Can We Trust Our Bible Translations?

Can we trust our Bible translations? This question naturally belongs as part of our previous series on the King James Version. Some people claim that the King James Version is without any errors in it, thus being the authoritative, inerrant Word of God. However, as we demonstrated previously, there are mistakes in the translation of the KJV. This brings up the question, how can we trust other Bible translations (any of them) if there might be errors in them? This question not only applies to the KJV, but also the newer Bible translations (NASB, ESV, NIV, etc.).

removing bible translations

In order to work through this question, it will be helpful to consider the following points.

1. God’s Word is Inerrant Only in the Original, not in Translations

Because every word of Scripture was given through prophecy, and since prophecy is considered authoritative and accurately representing God (cf. Deut 18:22; 2 Pet 1:21-22), Scripture in its original form is inerrant, being God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16).

2. God’s Word is Preserved in Copies of the Original Writings

Unfortunately, we have no access to the original writings of Scripture because they have been lost or destroyed. Instead, God has chosen to preserve His Word through copies of the originals which are the basis for translations. For example, when the book Second Peter was written, it was inspired and without error from the Apostle Peter. The early church immediately started making copies of this letter because of their desire to preserve it. Over time, a word would be inadvertently left out of a manuscript, or a scribe or copyist would mistakenly copy the wrong word.

Now someone might say, “Oh no! Now we will never know what 2 Peter originally said.” Simply not true. There are over 5,800 NT Greek manuscripts which have been collected from all over the globe. By a careful comparison, one can ascertain what the original reading was.

For example, let me use a simple analogy to prove the point. Let’s say in 2 Peter 2:1 we have 4 manuscripts which date 3rd-4th century, and they read, “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ.” Let’s say we also have 2 manuscripts which are 10th-11th century, and they read, “Simon [not Simeon] Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ.”

First of all, the reading has to be either Simeon or Simon, the correct word is not missing, but something has been added somewhere. Second, the manuscripts from the 3rd-4th century are closer to the original, and likely represent the original reading. In addition, a scribe would be very likely to change “Simeon” to the much more common “Simon” inadvertently rather than vice versa.

So yes, it is not a simple procedure, but it is not impossible to ascertain the original wording either. And keep in mind that most of the “differences” in the manuscript copies are easily understandable (switching around words, forgetting a letter, etc.). There are relatively few differences between the manuscripts that are difficult (though there are some).

3. Translations Attempt to Accurately Convey The Words and Meaning of the Original Text

Good translations take the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and translate it into readable English. However, good translations cannot always go word-for-word because there are certain Hebrew idioms which would make no sense in English. For example, Hebrew has a saying, “a man of a name.” This means, a well-respected man. But translations cannot directly convey that because it would not make sense in most contexts. So, many translations utilize some form of, “reputable man.”

Overall, the 21st century English reader has at his fingertips some of the greatest selection of translations ever produced. All translations (NASB, ESV,  HCSB, and even the KJV) undergo a similar process in translation. The differences between the translations are found in how literal the translation wants to be (word-for-word) versus how well they want to get across the point (translate idioms, etc.).

In addition, the newer Bible translations have access to thousands of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that the KJV translators were not aware of. This means that they are better prepared to demonstrate what the original reading was.

The question we started with was, can we trust our Bible translations? The answer is yes, as long as you know that there is no perfect translation. All translations are trying to be faithful to transverse the gap between one language into another, and they largely succeed at that! There will be slight problems at times, but that will serve to keep us humble and keep us learning. The possibility of errors should not cause us to panic or abandon our translations. Rather, it should cause us to seek to make certain of every word and every sentence in Scripture, so that we do know we have the very words of the living God.

photo credit: ashley rose, via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


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