What Are the Basics of the Bible Translation Process?

The Reading Culture of Early ChristianityFrom Spoken Words to Sacred Texts400,000 Textual Variants 02

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Don Wilkins_02
DR. DON WILKINS: B.A. UC Irvine, M.Div. Talbot Seminary, Th.M. Talbot Seminary, M.A. UCLA, Ph.D. UCLA. He has worked with The Lockman Foundation (TLF) as a senior translator since 1992 on the NASB.

While I cannot address this subject at length,  it needs to be addressed, to lay the foundation for you, the reader. My approach here is to assume that you have no knowledge of Bible translation issues, or the process of translating from the Original Languages (OL) of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, into what we call the Receptor Language (RL), such as English. However, this does not mean that we will pass over all the elements of this subject because some of them are essential to the issues of literal translation. Therefore, it is necessary to start with a chapter on the Bible translation process. Below, in this chapter, you will find each step that is taken in the process of translating a section of text. If it is not covered in that area, we will also offer the reader a few examples of how we are to translate idioms, figurative language, as well as special terms such as justification, sanctification, and redemption, among other things. This chapter will then end with some examples of overstepping the translation process, what that looks like, and a few examples of when it is appropriate to go beyond what we are going to call the final step of the process of Bible translation.

Before we delve into Dr. Wilkins’s article, let’s take a brief scroll of how the Bible came down to us.


A Brief Overview Of How the
New Testament Came Down to Us

Original Greek Writings and Early Copies

Early Papyri100-175 C.E.

7Q4? 7Q5? P4/64/67 P32 P46 P52 P66+ P75+ P77/103 P101 P87 P90 P98 (bad shape, differences) P104 P109 (too small) P118 (too small) P137 0189 P. Oxyrhynchus 405 P. Egerton 2

175-250 C.E.

P1 P5 P13 P20 P23 P27 P30 P35 P39 P40 P45 P47 P49/65 P71 P72 P82 P85 P95 P100 P106 P108 P111 P110 P113 P115 P121 (too small) P125 P126 (too small) P133 P136 0220 0232 P. Oxyrhynchus 406 P. Egerton 3 (Metzger Western & Aland Free; too small to be certain) P38 P48 P69 0171 0212 (mixed) P107 (Independent)

250-300 C.E.

P8 P9 P12 P15/P16 P17 P18 P19 P21 P24 P28 P50 P51 P53 P70 P78 P80 P86 P88 P89 (too small) P91 P92 P114 P119 P120 P129 (too small) P131 P132 too small) P134 0162 0207 0231 P. Antinoopolis 54 P37 (Free, mostly Western)

Ancient Versions

  • Syriac Versions—Curetonian, Philoxenian, Harclean,
  • Old Latin
  • Palestinian, Sinaitic, Peshitta
  • Coptic Versions
  • Gothic Version
  • Armenian Version
  • Georgian Version
  • Ethipic Version
  • Early Greek Uncial MSS.—Vatican 1209 (B), Sinaitic (א), Alexandrine (A), Ephraemi Syri rescriptus (C), Bezae (D), etc.
  • Latin Vulgate
  • Sixtine and Clementine Revised Latin Texts

Greek Cursive MSS.

Fam. 1. Early in the twentieth century, family of witnesses that includes manuscripts 1, 118, 131, and 209

Fam. 13. 13, 69, 124, 230, 346, 543, 788, 826, 983, 1689, and 1709). They were copied between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries

  1. 28. Eleventh cenrury
  2. 33. Ninth century
  3. 61. 16th century
  4. 69. 15th century
  5. 81. 1044 C.E.
  6. 157. 1122 C.E.


