The Crazy World of Bible Versions and Study Bibles

When I was a new Christian (1969), my new friend from my new church took me for my first visit to a Christian bookshop – I was so excited.  I had no idea about bibles and he guided me to choose a Revised Standard Version (RSV).  As I read it I was surprised to find how easy it was to understand and that there was an absence of old-style English.  From the beginning I loved to read the bible and I knew it was God’s word.

About four years later, my new wife and I joined a strict Calvinistic church, and I was persuaded to use the King James Version (KJV).  I still read the bible a great deal and loved it and quickly became accustomed to the older English of the KJV.  I also brought my children up on it; they were reading it from their first moments almost as we read it together daily; I gave each of them a Gideon’s KJV New Testament as their own, and they used it as they learned to read.  They were weaned on the KJV, so to speak.

After several years I “upgraded” to the New King James Version (NKJV); then, after reading “The King James Version Debate: a Plea for Realism” by D. A. Carson, I changed to the New International Version (NIV).  Carson’s book opened a new world to me and I became fascinated with bible versions.  I eagerly purchased each new version as it appeared on the market, starting with the Revised English Bible (REB), then a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and I found a New American Bible (NAB) in a charity shop.  And somewhere during this period I purchased a New Living Translation (NLT) and also an NIV Study Bible and an NIV Full Life Study Bible – and before I knew it I was in confusion and unconsciously caught up trying to be a textual critic as I tried to ascertain which version had the best or right reading.

For the first few years I was able to keep up with each new version as it was published, but eventually there were so many new versions flooding the market that I was overwhelmed.  I’ve since lost count of the new versions and don’t even know the names of many of them.  There are literal translations, dynamic equivalent translations, and now a new version that fits in between these two extremes.  There are translations for reading, translations for sounding dignified when being read aloud, translations that are really easy to read and understand; majestic translations, translations that read like the daily newspaper; and there are the versions which have varying degrees of being “gender neutral”.  The choice is dizzying and confusing.

Destruction of Scripture

During the first two centuries of the Church, the power of Rome increasingly persecuted it.  The attacks grew in intensity and ferocity, but one of the most severe and most effective was that of the Emperor Diocletian – it was known as “The Great Persecution”.  As well as killing and torturing Christians in his fevered attempt to extirpate Christianity, Diocletian understood that the Christians had holy writings which were a source of strength and unity, and he forced them to hand over these scriptures and reveal anyone else who had copies.  At a time when there were no printing presses and every copy of scripture was laboriously written and copied by hand, countless precious copies of scripture were destroyed and the loss was keenly felt; and continues to be felt even today.  However, some brave and faithful priests and individual Christians handed over writings which were not genuine scripture and were thus not valued, while keeping the true scriptures hidden.

Corruption of Scripture

At the same time as Satan was trying to physically remove the word of God from the face of the earth, he was also engaged in a more subtle and far more effective campaign to corrupt the scriptures by changing words; omitting words, sentences and passages; and adding others.  And he had many willing agents to carry out this plan. 

Trinitarian Bible Society states: “The most ancient surviving Greek manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures differ greatly from each other and exhibit the worst corruptions of the text in great abundance.  Many of the later manuscripts were executed with greater care and are more reliable guides to the true text.  The early manuscripts were adulterated in various ways, sometimes through mere carelessness, sometimes through ignorance of the language, sometimes through deliberate heretical attempts to suppress what was written, and sometimes through pious but misguided endeavours to embellish or enlarge upon what was written” (TBS booklet p 8).

Some well-meaning scribes sometimes changed the text so that it matched the prevailing theology.  For example, Augustine tells us that the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7:53-8:11) was removed from some scribes’ texts because they thought that Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman’s adultery might encourage other women to commit the same sin.

Other changes were not so well-intended.  Gnostics and other heretics changed their copies to accommodate their heresies – Marcion, for example, was the first textual critic as he excised parts of Luke’s gospel and had only a few of Paul’s epistles in his New Testament; everything else got the chop.  Initially the attacks were against the reality of the humanity of Jesus; later attacks were against the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the Gospel itself; these were just some of the targets of Satan’s ministers, false teachers and false prophets – his antichrists (1 Jn 4:1-3).  The intent was to undermine and nullify the authority of scripture. 

F. H. A. Scrivener writes, “It is no less true to fact than paradoxical in sound, that the worst corruptions to which the New Testament has ever been subjected originated within a hundred years after it was composed; and that Irenaeus and the African Fathers, and the whole Western, with a portion of the Syrian Church, used manuscripts far inferior to those employed by Stunica, Erasmus or Stephens thirteen centuries later when moulding the Textus Receptus” (TBS booklet quoting Scrivener, p 8; emphases mine).

