How to Choose a Good Translation – Technical Junk

Thus far, we’ve identified two guiding truths that should help us find a good English translation: 1) God has always intended for his written revelation to be communicated in the common language and 2) inspiration and inerrancy apply directly to the original manuscripts (autographs), therefore those translations and copies that seek to faithfully reproduce the intent of the originals can be said to be inspired and inerrant in a derivative sense. We’ve also seen that every major English translation (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV, NLT) has been translated and compiled by committees which were committed to these two truths and can be trusted.

Before you run out and simply grab a translation off the shelf, there is another thing that has to be addressed…the “technical junk” as I call it. The technical matters involved in producing a Bible translation to which I refer are the textual issue and translation theory.

Textual Issues

When it comes to the textual issues underlying translations, I want to keep this simple. The textual issues involved in choosing a translation refer to the Hebrew or Greek texts underlying the English translation. To be fair, there is really no textual issue with the Old Testament Hebrew text. Just about every English translation uses what is known as the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible as their Old Testament text. Therefore, almost all of what will be said here will be about the Greek text underlying the New Testament.

Why worry about the Greek text of the New Testament? Some people make claims regarding the Greek New Testament without having information and facts to support their claims. Others claim that the Greek text of the New Testament is not important because their favorite translation is better that any Greek text – some heretically even claim that their English translation corrects the Greek text whenever a variant reading is present. Still others say that the Greek text is not important because most people cannot read the Greek of the New Testament. However, the Greek text upon which a translation is based is of import to the Christian seeking to choose a good translation.

During the 1st century following the resurrection of Christ, God moved men to pen His Word (2 Peter 1:21). The result was a group of letters and books, written in Koine Greek (known as the autographs). These letters and books were copied and recopied throughout the centuries and distributed throughout the world. As the autographs have long since turned to dust, it is these copies which comprise the manuscripts of the New Testament. Today, we have about 4800 Greek manuscripts. We have about 3000 Gospels manuscripts, 800 Pauline manuscripts, 700 manuscripts of Acts and the general letters, and just over 300 manuscripts of Revelation. These numbers do not include the lectionaries, over 2000 of them that are mostly of the Gospels, nor do they include the Scriptural citations by the Church Fathers, which are legion. At the same time, not all of the available manuscripts are complete copies. The earlier manuscripts are fragmentary, sometimes covering only a few verses. The later manuscripts, however, generally include at least all four Gospels or Acts and the general letters or Paul’s letters or Revelation.

The Traditional Text

The “Traditional Text” is also known as the Byzantine Text or Majority Text – a category into which the Textus Receptus falls. The Traditional Text is called the “Byzantine Text” because the manuscripts it contains came from all over the Greek-speaking world at that time. It is called the “Majority Text” because it contains the majority of the available manuscripts (all of which date no earlier than the 4th century, with the vast majority of those dating from the 9th century or later). The "Traditional / Majority / Byzantine Text" is a statistical construct that does not correspond exactly to any single known manuscript. It is arrived at by comparing all known manuscripts with one another and deriving from them the readings that are more numerous than any others. There are two published Greek texts which purport to represent the Majority readings -- Hodges & Farstad 1982 and Pierpont & Robinson 1991.

The Textus Receptus (TR) is part of the Traditional Text family. The TR is a tradition of printed texts published during the time of the Protestant Reformation (16 – early 17th centuries). It includes the editions of Erasmus, Stephens, Beza, and Elzevir; all of which are closely related to one another as they are mostly derived from the Erasmus TR of 1516. The TR is based upon a small number of late medieval manuscripts. The Majority Text is derived from the plurality of all existing Greek manuscripts. Because most of the manuscripts of the Majority Text are late medieval manuscripts, there is a family resemblance between the TR and the Majority Text and the TR can be said to be in the Majority Text family.

Of the popularly available English translations on the market today, only the KJV and NKJV are based on the Traditional Text. (Actually, these are both based on the TR.)

Critical Text

There is a Greek text available today which is known as Novum Testamentum Graece and typically refers to the Nestle-Aland editions of the Greek text; named after the scholars who led the critical editing work, abbreviated NA27 (though NA28 is now available). United Bible Society has also published a critical text (UBS4) which is almost identical to the NA27. The Critical Text is used as the basis of almost every modern English New Testament translation and has become the standard for academic work in New Testament studies.

The “Critical Text” is called such because it is an eclectic text compiled by a committee which employs sound textual criticism to examine a large number of manuscripts in order to weigh which reading is thought closest to the original. They use a number of factors to help determine probable readings, such as the date of the manuscript (earlier is usually better), the geographical distribution of a reading, and whether the variant is an accidental or intentional corruption. Both UBS4 and the Nestle-Aland editions note a large number of textual variants, or differences between manuscripts, in the critical apparatus—the extensive footnotes that distinguish the Critical Text from other Greek New Testaments. The Critical Text is also known as the Alexandrian Text because so many of its manuscripts come from northern Africa.

