Which Bible Translation Can We Trust?

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INTRODUCTION

The Bible, as we know it, did not come as one complete book. It comes from two primary sources – Old and New Testaments, written in different languages through the centuries. The Old Testament (also known as the Pentateuch or first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was written primarily in the Hebrew and Greek language, common at that time.

Later, manuscripts were written in Aramaic, the language during the time of Jesus that replaced the Hebrew language in certain areas. The New Testament is a collection of several manuscripts and personal letters, mainly from the Apostles of Jesus.

Can we trust the modern Bible if it was based on copies?

Yes, the Bible is considered the most accurate ancient manuscript. The earliest copy of the Old Testament discovered was the Dead Sea Scrolls dated 70 BC. The earliest copy of the New Testament is the John Rylands MS dated AD 130. All of the books of the New Testament were written within a lifetime of the death of Jesus.

→ Outline of Bible evidence.

1. Septuagint (Old Testament)

Background: During exodus (1450-1400 BC), when the children of Israel (Jacob’s descendants) enslaved from Egypt, God asked Moses to deliver them to the promised land. During this time, God gave Moses the ’10 commandments’ and his instructions for the people to follow, thus the traditional date for Moses’ writing of Genesis to Deuteronomy written in their Hebrew language.

Jews generally divided the Old Testament into three different sections, The Law, The Prophets, and The Writings. The Law or Torah consists of the first five books of Scripture that contain the historical background of the creation and God’s choosing of Abraham and the Jewish nation as His chosen people. They also provide the instructions and law given to Israel at Mount Sinai.

bible Septuagint translation
A Septuagint fragment. The manuscripts are divided into ten parts.

The original tablet of Moses and whatever manuscript they had at that time lost after thousands of years. However, copies of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally known to be written by Moses) survived through the centuries, known as Hebrew translation or the Torah.

The oldest manuscript that exists today is called the Septuagint or LXX*. It is the earliest known Greek translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew text. The translation from Hebrew to Greek began around 247 BC by seventy scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, for an expanding community of Greek-speaking Jews, and completed no later than 117 BC.

* The Roman numeral LXX refers to the legendary seventy Jewish scholars who solely translated the Five Books of Moses into Koine Greek in the 3rd Century.

2. Masoretic Text (Old Testament)

The Masoretic text comes from the Hebrew word ‘masoret,’ which means ‘tradition’. The traditional Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible was meticulously assembled and supplied with diacritical marks to enable correct pronunciation. This monumental work was begun around the 6th-century in Babylonia and Palestine, to reproduce, as far as possible, the original text of the Hebrew Old Testament. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Masoretic bible translation
The Nash Papyrus (2 B.C.) contains a portion of the Ten Commandments and the Shema Yisrael prayer.

The Masoretic Text includes many copies of Old Testament books and works dated between 500-1000 AD. One is the Codex Leningradensis: a complete copy of the Hebrew Old Testament dated at AD 1010.

The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Tanakh for Rabbinic Judaism. However, contemporary scholars seeking to understand the history of the Hebrew Bible’s text use a range of other sources. (Wikipedia)

3. Other Old Testament Bible Manuscripts

Biblical manuscripts are a handwritten copy of a portion of the text of the Bible. The word Bible comes from the Greek ‘Biblia’ (books); the manuscript comes from Latin ‘manu’ (hand) and ‘scriptum’ (written). An original manuscript (the parchment the author physically wrote on) is called the “autographa” or autographs. Biblical manuscripts vary in size from tiny scrolls containing individual verses of the Jewish scriptures to huge ‘polyglot codices’ (multi-lingual books) containing both the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh*) and the New Testament, as well as extracanonical works. (Wikipedia)

The most famous Old Testament Bible manuscripts are the Aleppo and Leningrad Codex. They are the oldest Hebrew language manuscripts of the Tanakh*. Although the Aleppo Codex is more famous, the Leningrad Codex is the oldest and most complete Codex of the Tiberian mesorah that has survived intact to this day.

The most famous Old Testament Bible manuscripts are the Aleppo and Leningrad Codex.

* The Tanakh or Hebrew Bible is the canonical collection of Jewish texts, which is also a textual source for the Christian Old Testament. These texts are composed mainly in Biblical Hebrew, with some passages in Biblical Aramaic.

The original manuscripts and early copies of the Old Testament disappeared over time, because of wars, (especially the destruction of the First and Second Temples), and other intentional destructions. As a result, the lapse of time between the original manuscripts and their surviving copies is much longer than in the case of the New Testament manuscripts.

