There is a disagreement among some Christians as to which English Bible is the best. The fact is, scholars can be found defending any of the English translations. The disagreement turns on mainly two factors in Bible translation: one, the underlying textual family of manuscripts that they are translated from, and two, the style of interpretation utilized by the translators (word-for-word, thought-for-thought, paraphrase, etc.).
The Process from Original to English Translation
The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Nearly the entire Old Testament (OT) was written in Hebrew, with only small portions of Daniel and Ezra written in Aramaic. The New Testament (NT) was written in Greek. The English translations (sometimes confusingly termed “versions”) are all translated from copies of the original writings. The original writings themselves are no longer in existence (extant). We do have thousands of copies of the Bible in its original languages and these copies are what most translations are made from today. So, first, there were the various original writings by the various authors of the books of the Bible, in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Then, those originals were copied by many people in many places, over many years. From all of the copies that are still in existence, scholars whittle them down to a single NT Greek text and a single OT Hebrew text and then translate those into various languages around the world, like English.
Flow Chart: From Originals to English Translation of the New Testament
Original Writing -> Some copies of the Byzantine textual family (copies from the area of Greece, Turkey, and Syria) -> Whittled down to the Textus Receptus (TR) or “Received Text” -> KJV, NKJV
Original Writing -> Chiefly two copies within the Alexandrian textual family (copies from the area of Alexandria, Egypt) -> Whittled down to the Critical Text (NU) -> Modern versions like NIV, NLT, NASB, ESV, HCSB, NRSV, AMP, NETBible, etc…
Original Writing -> All of Byzantine textual family (thousands of copies) -> Majority Text (M) -> Various interlinear translations
How Accurate are the English Translations?
Because we have so many great copies, we have a very accurate and reliable Bible. But, only the original books of the Bible written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic are inerrant and God-breathed. Because only the copies of the original writings still exist, and they are not the originals themselves, they do contain some variations (variants) among themselves. These copies also contain a small number of errors. These variants and errors are few and mostly minor, but some do transmit (to some extent) into all translations. The conservative Christian view has always been that the original writings (called autographs) are inerrant and inspired of God, but that the copies of these originals contain some mistakes. This view goes back to the very early Church.
“Minor variations in hand copying have appeared through the centuries, before mechanical printing began about A. D. 1450. Some variations exist in the spelling of Greek words, in word order, and in similar details. These ordinarily do not show up in translation and do not affect the sense of the text. Other manuscript differences, such as omission or inclusion of a word, or a clause, and two paragraphs in the Gospels (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11), should not overshadow the overwhelming degree of agreement which exists among the ancient records.” (Introduction to The NKJV Greek English Interlinear New Testament)
Despite the variations and difficulties in translation, all in all, the English translations are very similar and highly reliable. The introduction to the NKJV Bible states that there is at least 85% agreement between the Byzantine and Alexandrian text types. When the variations are resolved and the grammar is fixed, many Greek scholars agree that our NT is 99.5% accurate to the original writings. The accuracy of the OT is outstanding, as well.
The Inerrancy of the Originals and the Preservation of the Copies
The NIV, NLT, NASB, HCSB, ESV, NRSV, AMP, NETBible and other modern English Bibles have their New Testament translated mostly from the Alexandrian text type, using the Critical Text (NU). The King James (KJV) and New King James (NKJV) New Testaments are translated from the Byzantine text type, using the Textus Receptus (TR) (the New King James Bible is a modern English update of the KJV). Both texts (NU or TR) are reliable, although the NU (based on the Alexandrian) does omit several words, verses and two paragraphs which the Received and Majority texts include. There are at least 60 major variants between the TR/M and the NU (not counting minor variants or errors that are easily correctable). That may sound like a lot, and it is certainly more than we would like, but keep in mind that there are nearly 8,000 verses in the KJV New Testament (approximately 788,000 words). This is why it is safe to say that despite the differences, most modern translations are nearly as accurate and reliable as the KJV/NKJV.
The Old Testament in most modern English Bibles is primarily based on the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other manuscripts. All of the English Bibles are translations of the Bible from its original languages. All of the textual families of copies in their original language, for both the OT and the NT, are very well preserved. These copies are whittled down to one Hebrew OT text and one Greek NT text. These texts are then translated into English according to each particular translation’s style and interpretation.
The original writings were without error. They were inspired, that is, literally “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). By God’s providence, the subsequent copies of these writings have been preserved as nearly exact copies of the originals, but are not perfect and are not of the same nature as the God-breathed and inerrant originals.
“Every word in all the Scripture was originally given by divine inspiration. Inspiration has to do with the very words which were originally God-breathed in the vocabulary and style of the original writers. Providence has to do with all that God has allowed to come to pass in the preservation of that which was originally given by inspiration. Providence includes the preserving of the other types of texts as well as the Byzantine (Sturz, The Byzantine Text-Type).”
