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Translation and the Degradation of Language

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series

"Conservative Christianity and the Authorized Version"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Not all languages have the same natural facility at expressing all ideas. Some of these restrictions are in vocabulary: a language might have a word or phrase that readily communicates a specific concept that another language might require several words (or it might have to borrow a word) to say the same thing.

Other distinctions are matters of syntax and morphology. Hebrew, for instance, not only allows for nouns to be singular or plural, but there is also a dual form, which (as expected) signifies that there are two of that noun. We can communicate that there are two of something in English, but not as simply.

These kinds of distinctions in communicative power not only exist between languages; they can exist in the same language as it changes over time. This brings us to the next conservative argument for the use of the AV: that the past three hundred years have not been kind to the English language, such that the AV more accurately expresses biblical content than a modern version is capable of doing.

It is not hard to see how this argument is rooted in a basically conservative outlook. Do we live in an era in which communication is degraded? Is it possible, maybe even likely, that English suffered linguistic deterioration since Shakespeare? It seems obvious to me that something like this is the case.

The most cited example of this downgrade is that Elizabethan English distinguishes the second person singular and plural with you and ye. There is no dispute here: the 1611 bests modern versions in communicating this difference; the latter are typically reduced to footnoting relevant instances of the plural pronoun for clarity.

It is always my purpose, when evaluating an argument that I don’t agree with, to try to see it in its best light before responding to it. But here, other than the pronoun issue I’ve mentioned already, I simply don’t see specific ways in which modern English is incapable of or even handicapped in expressing the meaning of the Greek and Hebrew it is translating.

To be sure, there are modern translations that purposefully avoid the use of (possibly unfamiliar) theological terms. Such translation are forced either to substitute unwieldy phrases for those terms or else to use a simpler word that will miss the point of the original text. And I am also willing to concede that recent developments in English grammar that capitulate to progressive distortions about gender have made their way into some translations, distorting in places in the original intention of the author.

But these still do not represent structural defects in contemporary English itself. The mere existence of modern translations that do suffer by attempting overly simplistic or ideologically motivated translation is no argument that such defects are intrinsic to every modern English translation. Is there something in the language of the ESV and NASB that renders them incapable of adequately translating the Hebrew and Greek of our Bibles? I fail to see what it might be.

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Michael Riley

About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.

16 Responses to Translation and the Degradation of Language

  1. The problem is that versions like the NIV have been found to be seriously lacking. Words, phrases, sentences and even whole verses have been left out. Others have been completely changed. As it is not possible for an ordinary lay person to examine every single modern version in detail to ensure that it is, in fact, a correct translation of the original, and because our leaders, who should have known better, let us down, especially in the matter of the NIV, the best way forward is to return to the KJV, which is at least acknowledged to be a good translation, and has been used for centuries. That is why I personally distrust ANY modern version. It is not because I don’t believe modern English is adequate to translate the original (except in the case of the second person pronouns); it is because I no longer trust the Christian scholars who let us down so badly with the NIV, as well as with other modern versions. Once we have scholars who are people of integrity and thoroughly committed to our Lord Jesus Christ and His Word, we may be able to accept a version of the Bible that will be on a par at least with the KJV.

  2. Hi, Alison. Would you mind sharing one or two examples of where phrases or whole verses in the NIV have been left out or completely changed. It would help to know exactly what you’re concerned about.

    Thanks so much!

  3. With the greatest of pleasure. Here are a very few examples. There are hundreds more.
    Luke 2:14 (KJV) Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.
    Luke 2:14 (NIV) Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests.

    John 6:47 (KJV) He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life.
    John 6:47 (NIV) He who believes has everlasting life.

    Luke 4:4 (KJV) Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
    Luke 4:4 (NIV) Man shall not live by bread alone.

    Prov. 18:24 (KJV) A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly.
    Prov. 18:24 (NIV) A man of many companions may come to ruin.

    I can’t recall an example of a verse that has been left out, but I have the information at home and will look it up this evening and send it to you tomorrow, if that will be okay.

