Do differences in translation mean that only one version can be the word of God?

by Luke Wayne
Return to King James Onlyism

A common King James Only objection against defenders of other translations is the claim that, since translations differ from one another, only one can be the word of God. "If the KJV is not the one and only perfect Bible in English, then which version is the one and only perfect Bible in English?" This objection seems forceful to someone who has already bought into an "onlyist" mentality. If you start with the assumption that there must be just one accurate way to translate the Bible into English and that any variation between translations is evil, then there must be a single "right" translation and all the rest must be "wrong." Thus, if you were not a KJV onlyist, you feel you would have to be an NASB onlyist or an NIV onlyist. The idea of no longer being an "onlyist" at all doesn't make sense to you. Yet, there are good reasons to reject translational onlyism.

More than One Right Way to Translate

The first thing for us to realize is that languages are different from one another. Translation is never as simple as just taking all the Greek words in a verse and then looking up which one English word perfectly fits the Greek word. There are often numerous English words that are roughly equivalent to each Greek word. The grammar and syntax will also differ, requiring some ingenuity on the translator's part in figuring out how best to say the same thing in English that is meant by the Greek. There is rarely only one right and truthful way to do this. Thus, for almost any given verse, there can be more than one correct way to translate it into English. God inspired the precise wording in the original Greek and Hebrew, but God did not inspire one particular English wording to translate that inspired Greek and Hebrew. Thus, there is often more than one equivalent way to say the same thing in English. To take an example:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast," (Ephesians 2:8-9, KJV).

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast," (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB).

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast," (Ephesians 2:8, NIV).

Though worded differently in places, these are clearly saying the same thing. These are all accurate translations of the same Greek words.  One does not need to look at these and say that, because they are not worded identically, only one of them can be the true word of God and the others are corruptions. No, these are all accurate ways to translate the verse into English. They are all God's word.

Paraphrases and Interpretive Differences

Sometimes, difficulties in the original languages lead to somewhat wider differences. Even knowing what each of the original words in Greek or Hebrew mean, it is sometimes challenging for the translator to concisely nail down the same meaning in English. In these places, the act of translation inevitably becomes interpretation. Take, for example, these words from the Psalms:

"Thou wouldest not sacrifice and offering; but thou madest perfectly ears to me. Thou askedest not burnt sacrifice, and other sacrifice for sin," (Psalm 40:6, Wycliffe).

"Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required," (Psalm 40:6, KJV).

"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require," (Psalm 40:6, NIV1984).

"In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required," (Psalm 40:6 ESV).

While most of the verse is similar across the board here, there is a crucial difference. What did God do regarding my ears? Did He perfectly make my ears? Did He open my ears? Did He pierce my ears? These do not seem to be saying the same thing at all! Which one is right? The truth is that none of these represent a literal, word-for-word translation from the Hebrew. Each represents an interpretation, an attempt to convey the probable meaning of the words. The verse literally says in Hebrew "you have dug out ears for me." All of the above translations, and indeed almost all translations, attempt to make better sense of this by trying to translate the idea rather than the words. Each of the above is a possible translation and yet none of them are literal word-for-word representations of the Hebrew. So, which one is the "word of God?" How should we treat such differing translations as this? We are not left to guess. The New Testament actually gives us a model for how to deal with this question. You see, the Book of Hebrews quotes an ancient Greek translation of this same verse. Thus, we actually get to see how an inspired author approaches a difficult question like this. He writes:

"Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure," (Hebrews 10:5-6).

Here, this translation of the verse uses the paraphrase "a body hast thou prepared me." This differs significantly from the Hebrew "you have dug out ears for me." No one I am aware of argues that there was ever a Hebrew original that actually said, "a body you have prepared for me." This is clearly a paraphrase, a loose interpretation trying to make sense of a difficult passage. Yet the author of Hebrews still treated this translation as the authentic word of God, differences and all. Thus, even when we hit hard places like this where real differences in translation occur, that does not automatically mean that only one option can be treated as the word of God. The New Testament authors themselves, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, affirmed and used such variant translations in their own writings. We should hold the same view of translations that they did.

But What About Manuscript Variants?

So far, we have discussed only differences involving translations of the same words, instances where all agree on the wording of the Greek or Hebrew text and disagree only on how best to say that in English. But what about places where translators are using different manuscripts and thus disagree on the wording of the Greek or Hebrew? We all agree that God inspired the very words of the original Greek and Hebrew writings. What, then, should we say about translations that disagree on what that original wording was? There are three points that need to be made here:

  1. Such differences are far more insignificant than these discussions make them sound. If you approach any English translation (or any ancient manuscript, for that matter) and read it fairly, you will walk away with the same body of fundamental Christian doctrine from any of them. No textual variant removes any essential Christian teaching.
  2. Even if one accepts the idea that only translations from one exact Greek and Hebrew text are valid and all others must be rejected, that still doesn't lead to a just one translation. The NKJV and the MEV, for example, are translated from precisely the same texts as the KJV. Even if one assumes that those texts are the perfect originals, they are still free to use all of the those and other such translations. Manuscript differences are an insufficient reason to believe King James Onlyism (or any other translation onlyism).
  3. Perhaps most importantly, we again have precedent from the New Testament for treating translations as the word of God even if they are based on variant texts. One key example of this is again from the Book of Hebrews, where the author defends the deity of Christ, in part, by citing a textual variant from Deuteronomy 32:43. Hebrews 1:6 quotes a phrase which is found in that verse in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the Septuagint but is not present in the Masoretic Hebrew text on which the vast majority of English translations are based. (This text is covered in greater detail HERE). Unless the King James Onlyist wants to throw out the Masoretic text entirely and thus abandon the KJV as a perversion (which would, of course, be completely unwarranted), they are stuck with the fact that the New Testament authors had no problem citing even translations based on textual variants as the authentic Word of God.