Satan’s greatest success, in my opinion, was the undermining of the authority of 1 John 5:7 to such an extent that it is only found in about 4 Greek copies, and is omitted from all modern bible versions; indeed, it is hardly even included in footnotes now, such is the widespread belief that it is not original to the text.  But God has nevertheless preserved it in the Latin copies of the Greek texts. 

Not only were vital doctrines attacked and weakened but false doctrines were implanted into the text of the New Testament; doctrines which are those of Gnosticism, and New Age practices of occultism and witchcraft, which can allow the text to be interpreted as applying either to Christ or Satan.  For example, in the KJV and DRB, the fall of Lucifer from heaven to earth is described in Isaiah chapter 14 and he is named in verse 12.  However, in the NIV, Lucifer becomes someone called “morning star”, and “Day Star” in the NRSV. But Revelation 22:16 tells us that Jesus Christ the Son of David is the morning star.  He didn’t fall from heaven to earth; he came as a true man, sent by the Father, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin and born from her.  It was Lucifer who was expelled from heaven and cast down to earth because of his sin and rebellion.

The source of the new version was Alexandria, and the text which came from it is exemplified in manuscripts such as Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinus, and several portions from other forms.  These are the manuscripts which underlie our modern versions and are regarded by scholars and textual critics as the best and purest examples of the biblical text available today.  Whereas the Textus Receptus (TR) is lampooned and vilified by these people, despite that the TR, part of the majority Byzantine family of texts, has been around in its various forms from the beginning.  Of the approx. 5000 Greek texts, portions, and scraps we have available to us today, over 95% of them are Byzantine.  But scholars and textual critics refuse to use this Traditional text as the basis for their new versions.   

The Alexandrian texts don’t even agree with each other; Sinaiticus and Vaticanus differ from each other in about 3000 places in the gospels alone, and from the TR in about 8000 places.  These texts have been synthesised into one single text which we use today as the basis of our modern versions, the Nestle Aland (NA) and the United Bible Societies (UBS) text.  And it is constantly being tweaked and changed and updated so that the “authoritative” Greek text we used five years ago is obsolete and we have to start again and use a new “authoritative” Greek text.  The UBS text I used in theological college in 2005 was the 4th version, while the NA text is up to its 28th edition.

This is not to say there is no place for textual criticism.  The TR underwent its own history of limited textual criticism during the early years of the reformation, as it was compiled and selected from various Byzantine manuscripts by Erasmus, and continued to be refined by Robert Stephens, Theodore Beza, and the Elzevirs.  The resultant text, which we know as the Textus Receptus (Received Text), was still undoubtedly Byzantine and majority, and thus of the same kind – indeed, the TR best exemplified them, as Edward Hills explains in his definitive book “The King James Version Defended”.

Endless Revision – Endless Confusion

As for the English versions that spring from the hybrid Alexandrian text, each new version that comes out has to be reasonably different from the others so that the publishers can obtain a copyright for their new version; yet they are all being taken from the same text.  How many different readings can the one text yield?  And how many more will be squeezed from it?  This alone demonstrates why there are so many variations in our English versions, and it shows how unscrupulous bible publishers are when they are prepared to produce doubtful readings in their version, which produce doubt over the text and confusion of doctrine and confusion in the minds of God’s people, just so they make a buck.  With the limitations required to obtain a copyright, each new version MUST be noticeably different from the others, and therefore accuracy of translation takes second place to copyright and profit.

Christianity is already the laughing stock of Muslims and other enemies of the Gospel who rightly point out the obvious differences, not only from version to version, but changes within each version, as each one is updated and “improvements” made.  They’re right, of course; and the Western Christian world just goes blithely on in their deception and stupidity, grinding out version after version, each substantially different to the others, and wringing the text for meanings it was never meant to give.  When will it stop?  Never, I suppose, as long as there is a profit to be made.  Publishers have discovered a cash cow which they can milk indefinitely for a continuing source of profit, and they won’t be letting go of that teat any time soon.

As I’ve intimated, each version lasts 5-10 years and then it is revised and updated; consequently we now have multiple revisions of NIV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, and NKJV, as well as new revisions such as ESV and NLT, and new versions such as HCSB, etc.  The contemporary Christian bible world has gone mad!  What is happening to us?