In the old synagogue in Cairo were discovered 260,000 Hebrew manuscripts, 10,000 of which are biblical manuscripts. There are more than 200 biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of them were written in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. They were written before the year 70 AD. 14 scroll manuscripts discovered in Masada in 1963–1965.

The Leningrad Codex (1008 CE)

Also known as Codex Leningradensis, it is the oldest and most complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew, kept at the National Library of Russia. Manuscripts earlier than the 13th Century are very rare. The majority of the manuscripts have survived in a fragmentary condition. The Leningrad Codex the oldest complete Codex of the Tiberian mesorah that has survived intact to this day.

Leningrad Codex
The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript of the ‘Hebrew Bible’ written in Hebrew in 1008 AD.

It is a handwritten book (instead of the traditional scroll) that was named as such because it has been housed at the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg since 1863.

In 1924, after the Russian Revolution, Petrograd (formerly Saint Petersburg) was renamed Leningrad, and, because the Codex was used as the basic text for the Biblia Hebraica since 1937, it became internationally known as the “Leningrad Codex”.

The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible (written in the Hebrew language), and the source on which the Hebrew texts translation of today are based. The Leningrad Codex is kept and preserved at the National Library of Russia (formerly the Library of Leningrad). It is said that the State of Israel has reportedly sought to acquire it but was unsuccessful.

The Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, and the source on which the Hebrew texts translation of today are based.

Allepo Codex (10 A.D.)

Another collection is the Allepo Codex, which contains the entire Old Testament from the early tenth century A.D. It includes the complete Old Testament. It is dated around 950 A.D. Unfortunately, over one-quarter of this Codex was destroyed in anti-Jewish riots in 1947, and most of the Pentateuch part had been lost.

Called ‘Keter Aram Tzova’ in Hebrew, it is the most famous manuscript of the Tanach*. The Allepo Codex is one of the oldest and most accurate versions of the Old Testament. It is kept in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Allepo Codex is one of the oldest and most accurate versions of the Old Testament


Important Hebrew Manuscript of the O.T.

Other important manuscript discoveries of the Bible in Hebrew text in modern times are the Cairo Geniza (c. 1890) and Dead Sea Scrolls (1947). (List of Hebrew Bible manuscript)

A. Geniza Fragments (400 AD)

This portions the Old Testament in Hebrew and Aramaic, discovered in 1947 in an old synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, which date from about 400 A.D. Ben-Asher Manuscripts: five or six generations of this family made copies of the Old Testament using the Masoretic Hebrew text, from 700-950 A.D.

B. The Dead Sea Scrolls (Between 150 BC and 70 A.D.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946 from the eleven Qumran caves near the Hellenistic-period Jewish settlement at Khirbet Qumran in the eastern Judaean Desert, the modern West Bank. The caves are located about two kilometers from the Dead Sea, from which they derive their name.

The scrolls are most commonly made of animal skins, but also papyrus and one of copper. About 15,000 fragments from more than 500 manuscripts were found that can be divided into biblical and non-biblical manuscripts. They have been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.

dead sea scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls were contained in these jars, found at the Qumran Caves between 1946 and 1956, near the Dead Sea.

The discovery is of great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the third oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon.

Also found along were the Deuterocanonical and extra-biblical manuscripts which preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. Most of the texts written in Hebrew, with some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. Most texts written on parchment, some on papyrus, and one on copper. (Wikipedia)

The Dead Sea Scrolls dated 200 BC to 70 A.D. is perhaps the most exciting modern-day discovery of ancient Bible manuscripts. It contains the entire book of Isaiah and portions of every other Old Testament book, but Esther. Found were 19 copies of the book of Isaiah, 25 copies of the book of Deuteronomy, 30 copies of the book of Psalms, among others. Having identical copies bolstered the accuracy of modern bible translation.

dead sea scroll bible isaiah
Great Isaiah Scroll, photo by Ardon Bar-Hama for the Israel Museum.

The modern-day discovery is significant because through the centuries of bible translations, comparing the present day bible with the Dead Sea Scrolls (particularly the Great Isaiah scroll) shows it is identical with very minor and less significant differences. This means that the word of God was preserved through the thousands of years that past.

Equally important is that it refutes sensational stories that there were “lost” books of the Bible or other “secret” literature. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were copies of books of the Old Testament from 250-150 BC as they knew then, and as we know now, thus the accuracy.

