Thursday, February 17, 2005

Why Do We Need Modern Versions of the Bible? (Part 1)

I'm currently in the middle of a Sunday School series ("in the middle of" always liberally means it's neither the first nor the last installment) titled "The Origin of the Bible," and thought I might share some of those notes here. Last Sunday we broached the topic of all the differing translations available today. One of the questions I am asked most is, Which Bible version is the best one to use? That's a question no one can answer off the bat because we must always ask in response, What do you plan to use it for? You see, different translations are suited for different purposes. But before we get into that issue, there is a prior question that must be answered: namely, Why is there a need for the modern translations in the first place? Why can't we just all use the King James Version?

Here's one reason--languages come and go, and in the process always change in form over time. Here is an example of John 3:16 in an early English version:

"For God so loued the world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life."

Now, if you don't recognize this version you may be surprised to learn that it is nothing less than the original 1611 KJV. Some of you may be saying to yourselves, "But that doesn't look like my KJV." That's because it isn't. The KJV most people use today is the 1769 revision of the original (there were many revisions in between). Obviously, most people today would find it rather rough sailing to read the original 1611. The English language had changed significantly between 1611 and 1769 (roughly 150 years), and that phenomenon is even more pronounced in the etymological changes that took place in the English language from 1769 to modern times (roughly 250 years).

But the original KJV, believe it or not, was condemned as a "modern translation" and had just as much trouble gaining acceptance from those in its own day as the modern translations do from those who hold to a KJV-only stance. Opposers of the KJV were used to existing translations, such as:

"For God so loueth the world, that he hath geuen his only begotten Sonne: that none that beleue in him, should peryshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe." (The Geneva Bible, 1557).

"For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in him, shulde not perisshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe." (The Great Bible, 1539).

"For God so loveth the worlde, that he hath geven his only sonne, that none that beleve in him, shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe." (Tyndale, 1534).

And these translations themselves were "updated" versions that replaced older translations, such as:

"for god loued so the world; that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that eche man that bileueth in him perisch not: but haue euerlastynge liif." (Wycliff, 1380).

Which itself was a "modern version" compared to this one:

"God lufode middan-eard swa, dat he seade his an-cennedan sunu, dat nan ne forweorde de on hine gely ac habbe dat ece lif." (Anglo-Saxon, 995 AD).

Obviously, there is a need for modern translations. Some may respond by insisting that the 1769 version of the KJV is clear enough. But is it? Let's look at a couple of passages in the KJV:

"Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia" (2 Cor 8:1).

Now, without looking at a modern translation, what does "we do you to wit" mean? My guess is that most readers of this blog have no clue. And that's not surprising since that phrase is no longer in common use today. (If you are still wondering what is means, look at the same passage in the NIV or the NASB).

Here's another one . . .

"For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way" (2 Thess 2:7).

The question is, what exactly is the meaning of "let / letteth" in this passage? The word "let" today normally means "to allow." But in Elizabethan English, it also meant the exact opposite; namely, "to hinder or forbid"--and that's just what it means in this passage. That is why modern translations have translated this word as "restrain" or "hold back" instead of "let."

The translators of the KJV recognized that they were not making some "end all and be all" translation that would never need to be replaced by another. Here is what they wrote in the preface of their original:

Truly (good Christian Reader) wee neuer [never] thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one,... but to make a good one better. . . . that hath bene [been] our indeauour [endeavor], that our marke. . . . Blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that breake the yce [ice], and glueth onset vpon [upon] that which helpeth forward to the sauing [saving] of soules. Now what can bee more auaileable [available] thereto, then to deliuer [deliver] Gods [God's] booke vnto [unto] Gods [God's] people in a tongue which they vnderstand [understand]? Since of an hidden treasure, and of a fountaine that is sealed, there is no profit.
The KJV translators recognized the same principle upon which the apostle Paul himself operated in delivering the gospel:

"praying at the same time for us as well, that God may open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; in order that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak" (Col 4:3-4).

The overarching goal of any translation should be to make the word of God clear, not to obscure it with archaic idioms that no one today understands.