So I’m bewildered over the dazzling array of bible versions, all clamouring “Pick me!”, “Pick me!”.  So I decide to get an RSV because it was my first bible and I loved it so much.  But then I’m faced with the question “Which RSV”.  It’s been revised twice as the RSV and is a revision itself.  But the second revision (1971) became the basis of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and is essentially a new version now.  It is preferred by many academics and scholars, especially liberals; even though I used it at theological college because it was the official text there, I’m not in favour of liberal theology.  However there is another revision of the 1971 RSV which has also become a version in its own right – the English Standard Version (ESV).  It was done with an evangelical readership (market?) in mind – maybe that’s the one I should use.  But I don’t like versions which pander to one part of Christendom, so maybe I should consider the NIV – but this is gender-neutral and I don’t like that either.  How about the NLT?  Well, that is a strongly dynamic equivalent translation and slanted towards evangelicals, so I certainly don’t want that.  And the New King James Version is roundly condemned and rejected by die-hard KJV lovers, who point out its many faults, and that it often prefers a reading more in line with the NA and UBS Greek texts rather than the TR; and it is constantly being revised here and there without telling anyone it is a revision in constant progress.  The New English Bible is easy to read but sometimes vulgar, and it has moved texts around because the revisers thought they fit better in their new location, so I can’t trust it at all.  And its revision, the Revised English Bible, while an improvement, isn’t much better.  And I just plain don’t like the New American Standard Bible and its many revisions as it is too wooden and clunky to read in its efforts to be as literal as possible.

Each of these versions and their revisions, plus others which I haven’t even mentioned, such as Good News Bible, Contemporary English Version, New Century Version, Amplified Bible, and still more of which I can’t even recall the names at the moment, are a huge part of a huge problem for Christians who love the word of God.  And now the Catholics also have their own world of multiple versions and their revisions, so many that it makes my head spin.

And each of these versions and their revisions has been hailed as the new standard in bible translation – but within ten years they find out it wasn’t so good after all and needs to be updated and/or revised.  They need to keep up, they tell us, with the latest scholarship or manuscript discoveries or the changing nature of our English language – or is it really because the scholars behind the NA and UBS Greek texts just like to keep tweaking their text and voting on each change as to how likely it is to be genuine, with a scale or ranking at the bottom of the pages?.  The Holy Bible is now in the hands of robbers and vandals, its authority seriously undermined, and the people of God have been so dumbed down by “scholarship” and shallow teaching from the pulpit and the Christian book market that they aren’t even aware of the situation and probably wouldn’t care much if they did.

It’s no wonder that there is so much confusion amongst Christians.  And it’s no wonder that there is a movement claiming that the King James Bible is the only trustworthy version because it was the standard and only version for 400 hundred years.  Christians want stability and constancy, especially in their bibles.  So, given that the contemporary market is swamped with new versions, the idea of a version which has longevity and which has been used by God in the great revivals of the past, a bible which is easily memorised, and is based on the Hebrew Masoretic and long-standing Greek texts of the Byzantine family, and a bible against which all other versions can be measured, the King James Bible stacks up very well.

Endless Study Bibles

We seem to have reached a point where we are able to make whatever doctrine we want and we can find a bible to support it – this is especially the case with study bibles.  One of the things which struck me when I (reluctantly) watched a Rick Warren video with our bible study group, was that he had a stack of different versions with him, and as he spoke he selected a version from the pile which best supported each point he made.  And Christians don’t even think to question this.

The competition between versions is so intense and the publishers so desperate to find a new nichein the market to fill that they are going to ludicrous lengths to gain sales, and we’re being swamped with countless study bibles.  It started off reasonably, I suppose, with just ordinary study bibles i.e. bibles with notes attached which explain difficulties in interpretation, point out important points, deal with issues, and do on.  The NIV produced a very thorough study bible which was very well received and sales went through the roof.  It has since been through many revisions and updates as the NIV itself went through its own revisions.  The other publishers of bibles couldn’t afford to be left behind in this untapped market so they each have their own study bible now – NIV Study Bible, NLT Study Bible, NKJV Study Bible, various KJV study bibles, GNB Study Bible, Amplified Study Bible and, no doubt, others which I haven’t mentioned here. 

But the situation has gone crazy now as each publisher, in their greed for a greater share of the market, not only tailors a bible to suit various Christian groups and sub-groups but is actually creating niches in order to fill them with a relevant study bible.

About 5 years back, if my memory serves me correctly, the Zondervan bibles catalogue listed an eye-watering number of study bibles: NIV First Century Study Bible, NIV The Journey Study Bible, NIV Celebrate Recovery Bible, NIV Spiritual Renewal Study Bible, NIV Essentials Study Bible (does this mean the other study bibles don’t contain the “essentials”?), NIV Life Application Study Bible, NIV Integrated Study Bible, First Century Study Bible, NIV Leadership Study Bible….and that was just page 1 of the Zondervan catalogue of study bibles!  There were 9 more pages of study bibles in the catalogue, each page containing 16 items. 