Interesting facts about the Dead Sea Scrolls

● Prophecies by Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel not found in the Bible are written in the Scrolls.
● Found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah.
● Found has never before seen psalms attributed to King David and Joshua.
● The Scrolls are, for the most part, were written in the original Hebrew and Aramaic.
● It was probably hidden during the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70).
● There are previously unknown stories on Enoch, Abraham, and Noah.
● The last words of Joseph, Judah, Levi, Naphtali, and Amram (Moses’ father) are written in the Scrolls.

Other early copies of Scripture from the first centuries A.D.

Freer Greek Manuscript V
Origen’s Hexapla
The Lucian Recension
The Hesychian Recension
The Samaritan Pentateuch


The original New Testament Bible

Just like the Old Testament, there are no known original manuscripts of the New Testament. Those that exist today are autographs and copies of copies written in Greek. However, there are over 6,000 early manuscript copies or portions of the Greek New Testament in existence today.

1. Latin Vulgate

Also known as St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome, the leading biblical scholar of his day, to produce an acceptable Latin version of the Bible in 382. He used various sources and translations. This version became the established Bible of the entire Roman Catholicism.

The translation into vulgar tongues was discouraged, and eventually, the laity was prohibited from possessing the Bible or translating it (Decree of the Council of Toulouse 1229; Ruling of the Council of Tarragona of 1234).

2. John Wycliffe English Translation

John Wycliffe was an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, Biblical translator, reformer, and seminary professor at Oxford. He was an influential dissident within the Roman Catholic priesthood during the 14th Century.

Earlier in 1376, Wycliffe writes ‘Civil Dominion’, arguing a need to reform the Roman Catholic church. His plea is ignored and instead focused on a need to translate the Bible into English.

He completed a partial translation from the Vulgate into English in 1382. It became known as the Wycliffe’s Bible. His followers, known as Lollards, were later persecuted, and some burned at stake for promoting the English translation of the Bible.

3. William Tyndale English Translation

William Tyndale translated the first English Bible directly from Hebrew & Greek texts. He used several manuscripts older than Rome’s Latin Vulgate. Tyndale’s Bible laid the foundations for the succeeding English Bibles. He was burned for heresy in 1536.

Before his execution, Tyndale had only finished translating the entire New Testament and roughly half of the Old Testament. Miles Coverdale completed it, hence the “Coverdale Bible.” Tyndale’s Bible laid the foundations for many of the English Bibles today.

William Tyndale
William Tyndale wanted to reform the church.

William Tyndale’s translation challenged the Catholic doctrine and enraged authorities. He replaced words faithful to the original manuscript, putting Rome on the spot for the erroneous Latin Vulgate translation.

He denounced the practice of prayer to saints. He taught justification by faith, the return of Christ, and the mortality of the soul. He translated the New Testament from Greek into English and was printed at Worms in 1526 with 3,000 copies.

When they reached England, the Bishop of London seizes every copy of what they see as heretic translation.

The new translations were burned as soon as the Bishop could confiscate them, but copies trickled through and ended up in the bedroom of King Henry VIII.

The more the King and Bishop resisted its distribution, the more fascinated the public became. The translation from the source illuminated God’s word to the laity.

The Roman Catholic church declared that it contained thousands of errors and intended to burn all copies. Anyone possessing it risked death by burning at the stake. Today, there are only two known copies left of Tyndale’s 1525-26 First Edition Bible.

William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible into English. Perhaps the most significant impact of this Bible is its influence on the modern Christian Bible today. It has been suggested that around 90% of the King James Version is from Tyndale’s works.

William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible into English.

burning at the stake tyndale heretic
Tyndale was strangled to death, and his dead body burned as punishment for translating the Bible to vernacular.

4. The Geneva Bible

In 1553 Mary Tudor became Queen of England. She was committed to eliminating Protestant influences in England and restoring Roman Catholicism as the official religion. England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the time of her father, King Henry VIII. Queen Mary was greatly influenced by her mother, Catherine of Aragon, who was a devout Catholic.

There was intense persecution of Protestants known as the ‘Marian Persecutions’, which earned her the nickname Bloody Mary. Queen Mary had over 300 Protestant believers burned at the stake, and many others fled to other countries rather than face certain death for not supporting Roman Catholicism.

Protestant leaders fled to Geneva, Switzerland, to avoid the persecution in England. Among them were Miles Coverdale, John Foxe, Thomas Sampson, and William Whittingham. With the support of John Calvin and the Scottish Reformer John Knox, these English Reformers decided to publish an English Bible.

