The Crazy World of Bible Versions

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 single 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 a handful of 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 and in the writings of some of the Church Fathers. 

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, 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 and God-preserved text as the basis for their new versions.   

The Alexandrian texts don’t even agree with each other; Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, the origins of which are dubious, 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 this new text 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 often 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?

Consequently there is a 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) which is essentially a new version now in its own right.  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 2011 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 which thus becomes the words of men and no longer of God, and has caved in to modification to suit the Catholic Church, so I certainly don’t want that.  And the New King James Version is roundly condemned and rejected by die-hard KJV lovers because it often departs from the TR, preferring the corrupt NA and UBS Critical Greek text instead; 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 is often vulgar, and it has moved texts around within a chapter 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, apart from the changes it makes to the text.

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 of faithful Christians claiming that the King James Bible is the only trustworthy version being the standard and only version for 400 hundred years, and based on the preserved Byzantine Text.  Christians want not only stability and constancy in their bibles, but accuracy above all.  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 alone stacks up very well.

There is a danger, if the Church is not more diligent, that this doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ will be virtually lost in the next generation or two because our Evangelical youth are being brought up on versions such as the NIV, ESV and NLT; versions which are the darlings of today’s Evangelical leaders because of their self-proclaimed accuracy of translation of the latest version of the Critical Text.  On the one hand, because of their underlying Greek text, these versions dilute, undermine, or deny the deity of Christ in many places, while on the other hand, in other places, they uphold his deity.  Our youth will be confused because of such contradictions they see in their bibles and will look for answers; consequently they will be vulnerable to false teachers such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  And when these and other avowed enemies of Christianity such as atheists and militant ex-Christians, and false religions such as Islam, attack the bible because of its apparent contradictions and discrepancies which, on the surface, look very intimidating, these young people may well be so confounded that they will abandon the faith, just as the ex-Christians did for the same reason. 

“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word” (Ps 119:9).