The Bible has been translated so many times. Can we still trust it?

by Luke Wayne
8/8/2018

People on the street often raise the objection that "the Bible has been translated so many times that there is no way to know what it originally said." This, however, is exactly opposite the truth! The Bible has indeed been translated many times through the centuries. It is the most translated book in the history of man. There are scores of translations just in modern English! The problem with the objection, however, is that this does not in any way undermine the reliability of the Bible as we have it preserved in thousands of manuscripts in the original languages. The existence of translations in no way affects the accuracy of all these copies. What's more, the many translations actually strengthen our confidence that the Bible has been accurately preserved. They do so in at least two ways:

  1. Ancient translations provide additional witnesses to what the text said back then, which we can see matches what it says now.
  2. Having multiple, independent modern translations allow us to be more certain that the Bible has been accurately translated for us.

Before looking at these two points in detail, let's lay a little important groundwork.

Manuscripts and Translations

It is quite true that the Bible has been translated numerous times. The Old Testament was translated into Greek even before the time of the New Testament. Oral translations into Aramaic were offered during Sabbath readings of the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogues, and we later written down as the Jewish "Targums". At least portions of the New Testament we likely translated into Latin, Syriac, and perhaps Coptic by the end of the second century (and certainly by some time in the third.) We have surviving manuscripts in each of these languages that date back to the fourth century, which is incredible. Christians have been translating the Scriptures from the very beginning. Even the New Testament itself contains verses from the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek! Christians have always believed that the inspired word of God can be translated into other tongues while still remaining the sacred and authoritative word of God. We are not like Muslims who believe that the Quran is only really the Quran in Arabic and cannot truly be translated.

Still, while all this translation was going on, the Bible continued to be copied in its original languages. We have some 6,000 manuscripts of the New Testament just in the original Greek! These manuscripts range from the second century (just after the New Testament was written) all the way up to the 16th Century where the invention of the printing press replaced hand-copying manuscripts. We have a continues stream of printed Greek texts after that. Its true that, for much of church history, Christians could not read Hebrew and so copied the Old Testament only in its translations (primarily in Greek and Latin, though also in many other languages), the Jews continued to copy it in Hebrew, as did the Samaritans (at least for the Torah). Thus, the Old Testament was also preserved in its original language. Further, we have discovered ancient copies of the Hebrew Old Testament at Qumran (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls), Masada, Nahal Hever, and elsewhere. These incredible finds only confirmed that the Old Testament Scriptures said back then just what the later copies still said through the ages. Thus, the existence of translations cannot shed doubt on the original text because that text was not preserved merely by translations but rather primarily through a vast body of manuscripts in the original languages! We need not trust in translations at all but can look at the Greek and Hebrew to confirm what was written. It's all right there for us to examine.

"The Telephone Game"

We also must note that translations are not typically copies of each other. Misinformed critics often claim that Bible translation is something like the "Telephone Game," where someone whispers something in someone's ear, they, in turn, whisper it in another person's ear, and on down the line until the last person says it out loud. In this game, people often mishear one another, leading to comically absurd changes by the end, where the thing the last person says out loud does not even resemble the original phrase. So too, some critics say, is the Bible. They think, it seems, that it was translated from Hebrew to Greek, then from Greek to Syriac, then from Syriac to Latin, then from Latin to German, then from German to English. Thus, they say, so many changes would have crept in that we can't hope to determine what the original said! This, however, is quite wrong. Instead, the vast majority of translations have been direct, independent translations from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. When Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, he translated his Old Testament from the Hebrew and his New Testament from the Greek. Martin Luther did the same thing when he made his 16th-century German translation. So did William Tyndale in his early English translation. So did the translators of the King James Version in 1611, and so did the translators for modern translations like the NASB, NIV, ESV, or NKJV. It is true that some translations over the centuries have been made from other translations. Early Christians translated the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) into other languages, for example, and some modern missionaries make translations into new languages based on their English Bibles rather than learning the Greek and Hebrew. Yet, the chain has rarely ever gone beyond this second tier. People almost never made a translation based on a translation of another translation. Indeed, the goal is usually to replace even these second-tier translations with direct translations, never to move the opposite direction. Most of our translations are exactly this kind of direct translation. We're not talking about a translation of a translation of a translation, but rather a bunch of independent translations made by different people at different times in different places for different reasons and yet whose texts all say essentially the same exact thing! None of the minor differences between them affect any central teaching of the Christian faith. Thus, our numerous translations do nothing to obscure or hide the true meaning of the text from us.