Critical Texts

  • [1516] Erasmus Text
  • [1522] Textus Receptus
  • [1550] Stephanus Text
  • [1774–1775] Griesbach Greek New Testament
  • [1881] Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament
  • [1943–1977] Bover Greek New Testament – 5th edition
  • [1933–1984] Merk Greek New Testament – 10th edition
  • [1898–2012] Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament – 28th edition
  • [1966–2015] United Bible Societies Greek New Testament – 5th edition

English Translations

  • The Wycliffe Bible (1382; 1388)
  • Tyndale and the First Printed English New Testament (1526)
  • Coverdale and the First Complete Printed Bible in English (1535)
  • Matthew’s Bible (1537)
  • Taverner’s Bible (1539)
  • The Great Bible (1539)
  • Edmund Becke’s Bibles (1549; 1551)
  • The Geneva Bible (1560)
  • The Bishops’ Bible (1568)
  • The Rheims-Douay Bible (1582-1610)
  • The King James Bible (1611) – Revision of Early English Translations

Between the King James Bible and the Revised Version

  • Edward Harwood’s New Testament (1768)
  • Charles Thomson’s Bible (1808)
  • Noah Webster’s Bible (1833)
  • Young’s Literal Translation (1862)
  • Julia E. Smith’s Bible (1876)
  • The British Revised Version (1881-85)
  • American can Standard Version (1901)

Early Modern English Versions

  • The Twentieth Century New Testament (1901; 1904)
  • Weymouth’s New Testament in Modern Speech (1903)
  • Moffatt’s Translation of the Bible (1913; 1924-25) 25)
  • Smith and Goodspeed’s American Translation (1923; 1927)
  • The Revised Standard Version (1952)
  • The Jerusalem Bible (1966)
  • The New American Bible (1970)
  • The New English Bible (1970)
  • The New International Version (1978)
  • Jewish Translations 142 Translations Sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society (1917; 1985)
  • Heinz W. Cassirer’s New Testament (1989)
  • David H. Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible (1998)

Revision after Revision

  • The New American Standard Bible (1971; updated ed. 1995, 2020)
  • The New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
  • Revised New Testament, New American Bible (1986)
  • The Revised English Bible (1989)
  • The New Revised Standard Version (1990)
  • The English Standard Version (2001)
  • The Lexham English Bible (2012)
  • The Christian Standard Bible (2017)
  • Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

The Texts

Before the actual process can begin, the proper OL texts must be obtained. For the Old Testament (OT), the standard Hebrew/Aramaic text is the Masoretic text published as Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS). I mention Aramaic because there are several chapters in Daniel and a few passages elsewhere originally written in Aramaic, not Hebrew.

For the New Testament (NT), the standard text is the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum (NA), although the new Greek New Testament published by the Society of Biblical Literature (SBLGNT) may prove to be a serious competitor (more about this in chapter 6). Generally, the latest edition of the NA and the Biblia Hebraica are preferred, but textual criticism decisions made by translators (see below) can affect the preference.

The Tools

It would be nice to think that a Bible translator is fluent in the original languages of the Bible, but I have to admit that I have never met such a person (including myself), and do not expect to in this life. Memorizing either the OT or the NT in their OL’s would be quite an accomplishment but would not render you fluent in the OL’s themselves. To do so, you would have to do the same thing that a modern language student does: live several years in the land where the language is spoken by native speakers. Those lands may still exist, but, unfortunately, all the native speakers are long gone.

The best that we can do is choose one or more lexicons for each OL that give us word meanings or point us in the right directions, and grammars that explain to us how the words are put together to form concepts, such as clauses of one kind or another. How do we know they are right, you might ask. The level of certainty or probability varies, but at least we know that these experts have done a great deal of research, AND–just as important, they usually tell us when they are uncertain about something. Having said that, I’m happy to tell you that we have lexicons which have risen to the top as standards, like the standard texts.


For the OT, I would maintain that the standard lexicon is the Koehler-Baumgartner Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. The previous standard was the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (short title) by Brown, Driver, and Briggs. For the NT, the standard lexicon is the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (short title) by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich. Only the unabridged versions of these lexicons, please! There are other lexicons worth consulting, but any serious translation work requires these. They are both hefty works; if what you are using could not double as an effective doorstop, then it is not big enough. The good news is, they are both available as software, with point-and-click access to words (the standard texts are also available as software).