A Note on Textual Variants

A textual variant is simply the difference in wording found in a single manuscript or a group of manuscripts (either way, it’s still only one variant) that disagrees with a base text. Some are tempted to taut how much agreement the Traditional Text has versus the Critical Text. This is, in reality, a straw man. Let’s look at the larger picture. We have a little more than 4800 available manuscripts. Among the total manuscripts there are about 400,000 variants. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really not. Do the math. The variant readings of just the available manuscripts amount to about 1.2% of the total text. When you factor in the lectionaries and readings in the Church Fathers, the readings in all of the manuscripts agree about 95-98% of the time.

It should also be noted that much hay is being made about the corruption of the Critical / Alexandrian Text and the purity and divine preservation of the Majority Text. To those proponents I would say this, be honest. The Majority Text is not the divinely preserved original text of the New Testament. If that were true, then it’s only really been available in anything other than the TR, which dates to 1516, since 1982. If this was the text God wanted preserved why is there no real evidence of it in northern Africa? Were those Christians left without Divine revelation until 1516? Hard to believe! Besides, the Majority Text and Critical Text disagree in only about 6,500 places. Put another way, they agree in about 98% of their readings.

Of the popularly available English translations on the market today, almost all (except KJV and NKJV) have been translated using the Critical Text for the New Testament.

Why address all of this? Simple. If you hold to a Majority Text position or preference, then your English translation choice is limited to either the KJV or the NKJV – if you’re going to be consistent that is. If you hold to a Critical Text position, or at least understand that the Majority Text vs. Critical Text issue is really no big deal, then your options are open.

Translation Theory

There are three basic theories for translating from one language to another: formal equivalence, functional equivalence, and balanced translating. Understanding the basics of these theories and how they relate to Bible translations will help the reader choose his preferred translation.

Formal Equivalence

Formal equivalence attempts to render the source language as literally as possible in the receptor language by attempting to preserve the exact wording, grammar, and syntax of the source language. The benefit to formal equivalence is that the reader gets a sense of how the source language flowed and can see the word-for-word syntax of the sentences. Formal equivalence does have some persistent problems; namely the addressing of idiomatic expressions and the fact that receptor languages do not always have words to express then meanings of words in the source language. Because of these problems, no purely word-for-word, literal, translation of the Bible is possible. Translators must make decisions on word meanings and nuances and how to render idiomatic expressions, but the desire is to come as close as possible to a word-for-word rendering.

Functional Equivalence

Functional equivalence, also known as dynamic equivalence, seeks to render the thoughts or meanings of the source language as it was understood by its original readers so that modern readers understand it the same way. Thus, it does not seek a word-for-word, literal, rendering, but a thought-for-thought rendering. Functional equivalence seeks to render the source language as it was intended by its authors. Therefore, word meanings and nuances are translated with the closest possible modern terms, the syntax and grammar of the source language is rendered so that the modern reader understands what the translator presumes the original author was thinking, and idiomatic expressions are translated with the most modern idioms. The goal of formal equivalence is readability and understandability over word-for-word adherence.

Balanced Translating

There is a translational theory that seeks to combine formal and functional equivalence. These translators understand the need to translate the source language as closely as possible into the receptor language. They also understand that modern readers understand words differently and that the grammar and syntax of the receptor language is not the same as the source language. Therefore, they seek to mediate the two afore mentioned theories to produce a translation that expresses what the original authors said, intended, and thought in a readable and understandable way in the receptor language.

How does understanding translation theory affect one’s choice of an English Bible? If one is seeking a word-for-word translation, then you would naturally choose the KJV, NKJV, ESV, or NASB. The problem with formal equivalence translations such as these is that their grammar and syntax are often stilted; making them more difficult to understand for most people. If one wants a purely thought-for-thought translation, then you would gravitate toward the Good News Translation, New Century Version, New Living Translation, or Contemporary English Version. However, if one wants a readable, understandable translation that seeks to preserve as much of the literalness of the original as possible while taking into account the idiomatic expressions, grammar, and syntax of both the source and receptor languages, then the best translation available is the NIV.


Dollar for dollar and pound for pound, the best translational theory for day-to-day reading and public use is a balanced theory; namely the NIV. However, translations produced using formal equivalence and functional equivalence have their benefits and should not be disregarded out of hand. Remember, God has always intended for his written revelation to be communicated in the common language. Since most modern English versions (particularly those mentioned in this blog series) adhere to the truth that inspiration and inerrancy apply directly to the original manuscripts (autographs), therefore those translations and copies that seek to faithfully reproduce the intent of the originals can be said to be inspired and inerrant in a derivative sense, there is no need to deprecate any of them.

After taking the matters addressed in this series into consideration, the Christian must answer some final pertinent questions. What type of translation am I seeking; literal, thought-for-thought, balanced? Do I prefer the majesty of 17th century language, somewhat of an update of that era, or do I want something modern? Does the Greek text used in translating the New Testament make a difference to me? When you can answer these questions, you are ready to go to the store. Have fun, buy several different translations, and, most importantly, read it!