Building upon earlier translations of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale, the Geneva Bible was the first English translation in which all of the Old Testament was translated directly from Hebrew manuscripts. Much of the translation work was done by William Whittingham, the brother-in-law of John Calvin.

The Geneva Bible was the first English translation in which all of the Old Testament was translated directly from Hebrew manuscripts.

The Geneva Bible was the first Bible to add numbered verses to the chapters so that referencing specific passages would be more comfortable. It is also considered the first English “Study Bible”. William Shakespeare quotes hundreds of times in his plays from the Geneva translation of the Bible.

Geneva bible
The Geneva Bible is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English, preceding the K.J.V.

The Geneva Bible became the Bible of choice for over 100 years of English speaking Christians. The 1611 King James Bible shows clearly that its translators were influenced much more by the Geneva Bible, than by any other source. The Geneva Bible itself retains over 90% of William Tyndale’s original English translation.

5. King James Version

Queen Mary was succeeded by her sister Queen Elizabeth I, who strengthened the Protestant Church or Church of England. When she died, the Protestant clergy in 1604 asked the new King, James I, for a new translation.

They knew that the Geneva Version had won the hearts of the people because of its excellent scholarship, accuracy, and exhaustive commentary. However, they did not want the controversial marginal notes (proclaiming the Pope an anti-Christ, among others).

KJV intended to be the “translation to end all translations”

In 1604, King James I commissioned 47 Bible scholars to settle the perceived problems of earlier translations and create an authoritative Bible translation for the Church of England. KJV was to end all Bible translations once and for all.

Jewish Bible scholars also helped with the translation. The new version was more faithful to the original language of the Bible than its predecessors, such as the Latin Vulgate that Roman Catholics used.

KJV completed in 1611

The first of the huge (16 inches tall) pulpit folios known today as “The 1611 King James Bible” came off the printing press. A year later, a shorter version was printed so individuals could have their copy of the Bible.

Sources of the King James Bible

William Tyndale’s New Testament translation
Masoretic Hebrew manuscript (Jewish Old Testament)
Greek Septuagint
Textus Receptus (Greek New Testament; Coverdale; Great Bible)
Latin Vulgate (2 Esdras only)
Possibly Stephanus; Codex Bezae

6. Other New Testament Bible Manuscripts

(The Synoptic Gospels)

The Codex Vaticanus (300–325 AD) and Codex Sinaiticus (330–360 AD)

There are only two other complete texts of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). These are the Codex Vaticanus, which is held at the Vatican, and the Codex Sinaiticus (written in Greek), most of which is held at the British Library in London.

Most current scholars consider the Codex Vaticanus to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament,[3] with the Codex Sinaiticus as its only competitor. Until the discovery by Tischendorf of the Sinaiticus text, the Codex was unrivaled. (Frederick Scrivener)

The Codex Sinaiticus (330–360 AD)

It is one of the most important books in the world discovered in Mt. Sinai Monastery in 1859 by Dr. Constantin Von Tischendorf. It is named after the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, where it had been preserved until the middle of the nineteenth Century. Codex Sinaiticus is an ancient, handwritten copy of the Greek Bible written in the the 4th Century (c. 330–360). It contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament, initially discovered in Sinai in 1844. Other dating shows it was written around 375-400 AD.

It contains all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament. It was presented to the Russian Czar and in 1933 was bought by England. Today, it is in the British Museum in London.

codex sinaiticus 4 AD
Codex Sinaiticus is an ancient, handwritten copy of the Greek Bible written in the 4th Century (c. 330–360). It contains the earliest complete text of the New Testament, discovered in Sinai in 1844.

Handwritten over 1600 years ago, the manuscript is in Greek and is considered as the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Codex Sinaiticus is considered as the oldest substantial book to survive antiquity – is of supreme importance for the history of the book. The significance of Codex Sinaiticus for the reconstruction of the Christian Bible’s original text, the history of the Bible, and the history of Western book-making is immense.

Codex Sinaiticus is considered as the oldest substantial book to survive antiquity

Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript of the Christian Bible written in the middle of the fourth Century, contains the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament. The handwritten text is in Greek. The New Testament appears in the original vernacular language (koine) and the Old Testament in the version known as the Septuagint, that was adopted by early Greek-speaking Christians. In the Codex, the text of both the Septuagint and the New Testament has been heavily annotated by a series of early correctors. (CodexSinaiticus.org)

The Codex Vaticanus (300–325 AD)

A Greek copy of the entire Old Testament and most of the New Testament. Copied between the years 325 and 350 16, the Codex Vaticanus has resided in the Vatican’s library since 1481 as one of the most trustworthy witnesses to the New Testament text.

