Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hasn't the Bible Been Translated Too Many Times?

When we were kids, we all loved to play "Telephone". You know, the first person whispers something quickly and quietly into the next person's ear. The second person is usually a bit confused, but the rules of the game mandate that they must pass something on to the next person. They do their best, but now the message is getting a bit off topic, and after five, six, or ten "telephone" passes, the end result can be shocking and almost always pretty hilarious. There is even a phrase we use in such cases: "Lost in translation..."

This harmless childhood game has, unfortunately, been used as an analogy regarding Bible translation. Many people think that the English Bible that we have today (whether King James version, NIV, etc) was translated from an older language, which translated earlier from an even older language, which was translated from an even older language, until, sometime in the distant past we reach the ORIGINAL languages that the Bible was written in. 

When confronted with the idea of the authority of the Bible as God's word, they will shrug and say:

"Well, it's been translated too many times, there's just no way to know what the original Word of God said, so we can't trust it." 

And they go on their merry way, not realizing that their excuse is an illusion, a magician's trick, with no basis in reality, and certainly no foundation in history.

Get ready for the shocker:
The English Bible that you have was translated DIRECTLY from the original languages of the Bible into English
(we call that a One-Step Translation). 

Honest. You are not reading a translation OF a translation OF a translation OF a translation, etc., etc.

This is one of those arguments against Christianity that has had scholars and students of history scratching their heads for decades. It isn't true, and it never has been true. Let's look at the real history, not the imagined history of the skeptic (with a predisposed bias against the Bible).

The Bible is comprised of two basic parts, called the Old Testament and the New Testament. 99% of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with two small portions in Aramaic). 100% of the New Testament was written in Greek (primarily Koine (or common) Greek). Just to put the accuracy and reliability of, let's say, just the New Testament into perspective, we have about 6000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament surviving until today. 

These manuscripts agree to approximately 99.5%. That number is not a misprint. 99.5%. And the majority of these tiny differences involve proper name spellings or simple word order. When that is figured in, we have almost 100% agreement between these many thousands of manuscripts.

When you realize that all of the 27 books of the New Testament were written before 95A.D. (about 2000 years ago), a simple comparison will show just how amazing (and miraculous) the 99.5% accuracy fact really is. Take the Book of Mormon, for instance, which was first written ("translated") around 1830. If you compare that original (which still exists) to the most recent edition of the Book of Mormon, there are about 3,900 changes. (Here is a link to just a handful of those changes) Almost 4000 changes in just 180 years...yet in the New Testament, which is nearly 2000 years old, we have 99.5% accuracy. It is absolutely astonishing. There is nothing that even comes close to the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament in all of the writings of antiquity. None.

Most Bible readers in the Western World have a copy of what is called the King James translation of the Bible. The translators worked directly from the best HEBREW manuscripts in their translation of the Old Testament, and they had access to the best GREEK manuscripts to guide them in the New Testament translation.

One step, from the original languages (Hebrew,Greek) into our languages (English, German, French, etc.)

While it is true that some very tiny languages, such as those spoken by remote tribes have a TWO STEP translation (usually Hebrew/Greek to English to (whatever language)), almost all of the major languages have ONE STEP translation methods. There are also some pre-King James translations that were at most TWO STEP translations (Hebrew/Greek to Latin to English).

But there are ways to ensure good accuracy, even in a TWO STEP method. One is called reverse translation comparison. In this method, you take the final translation language, and then translate it back into the intermediate language. If they have good match or correspondence, then the final translation (Step Two) can be considered a good, reliable translation.

If someone wants to argue that translating the scripture into different languages somehow causes the truth of the Word of God to become lost or unreliable, then consider this.

The United Nations has over 150 representatives from sovereign countries all over the globe. When meeting in the General Assembly, hundreds of live translators are hard at work, translating the speeches IN REAL TIME, to the delegates. Important decisions, involving life and death, food and energy, rights and responsibilities, all which affect millions of people, are decided there everyday, and how? Through translation. With a proper and thorough understanding of both languages, a skilled translator can accomplish remarkable accuracy, even down to minute details.

Indeed, even you, right now, are "translating" what you are reading. I know exactly what I mean as I am typing this, but you have to read it, and then your brain has to "interpret" what that means to you.

All communication involves translation at some level, even between people of the same language. 

Surely the infinite God, Who created the Universe and all life within it, Who created mankind with our amazing capacity of interpersonal communication through both the spoken and written word, can effectively get His message across to us. For those who use the "too many translations argument", they are in denial of the truth of the actual process of translation (one step) and in denial of God's ability to properly communicate with the creatures He has made.

History exposes this shallow argument to be an illusion, and a proper appreciation of the power of God reveals this attack to be unfounded logically.

The God Who created communication knows how to communicate. N'est pas?


  1. What do you base the level of accuracy of the ancient greek manuscripts on? How do you know there were no errors that changed meanings or forgeries committed by scribes?

  2. Eric--thanks for your comment. There are two separate areas of inquiry to address concerning your question: (1) Evidence of errors/forgeries (2) Accuracy.
    First, to allege that there were errors introduced into the text of the manuscripts (of which we have about 5800 manuscripts in Greek alone) requires an earlier copy that contains substantially different content. Since there are no such manuscripts, this challenge is pure conjecture or literary (theological) bias. Now, considering the claim that the New Testament is inspired, (granting that God exists) then it is completely within reason and rationality to expect that the same Creator who inspired His word would take steps to insure it's accurate transmission.

    Secondly, you asked about the basis of the accuracy of the New Testament. As pointed out in the article, when we compare, line by line, word by word, letter by letter, all 5800+ of the existing Greek manuscripts, they are in agreement to a level of 99.5% (with most "discrepancies" deriving from word order and spellings of proper names...neither of which change essential meaning). This is unparalleled in any other manuscript of history. Since we can only compare what actually exists, the degree of agreement places confidence beyond doubt.

    Also, we have many thousands of other manuscripts in various languages, Syriac, Latin, etc. and we can compare essential meanings with those as well to place all suspicion to the realm of bias and prejudice, rather than logic or reasonableness.
    Great question, thanks.


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