Behind the Book II

2 Timothy 2:15


I began a short series of sermons last week in which we’re looking at the background of the Bible, this book that proclaims to be the Word of God. While we affirmed last week that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, we also recognized that he employed humans in the process. He used Moses and David and Jeremiah and Amos; he used Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and Peter – a total of more than forty people spread out over 1300 years in three different languages. And it’s not as though he simply spoke the words in their ears or used them as human typewriters. He used each of the individuals who penned their contributions to the Old and New Testaments with all of their unique personalities, backgrounds and experiences.


When John writes his Gospel and letters in Greek, he is writing as a Jewish fisherman would write – in simple sentences, basic vocabulary – a first year Greek student will begin with John. Luke, however, is an educated Greek and he writes with complex sentences and a rich vocabulary. When Luke writes, the Holy Spirit uses Luke’s investigative nature to frame the story of Jesus: Luke writes, “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4)


It would be nice to have all of the original handwritten manuscripts from the ancient authors all collected in one place for us to consult, but we don’t. We have copies of copies. But as we noted last week, those copies have a trustworthiness to them that gives us confidence that what we have in our hands is as close to the ancient autographs as possible. With over 8,000 manuscripts, whole and in part, some dating from as early as the beginning of the 2nd century – within 30 years of the originals.  That, along with the witness of ancient church fathers, and the early translations into Syriac and Coptic and Latin, all giving witness to the reliability of the texts from which our modern Bible was translated.


Have you ever gone to a bookstore and looked at the section with Bibles and found perhaps twenty different versions, with a hundred different varieties and wondered “which Bible should I get?” It’s like buying a mattress – how do you know it’s the one for you until you get it home and try it out?


Let’s spend some time this morning talking about the various translations of the Bible into English. What are their backgrounds, what are their strengths and weaknesses?


But let’s back up a ways and talk about the translation of the Bible into English where it all began several centuries ago. And lest you think that was a simple matter of someone sitting down with a Greek dictionary in one hand and a Hebrew dictionary in the other and translating the text into English, it was far more complex and difficult and dangerous than that.


These 8,000 manuscripts that I spoke of as witnesses to our modern English Bible – that’s now in the 21st century, not the 7th century when that all began. The very idea of translating the Bible into English was a dangerous idea in the middle ages. English was considered a vulgar tongue and the only acceptable language for scripture was Latin. And why translate it at all? The common person was discouraged from reading the Bible – it was considered the domain of the priests who would tell you what the Bible said.


Perhaps the name that is best known in the story of the English Bible is John Wycliffe. Wycliffe lived in the 1300’s, on the threshold of the Protestant Reformation. He was a champion of the people in fighting for social and religious reforms. He believed, contrary to the wisdom of the day that the common man was worth something. He wrote, “No man is so rude a scholar that he might learn the words of the Gospel according to his simplicity.” He began with that belief to translate the Scriptures from Latin into the English tongue, finishing his work in 1382, and inspired a movement of priests who went out among the people and taught them in their own language so they could understand the Gospel for themselves.


The true father of the English Bible is William Tyndale. Tyndale was a scholar of the languages, studying at both Cambridge and Oxford. He was the first, not just to translate from the Latin, but from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. He met great resistance from the church (and remember, at this point, the church, the only church is the Roman Catholic Church). In an argument with an opponent he once said, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” He was a contemporary and colleague of Martin Luther’s who had recently finished his translation of the Bible into German, fueling the Reformation of the church that had begun. In 1535, Tyndale was imprisoned, and a year later was burned at the stake for his belief that all people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. Tyndale died, but in his own words, he wrote that he had “lighted such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as should never be put out.”


And by his efforts he changed the hearts of the people and inspired even further efforts in translating and distributing the Bible in the language of the common man. Interestingly, it not only spoke the language of the common man, Tyndale influenced the language for centuries to come. Tyndale coined words like Passover, scapegoat, long-suffering, and repentance. He translated these memorable expressions: “salt of the earth,” “daily bread,” “fatted calf,” “God forbid,” “the twinkling of an eye,” and “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” as well as at least fifty other phrases which have stood the test of time and been adopted by future English translations all the way to the present. It became the foundation upon which the KJV would be based.


There began a flood of new translations, including Matthew’s Bible, Taverner’s Bible, and the Great Bible, which was the first English Bible authorized to be read in the churches and by the decree of King Henry VIII, a copy of the Great Bible was placed in every church in the land. This greatly disturbed the priests, who complained because the people were coming to church in greater numbers than ever… but to hear the reading of the Bible, rather than to listen to their sermons.


The next great translation was the Geneva Bible, finished in 1560, which was printed with legible type, in small form with commentary and illustrations and was intended for family use, not just for the church. This was the Bible that was used by William Shakespeare - that he often quoted; it was the Bible of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia; it was the Bible that accompanied the pilgrims on the Mayflower.


The Geneva Bible was not popular with church officials because the commentary represented the views of John Calvin and the Reformation. Therefore, a revision of the Great Bible was begun by the English clergy, and when completed in 1568 was known as the Bishop’s Bible.


All of these translations by Reformers and the Anglican Church forced the hand of the Roman Catholic Church to produce its own translation of the Bible, which was finished in 1582 by the colleges in Rheims and Douai. It, though, was not translated from the original Hebrew and Greek, but from the Latin Vulgate.


In 1604, King James of England summoned a meeting of representatives from the diverse religious groups to discuss the question of religious toleration (you see, people were still being hanged and beheaded and burned at the stake for holding differing religious views than the controlling party of the day.) Out of that meeting, came the suggestion that a new translation be attempted that would be for public and private use that was satisfactory to all – a formidable task indeed.