And in their current catalogue (2021) they list The Jesus Bible NIV Edition, NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, NIV Cultural Background Study Bible, NIV Faithlife Study Bible, and NIV Celebrate Recovery Study Bible.  There is also a large number of study bibles for children: NIV The Adventure Bible, NIV The Adventure Bible: Polar Expedition Edition, NIV Kids’ Quiz Bible, NIV Kids’ Visual Study Bible, and NIV Investigator’s Holy Bible.  And this is just one page of one version!  There is also NIV Student Bible, NIV Bible for Teen Girls, NIV Outreach Bible, NIV Outreach Bible for Kids, NIV Fuel for the Race of Life New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs: Inspiration for Motor Racing Enthusiasts (spare me, please) – and the list goes on.  Admittedly there are several versions of the same study bible for different covers, indexes, and so on.  But even so….

Other publishers have a raft of study bibles too.  Also in the Zondervan catalogue are: NKJV Study Bible for Kids, NKJV Spirit Filled Life Study Bible, NKJV Children’s Outreach Bible, NKJV Ignite: The Bible for Teens, NKJV Know the Word Study Bible, NKJV Woman Thou art Loosed – T. D. Jakes, etc., etc.

In the KJV there are such bibles as KJV Study Bible, The King James Study Bible, KJV Life in the Spirit Study Bible, John MacArthur Study Bible, Charles Stanley Study Bible, Warren Wiersbe Study Bible, KJV Foundation Study Bible, and many more including the KJV equivalent of other study bibles in the other versions, all of which are the same bible but with the version appropriate to the publisher.

This list is only a fraction of study bibles available in the above and other versions, which would be too tedious to list any further, but you get my point….

And there is a great host of study bibles, most of which are probably out of print now but which were around just 5 years ago or so and can be found on Amazon: men’s devotional bibles, women’s devotional bibles, marrieds’ study bibles, teen study bibles, prophecy study bibles, Charismatic study bibles, Reformed study bibles, an archaeological study bible, a chronological bible, the Scofield Bible in its multiple guises i.e. the old Scofield Bible, New Scofield Bible, Scofield 3 Bible, in most versions; and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible also in many versions now.

Add to these there are study bibles by your favourite bible “expert” – C.S Lewis, Henry Morris, Charles Ryrie, John Hagee, David Jeremiah, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Chuck Swindoll, Jimmy Swaggart, John Wesley, Matthew Henry, and the already mentioned John MacArthur, Charles Stanley, and Warren Wiersbe; the list goes on almost endlessly.  Again, these are but a few of what have been published.  Add to this the numberless teens and children’s bibles, and their appalling pictures, even within one version, and we have total chaos!  And all this hardly even scratches the surface of the eye-watering number of study bibles, niche bibles, specialty bibles available to dumbed-down Christians.

I looked at Amazon’s pages for study bibles and they have 70,000 results!  Yes, 70,000.  Of course, not every item on these pages is an actual study bible, and many will be variations of the one study bible e.g. large print, indexed, different covers, and so on.  To be generous, even if you reduced this to half the number – 35,000 – or even a quarter – 17,500, this is still an astonishing number!

And some of them are so ludicrous I don’t know whether to laugh or cry – NRSV has a Green study bible, and 2011 NIV has a Grandmother’s study bible.  But if that isn’t outrageous enough, I saw a bible for “coloured women” in an earlier Zondervan catalogue.  For coloured women?!!  What are they doing with the word of God?  And what are they doing to the Church?  What is so different about “coloured women” that they need a bible of their own?  According to the bible I read, all Christians are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).  And are grandmothers so different to other women or Christian women that they need a specialty bible of their own?  Surely the bible can speak for itself and address the individual’s need or situation whatever and wherever and whenever it is?  And do our bibles have to follow the whims and changes of politics?  Why do we need a Green Study Bible?  The focus of the bible is his glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, the salvation of lost sinners and other cardinal doctrines that are eternal, not the environment.  To focus on “green” issues, race, gender equality, and other political issues which are all temporal and passing even if some of them are important, distracts us from the realities of heaven and hell, sin, salvation and reconciliation to God, faith, obedience, love, etc.

So, to all you publishers who see Christians as simply a market to be fleeced – stop filling our bibles with drivel!!  Allow us as Christians to search the bible for ourselves.  Stop treating us as imbeciles who can’t open the pages of the bible without having to depend on an “expert” alongside the text to interpret it for us!  Anyway, the bible has its own inbuilt, personal teacher – the Holy Spirit, who is its author, interpreter, and preserver.

This tactic of finding a niche and filling it – or if there is no niche, create one – and filling it with a study bible is doing the opposite of what God wants, and it’s now dividing the Church and Christians into many disparate groups just so the publisher can make some extra sales in his efforts to have the top-selling bible and become No 1 – which means even more sales and extra profit, which is the publishers’ goal.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!  It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments: As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for ever more” (Ps 133).