I wish I had good news about OL grammars, i.e. that there are clear standards. There certainly are a good number of grammars available, and some observers may sing the praises of a few of them. I’ll have a good deal to say about advanced grammars in a future work, but for now, I’ll just say that I have had reasonable success with two old advanced-level grammars. For Hebrew, Davidson’s Hebrew Syntax, and for Greek, Smyth’s Greek Grammar. I know that critics will probably groan, and particularly protest that Smyth is a classical Greek grammar, after all! True enough about Smyth, but I make no apology for him. Many may take issue with me, but NT Greek is essentially classical in its grammar, and Smyth did an excellent job in writing his grammar. The result is that I find it highly applicable to NT Greek.

Decisions, Decisions

Now that we have the essential tools–and we are, of course, assuming that the translator has the necessary expertise to use them–certain decisions must be made. Some or even most may be out of the translator’s hands because of marketplace or time constraints. Hypothetically, if the translator were independently wealthy and relatively young, he or she could decide the philosophy of translation, the time limit (if any), and the degree of effort to be expended.

In real-world situations, the person or company who pays for the translation decides most of these things. The philosophy includes such matters as literal vs. dynamic/functional equivalence and priorities. Time is money, and the time permitted will dictate how much effort can be expended on the translation process.

Another decision is whether the work is to be done by one person (solo) or a committee. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and the decision will make a big difference in the procedures followed. For example, a single translator will take a simple approach and should be able to work more efficiently than a committee. The style should be fairly consistent overall, not requiring editing for consistency.

The committee approach, by comparison, should involve a number of committees working simultaneously and churning out more work. Typically different people on each committee are assigned different passages (or sometimes the same passage) to translate, and then the translations are reviewed by the committee as a whole, and eventually, a version is agreed upon after changes are recommended and either accepted or rejected. The latter stages are unnecessary for the solo translator and thus make the overall committee process less efficient by comparison, but the final product is that of multiple experts and may, therefore, be better than that of the solo translator. It depends on the talents and abilities of the people involved. The committee approach provides at least a greater impression of credibility. However, some solo translations have done as well or better than some committee translations in the marketplace.

Committee and solo approaches aside, it is an unfortunate truth that the excellence of the product will depend in part on the degree of effort expended, and that the latter will depend mainly on the time allowed for the work. The time limit in turn may be dictated by the publisher’s budget, the marketplace, or both. The translators’ skills are another limiting factor.

I can cite two examples of areas that could be impacted by these factors. One is the analysis of the OL texts. This is particularly clear for the NT. A quick look at any page in the NA text reveals as much footnote information under the text as there is text–sometimes even more. These notes point out alternate readings in the ancient manuscripts. They may not affect doctrine or theology, but they do result in changes in the wording of the original texts, and the notes are there to allow translators to decide whether to choose an alternate reading or to accept the reading chosen by the editors for the text. As a translator for the NASB I have the time to evaluate alternate readings whenever I consider it necessary, and I assume that the same is true for translators of the other major versions. But if that is not the case, then a translator has to be content with the reading chosen for the text by the NA editors (or the chosen reading from another Greek New Testament).

The other example is that of determining the meaning of a difficult word. We have already discussed lexicons as a tool for this task. On a higher level, however, the translator ideally should not trust any lexicon, not even the unabridged ones. Lexicographers, i.e. the people who write lexicons, get their information by studying all the relevant literature they can access. What makes the unabridged lexicons so big and heavy is that they list references to the passages where words are found. When I was naïve and bought my first big Greek lexicon, I was disappointed because I expected to find a treasure chest full of different definitions and explanations that were missing from my smaller lexicons. Instead, I found limited definitions and a lot of references to Greek works, with very short quotations. I eventually learned that if I wanted to know what the word meant, I was supposed to look it up in those works and read it in context.

And that’s not all. Thanks to very elaborate research projects that have been going on for decades, we now have access by computer to virtually all the ancient Greek literature in existence. To fully understand the meanings of some NT words, we need to look at the ancient literature outside the NT, and most of this literature has not been translated. A great deal of it has yet to be studied even by the lexicographers. I am one of those translators privileged to be able to read it because of my training, but I was a glutton for punishment when it came to learning Greek. Most scholars doing NT research today took a different educational route.