What it attempted was not a new translation, but a revision of the Bishop’s Bible of 1602. Forty-eight Greek and Hebrew scholars from Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster were divided into six working companies assigned to selected books which they translated and sent to the other companies to review. The work of revision lasted almost three years and was turned over to the printers who completed the work in 1611. It was titled “The Authorized Version,” though it was dedicated to its champion, King James, and the Bible came to be known as the King James Version.


Now, lest you think that the old family Bible you grew up on was printed from the same plates as that first one, you wouldn’t be able to read that version from 1611.


The KJV was an epoch-setting event in the history of the English Bible, but it was itself still a revision of various translations and revisions that preceded it. Those translators that worked on it relied on a very small number of manuscripts that were available to them at that time, and those were relatively late in origin. Three of the oldest manuscripts that we have today had not yet been discovered. What was current vocabulary and grammar in the 17th century is archaic and obsolete (and at times, misleading) in the 21st century.


These and other weaknesses became subjects of criticism in the 19th century, and so in 1870, the first of several more modern revisions of the KJV were undertaken.  There was the English Revised Version in 1885 and the American Standard Version in 1901. A half century later, the Revised Standard Version (still a revision of the KJV) was completed in 1952. Each of these revisions attempted to correct and overcome the inadequacies of the KJV with the discovery of many new manuscripts and resources.


Four completely new translations appeared in the last half of the 20th century: The New English Bible, the Good News Bible, the New International Version, , and the New Living Translation which all attempted, not only to make use of the latest manuscripts and scholarship, but to present the Word of God in language that relates to our contemporary culture. There have been two notable revisions to classic translations that have attempted to update language and grammar: The New American Standard Version and the New King James Version. There have also been a couple of notable paraphrases: The Living Bible and The Message.


Enough time has gone by that even the newer translations have had their revisions. Two especially good ones are the New Revised Standard Version and Today’s New International Version.


Just as those earliest translators sought to make the Bible understandable and accessible to the common man, many of the newer translations and especially the modern paraphrases seek to make the language of the Bible understandable and accessible to the culture in which we live, avoiding the thee’s and thou’s and archaic word endings of translations made four centuries earlier.


No translation is infallible. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Some are more literal in their translation, others attempt to translate the sense and intent of each passage. Some are very poetic and flowing in their translation, others are more functional and prosaic.


How do you pick a Bible that is both accurate and readable?  I’m going to begin by suggesting that you choose a version that has been translated within the last century, because most of the best manuscript witnesses were available to those translation committees. Prior to that time, they were still working with very late and a limited number of manuscripts that we spoke about last week.


Secondly, choose a Bible that, when you read it you easily understand what it is saying. Now I’m not necessarily talking about interpreting the meaning, but does it make sense when you listen to the words? If you don’t use thee and thou in your normal conversations with people, if you don’t use words like seeketh and whither and knowest, that Bible probably isn’t going to help you understand what God’s Word is saying to you.


On the other hand, while I enjoy the phrasing and modern sounding language of the Living Bible or The Message, paraphrases aren’t intended to be your primary study Bible.


I study and preach from the New International Version, but I also draw from several other versions that I think are valuable, and I’m fortunate enough to have the background and training to go back to the Greek and Hebrew texts when I study. When I was a new Christian, I was given a Revised Standard Version, which I used for several years and wore out two RSV Study Bibles. I switched to the NIV in the mid-1980’s because it was the version already being used by the church I preached for in Vernon, TX. If you’ve ever switched versions, you know how difficult that is – you get used to the phrasing and language and you’ve memorized passages and they just don’t sound the same. So, if you’ve grown up with a particular version, I understand how hard it can be to think about changing.


So, if you’re standing there in the bookstore confronted with a hundred options, let me give you this guidance:


Any of the modern translations are going to be accurate and readable, but the best choice might be to have a primary reading Bible with another translation and even one of the paraphrases open alongside.  They make a number of very good parallel Bibles with several versions in columns alongside each other.


I would also encourage you to have a good study Bible with footnotes, commentary, concordance and maps. They are a wonderful addition to your personal study, though you need to realize that the commentary notes are not a part of the Bible itself, but merely a study aid. 


All this goes back to what I ended with last week: the best Bible is one that you will read. Even if a perfect version existed – if you owned it yet left it in its box to gather dust on the shelf, it would be worthless.


Paul wrote to Timothy, his son in the faith, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15)


Next week I want to spend some time talking about how to go about reading your Bible so that you get the most out of it.


Let me leave you with a true story told by Kathleen Norris in her book, Amazing Grace: Kathleen and her husband were eating at a local restaurant and struck up a conversation with a fellow they knew from town – his name was Arlo, he was “an old-timer, a tough, self-made man in the classic American sense.”

Out of the blue, Arlo began talking about his grandfather, who had been a deeply religious man. His wedding present to Arlo and his bride had been a Bible, which he admitted he had admired mostly because it was an expensive gift, bound in white leather with their names and the date of their wedding set in gold lettering on the cover. “I left it in its box and it ended up in our bedroom closet,” Arlo told us. “But,” he said, “for months afterward, every time we saw grandpa he would ask me how I liked that Bible. The wife had written a thank-you note, and we’d thanked him in person, but somehow he couldn’t let it lie, he’d always ask about it.” Finally Arlo grew curious as to why the old man kept after him. “Well,” he said, “the joke was on me. I finally took that Bible out of the closet and I found that granddad had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the book of Genesis, and at the beginning of every book… over thirteen-hundred dollars in all. And he knew I’d never find it…. Thirteen-hundred bucks was a lot of money in them days,” he said, shaking his head.


You may not have a Bible with money stuffed in the pages, but you hold in your hands the most valuable possession you can ever own. If William Tyndale could see you with an open Bible in your hands, I know it would make him glad to know that his sacrifice was worth it all.