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Why is one translation "better" than another? (2/26/11)

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Why do you feel that this translation is "better" than the King James version?  I rather like the King James.  All these different translations lead me to wonder whose is correct, and why the others translated it the way they did.  This is most troubling to me. Your thoughts? (2/26/2011)

Short Answer: God's plan of salvation is clear in every translation I've ever read, so read whatever one you like.

Long Answer:

This is a fabulous question!  It goes right to the heart of several issues that come up during Bible study, and I’ll try to address some of them today.

I grew up reading the King James Version, and I don’t remember reading any other translation until I was about 29 years old, when I started reading the New Testament of the Jerusalem Bible. Shortly after that, my then-fiancé, now-hubby gave me a New English Bible. For the next several years, whenever anything looked strange to me, I immediately cross-checked the Jerusalem and New English translations against the “real” Bible – the King James Version. (I almost never found any significant difference.) So I know exactly how our fellow-reader feels about the King James and about differences among translations.

Now, the first thing I want to say today, and possibly only important thing, is this. I have read numerous translations. I have read a lot of commentaries. I have read bits of the Old Testament in Hebrew. I have read large portions of the New Testament in Greek, and I have translated Mark, Luke, most of Acts, and selections from several other books under the tutelage of an excellent Greek professor. My Greek New Testament has specialized footnotes that give all the major variations among the manuscripts, and I have consulted these footnotes many times. And I have never – NEVER – seen a variation, either in the footnotes or in any mainstream translation,* that casts any doubt or presents any confusion about God’s plan of salvation. God’s will for his creation is so clearly stated in the Bible, so many times and in so many ways, that I think it would be close to impossible to disguise God’s plan of salvation without starting over from scratch and writing a whole new book. I love the King James Version, and in fact, I still use the King James as a resource when I’m translating. But I have to tell you that the King James is no more “real” than any other translation, including Hunter’s Loose Translation,** which we’ve read from several times in this study. And a lot of things have changed since 1611, including the English language. So while I understand that differing translations can be confusing when you first see them, all I can do is assure you that the differences really aren’t anything to worry about and can sometimes be useful. First let’s examine the specific example of Luke 2:14, and then I’ll come back to the issue of “which translation is correct.”
Luke 2:14

The scripture for 2/7/11 was my own translation of Luke 2:14, as follows: Now, I suspect that every reader among us learned this as “Peace on earth, good will to men,” as it says in the Christmas carols and cards, or “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” as it says in the King James Version (1611). And in spite of what I said in the previous section, I have to admit that “peace on earth, good will to men” looks pretty different from “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” In fact, it is probably one of the very few large-ish variations in meaning among New Testament manuscripts. (And note well that it does not bear on eternal salvation, only on your earthly life.)

So why is this? Well, the difference, as large as it appears to be in English, with words moving around and even changing, is only one letter long in Greek: The idea that the God’s peace is aimed only at those “with whom he is pleased” is not original with me, however. It goes back at least as far as the latter part of the 19th century. I checked several translations, and these are some differences from the King James: Now, to be fair, some modern translations and versions also follow the King James. So the question is, why do I think the newer reading is “better”? The short answer is this. The King James Version was first published in 1611. In the past 400 years, quite a few manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered that were unavailable to the King James team.  They did a great job with what they had, no question about that.  However, a number of the manuscripts now available are older, more intact, or otherwise more convincing to scholars than what they had available to them in 1611.

Some manuscripts have eudokias and some have eudokia. Now, before you get all judgmental and think this couldn’t happen today, think about putting on a cap or a cape to go to Starbucks to get your coffee hit or hot. After you drink that coffee, are you happy or a harpy? In spite of our best efforts, typos slip into essentially every English publication, and this was also true when the earliest Greek manuscripts of the Bible were being copied by hand.