It is one of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Greek Bible (Old and New Testament) and considered the best Greek texts of the New Testament, with the Codex Sinaiticus as its only competitor. Until the discovery by Tischendorf of the Sinaiticus text, the Codex was unrivaled. The most widely sold editions of the Greek New Testament are largely based on the text of the Codex Vaticanus. (More on Codex Vaticanus)

(Other NT Manuscripts)

Codex Washingtonianus
Third oldest Bible on display at the Smithsonian museum.

Codex Washingtonianus (4–5 A.D.)

The Codex Washingtonianus or Codex Washingtonensis also called the Washington Manuscript of the Gospels, and The Freer Gospel contains the four biblical gospels and was written in Greek on vellum in the 4th or 5th Century. The Washingtonianus is best known for an extra passage near the end of the Gospel of Mark that is attributed to Jesus, and that doesn’t appear in any other known biblical manuscript. (National Geographic)

The Chester Beatty Papyrus II (100 AD)

The earliest piece of the New Testament known to exist. This contains most of Paul’s letters copied circa AD 100.

The John Rylands Manuscript (130 AD)

It contains part of the Gospel of John copied in AD 130. It can be found in the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England.

The Bodmer Papyri and Bodmer Papyri II

Manuscripts are dating from AD 150 to 200. These various parts of the New Testament, discovered in Egypt, now exist in the Bodmer Library of World Literature. Other significant collections include the Codex Alexandrinus, which is an Egyptian text circa AD 450, the Codex Ephraemi, and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Notable Latin versions of Scripture include the Itala Version completed around AD 200 in the North Africa region, the Wurzburg Palimpsest Codex circa AD 450, and the Lyons Codex from about AD 650. The most famous Latin version is Jerome’s Vulgate from AD 390-404.


Which Bible translation can be trusted?

There are more than a hundred versions of the Bible from several religious sects and denominations, but not all Bible translations or text should be trusted. Some of these Bible include insertions and extra-biblical sources that are not considered of God. Other religious group goes as far as to change the intended use of specific passages to justify their unbiblical spiritual practice.

For centuries, Bible scholars examined two ancient texts to elucidate the original language of the Bible: the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint. The Masoretic Text is a traditional Hebrew text finalized by Jewish scholars around 1000 C.E. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Torah created by the Jews of Alexandria in the third century B.C.E. (Biblical Archeology)

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946 is significant because it is the third oldest known surviving manuscripts of works, later included in the Hebrew Bible Canon*. The majority of the Septuagint, Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls are remarkably similar and have dispelled unfounded theories that the Biblical text has been corrupted by time and conspiracy. (Septuagint.net)

The N.I.V. to date is the most popular version because it can easily be understood. However, most serious Bible readers consider it oversimplified and have veered from the King James version, more so from the Hebrew & Greek texts. Most Christian Pastors use NASB, ESV, and the rising popularity of HCSB.

Holman Christian Standard Bible
HCSB Apologetics Study Bible (Box cover)

In 2004, the complete HCSB version (Holman Christian Standard Bible) was released. A team of more than 100 scholars from 17 denominations pursued two ideals with every translation decision. Each word must reflect clear, contemporary English, and each word must be faithful to the original languages of the Bible.

HCSB includes valuable contributions from the ‘who’s who’ of modern 21st apologists such as Chuck Colson, Norm Geisler, Hank Hanegraaff, Josh McDowell, Albert Mohler, Ravi Zacharias, and 90+ more contributors and Lee Strobel.

* A biblical canon or canon of scripture is a list of texts (or “books”) which a particular religious community regards as authoritative Scripture.

Recommended Modern Bible translations

At the turn of the 19th Century, missionaries from Europe and America began spreading Christianity in other countries through mission work. The rapid spread of Christianity to the rest of the world paved the way for a modern translation of the Bible, as well as translation to other languages. From 1611, new versions of the Bible were introduced, revised, or updated, using the King James version as the primary reference.

1971 – NASB or New American Standard Bible (1995).
1982 – NKJV or New King James Version.
1996 – N.L.T. or New Living Translation (2004, 2007, 2015)
2001 – ESV or English Standard Version.
2004 – HCSB or Holman Christian Standard Bible completed.

→ Timeline History of Bible translation and Church History

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