So in determining word meanings, funding and the translators’ skills may limit the work of translation to a careful reading of the lexicons. That’s not bad; I would classify it as “acceptable,” but it could obviously be better. In my work, I do a complete search of any word that is difficult to nail down in its exact meaning in a particular passage. I check the references I find in the standard NT lexicon, but I also use the tools that cover Greek literature outside the NT. It would be far more preferable if we could find an ancient Greek from the first century who was somehow frozen in a glacier before he died, and then thaw him out alive and ask him what these words meant. For our present purposes, I’m going to assume just an acceptable reading knowledge of the OL’s for the translators, based on the standard lexicons and good grammars.


Personal Preparation

Before starting the process of translation, it is absolutely essential that the translator prepares him- or herself spiritually and emotionally. I know you’re thinking that I was just obligated to include the spiritual side because we’re talking about Bible translation, but no, there really are spiritual commitments and attitude changes that are needed for this endeavor.

The main requisite is also a point of theology: to understand that no translation is inspired, therefore, none is necessarily error-free or beyond improvement. I mentioned this earlier. The KJV translators clearly understood this, as one can see from their preface. I have never said anything like, “I’m so glad that God gave me this particular wording to express the OL.” I have often heard Christian songwriters say that God gave them a song, and I assume that they are trying to give God the credit when a song turns out well. Maybe some of them actually mean that God somehow dictated the song to them. They can say whatever they want; I just know that I cannot say the same about translation.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

I am not suggesting that God never, ever guides a translator to a wording that God himself prefers.[1] If he does, however, we have no way of knowing it. The point of the requisite is that we have to be willing to change any translation we do, either to correct it or improve it. This can be a very hard thing emotionally, so part of the translator’s preparation should be a determination not to become emotionally committed to any translation he, or she does. I try to imagine that once my translation of a word or phrase is on my monitor screen; it is no longer mine. It is just raw data to use or tear apart as needed. There are times when I sense that the Holy Spirit may be restraining me from emotional commitment to my work. It’s a mental and physical uneasiness that I feel, something that would not respond to an aspirin or an antacid.

Another requisite for Bible translation is to be willing to keep on working beyond the point of mental exhaustion. In this case, too, there are times when I sense that the Holy Spirit may be guiding me. I feel a strong mental nudge to investigate one or two more sources when I’m convinced that I am finally done with my research on something. It is not just a willingness, but a compulsion to walk that extra mile, and it often makes a difference in the final outcome.

I’ll just mention one more requisite; then we’ll move on to the translation process itself. To be effective in doing the job, you have to be able to play nice with others, unless of course you are working solo entirely and paying all the bills yourself. The translator who is not emotionally committed to his own work will be in a better position to work with others because he or she will be better prepared to accept criticism. If the work is by committee, I strongly recommend posting signs outside the doors reading, “Kindly Leave All Egos Here.” Unless someone is almost supernaturally gifted (I’m not referring to spiritual gifts), his or her work will receive criticism, and eventually, it may very well turn ugly. Again, I have found it a very good idea to try to think of the work I have submitted as no longer mine (legally, it isn’t if you don’t hold the copyright). Another way to look at the situation: if there’s no crying in baseball, there certainly is no place for crying in translation.

Finally, The Process

At this point, all the necessary decisions have been made, and I will note how some of them actually affect the process, especially in regard to the issue of literal vs. dynamic/functional equivalent (DE/FE) translations. I begin with the philosophy of the translation, addressing just one element of it: whether the translation is to be interpretive or non-interpretive.

To simplify the discussion from this point on, I hope you will forgive me if I use the traditional (and possibly outdated) male gender pronouns, with the understanding between us that women and men are equally well-suited to the work. The translator needs to be competently bi- to quadrilingual in the OL’s of the Bible (depending on his assignment) and the target or receptor language (RL) of the people for whom he is translating. It really is a shame that we cannot resurrect native speakers from first century Palestine and from various OT times and places to explain to us exactly what they understood from the Scriptures. We have to be content with knowing as much as we possibly can about the OL’s. At the same time, a competent translator needs to be equal to a native speaker of the RL in fluency. Indeed, I maintain that the greatest scholar of ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (GHA from now on) in the world who is not fluent in the RL is not by himself qualified to do the work of translation.