Here is an extremely abbreviated table of the manuscript support for the two readings. (I warn you that it may contain errors, because I had to compile it from several different places in Novum Testamentum Graece, Barbara and Kurt Aland et al., 1998, and A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, by Paul D. Wegner, 2006.)

eudokias (among those with whom he is pleased) eudokia ( good will toward men)
Aleph = Codex Sinaiticus – prior to 4th century; discovered mid-19th century Aleph2 – 7th century copy
A = Codex Alexandrinus, 5th century, came to England in 1627 B2 – 6th/7th century copy
B = Codex Vaticanus, 4th century, not widely available until 1815 L – 8th century
D = Codex Bezae, 5th century, came to England 1581 Theta – 9th century
W 4th/5th century Xsi – 7th century
an edition of the Vulgate Psi – 9th/10th century
Sahidic versions Syriac versions
Origen, about 250 A.D. Or(pt) – Origen, about 250 A.D.
Cyril of Jerusalem, 386 A.D. Bohairic versions
Eusebius of Caesarea, 339/340 A.D.
Epiphanius of Constantia, 403 A.D.

Even allowing that I may have made mistakes in this table and that I left out one or two manuscripts on each side that I couldn’t identify, the pattern is clear. The earlier manuscripts tend to support eudokias, and the later manuscripts tend to support eudokia. Most scholars thus believe that eudokias is the original reading. That makes “peace to those with whom he is pleased” a better translation than “peace on earth, good will to men.” Some of the earlier manuscripts were not available to the King James team, so they can hardly be blamed for choosing the reading that now has less support.

Knowing what the text says is a matter of finding the best, most original manuscripts and translating them correctly. The consensus of the best scholars is that the best manuscripts say “peace to those with whom God is pleased,” not “peace to all.” Clearly the former is more restrictive.

What to think about what the text says is a matter of commentary. One of our fellow-readers commented that “Even at the rejoicing of Christ's birth there was judgment.” My own comment was that “this better and more-restrictive translation is fear-inspiring”:  how do I make sure I am pleasing to God? if my unbelieving neighbor doesn’t have peace, how can I have peace? However, other commentators or readers may have a completely different take on it, and that’s fine. I’ve told you many times not to take my word, or your pastor’s or rabbi’s word, or anybody else’s word for this stuff. You have to read the Bible for yourself.

Why do Translations Differ? Is This Something to Worry About?

I think there are three main reasons that different English translations present the same ideas in slightly different words.

First, very few words in any language A have an exact counterpart in any language B. For most Hebrew and Greek words, we do not have a single English word that means exactly the same thing in all contexts as the Hebrew or Greek word does in all contexts. English is unusual in several ways: Translators therefore have to choose from a number of English words that mean almost the same thing in English and are almost right for the Hebrew or Greek. Different translators choose different words and arrange them in different ways. This is nothing to worry about. If your spouse says, “I’m going to the store,” and then five minutes later says, “I’m off to shop,” you don’t think you’ve gotten two contradictory messages.

Second, English is a living language; it changes every single day. In 1611, “suffer” meant “allow.” Now it means “undergo pain.” It is no longer appropriate in the sentence, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Neither, for that matter, is “unto.”) Now, you and I have no trouble with that sentence, because we’ve heard it all our lives, but people reading the Bible for the first time would be completely confused by this archaic word, not to mention ye, thee, lo, O, straightway, wherefore, shew, and many others. Most translators use vocabulary appropriate to the time in which they are working, and this is nothing to worry about. If you read, “Let the kiddies come to me,” you’ve gotten exactly the same message.

And finally, when a new manuscript is found, scholars must weigh whether it supports the current best reading, changes the balance of differing readings, or possibly gives a new reading that is even closer to what the original author wrote than anything we already have. For example, the very earliest fragment of the New Testament currently known to exist is Papyrus 52. It dates from early in the second century – less than 100 years after the earthly ministry of Jesus. And this papyrus came to light in 1934. Other important manuscripts were found in 1936 (Chester Beatty Collection) and 1946 (the Dead Sea Scrolls), for example. The earliest copy of the book of Jude and copies of the letters of Peter (dated between 200 and 300 A.D.) were found in 1956! This is not only nothing to worry about, it should be a cause for rejoicing as we gain a better understanding of God’s message to the world.

So here’s my advice (which many of you will recognize).
Copyright 2011, 2017 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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