So, inerrancy of the originals and preservation of the copies are separate doctrines that should not be confused as one. The original writings represent God’s perfect Word revealed to humanity. The Bibles that we use today are nearly exact copies of the inerrant, inspired originals.
The Modern Translations
When studying the Bible in English, the key is to use multiple translations. Many times the modern translations use a thought-for-thought translation style. This makes many difficult Bible passages comprehensible, which is crucial to growing in our knowledge of the Word of God. That is why Christians benefit greatly from using the modern translations, they can be very helpful in understanding what God is truly saying to us in His Word. For the most part, they are accurate and reliable, and many times they convey the meaning of the verses in modern English in a way that is much easier for people to understand than the older English versions. We just have to be careful of the passages that contain errors. This happens a bit more often in the modern translations, but there are errors in the King James translation, as well. Remember, this does not take place very often in our Bibles, but it is important to be aware of the occurrences.
Sometimes the looser translation (thought-for-thought or paraphrase) alters the passage beyond its intended meaning, which is why students of the Bible should always check their modern translation against a word-for-word translation based on the somewhat more reliable Byzantine family of texts. The KJV is a word-for-word translation based on the Byzantine text and has been the most popular Bible used by English speakers since 1611. The NKJV is a modern English update of its trusted predecessor.
The modern translations (except NKJV) are based on the somewhat inferior Alexandrian text, which does omit some parts of the NT. The NIV uses a thought-for-thought style (thought-for-thought is also called phrase-for-phrase and is also known as Dynamic Equivalence). The NASB is a word-for-word translation. The ESV and HCSB attempt to combine the best of both styles. While leaning toward a thought-for-thought translation they often utilize the word-for-word style. The NLT is not a translation but a paraphrase. While paraphrase is a long way from word-for-word accuracy, the NLT is surprisingly reliable and helpful. It can be very helpful in numerous passages because it brings the language to life in our present day. It often works more like a commentary than a Bible translation, so it is critical to know that fact when reading from it and to have a KJV/NKJV handy to check the accuracy of the Alexandrian text and the paraphrase style of translation. The NRSV leans toward a word-for-word style, but often utilizes a thought-for-thought style. The KJV/NKJV is based on the Byzantine text type which contains less variations, errors and omissions, and is translated word-for-word (known as Complete Equivalence), which tends to make it more accurate. Another advantageous feature of the NKJV is that it includes notes of the variations with other text types, like the Alexandrian and the Majority text. Because the NKJV is written in modern English, it is much easier to comprehend than the “old English” KJV.
Some modern translations of the Bible rewrite certain passages to fit their pre-existing views and are therefore unreliable translations in those passages. Some of the most well-known modern translations to completely avoid are the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), by the founder of Mormonism, the Watchtower’s (Jehovah’s Witnesses) New World Translation (NWT) and the Message Bible, which contains many grievous errors.
Quick Reference Guide of some of the most popular English Bible translations today.
- The King James Version (KJV) Word-for-word translation (using old English). Translated from the Greek text known as Textus Receptus (TR) (the “Received Text”). The Received Text is based on the Byzantine (Eastern) textual family.
- The New King James Version (NKJV) is a modern word-for-word update of the KJV. It is also translated into English from the Received Text.
- The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is a mixture of thought-for-thought and word-for-word translation. Translated from the Greek text known as Nestle Aland/United Bible Societies (NU) (the “Critical Text”). All of the many editions of the Nestle Aland/United Bible Societies Greek text (including Westcott and Hort) are based on the Alexandrian textual family.
- The English Standard Version (ESV) is a mixture of thought-for-thought and word-for-word translation. It is translated from the NU.
- The New American Standard Bible (NASB) is a word-for-word translation. It is translated from the NU.
- The New Living Translation (NLT) is not a translation but a paraphrase. It is paraphrased from the NU.
- The New International Version (NIV) is a thought-for-thought translation. It is translated from the NU.
- The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is a mixture of thought-for-thought and word-for-word translation. It is translated from the NU.
- The Amplified Bible (AMP) is a thought-for-thought translation. It is translated from the NU.
- New English Translation (NETBible) is a thought-for-thought translation (with over 60,000 translator notes explaining translation decisions and giving alternative readings). It is translated from the NU.
What Translation is the Best?
So, what does this all mean? What English translation is the best? The fact is, most of the major English translations available today are of great usefulness, and they can now easily be found online. Here are three websites full of resources (including English translations) that are free to use:
The English translations are very good and are very close now to the original text, but because the Byzantine Greek copies are more complete and somewhat more reliable than the Alexandrian Greek copies, and because the styles of interpretation of thought-for-thought and paraphrase are not as faithful to the original writings as the more literal word-for-word translation, it is important to use the King James/New King James alongside any modern translation. Most modern translations will be helpful in most passages, but they always need to be checked (at some point) against the Byzantine textual family and the word-for-word translation style.