    Our church uses the NIV and I often sit amazed at the differences in what they are reading and what I know the KJV says. I used the NIV for 15 years before I realized the extent of the problem – various pastors told me during that time when I asked about things that “it’s not a salvation issue, so it’s not important” – but finally I realized that I needed to change back to the KJV, which I had read since childhood. We also changed the Bible version we use at TCE to the KJV and insist that all our pupils memorize out of it. After some initial objections, everyone settled down happily to do just that, and we have had no problems with it.

    To me, it is very important not to tamper with the Word of God. As I said, my problem is with our so-called Christian leaders who have allowed and even encouraged this corruption of the Scriptures to the spiritual disadvantage of millions of English-speaking Christians.

  4. Thanks so much, Alison. I don’t intend to get into a huge discussion here about Bible translations, but I do want to point out one important element of what you are observing: what you are perceiving as changes are changes from the KJV, not changes from the original Greek or Hebrew texts.

    Again, I don’t intend to argue with you at this point if you think the KJV should be the standard rather than the Greek and Hebrew. I’d just like to emphasize that for those who believe the original Greek and Hebrew are the standard, the modern translations are actually more faithful to the original texts than the KJV is.

    In other words, what your ultimate standard is (original texts or KJV) is an important element in this discussion.

    Thanks for the interaction.

  5. I am certainly not suggesting that the King James Version should be the standard instead of the Greek and Hebrew. My problem is that the modern versions don’t reflect the original Greek and Hebrew. I believe the Textus Receptus should be the standard used, rather than the Aland/Nestle Greek version, as the Textus Receptus represents first of all by far the largest number of manuscripts, and secondly because the manuscripts used by Aland/Nestle, Westcott and Hort, and the modern versions, were from Alexandria, Egypt, a hotbed for the Arian heresy. These manuscripts were rejected by the Church, which is why they were in better condition when found (never used, just like the copy of the Koran I had on my shelf for quite a long time), while the Textus Receptus manuscripts came from Antioch in Syria and were accepted by the Church, frequently worn out from use and therefore copied, not once, but literally thousands of times. There are only 44 Alexandrian manuscripts, and they contradict each other as well.

    To give you some examples of verses left out: Matthew 17:21, Matthew 18:11, Matthew 21:44. Altogether 257 verses are left out of the Nestle/Aland Greek version, some of which are included but in brackets, indicating that they should be left out. Of these the NIV leaves out 246, the RSV 245, the New American Standard Bible 238, the New World Translation of the Bible (Jehovah’s Witnesses), 237 and the English Standard Version 234. It is shocking that the NWT is actually slightly better than the ESV, which has become so popular among Christians today. The problem is ignorance. I would urge you to do some research of your own into this important matter and not just write it off. Books I can recommend are “Look What’s Missing” by David W. Daniels and “New Age Bible Versions” by Gail Riplinger. Both are well-researched and deserve your consideration.
    God bless.

  6. Thanks, Alison. I’m fully aware of the arguments in defense of a TR position, which is outside the scope of Michael’s post here. I just wanted to clarify that talk of leaving out or changing portions of Scripture is exactly a matter of difference of opinion on which manuscripts to use, not an issue of actually changing Scripture. But of course that’s a debate for another place and another time!

  7. Alison,

    Gail Riplinger’s book was widely discredited for its countless flaws and outright distortions. She propelled much of the KJV-Only or TR-Only movement into high gear in the 90s, but it was not through a thorough handling of the facts. It was National Enquirer meets textual criticism.

    If you would like a good perspective on both the textual issue and on the versions, you should look into two books written by Fundamentalists, who were generally very allegiant and respectful of the KJV. They are “From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man”, and “God’s Word in Our Hands”.

    Further, even if you hold that the Byzantine/ Majority text family is more reliable, that position is distinguishable from the TR position. Maurice Robinson, for example, eloquently and helpfully defends Byzantine Priority, ( http://www.reltech.org/TC/v06/Robinson2001.html ) , but not the TR. The TR was essentially a critical edition of the Majority text family, beginning with Erasmus’ edition (which used seven manuscripts from the Majority text family). Today, we have thousands more, and we can still do what Erasmus, Beza and Elzevir did, with their revisions of that “critical” version of the Byzantine/Majority text family.

    I happen to lean to Robinson’s position, but I still believe that the ESV, NASB, CSB, etc are God’s Word in English. Those versions are not “based” upon the Alexandrian text, as is often claimed. They are the result of a method of identifying original readings known as reasoned eclecticism.