Now then, whether the translation is to be interpretive or non-interpretive, all translators should agree on the first step: to translate for themselves and read through a passage in the OL as many times as necessary for them to be entirely comfortable with it. How much translation the individual translator needs to do will, of course, depend on his skill and familiarity with the passage. At some point, every expert in the biblical OL’s had to look up the words in a passage for their meanings, identify all the grammatical aspects of every word, and properly organize the words according to the grammatical information.

Being “entirely comfortable” with the passage means that it is just as easy for the translator to read it in the OL as reading anything in his own first language. This is especially important for Greek because Greek writers had a good deal more flexibility in word order than we find in English and many other languages, thanks to the complex grammatical indicators in ancient Greek. To beginning Greek students, a complex passage can seem almost like a jigsaw puzzle in which the words have to be rearranged to make sense, and once they have done that they feel as if they have “solved” the puzzle. In truth, they have missed a very important part of the meaning because emphasis and de-emphasis can be expressed by word order. A competent translator must be comfortable with the word order in the OL, and attempt to express the corresponding nuances in the RL.

If the passage includes difficult words or relates to a controversial issue, it is advisable to do a thorough investigation of the keyword or words. Difficult words must be thoroughly searched by computer. The nearer other occurrences are contextually to the passage being translated, the better, but it is often the case that these words are rare. In the old days, the best a translator could do was to rely on the lexicon for references to other sources, and then hope that he could look up the other sources somewhere. As I said earlier, we now have amazing new tools, and the limits in using them are the research time required and the skill of the translator in being able to translate extra-biblical sources where the words in question occur.

As an example of this situation, consider the words “exercise authority over” in 1 Timothy 2:12. They translate the Greek word authenteo, which occurs nowhere else in the Bible. Several definitions are offered in the standard NT lexicon (BDAG), along with a number of references to extra-biblical sources. The exact meaning is important because Paul’s statement here is controversial, at least from a modern viewpoint. The question is what kind of leadership over men is forbidden to women within the church–if any.

If you are not familiar with the controversy, you may have found that last phrase, “if any,” puzzling. Those who advocate placing women in the highest levels of church leadership would argue that Paul does not actually bar them from these positions, however. The definitions found in BDAG all seem capable of taking a negative nuance, something like “usurping” authority.  If this is what Paul meant, then it is conceivable that women can act in authority over men provided that they are duly chosen or elected to do so, and do not abuse the privilege.

So to many translators, and the readers for whom they are translating, the definitions in the standard lexicon are going to be tantalizing and inadequate because they imply a possible negative connotation without clarifying it. The translators will want input from other lexicons, and they should check them, but they are unlikely to find adequate help there. For example, the standard, unabridged lexicon for classical Greek (Liddell and Scott, et al.) offers “having full power or authority over” for this verse (it covers the NT as well as classical sources). On the other hand, it also cites “to commit murder” for one classical source. You would think that no one would assume that meaning for the verse. I do, however, know of one researcher who did, since it clearly eliminated the alternative that Paul was forbidding women to be in positions of authority over men. Evidently, according to that researcher–women can assume authority over men as long as they don’t commit homicide in the process.

But if we rule out murder as an option for authenteo in 1 Timothy 2:12, the only fruitful course of research left is to examine the use of the word in extra-biblical contexts. I have been able to do this thanks to my computerized resources in Greek, and I concluded that the word simply means to exercise one’s own authority in a given situation, without any negative connotation. Thus “exercise authority over” is a good translation, as far as I am concerned. My findings did not rule out negative implications that theoretically might be found from other elements in the context, though I see none. Moreover, other scholars are, of course, free to disagree with me; I would just expect them to examine the same sources that I did.

Once any problematic words or constructions in the OL are thoroughly researched, the translator(s) should be completely familiar and comfortable using only the NT or OT OL text at this stage in the translation process. Then, if the work is being done by committee, one or more members of the committee will be tasked with producing a translation of the assigned passage. I think it is fair to say that if the translation is to be a DE/FE, then it is interpretive in philosophy, and a formal decision to that effect may not be necessary. It will be understood, and every translator who does a first-draft translation will be trying to convey what he thinks the author meant, “thought-for-thought” (more on this in the next chapter). There are, of course, varying degrees of interpretive translation; some would classify the NIV as moderately interpretive, and place The Message on the far end of the scale.