Each English translation contains passages that are not translated as well as other translations, including the King James. Each contains passages that are translated better than other translations. Translation from one language to another is inherently difficult and certain words do not always have an exact equivalent in the “receiver” language (in our case, English). This is why it is so important for any Christian that wants to know God’s Word more deeply to refer to several translations and not just one. There are also many free resources online for further study in the Bible’s original languages, allowing the student to dig deeper into the meanings of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words behind the English translations. Three of those resources were just linked above.
Checking the textual variants for yourself is important and easy, too. In some Bibles today, there is a center column or other area of the page containing notes. These notes usually contain other Scripture to cross-reference and literal definitions of words. But, they should also include notes on the variations among the underlying textual families. Make sure that the Bible you use has this feature and that you use it! In special editions like The NKJV Greek/English Interlinear New Testament (Farstad & Hodges), a person can see with their own eyes all of the textual variants between the Received Text (TR), the Majority Text (M) and the Critical Text (NU). NKJV Bibles have this feature in their notes on every page. Be sure to at least have a Bible with this feature included, preferably a King James or New King James translation. That way, you can see the textual variations for yourself.
The King James Version and the New King James Version are the best English Bibles available today because the family of manuscripts they are based on contain less errors than the Alexandrian family of manuscripts and because the KJV/NKJV utilize the word-for-word style of translation. The modern translations do contain more errors in both number and severity because of the underlying textual family and the tendency for a more liberal style of translation and interpretation of the text. With that being said, many would consider the differences negligible because overall, there are so few problems relative to the size of the manuscripts.
Overall, it is this author’s opinion that the NKJV is the most reliable English translation while also utilizing modern English instead of old English, like its predecessor. Also, the NKJV now includes notes on every variation between the Received Text, the Majority Text and the Alexandrian Text, as well as OT manuscript variations. “By giving a clearly defined set of variants the New King James Version benefits readers of all textual persuasions.” (Preface to the NKJV)
What is “King James Only”
A final note on the King James Bible. The view that the King James Bible itself is perfect (known as “King James Only”) is patently false and is a relatively recent error residing in a few Christian circles. The view twists the actual conservative Christian view, which is that the original writings alone are inerrant, accurate, perfectly reliable and God-breathed. None of the copies have ever been considered so, and of course it would follow that none of the translations of the copies could be considered without error.
In the introduction to the 1611 KJV Bible, the translators themselves state that the original writing is God-breathed, saying “the original thereof being from heaven, not from earth; the author being God, not man…” They go on to affirm that the copies of the originals are not without error, and that therefore neither are the translations of the copies without error.
“King James Only” is a spurious and illogical view that has been ably refuted. Ironically, the false teaching of its perfection gradually morphed into an acceptable view because of the excellence that the translation offers its English users and the desire of Christians to defend the inerrancy of the Bible. But, as stated above, the inerrancy of the Bible and the inerrancy of the Kings James Version are two completely different subjects, the former being accepted of the original autographs since the early Church began, the latter a recent development in late Church history in English speaking regions only and a perversion of the true Christian perspective.
*The Blue Letter Bible is a free site that gives access to most English translations, but also provides amazing resources like Greek and Hebrew definitions, audio, video and text commentaries, and dictionaries, encyclopedias and other similar material. http://www.blueletterbible.org/
*Here is another article by the same author on the same subject. At the end of the article is a link to a free Bible College course on the subject. http://ph16.blogspot.com/2013/08/king-james-only.html
*Here is a link (that was current at the time of writing) to the Greek/English Interlinear based on the Received Text and the Majority Text referenced in the article. It may be available on Amazon or Alibris or other such sites. It should sell for less than $40 used. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0840783574/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1435619962&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SY200_QL40&keywords=NKJV+greek&dpPl=1&dpID=51sDt2DbgBL&ref=plSrch
*This short article reveals how the very translators of the KJV themselves refute the “KJV Only” view. http://dbts.edu/blog/the-embarrassing-preface-to-the-king-james-version/
*I cannot vouch completely for the accuracy of this article, but it may be helpful as a starting point in examining textual variants. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_textual_variants_in_the_New_Testament
*The following two sites include an interlinear Bible, which is very helpful in studying the Bible’s original languages. They include Hebrew and Greek word definitions.
1. http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Mat&c=1&t=NKJV#s=t_conc_930001 (Interlinear Greek NT is based on the TR)
2. http://biblehub.com/interlinear/matthew/1.htm (Interlinear is based on a Greek NT (Nestle 1904) taken primarily from the Alexandrian text-type)