    Reasoned eclecticism as a method takes into account text families, internal and external evidence, and then attempts to suggest the most likely original reading that would have given rise to the many alternate readings. They look at all the text families, not just one. This is why it is misleading for writers like Riplinger to introduce nonsense about Freemasonry, Madame Blavatsky and other nefarious elements, turning it all into a conspiracy to omit Christ and change the Bible. Indeed, the nature of how the New Testament was copied and distributed essentially prevented any centralised authority from tampering with it. People like Marcion tried and failed. It went ‘viral’, so to speak, and someone who wanted to change it would have needed to gather all the copies across the empire and change them all.
    Instead, the discernible differences between Alexandrian, Byzantine and Western text families occurred at some point, and affected all the descendant manuscripts from those families. The task of text critics is to compare, contrast, harmonise, and explain the differences. I disagree with some of the methods, which sometimes defy common sense and inerrancy (see James Borland, https://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj10d.pdf) , but they are mostly trustworthy.

  8. While I did not agree with Gail Riplinger about many things, I think one thing one needs to concede is that she put in a huge amount of work and research, something that most pastors and Bible seminary professors have failed to do. However, I think “Look What’s Missing” is a better book, and it should be considered at least. Liberal Bible scholars have given the Church a huge number of problems, leading in part to the situation we face today. It does make a difference to me, and to thousands of other Christians, perhaps millions, if the Bible we are using has left words out or even verses out that were in the large majority of manuscripts (i.e. the Textus Receptus), and if it doesn’t matter to you, well, that is between you and the Lord. As you say, this is another debate for another time – I just hope that debate will be held at some time. The Church has been seriously weakened by this multiple of Bible versions and we need a change.
    God bless.

  9. Alison,

    It does make a difference to me, and to all the men who blog here. That’s why we need truth, not hearsay, logical fallacies, speculation, gossip, slander, and falsehoods, which sadly has characterised many voices in the KJV-only and TR-Only camp (with some blessed exceptions). Footnotes and six hundred pages of writing are only worth something if they follow the canons of knowledge and research, which Christians have developed and followed for centuries. Riplinger did not do so- by a long shot.
    It’s important, especially in the Internet age, that we who educate – pastors, professors, and homeschool educators – are familiar with how to distinguish a blowhard in scholarly disguise from a genuine researcher. The next generation depends upon our diligence in this regard. Jacques Barzun’s “The Modern Researcher” is a good place to start.

    You may not know this, but the KJV-only debate absolutely ravaged Baptist Fundamentalism in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. It split the independent Baptists in South Africa, and we have never recovered. Similar splits occurred in the U.S. The ground is burnt over, the positions have been staked out, new fellowships and alignments were created, and few have the energy to re-ignite that battle. The debate has been held – ad infinatum – and those new to the debate would be best served to restrict themselves to the clear and sober voices, not the shrill and hysterical ones.

  10. Never mind Gail Riplinger. What about David Daniels, John Burgon, and others? I think before you jump to conclusions you should at least read their works. Incidentally, the Afrikaans Bible (Ou Vertaling) doesn’t leave out these verses either. The point is not “KJV only”, but which Greek manuscripts were used in the translation. All the modern versions are based on a corrupted Greek text, from Alexandria, Egypt. It is well-known that Alexandria was the centre of the Arian heresy. Also, those manuscripts are in the minority. There are far more copies of the Textus Receptus. The only reason I use the KJV is that I am extremely nervous about verses being left out, or changed, in the new versions – and I did give the new versions a good chance! I have many of them on my shelves and I read the NIV in my personal devotions for 15 years or even more. I’m also subjected to it every Sunday in church, so I have plenty of opportunity to compare! I did not take the decision to go back to the KJV lightly, especially as it cost us in customers for our homeschooling programme. Also, I read widely on the subject – both sides. I admit that I was not that impressed with Gail Riplinger’s book, especially as she insists on spelling “Bible” with a lower-case “b” (one of my pet peeves), so I read on the other side too, but gradually I began to realize that she had a point. Once I discovered David Daniels and John Burgon, I was much happier, and even then I did not immediately change. So I think I did take enough time to study this issue thoroughly and I am definitely not “new to the debate”, nor am I “shrill and hysterical”, and I would suggest you consider your position seriously. As I said previously, it is between you and the Lord if you think it is a minor and unimportant issue if words or verses are left out or changed, but it isn’t to me.

