Why Versions Differ

Herbert Dennett, Sompting, Sussex

Part 2 of 2 of the series The Revised Family of Versions of the New Testament

Category: Study

In a previous article the group of versions of the New Testament from the Authorized to the Revised Standard were described. Now it is proposed to examine briefly a wider range of versions and to note the different ways in which the text of the New Testament is presented to the English reader. The contrast between some versions in certain passages is so great that at first sight it scarcely seems that the same text is being presented. Here is an example:

  1. Which water in manner corresponding doth now save you also, even immersion.
  2. And I cannot help pointing out what a perfect illustration this is of the way you have been admitted to the safety of the Christian “ark” by baptism.

Neither of these bears much resemblance to the rendering of 1 Peter 3. 21 in the older versions, but the choice of words, order of phrases and the very style of language in the above examples (Rotherham and Phillips) are all in sharp contrast.

There are at least seven factors in Bible translating, any or all of which may affect the rendering and style of English in a particular version.

1. The Greek Text

When reading some of the modern versions of the New Testament it will be noticed that here and there words, phrases and even whole verses, which appear in the Authorized Version, are missing. This is true even of members of the “Revised” family of versions described in the previous article, for they are all based on a revised Greek text. It is important to see that such omissions are not necessarily “taking from the true Word of God”, as some irresponsible critics have asserted, but are the deletion of spurious additions which have crept into the original text throughout centuries of hand-copying.

The lame man of John 5 evidently believed the legend of the “troubled waters” (see verse 7), but the inclusion of the end of verse 3 and all verse 4 would give inspired sanction to the idea, which is quite a different matter. The liturgical ending of what is called The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 is another example. Modern versions rightly omit the ritualistic ending, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever, Amen”.

2. Accurate Translation

Versions vary in the degree of accuracy with which they reproduce the precisions of the Greek original, such as the inclusion or exclusion of the definite article “the”. Luke 12. 54 should read, “When you see the cloud rise in the west”, that is the particular cloud which foretells rain, not just “a cloud”. Conversely, 1 Peter 3.1 is “without a word”. This refers to the influence of the wife’s manner of life rather than to her speaking. It is not “the word” as in the Authorized.

Another important distinction the older versions fail to make is that between past tenses which signify a completed action, and those which record continued action. 1 Corinthians 3. 6 illustrates both: “I planted, Apollos watered”. Here is work undertaken and completed, but the next phrase should read, “God was giving the increase” (not “gave”). One version puts it, “God kept the plants growing”. There are many hundred such tense distinctions in the New Testament, which the more careful versions bring out.

3. Literal or Paraphrase

Some versions attempt to translate the original almost word for word. This policy often results in stiff and unnatural English as in Young’s rendering of Luke 16. 31, “If Moses and the prophets they do not hear, neither if one may rise out of the dead will they be persuaded”. This closely follows the original, but more recent versions adopt the reverse policy of translating ideas rather than words. Here is the same passage in the New English Bible, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will pay no heed even if someone should rise from the dead”.

In some passages paraphrase is essential. The word used of the rulers in Acts 5. 33 literally means “sawn asunder”, and one version at least so translates it, but the sense is clearly “were furious” or “enraged”. It is not easy for a translator to decide how far paraphrase should be taken.

4. What Kind of English

Quite apart from questions of accuracy and paraphrase is the matter of the style of English to be used in a version. Philemon 22 provides examples of all styles from the archaic diction of the Authorized Version, “withal prepare me also a lodging”, to the highly colloquial modern speech rendering of Wand in his New Testament Letters, “Please get ready a spare room for me”. The Revised Standard has the slightly more formal, “prepare a guest room for me”.

The choice of actual words used ranges from the stilted and formal, as in “cosmic systems” of Hebrews 1. 2 (Arthur Way) and “sophistries” of 2 Corinthians 10. 5 (N.E.B.) to the extreme of distasteful slang as “the left-overs shall be saved” in Romans 9. 28 (Verkuyl), or the “little tin gods” of 1 Peter 5. 3 (Phillips).

5. The New Testament Scene

A further problem which faces the translator is that of spanning the cultural gap between New Testament times and our own. The dominant feature of the Roman world was the universal institution of slavery. Apart from some half-a-dozen references, such as the “hired servants” of Luke 15. 17, 19, the Authorized Version completely fails to distinguish the free servant from the chattel slave.

The complicated relationship between master, lord or owner on the one hand and household servant, attendant and slave on the other calls for the use of over a dozen different words in the original, but the distinction between them is largely masked by the vague use of “master” and “servant” alone in the older versions. As the idea of slavery is conveyed by noun or verb some 170 times in the New Testament, and that of free service about 140 times, though by several different words, the importance of the question is evident. A careful study of the way various versions render the relevant passages can be very instructive.

6. Doctrinal Bias

A few versions have been produced to support a particular line of teaching. The ritualistic flavour of Wand’s New Testament Letters is evident in such passages as Ephesians 4. 30, “not to distress the Holy Spirit of God whom you received at your Confirmation”, or “in baptism his old sins have been washed away”, 2 Pet. 1. 9. It is to be expected that versions published by heretical cults are unsatisfactory, and this is certainly true of the New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses), where John 1. 1 reads, “The Word was a god”. Strangely enough in non-controversial passages this version is often more accurate than some orthodox ones. The otherwise excellent translation by Ronald Knox (r.c.) is marred by the many tendencious footnotes linked with a text to which no exception can be taken.

7. Physical Presentation

The last type of variation concerns the way in which the text is presented. Most modern versions have wisely abandoned the old system of printing in separated verses, which has led to the unfortunate habit of “reading round” irrespective of sense and context. The treatment of Old Testament quotations also varies. In older versions they are often “buried” in the general text, and cannot be picked out by eye. Modern versions often indent the quoted words, or mark them by a distinctive type - italic or bold. Verse numbers are but a human device, though so useful for reference. One translator, Schonfield, abandons the common numbering of chapters and verses and uses his own, which makes reference very difficult. Direct speech is indicated in some versions by quotation marks, and emphatic words by means of a special type as in Darby’s New Translation.

Much of the above is plainly factual, designed to suggest how the English reader can best get the true sense of what God has said in His Word. Useful though such information may be, it is no substitute for individual waiting on God and seeking the gracious help of the Holy Spirit in understanding what is written.