Bible Versions

Bible Versions

Question

I found a passage somewhat ambiguous in the New International Version. I therefore looked up the passage in the King James Version and it was not ambiguous. Is the King James Version more accurate than the New International Version?

Answer

There are several factors to consider when discussing the accuracy of translations.

First, some different translations are based on different manuscripts (old copies of Greek and Hebrew texts). Mostly, the large assortment of manuscripts we have are in agreement, but sometimes the vary from one another. When they vary, some translations follow one reading, while others follow another (there are sometimes quite a number of variations on a particular verse). Generally, the variations are stylistic rather than substantive, but sometimes they are substantive (compare for example 1 John 5:7 in the NIV and KJV). These differences may have arisen for several reasons. Some are merely copying errors; some are due to the fact that some ancient copies are rather interpretive; some are due to the fact that ancient corrections to manuscripts were often made in the margins, where notations were also made, and scribes did not always know which were corrections and which were notations (this probably explains the extra language in the KJV in 1 John 5:7). The NIV employs more manuscripts than does the KJV, and thus has more information at its disposal when determining which reading to follow. While some argue that the manuscripts used by the KJV are the most accurate, there does not seem to be sufficient historical evidence to support this assertion. Personally, I believe that on the whole the NIV relies on a better manuscript tradition than does the KJV.

Second, different translations have different theories and goals. The NIV does not translate word-for-word, but rather looks for dynamic equivalents (modern phrases that convey the same meaning as the original phrase). That is, the NIV is more interpretive than the KJV and other word-for-word translations, and less interpretive than what we call *paraphrases* (such as the Living Bible). Dynamic equivalent translations read more smoothly in English than do word-for-word translations, but are sometimes less reliable in helping you determine the Greek or Hebrew behind the translation. The KJV, however, has the added complexity that its language was rather high and poetic even at the time it was written, and now its language is rather archaic. So, even though it is a word-for-word translation, its meaning is not always clear.

Third, different translators are of different levels of skill in the original languages. The translators of the KJV, as wonderful as they were, did not possess the scholarship or knowledge about Greek and Hebrew that modern experts do -- since the KJV was translated, we have made centuries of progress and discoveries that help us better understand the original languages. In this regard the NIV tends to be more accurate and reliable than the KJV.

Fourth, translation is by nature a rather interpretive work, and one's theology and beliefs tend to influence one's translation. For example, in the Living Bible (a paraphrase), Romans 8:28ff. mentions that God foreknew who would come to faith in him -- but this is clearly not what the Greek text says. Rather, it is an interpretation that seeks to keep the reader from falling into what the translators perceive as an error, namely, the doctrine of predestination. You can compare these verses in both the NIV and the KJV to get a better idea of what the Greek really says. Another obvious example of this is that in the New World Translation (the Jehovah's Witnesses' translation), John 1:1 says that the Word was *a god,* whereas the correct interpretation of the Greek is represented in the NIV and KJV: the Word was *God.* The New World Translation translators did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, and thus justified in their own minds a translation which was not accurate. To some extent, this takes place anytime anyone translates any verse, so that all translation is influenced by the beliefs of the translators.

All this said, both the KJV and the NIV are, on the whole, very good and reliable translations. While I generally prefer the NIV and its translations over the KJV, there are passages in which I believe the KJV is preferable. That being said, where reliable translations differ in a substantive manner, and when this substantive difference impacts your theology or application, it is not really a good idea to defer to any one of them on the basis that one is a "better" translation. It is a much better idea to do further study that explains the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew behind the differences you are seeing. For example, when you note that the KJV is not ambiguous where the NIV is, it may be the case that the NIV has obscured the original meaning by adding ambiguity to its translation. On the other hand, it may also be the case that the original text was in fact ambiguous, and that the KJV has obscured the original ambiguity by limiting its translation to only one of the text's possible meanings. It may also be that the original meaning lies somewhere between the KJV and the NIV, or that they both miss the meaning completely. Only deeper study will help you resolve this problem. Again, there may also be a textual difference behind the difference, so that only investigation of the textual traditions followed in each case will help you decide which translation is better.

Granted, all this can make it seem rather daunting to read our English translations, and for some even to trust them. The good thing is that there is no major doctrine that is not accurately represented by all the good English translations (in which group I would include things like the NIV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV; and from which group I would exclude paraphrase versions like the Living Bible and highly slanted translations like the New World Translation). Further, the major translations only rarely disagree in any substantive manner. Where they do disagree substantively, we have a tremendous number of resources at our disposal (commentaries, lexicons, grammars, textual criticisms, etc.) with which to research the discrepancies if we so desire.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.