    Incidentally, a lot of things have divided the Church since the beginning. Even a cursory reading of Church history makes one realize what a miracle it is that the Church is even still in existence! That is a testimony to the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ. But every age has its own heresies, some new and some old, and this attack on the Bible is one for our age. Church music is another, and that has proved even more divisive. So just because something is divisive does not mean we must leave it alone and not get involved. Each one of us will answer to the Lord for the way we have treated His Holy Word, and teachers of the Word are held even more heavily accountable.

    Isn’t it strange how Bible reading amongst Christians has reached an all-time low? I have even heard lay preachers say things like, “I don’t pretend to know that much about the Bible, but I do know this …” and go on to some experiential matter. Although the Bible has been put into modern English, ostensibly so that people can “understand” it, many Christians do not read it every day, and those who do don’t study it seriously. Why? Probably because the idea has been communicated that “only the original autographs are inspired”, so why waste time on something which is probably wrong anyway, or at least not “inspired”? The implications are very serious. Also, it opens the door to the smorgasbord approach – I can pick and choose what I like in the Bible and reject the rest as being probably “not inspired”! Don’t forget that most people are not in a position to be able to check the Greek for themselves. I can, because I studied New Testament Greek, and I have both Greek versions to be able to compare them. Most people are at the mercy of their Christian leaders and have to believe what they are told without being able to check.

    If somebody came up with a modern translation that was truly faithful to the majority text, I would be quite happy to use it. So far that has not happened, and we have been sold down the river by our so-called spiritual leaders. Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them” and the fruits we are seeing in the Church are not good. Perhaps if we get back to the true Word of God and start taking it seriously, we will see the Reformation that we badly need.

  11. Alison,

    I am glad you are reading both sides. From your reading, you would then know the following:

    * The Textus Receptus is not identical to the Majority text. It is an edited and compiled version of manuscripts from that family, which differ among themselves. It also has gone through around 27 editions, changing and updating each time.
    * Copies of the Textus Receptus would be copies of a compiled edition of the Greek New Testament, dating after Erasmus. There is no such thing as a copy of the Textus Receptus before 1516.
    * Modern versions derived from the UBS/ Nestle give great weight to Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which are from the Alexandrian area. In some places, however, they choose against those manuscripts and give weight to the Majority text readings. I don’t know a modern version based solely on the Alexandrian text.
    * Alexandria did have heresy, as did the Byzantine empire. It was also the home of Origen, who despite his many flaws, maintained Christian orthodoxy. Guilt by association cannot adjudicate this issue for us.
    * Inspiration extends to the originals, not to copies. With over 10 000 copies, we can reconstruct the originals with 99.99% certainty, so we have God’s inspired Word in our hands. Ongoing inspiration is a Ruckmanite heresy, and is in danger of even compromising the Gospel.

    This is a site devoted to conservative worship. It’d be off-target to imply we are unwilling to take unpopular positions or are afraid of conflict. It’s also a tad much to assume or imply that the writers on this blog are among the “most” pastors and professors whom you claim have not studied the issue, or that none of us see its importance or have taught on it. How do you know if I’ve read Burgon, or not? How do you know what battles the men on this site have fought on this issue, all of whom are pastors, and responsible for discipling people on this very issue? Perhaps I’m not “jumping to conclusions”. Maybe I have been tracking this debate for a little over 25 years, and know the authors you quote quite well. Love thinketh no evil, right?

    No one called you shrill, Alison. I said many of those writing books on the topic are. Riplinger, D. A. Waite, Steve Anderson etc. are among them.

    And I would join you in welcoming and using a modern version based upon the Majority/ Byzantine text. That was the original plan with the HCSB, and it ended up going in the direction of UBS/Nestle.

  12. I can see that I have offended you, for which I apologise. I too have studied this issue for many years, and I got the impression from your previous post that you thought I was a newcomer to the debate, also that I had been influenced by “shrill and hysterical” voices, which was simply not the case. One should not look so much at how people are saying things, but at what they are saying. That is the way to be truly objective, and that is how I approach writers whose style I may not like, but who are making some valid points. Nobody has to accept everything a writer says. Only the Bible is inspired! “Shrill and hysterical” are very emotive words and should not be used in such a discussion, as they somehow give the impression that the person is not to be trusted, simply because he or she is a bit too passionate about the subject!

