More about the Bible

The Art and Agony of Translation

Because Erasmus lost a bet, 1 John 5:7-8 reads differently in the King James Version than in other translations.

If you compare this verse in the King James Version, you will find a Trinitarian formula (“the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one” ) that does not appear in most of the other translations.

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
—1 John 5:7-8, KJV

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
—1 John 5:7-8, NIV

In the 16th century, Erasmus, who was from Rotterdam but was living in Switzerland at the time, and Cardinal Ximenes of Spain both undertook to compile a Greek New Testament from the fragmentary manuscripts and copies that were then extant. Ximenes came out with a nicely-bound, scholarly, and expensive version, but Erasmus ran away with all the sales because his edition was less expensive and the first to come out. Until Erasmus’ manuscript came out, anyone in the West who wished to study the New Testament in the original Greek had to slog from library to library to examine all the pieces, and they would have to resolve minor differences in wording for themselves. So Erasmus’ New Testament made it possible for serious Bible students to circumvent the Vulgate (the fourth-century translation of the Bible into Latin) and get back to the Greek, and it quickly became a standard.

Erasmus originally left the extra wording out of 1 John 5:7-8, because even though it was traditional, he could not find it in any of his Greek sources. This caused a great controversy, because many people were using this verse as a proof-text for the Trinity. So Erasmus caved in to popular pressure and stated that if anyone could produce a Greek fragment of 1 John that contained this wording, he would include it in the next critical edition of his Greek text.

Well, someone found such a fragment. Erasmus was not convinced of the genuineness of the Greek fragment, but being true to his word, he amended his text under protest.

The King James Version contains the extra wording because it was based on this later edition of Erasmus’ text.

There has been a lot of progress in the reconstruction of the Greek New Testament since Erasmus’ day. Erasmus was limited to the bits and pieces of the Greek New Testament that were available in and around Switzerland at the time, and considering what data he had available, he did a real bang-up job. However, in later centuries, scholars again had access to the East, which proved a rich source of manuscripts, and archaeologists have uncovered even more information. We also now have access with ancient translations into other languages, such as Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian. At present, there is more evidence for the wording of the Greek New Testament than any other ancient document; in fact, we are more certain of its wording that we are of the wording of Shakespeare’s plays or the existence of entire ancient empires!

Today, we can vindicate Erasmus’ original position from the wealth of evidence we possess. The extra wording in 1 John 5:7-8 does not appear in any of the earlier manuscripts and only in a very few of the later ones. It appears that someone made a Bible study note in the margin and that a later scribe copied it into the text, thinking it was a correction. This does not mean that there is anything doctrinally wrong with the interpolated text, it just means that it did not originally appear there.

In 1 Timothy 5:19 we find one of the reasons that it took so long for the Bible to be translated into English. As you know, before the seventeenth century, it was very controversial to translate the Bible into English. Often, people who did it were tried and executed for the crime! We like to write this off to the benighted attitudes of bygone eras, but we do our ancestors an injustice when we give them short shrift like that. There were some serious controversies surrounding this issue. (I have tried to be as dispassionate, neutral, and accurate as possible while still giving you an idea of the flavor of the problem. If I have slipped up, let me know):

At the time, there were very strong factions in England concerning the state of the church.

There were those who wanted to be aligned with Rome. However, ecclesiastical allegiance with Rome was not restricted to religion, it entailed certain wide-ranging political consequences, including special privileges for the clergy and for church property, which depressed the economy and greatly impaired the government’s ability to raise money through taxation. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been too important, except that there was an impending international political crisis. Since Spain was in good graces with Rome and England was not, and the threat of the conquest by the Spanish Armada was looming on the horizon, the government needed money to raise an army.

Among the people who favored separation from Rome for political reasons, there were different schools of thought about religious reform. Some (like, believe it or not, Henry VIII!) wanted no religious reform at all, while others wanted to make extensive changes. They wanted to dismantle the system of priests, deacons, and bishops for something else. The government needed a central, stabilizing social force among the people, so it opposed religious reforms that it thought would weaken the nation from within. The King wanted the nation at its knees in penitential prayer to beg for deliverance from the Armada; a decentralized church would hamper his efforts to elicit God’s support.

What a mess! Actually, religion wasn’t so much the subject of the dispute as it was the arena. It was a vexing problem because nearly everyone—including the King—had mixed loyalties.

So here come the early Bible translators. They come across 1 Timothy 5:19. The word presbuteros occurs in the Greek. How should they translate it?

The English word which historically developed from presbuteros is priest. (With time, presbuteros became prester, and prester became priest.) If they translated presbuteros as priest then half the readers would be in an uproar over creeping Romanism. Some government officials might think this supports the Church of England, others might see it as evidence of foreign subversion.

The English word which translated the meaning of the word presbuteros is elder. In fact, today the Church of England uses the word elder as a synonym for priest. But back then it would have been just as controversial. The Church of England had priests, but if the Bible translation did not, it would lend credence to the idea that the clergy were unbiblical and that would undermine the authority of the church and therefore also the government. Half the readers would protest, and some government officials might interpret it as a call to anarchy.

Well, they could just put down presbyter and let it go at that, you say.

Why not just borrow the word from Greek all over again? However, that wasn’t a solution either. Presbyter breaks with historic church practice just as well as elder does, which neither the government nor the friends of Rome like, and it ends up looking like an endorsement of Presbyterianism, which was very strong in Scotland—in fact it is the state church there today.

So how do you translate the Bible into English without invoking a huge political controversy? Back then it was nearly impossible. People who did it got in trouble, especially because they weren’t shy about putting sarcastic remarks about the government and the church into their translations. The early translators were martyred because they were perceived as political subversives.

Now you know why it took so long to get the Bible in English.

Today if you compare Titus and Timothy in various translations you will find that this problem has not yet been resolved. However, the issues of national defense, patriotism, and religious orthodoxy are no longer attached to it, so there’s no fighting in the streets over it.

So that was the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, you say. We don’t have problems like that, you think. Well, you’re wrong.

For example, some translators put the first half of Revelation 20:5 in parentheses and others do not. There are no punctuation marks in the original Greek, so why do they do this? Without parentheses, the verse says:

The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.

This is not a problem for Lutherans and other Christians who have always believed that the ‘first resurrection’ happens at baptism and the ‘second resurrection’ on the Last Day and that the ‘thousand years’ refer to the period between the first coming and the second coming, when Christ reigns on earth through the church, because people are being converted throughout all of church history.

However, if you are a premillennialist, you believe in two physical resurrections before and after a thousand-year period that follows the time of the church. Without parentheses, the verse seems to say that the first resurrection will take place after the millennium, which does not fit the doctrine. With parentheses, the verse complies with the doctrine:

(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.

There are other vexing dilemmas for translators in areas that impinge upon the social and political issues of our day, or on theological conflicts within the Church.