Perhaps you’ve heard people say: “If the King James was good enough for St. Paul, then it’s good enough for us.” Perhaps they didn’t know that the King James Version, published in 1611, was not available to St. Paul, who ministered roughly in the time period 35-65 AD!
Unfortunately, many people do not realize that “there is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for language is a changing thing.” As C.S. Lewis argues: “If your son is to have clothes, it is no good buying him a suit once and for all—he will grow out of it and have to be reclothed.”
The reason we need to have periodic retranslations of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts is that language is a living thing, part and parcel of the life and history of a people. Words are full of shades of meaning and associations—which makes it incumbent upon us to engage in periodic retranslation because those shades of meaning and associations are ever-changing. Such retranslation can make it difficult for some of us to give up what has become familiar, even if the familiar is incomprehensible to many of our contemporaries.
This matter of English translation was quite vitriolic when it first surfaced in the Church over 500 years ago. Prior to that, the Scriptures were in Latin and access was effectively limited to the clergy. It was thought that the Scriptures were “too sacred” to be read by the laity. Battles were fought and people were even burned at the stake for their efforts to render the Bible in the vernacular.
The Reformation did much to bring about change, eventually resulting in the King James Version. Various revisions of that version have been offered over the centuries, as well as a profusion of new English translations and paraphrases. Discovery of more reliable ancient documents led to some of these revisions; naturally occurring changes of common speech led to others. The result for us is at times a bewildering selection of translations, versions, and choices. All of them, to a certain extent, bear the theological impulse of the person or group that produced them. All of them have value in that they seek to make God’s word available and accessible.
The history of the translation of the Bible is a fascinating one. Let us be grateful that we have the freedom to choose and the Word at hand.