    In any case, I do not think there is any justification for leaving verses out of the Bible, especially as the majority of texts support them. The Alexandrian texts are definitely in the minority, and that fact is beyond dispute. Furthermore, when it comes to inspiration, surely God was able to protect His Word over the centuries? Why do we teach children 2 Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is given by inspiration of God …” when it applies only to the original autographs, which we no longer have? All those centuries of painstaking copying by dedicated monks were in vain if the Bible we now have is not inspired. However, the Bible does warn against removing words from Scripture in Revelation 22:19: “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life …”

    God preserved His Word for nineteen centuries, and then at the end of the nineteenth century we get scholars who suddenly decide that we had the wrong version all along – and all modern versions are based on their decision. That means that the Lord was not able to preserve His Word, and had to wait for modern man to come along and correct His mistake. No wonder people no longer take the Bible seriously enough to try to apply it to all of life! Nowadays, because of the multiplicity of versions, people can’t even quote the Bible any more. I hold a very high view of Scripture. I believe it is inspired, from cover to cover, and can and should be applied to all of life today in our modern world. The KJV seems to me to be the best English translation of the ancient texts, and God has certainly used it for over 400 years. The NIV has had to be revised a couple of times already, and every year almost there is some new version popping up – some of them really bad, moving further and further away from the original. If, as you say, most pastors have actually studied this issue, all I can say is that I don’t understand why they are not more concerned. However, we shall just have to leave it there and agree to disagree, hopefully agreeably! God bless.

  13. Alison,

    No harm done on my side. My point is that it is critical to choose the right authorities, and trustworthy ones usually have a recognisable tone to their writing, as do the unstable ones.

    I’d encourage you to distinguish the Textus Receptus position from the “ongoing inspiration” position. One simply has a high view of providential preservation (which I happen to hold), the other goes beyond Scripture and asserts that translators and copyists received the same inspiration given to apostles and prophets. One is a defensible position, the other is not.
    Blessings to you.

  14. Dear David
    Thank you. I personally prefer to go with the Lord’s advice, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The fruits of these modern versions have not been good. However, I am sure we will all one day know the truth. God bless.

  15. Great posts, Mike. Simple and straightforward and reasonable.

    A small addendum to this one: don’t forget the concept of “false friends.” Everybody knows that the KJV contains “dead words”—words we know we don’t know, such as *besom*, *chambering*, and *emerod*. But what few readers recognize is that the KJV—through no fault of the KJV translators, nor of us, but solely because of the inevitable changes English has undergone—now contains numerous “false friends,” words (and syntax and punctuation, etc.) we don’t know we don’t know. As long as the KJV contains only dead words, its defenders can tell Tyndale’s plow boy to stop being lazy and go use a dictionary. But the more “false friends” it contains, the more difficult it is to expect that “the very vulgar” for whom the KJV translators did their work can fully benefit from that work. Indeed, every dead word and false friend is a step toward violating Paul’s principle in 1 Cor 14 that edification requires intelligibility.

    I find it unprofitable to talk about the TR with anyone who insists on the exclusive use of the KJV. I don’t care if they prefer the TR; as you say, there are some good reasons rooted in God’s providence to consider using one of the TR editions (though which one is another question!). And my KJVParallelBible.org shows, I think, that the differences between the two texts are not as important as the similarities—and not as important as the use of vernacular translations. To the person who prefers the TR I say, “By all means, use the TR. Simply make or use a translation of it is that is put into intelligible, contemporary English.”

    One and only one quibble: I’m not sure I would grant that today’s English is deficient or deteriorated. We have great writers, too. As I say in my book, if C.S. Lewis’ English, for example, is degraded, *will someone please infect my prose with whatever disease his had?*

  16. One quick thought on contemporary English being degraded: I suppose every generation will have its luminaries. What I’m struck by (as an example) are the numbers of astonishing elegant letters and diaries kept by ordinary folks during the Civil War. I wonder if future historians will find our generation to be similar.

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