Literal translation can also be interpretive, and sometimes is even forced to be (more on this in chapter 7). But I can attest that for the NASB at least, the goal is to be non-interpretive. The best way I can describe this is to say that when two or more meanings are possible for a passage, the translators attempt to word it in such a way that it is open to all possible (or at least reasonable) interpretations. Thus, the task for the translator is to write a first draft in which the meaning is not clearly one thing, or another if the meaning of the text in the OL is not clearly one or another. What could very well be the object of criticism in one committee (as in, “I can’t tell exactly what this is supposed to mean”) would be praised in a committee aiming for a non-interpretive translation.

Once the first draft of the passage is ready, the committee will then meet to discuss and critique the translation. They will also compare the translation with existing Bible versions. At some point, they will reach a consensus on what they consider the best translation possible thus far. Even then, it is far from being finalized. Of course, the solo translator has only to agree with himself about the best translation that he can do, but if he has any wisdom at all, he will seek constructive criticism along the way.

Keep in mind that for committee work, there are a number of different committees working on different parts of the Bible at the same time, all following the same procedures, and the number of translators involved depends largely on the publisher’s budget. This obviously takes a lot of coordination and administration, so it can be a large and expensive undertaking.

Once drafts of assigned books are agreed upon, they are sent out for review. Also, depending on the translation philosophy and the budget, English stylists may be brought in to make improvements. But reviews by diverse people of various occupations are essential, generally the more reviewers, the better. This is just as true for a solo translation. The reviewers are instructed to make changes to the text as they see fit.

Exactly what happens to the reviews when they are returned is up to the publisher or whoever is paying the bills. Since the reviewers may have no knowledge of the OL’s, it may make sense to have someone independent of the committees screen the reviews to see what suggestions are viable and save valuable committee time. A general editor can be designated to make final decisions about the reviews and the entire translation itself, or the reviews can simply be sent back to the corresponding committees for their consideration. Hopefully, by that time the translators will have adjusted to the critical atmosphere well enough to be able to read the reviews without getting nosebleeds.


I can tell you from my own experience that while I do not look forward to a letter from a reader critical of the way something was translated in the NASB, I do always give the reader a fair hearing (i.e. reading). Scholars have egos, but to do their jobs they have to be able to accept criticism and determine whether or not they have made a mistake. Once again, I commend the KJV translators for their comments about mistakes. If a translator has difficulty admitting a mistake and correcting it, he (or she) needs to get into a different line of work.

Once every comment from a reviewer has been addressed, and every mistake corrected, the translator is still not done.  There is still the “proof” stage, when the printer provides the publisher with the text just as it will look in the final product. I do not know what happens between the final, fully-corrected text that goes to the printer and the proof that comes back, but I know from experience that more mistakes are always discovered. This is a process that ancient copyists (scribes) never had to deal with. It is as though the same forces that somehow cause wire, string, or rope to form knots inexplicably where there was none when it was carelessly laid down somewhere also cause mistakes to appear in the text that was inexplicably missed previously. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times the text was rechecked before going to the printer. The translator will be consulted for some of these problems, and then, finally, he is finished.



Why do we need revisions of Bible translations? Minor revisions are needed just to fix errors that somehow manage to survive the final proofing process. Fortunately, these errors are about as rare as you would expect, like getting a compliment from the IRS.

There are three primary reasons for revisions: changes in the original languages (OL’s), changes in the receptor language (RL), and changes in textual criticism. All of these changes inevitably happen over time, leading to a revision every ten to twenty years, sometimes sooner. There might also be changes in the philosophy of the translation, though if they are too substantial the end product will be a new translation, not a revision.

Mentioning changes in the OL’s probably raise a question mark in your mind. We are, after all, dealing with dead languages, so how can they change? If the analogy does not repel you, imagine doing an autopsy on a body that is carefully preserved over decades so that new technology can be employed as it is invented. DNA serves as an excellent example; it was always present in the body, but until the 1980’s the technology did not exist to identify bodies using DNA.

