.
My point for saying this is not to condemn companies like Zondervan for copyrighting their material, but rather to demonstrate that the many translations we have today are mostly in existence because of Capitalism, not Divine Inspiration. So when a person says, “I trust my English Bible” they are also saying “I trust the publisher.” It just seems to me that a person would have a more pure experience of reading God’s word if they read it directly, rather than reading a translation.