A Review of the Standard English Versions

A REVIEW OF THE STANDARD ENGLISH VERSIONS

by Wayne S. Walker

     [Note: This and the next four articles are not offered as "scholarly treatises" by a so-called "expert" trying to tell people which translation of the Bible they should use. Nor do they merely contain comparisons of the different versions among themselves. Rather, they are provided to answer the question that many people often ask about which translation is best and are based upon research done by Bible-believing scholars but in a way that is intended to be understood by common folks.]

     Several previous articles in this series have looked at a history of the English Bible, chronicling the work of such men as John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, King James, and others. But someone might ask, why do we need translations? Most of us do not read Hebrew and Greek. Just as John in John 1:42 felt it necessary to translate an Aramaic word into Greek for his readers, so we need God’s word translated into a language that we can understand. But someone else might ask, why do we need new translations? The answer is three-fold. First, the English language has undergone change. Second, additional Bible manuscripts have been found. And third, recent archaeological findings have helped scholars to understand Biblical languages better. And still another might ask, how can we know that the manuscripts have been translated accurately and what is the best translation?

     The King James or Authorized Version was issued in 1611. For over two-hundred years it was the standard of English translations and even today is still immensely popular. Some have claimed that it is the only "inspired" translation, but there is no Biblical evidence that any translation is inspired. This version does have its weak points. Some say the text is not as old as some of the more recently discovered manuscripts, but this point is debatable since the manuscripts upon which its text is based do represent sources much older than themselves. The use of "ecclesiastical" words like "baptize" instead of immerse and "church" instead of assembly can produce misunderstandings.

     There are obvious mistranslations, like "Easter" in Acts 12.4. And the outdated language makes reading a little difficult, although I have often said that if we can study and understand Shakespeare, we can still understand the King James Bible. However, it also has many strong points. There is a metrical, majestic style that makes for flowing reading; indeed, simply from the standpoint of English literature, the King James Bible is considered excellent. It is generally faithful to the best Greek text of its day. And it has been well-distributed, widely read, and often memorized. Untold numbers of people have learned and obeyed the truth by reading the King James Version.

     The English Revised Version was completed in 1885 and its counterpart, the American Standard Version, was published in 1901. The lack of style probably accounts for their failure to replace the King James Version in both public and private devotions. The Revised Version has two main weak points. The very literal language can make for difficult reading in some places, although this precision should not be considered a defect in itself since it results from an admirable attempt at accuracy. Also, the footnotes can be misleading. For example, the footnote to Matthew 2.2 says of the word "worship" that "The Greek word denotes an act of reverence whether paid to a creature…or to the Creator." That is true, but it could leave the impression that the One being worshipped in this passage is a creature.

     However, the strengths greatly outweigh the weaknesses. The paragraphing makes it easier to keep the thought flowing, although specific verses can be a bit more difficult to find. Some prefer the more updated and, so it is claimed, accurate text, although, again, there is question as to whether the newly found manuscripts upon which the text is based are really more accurate or not. Still, in truth the major differences are relatively few. It is in somewhat more modern and readable language, correcting the mistakes, replacing the obsolete words, and improving the ambiguities of the King James. But most importantly, it translates the original text that it uses into English as literally as possible while maintaining an idiomatic readability.

     The Revised Standard Version was produced in 1952. Its main weak point is that the committee which translated it included some men who were well-known theological liberals, and it was financed by an organization, the National Council of Churches, which many believed that evidence showed to be Communistic in its leanings. The desire to keep all wordings from offending any branch of "Christendom" (it was the first "Protestant Bible" ever to be endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church) resulted in too much interpretation and not enough translation. And there is a total lack of italics, so that it is impossible to know what is interpolated and what is in the original text.

     A couple of specific examples will illustrate these weaknesses. In Isaiah 7:14, the Revised Standard reads "young woman" instead of "virgin." Enough evidence is available to show that the Hebrew word can be used to mean "virgin" as evidenced in Matthew 1.23 (the Septuagint used the Greek word for "virgin"). The translators chose to retain the archaic word "Thou" and its other forms only for deity; yet they are omitted in the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 2.7. The Revised Standard does have some strong points. It is in contemporary, standard English which is neither "classic" nor "vulgar," and the use of quotation marks, while sometimes arbitrary, can be helpful. However, the strengths do NOT outweigh the weaknesses, and this translation cannot be recommended for those who want to know with accuracy what the original text says.

     Lest this article become too long, we shall reserve comments on the more recent versions, other committee works which have received some notoriety, various modern speech translations, and even some well-known perversions of the Bible for later articles. However, an examination of the evidence will show that, while there is no perfect translation, we can be assured that there are translations available to us which accurate render the original text into the English language. And from these, we can discern what God has revealed to mankind in His written word. (—taken from With All Boldness; November, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 11; p., 5)

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