I can only wish that we had something as reliable as DNA profiling to identify ancient word meanings in OL’s. We do not, but for Greek at least we have been developing something like the DNA database. As precise as DNA is, it is useless to identify people if their DNA profiles are not archived somewhere. In that event, the most the forensic scientist can hope for is to find a familial match that will narrow down the range of candidates.

As I noted earlier, at one level translators use standard lexicons of OL’s to determine word meanings. In the old days, the most that was available was a library of original OL sources that a translator could use to check references in these lexicons. No one library would likely have every source, and worse, the standard lexicons themselves would not necessarily cite every relevant source because the lexicographers themselves might not have unlimited access to all existing sources. The situation has completely changed now, thanks to computer databases. I myself, working in my home office, can access relevant sources that are not even covered by the lexicons. So potentially, at least, I can now find a match to a difficult word in a source outside the Bible that will help me nail down its meaning in the Bible.

I can do the same thing in studying the grammatical structure of a phrase or clause in the Bible. In one instance that I’m especially happy about, I was dealing with a phrase that contemporary scholars considered “bad Greek,” as they often call the apparent anomalies found in the NT. These are people who almost always have limited personal experience in reading Greek themselves, and consider anything that does not fit their own standards to be “bad.” My response to them is that none of us alive in modern times will ever be the equal of an ordinary person of even modest intellect who lived in the first century and was fluent in the Greek of that period. The people of that time knew what the rules really were for “good” Greek, and if you know the rules, you are also entitled to break them now and then for special effect. In this case, the “anomaly” proved to be standard Greek, but at a level too advanced for most critics.

Our database of ancient Greek continues to expand, making ongoing research fruitful and leading to ever more accurate translation. To a lesser extent we are also learning more about Hebrew and Aramaic word meanings, mainly as we compare related Semitic languages. And our sophisticated software enables complex grammatical research in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as in Greek.


So it seems clear that God wants us to do more accurate translation of his word from the OL’s increasingly; it is undeniable that he has given us exciting new tools to use. Why now, at this time in world history? So far the greater accuracy has not resulted in any doctrinal changes, nor can I see that ever happening. But the Bible has come under attack in modern times, and I believe that God is providing us with the necessary means to defend it.

Incidentally, many of the changes in our understanding of the OL’s are likely to be seen only in literal translations. They are just too subtle to result in revisions to DE/FE’s. So one can argue that accuracy to the OL’s is best seen in a literal translation.

Over time there are inevitable changes to the RL, which for our purpose is English (I can only address American English). A favorite example for many people is how the word “gay” has changed, but as a matter of fact this word only occurred once in the KJV, at James 2:3 where it translated a Greek word referring literally to bright or shining clothing, and “bright” was an original meaning of “gay.” “Gay” never occurs in the NASB or the NIV by contrast.

One of the words that I have had to deal with as an NASB translator was “dumb.” “Dumb” originally referred to someone who was unable to speak, and insensitive people probably thought of others with this disability as stupid. At some point in the history of the language, “dumb” came to be regularly understood as synonymous with “stupid” or “unintelligent,” perhaps because there seem to be many more people like that than there are people unable to speak.


The original NASB translators (I worked with some of them but was not one) found “dumb” in the ASV referring to the inability to speak, and at that time they did not feel that the word would be confusing or problematic for readers. It was also in the KJV, which at the time was still very well read. But when we worked on the Update of the NASB (1995) we felt strongly that “dumb” would immediately bring to mind mental deficiency and that the speech disability might not even occur to some readers. So we decided that “mute” was a better choice.

There are also grammatical constructions that are correct English and were common in the past, but now may be misinterpreted by readers. I can cite the phrase “that the Scripture might be fulfilled” as an example. The writers of the New Testament point out events that are fulfillments of prophecy using this language. When they are referring to their own (present) time, they use a Greek phrase translated “may be fulfilled,” which probably sounds fine to most readers. When referring to time past, the Greek handles the change of tense easily, but the English, not so much. You might not realize it, but “might” is the past tense of “may.” Wait, didn’t I just use “might” in the present tense when I wrote, “You might not”? Yes, I did. It turns out that “might” does double duty: it indicates a greater level of uncertainty than “may,” and it also serves as the past tense of “may.”

