(4) Which translation?

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (apart from a few sections written in Aramaic); the New Testament was written in Greek. Relatively few ordinary people today can understand even one of these languages, let alone all three! Most of us depend on translations; and Bible translation has a very long history. It began in the third century before Christ, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek. It is this version, called the Septuagint, which is the one used by the writers of the New Testament when they quote from the Old Testament; and thus the Bible itself both endorses the principle of translation and implies that a translation has the same authority as the original.

Jesus and His disciples would have spoken Aramaic as their first language, and so much of the material in the gospels must have been translated from Aramaic into Greek before being written down. Why then was the New Testament written in Greek? The apostles had a commission to take the good news “to all nations.” (Luke 24:47) Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean region at that time, and so it became the main language of the early Church.

But before too long, further translations needed to be made, into other Middle Eastern languages and into Latin. The Latin version (the Vulgate) was adopted as the official version for use by the Catholic Church. Time went by, and the gospel continued to spread throughout Europe. But translation of the Bible into the new languages did not keep pace; instead, it ground to a halt. Such was the status of the Latin version (despite it not being the original) that it seemed sacrilegious to translate the Holy Scriptures into any ‘ordinary’ language. So knowledge of the Bible became the exclusive preserve of those who could understand Latin – the educated, and the religious professionals. Only with the Reformation was this hurdle eventually overcome – against stiff resistance from the church establishment.

Surprisingly, this history has had a tendency to repeat itself. People get very attached to traditional versions of the Bible, and some individuals have a very negative attitude towards modern translations, simply because they differ slightly from the older ones. For many people in the UK and USA, the only ‘real’ Bible is the King James Version. It’s true that the translation commissioned by James I of England 400 years ago has been enormously influential over British culture. And any book that is still being read 400 years after its first publication must have something going for it. The problem is that it is, well, 400 years old. And although it still has a vociferous fan club, most churches have moved on – and for good reason.

For one thing, although the translation was the best that could be done at the time, many more (and older) New Testament manuscripts have been discovered since – so the modern Bible versions are made from a text that is much closer to what was originally written. (Admittedly, there haven’t been very many changes; and the vast majority are trivial.)

More importantly, the English language has changed enormously over the last four centuries – enough to make the language of the King James Bible incomprehensible in some places and unexpectedly deceptive in others. When it was made, the translators deliberately adopted a somewhat archaic, formal style, in order to evoke a sense of awe and respect. Unfortunately that decision has caused it to ‘date’ rather rapidly. To most of the younger generation, its forms of expression are sufficiently obscure for it to be offputting rather than enlightening. To unbelievers, it is likely to convey the subliminal message that Christianity also is old-fashioned and out-of-date. But it is the favourite version of the militant atheists, simply because it gives them many opportunities to poke fun at the Bible and reject its message.

The King James Version could therefore be described as ‘an acquired taste’ – but for those who are very familiar with the Bible and with its quirks, these things are not likely to be a problem. Nobody likes change for the sake of it, and we all tend to find a version that suits us and stick to it. But there is nothing sacred about any one particular translation. 21st-century English speakers now have a bewildering array to choose from, varying from the good old ‘King James’ (the KJV) and its modernised equivalent (the ‘new KJV’) through the ‘middle-of-the-road’ versions that aim to strike a balance between ‘literalness’ and readability (such as the New International Version or NIV) to the idiomatic paraphrases (such as The Message). The ‘right’ version for you is the one that you will read.

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