Original Languages

Obviously, if you’re paying attention, we have access to a lot of English translations, it’s almost embarrassing when you think about parts of the world where it’s difficult to get a Bible in print.

How many Bibles do you have? I recently reorganized my bookshelves in my basement and found that all of my Bibles would not fit on one shelf.

So, I want to say a brief word about which translations I think are most helpful, but first I want to reinforce the principle of the priority of the original languages.

English is very often ambiguous in many areas. As an example, if I use the word “whom” it might not be clear if I were referring to a man or a woman, or even a pet etc. The context of the sentence would give me clues, but ultimately the word itself doesn’t give me a clue. The beauty of Greek is that pronouns possess gender (like many other languages) so it’s just more precise. There is also more detail in tense than in English, not just past, present, and future. And I could go on and on. I just want to drive the point home that English is good for covering ground quickly, but theological decisions should always be decided on the basis of the original languages.

This brings up another question, “which original languages?”

In the Old Testament (OT), that’s usually Hebrew and sometimes Aramaic. However, there is a Greek translation of the OT that is quite good. It’s called the Septuagint and is essentially the Bible that the Apostles used. So while the Hebrew (Aramaic) text is the most “authoritative” I believe the Septuagint is very close behind.

As for the New Testament (NT), it was originally written in Greek. There have always been people who propose that parts of it were originally written in Aramaic, or that Jesus’ teaching was really in Aramaic so an Aramaic translation would be more reliable, but this is not the case. The Aramaic texts that the most popular “Aramaic New Testaments” are built off of come from 1,200 years after Jesus. The NT was written in Greek under the direction of the Apostles, thus the Greek New Testament is the inspired Word of God, not Latin or Aramaic, or the King James.

But which Greek NT?

We do not have a “first edition” of the NT. In other words, all we have are copies of copies of the original Greek NT. There are basically two competing views regarding the best method of determining what the original words of the NT were.

The first approach is usually referred to as the “Majority Text” and basically refers to the text the the King James and New King James are built upon. The basic view here is that if there are different readings of the same passage of the Bible, the reading that is in the majority is considered to be right.

“Hold on” you may be saying “you mean there’s a difference?”

There’s not really a big difference, usually it’s a difference in spelling, or the addition (or subtraction) of a word here or there. This occurs especially in the gospels or where an author is quoting a familiar passage, it is very easy for someone who is copying the NT to add words that they remember from another gospel like Matthew while the are copying Mark even though Mark didn’t originally have it in there.

So here’s the bottom line, even though there are differences in letters and words, for the most part, both kinds of Greek texts say essentially the same thing, and there are not major doctrinal differences between the two.

This bring me to the second method usually referred to as the “Critical Text.” It’s called “critical” because it’s a forensic recreation of what is believed to be the actual text. Scholars take into account several factors to determine what was originally written by the Apostles and their followers.

This critical method has taken decades to do and is a continual process. Scholars have come to a 99.5%+ consensus as to what the original NT was, and the differences are in spelling effecting no doctrinal issue.

I follow this later position. The majority view takes the reading that occurs the most as being right, where the critical view takes the more “primitive” (or original) reading to be right.

Every major English translation takes the critical text for their basis of translation.

Now, the reality is, the King James Bible is a GIANT that casts a huge shadow. No Bible has ever had the dominance of this Bible and probably none ever will. I personally think the KJV is beautiful and poetic in many parts, my first Bible was a KJV. Every English translation has been effected by the KJV to some extent. (see “English Bibles” above)


About John Harris

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
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