When I wrote, “You might not,” I was using the greater-uncertainty “might” to be polite. We use it this way all the time. In contemporary English, it is used much less often as the past tense of “may.” But in the phrase, “might be fulfilled,” it is just expressing the past tense of “may” with the same, exact meaning. The problem is that since we almost always use “might” in the present tense to express a greater uncertainty than “may,” many readers could get the impression that “might be fulfilled” was potentially uncertain, making the prophecy in question somehow uncertain. This is not implied in the OL.

You may think that this is splitting hairs and that the possibility of confusion over “might be” is extremely small for the average reader who pays any attention at all to the context, and you may be right. It certainly does not seem as problematic as the word “dumb” by comparison. However, the NASB translators, after much consideration and prayer, came to the conclusion that it was important to avoid even the slightest implication that the fulfillment of prophecies in these contexts was uncertain. Therefore, the decision was made to avoid “might” in the 1995 Update when it previously occurred in these constructions.

This brings us to changes in textual criticism (TC). I referred briefly to the analysis of OL texts above, and I will say more about TC in chapter 6. If the translators of an English Bible have been tasked with choosing the best readings–i.e. those most likely to be the original–in the OL texts, then they will have to follow a particular set of rules or guidelines, and a particular collection of ancient manuscripts. The other possibility, which is probably less likely, is that the translators have been assigned a particular modern edition of the ancient manuscripts to follow. In that case, they do not choose any alternate readings.

There are two phenomena that can lead to changes in each of these cases: discovery of a new reading in an ancient manuscript and a change in the philosophy or methodology of TC. New readings can occur in an actual biblical manuscript, or in a Bible quotation found in an ancient manuscript of a church father or liturgical manual of some kind. We undoubtedly are running out of ancient manuscripts to discover, but new findings continue to occur. As for the second phenomenon, the science/art of TC is still in a state of flux, due in part to modern technology. Its goal has remained pretty much the same: to find the original word of God, or autograph, contained in the existing manuscripts. We are trying to chisel away everything that is not the original divine word. Some textual critics maintain that the goal actually is to find the prototype that accounts for all ancient manuscripts of the Bible in existence, whether that prototype is the autograph or not. As far as I am concerned, this is not a useful distinction for our purposes. I will say more about it in chapters 3 and 6.

Though textual scholars of the Bible may have essentially the same goal, current changes in philosophy and methodology seem to guarantee that the readings in the standard OL texts of the Bible will continue to change for decades to come. And to be clear, I am not talking about the feud between the defenders of the KJV/NKJV ancient manuscripts and the advocates of the more ancient manuscripts upon which most modern translations are based. If anything, these two warring parties are tending to find a little common ground, though they still maintain their principal differences. New methodology has the potential to affect both parties, and it will certainly have an impact on translations based on the more ancient manuscripts.

The only way translators today can avoid the possibility of changes due to TC is to reject all future changes to the OL texts. There are jolly good fellows who have ruled that the 1611 KJV is the inspired translation of the Bible, so they have done something like this by virtually freezing the OL texts in the state that they were when the KJV translators consulted them. Other translators of different persuasions (or their publishers) could decide, for example, that a particular edition of the NA Greek text is to be their standard and will remain so regardless of all other editions that are published after it.

I have to admit that the idea of freezing the OL texts appeals to a part of my brain, the part that does not specialize in patience and intellectual honesty. But my unshakable belief that the inspired word of God can be reconstructed from the ancient manuscripts prevents me from taking this easy way out. I simply have no way of knowing whether new manuscript findings of significance will come to light or TC will undergo necessary modifications due to technology or other factors. It would be a little like refusing to reexamine a cold case after the discovery of DNA evidence.

[1] I actually have a friend who often tries to convince me that God has used me in this way, but I have managed to convince him that I will never believe such a thing, no matter how much he does.

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