Ancient Translations and the Veracity of the Bible

While our primary line of evidence for the preservation of the Scriptures lies in our thousands of manuscripts in the original languages, ancient translations add an additional verification. We have some 10,000 New Testament manuscripts in Latin, not to mention all our copies in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Slavonic, Gothic, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and a host of other languages. Scholars can thus look at these ancient translations and compare them to the Greek and Hebrew and to one another. Again, they all say pretty much the same exact thing. There are minor differences in wording (which is to be expected when translating among very different languages) but the overall content is shockingly consistent! Ancient translations, thus, are just one more verse affirming the accuracy of the Biblical manuscripts.

Modern Translations and our Trust in English Bibles

Most English speakers don't read ancient Greek or Hebrew. Indeed, the majority of English-speaking Americans speak no other language at all! If there was only one translation in English, we would be forced to trust that this translation was an accurate rendering of what the original languages said. That is not, however, the situation in which we find ourselves. William Tyndale produced his 16th-century English translation while living in Germany. He was not under the authority of any government or religious institution. Indeed, the English crown ultimately put him to death for it. Yet, if we look at the official translations later produced under the authority of the English crown (such as the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and the KJV), we find that they say the same thing. The Geneva Bible was translated by a group of English scholars who were living in exile in Switzerland. They, too, were not operating under the authority of the crown and yet their translation, again, agrees. The Roman Catholic Church was not pleased with all of these protestant translations, and they produced a rival translation of their own known as the Douay Rheims. Clearly, they had no conspiratorial reason to make their translation match the others. If anything, they had a strong motivation to make it differ widely and in their own favor. Yet, even here, the translation is essentially the same. Of course, all of these translations differ in their precise wording and have minor variations from one another here and there, but the overall content and the teaching of the text is ultimately the same. When independent and even rival translators all look at the same text and see the same meaning, its probably because that is what the text actually means.

Today, a wide variety of independent, rival publishing houses in multiple countries have gathered their own teams of scholars together to make fresh translations into English. We have the NASB, ESV, NKJV, NIV, CSB, NET, and a host of others. Orthodox Jews have their own English translations of the Old Testament. Messianic Jews have their own translations of both Old and New (such as the Tree of Life version). There is even an English translation of the Samaritan Torah. The parties that have produces all of these translations are not under the same authorities, they are not serving the same communities, and there is no reason that they would all conspire to change the Bible in one unified direction. Yet, when one reads any serious translation with a consistent hermeneutic, one finds that they mean the same thing!

There have also been translations into English from ancient translations. John Wycliffe's 14-century English Bible was a translation from the Latin rather than the Greek. A number of translations have been made from the Greek Septuagint into English for purposes of study and comparison. A few English translations of the New Testament from the Syriac Peshitta also exist. From these, we can see in our own modern language that even the ancient translations contain no radically different reading or controversial teachings. It's the same Bible. This massive number of diverse translations only verifies that! As one early English translator noted:

"Sure I am that there cometh more knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures by their sundry translations than by all the glosses of our sophistical doctors. For that one interpreteth something obscurely in one place, the same translateth another, or else he himself, more manifestly by a plain vocable of the same meaning in another place. Be not thou offended therefore, good readers, though one call a scribe that another calleth a lawyer."1

Multiple independent translations are better than one. Our many translations are a blessing.

Conclusion

We need not be shaken when someone trots out the "the Bible has been translated so many times you can't trust it" line to avoid the plain teaching of Scripture. We can simply throw it back on them. The fact that the Bible has been translated so many times is one of our powerful reasons to trust that we can know what it really says.

For more detailed information on the history of Bible translations, see our article on the subject HERE.

  • 1. Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexington Press, 2018) Kindle Locations 1940-1943