SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.
When it comes to claims that the New Testament has been hopelessly lost through corruption over time, something I’ve heard almost as much as the horribly inaccurate Telephone Game comparison is that the New Testament we read today is unreliable because it’s a translation of a translation of a translation… repeat ad nauseam.
This claim perplexes me since our modern translations are based on the earliest and best ancient Greek manuscripts, not on older English translations. I think two mistaken ideas may be happening here.
TRANSLATION AIN'T TRANSMISSION
The first is that this person is mixing up translation with transmission. Transmission is the process in which a handwritten document is copied and passed on. As I cover in Reintroducing Jesus, the physical evidence of the ancient manuscripts proves that the New Testament has been accurately passed on. On the other hand, translation is the conversion of one language into another. The New Testament was written in Koine (“common”) Greek. So, unless you can read ancient Greek, you’re reading a translation of the New Testament.
As any bilingual person knows, translating can be tricky, but it’s still something that happens accurately countless times daily. When translating, one can choose to translate word-by-word or idea-by-idea. A word-by-word translation does its best to find the closest equivalent of each word, but this isn’t always so easy. Idea-by-idea translations are more concerned with communicating the big ideas rather than the exact wording. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
For example, Greek has four words for describing different kinds of love. When translating Greek into English, does the word-by-word translator translate all four words simply as “love” or does he add adjectives to distinguish each one, such as “romantic love” or “brotherly love”? When translating a piece of (now dated) teenage slang from Paterson, NJ—such as “That’s lit! But you be trippin’, yo! Word is bond!”—it’s probably best to translate it idea-by-idea. Even if you could possibly translate this word-by-word, can you imagine the confusion it would cause to a reader unfamiliar with urban slang? (“What has been lit? Some sort of torch? And why did he trip? Are his shoes untied…?”) An idea-by-idea translation is likely the wiser choice: “That’s exciting, but you’re acting crazy! I really mean that!” On the other hand, idea-by-idea translations contain more interpretation by the translators, and who’s to say the translator’s interpretation is always correct?
These are the things translators wrestle with, and the things you have to be aware of when choosing a translation. This is why the best translations are done by a committee of scholars, not an individual. Though there’s no such thing as a “perfect” translation, modern translations like the New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), New English Translation (NET) , and Bacon Lettuce Translation (BLT)  are some of the most accurate English versions to exist since the New Testament was first translated into English hundreds of years ago.
THE MAJESTIC KING JAMES
The other mistake I think people make when they claim the New Testament is a “translation of a translation of a translation…” is that they’re thinking of the King James Version of the Bible and applying that to all English translations. The King James Version is one English translation among many, and it’s also not the basis of our modern English Bibles.
It’s likely this person making the claim learned sometime in college about the history of the King James Bible, and what they learned was that it’s not the best translation. Hands down, the King James Bible is a significant contribution to the English language. It’s the most widely-read English language book ever, and it was a great feat of biblical scholarship for its day. Yet, compared to today’s translations, it’s inferior. That’s not to say it’s hopelessly inaccurate. It’s still a reliable translation, but the plain truth is that it’s inferior to modern translations. It all comes down to our old friend textual criticism. The fifty or so men who worked on the Bible for ol’ King James simply didn’t have access to the vast number of ancient manuscripts we have today.
In fact, the King James Bible isn’t even a translation. It’s a revision! The translators plainly state this in the preface of the original 1611 printing. It’s not really a “translation of a translation of a translation...” It’s a “revision of a revision of a revision…”
A REVISION OF A REVISION OF A REVISION...
It all started with a cat named Erasmus (“Eazy E,” if you prefer). Thanks to the invention of the printing press in 1440, he published the first printed edition of the New Testament in the original Greek in 1516. Like the King James Bible after it, Eazy E’s Greek New Testament was a historic accomplishment, but it was flawed for the same reasons the (not-yet-in-existence) King James Bible is flawed; Eazy E didn’t have access to the manuscripts we have today.
Not long after, another trailblazer, William Tyndale (“Willy T,” if you prefer) decided to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. The official language of the medieval, western church was Latin, so the Bible was only available in Latin but common folks couldn’t read Latin. Willy T used Eazy E’s Greek New Testament for his 1525 translation.
Willy T’s efforts ended up getting him strangled to death and burned at the stake. Translating the Bible in medieval times was a big no-no. Later, Willy T’s Bible was revised by Myles Coverdale (“Covy D”) in 1535; Covy D’s Bible was revised by John Rogers (under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew, because he didn’t want to end up like Willy T), becoming Matthew’s Bible (1537), which was revised and became the Great Bible (1539), which was then revised to become the Bishop’s Bible (1568).
You’d think after all this revising, every English-speaking person in the world would be happy, but debates about the quality of the translations continued, so King James the First (“KJ-One,” not to be confused with KRS-One) decided to step up to do something about it. Gathering a team of about 50 Bible geeks, he published in 1611 the first version of the English Bible forever-after known by his name. This was a huge feat, but the problem remains: the best manuscripts we have today weren’t available to the medieval scholars who worked on the King James Bible.
For some reason, a Christian subculture exists today that’s ardently devoted to the King James Version of the Bible. A friend, who had worked at a Christian summer camp, once shared with me about a father inquiring why the camp leadership didn’t exclusively use the King James as their translation of choice. The father stated, “If the King James was good enough for Paul, it should be good enough for us.” Now, to be clear, the apostle Paul lived in the first century. The King James Bible was first published in the seventeenth century. The English language didn’t even exist when Paul walked the earth! My friend should’ve responded, “Thou needth some common sense.”
Another fun fact is that the invention of the printing press didn’t eliminate human error. The 1611 original printing of the King James Bible calls grief-filled, Old Testament heroine Ruth a “he,” and the 1631 printing states, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Opps!
Despite all this, we shouldn’t let our imaginations run wild. The differences between the King James Version and modern translations are relatively minor. Though our modern translations are superior to the King James Version, it’s still the same Bible. It’s not as if you’ll read one translation and find that John the Baptist was actually John the Bartender.
No matter how weak the translation, we still have the same Bible, the same Christian faith, and the same Jesus.
 Not a real translation, but sounds delicious!