Dead Sea Scrolls fragment containing part of Psalm
NEW YORK – OCTOBER 27: Dead Sea Scrolls “Life And Faith In Biblical Times” at the Discovery Times Square as displayed by Running Subway Productions October 26th, 2011 in New York City. (Matthew Peyton)

To understand biblical scripture, it is up to the reader to apply prior knowledge and common sense when reading the text. However, a common question on many reader’s minds is, “Which biblical translation is the most accurate?” In truth, it’s an impossible question to answer. To grasp why, you must understand how bible translations are interpreted.

Important considerations when interpreting and translating biblical texts

Each of the various biblical translations (e.g. NIV, KJV, NKJV, etc.) use different methods to translate ancient texts to English. Of course, there is some leeway in how the translation can be worded because there are many instances where ancient words are vague or have no equivalent in modern languages. And because there are many ancient texts available to translate from, the choice of which ancient texts are used impacts the translation too. When choosing which ancient texts to use, most translators take into account the age of the manuscript and its location.

Age of the biblical manuscript

In a perfect world, we’d have a first-generation copy to translate the Bible from but thus far, this does not exist. Lack of an original copy impacts the translation because the more times a text is copied, the more likely it is that errors have been introduced into the text. Thus, the age of the manuscript is important. For example, we must presume that older manuscripts from the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th centuries are closer to the originals than manuscripts from the 12th, 13th, or 14th centuries.

Location of the biblical manuscript

The second consideration is the location where the ancient manuscript was written. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic while the New Testament was written in Greek. Early in Christianity’s history, western and eastern churches split. We know the western church as Roman Catholic and the eastern churches as Eastern Orthodox. The western church (Roman Catholic) began using Latin as its primary language while the eastern church (Eastern Orthodox) continued to use the original Greek as its primary language. This means that manuscripts found in eastern areas differ slightly from manuscripts found in western areas where the language was converted from Greek. Even within the eastern/western boundaries, manuscripts found in one region tend to differ from texts found in other regions.

Methods used to translate the Bible

There are generally three methods used by modern-day translators when choosing the ancient texts to use during translation – Majority Text, Textus Receptus, and Eclectic Text or Critical Text.

Majority Text

The Majority Text, also known as the Byzantine and Ecclesiastical Text, can be thought of as a democratic vote on the best translation. The Majority Text considers all known manuscripts. Each is given an equal weight and thus, the “majority rules”. For instance, if a phrase reads “X” in 100 manuscripts and “Y” in only 50, “X” is considered the acceptable translation.

The problem with this method is that equal weight is given to later manuscripts, manuscripts we would expect to have more errors because they are copied from earlier versions. The second problem with Majority Text is that the location of the manuscripts is not taken into consideration.

Textus Receptus

The Textus Receptus is very similar to the Majority Text and is the method used to translate the King James Version and the New King James Version. The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 16th century by a man named Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. Erasmus used several Greek manuscripts (eastern church manuscripts) to create the Textus Receptus.

It is important to note that Textus Receptus is based on a very limited number of manuscripts, all of them Eastern, and all dating to around 12th century AD. Erasmus did not have access to all Greek manuscripts and thus, his interpretation efforts were limited.

Eclectic Text or Critical Text

Eclectic Text (or Critical Text) considers a variety of manuscript factors such as age, location, difficulty of the reading, and so on in order to determine which variant explains the origin of other variants. Each of these factors is given a weight when making translation decisions. It is the most complex translation process and except for the King James Version and the New King James Version, all modern-day English translations are based on the Eclectic Text.

Why it is impossible to state which bible translation is the most accurate

There is no true answer to which biblical translation is the most accurate since we do not know what the original manuscripts said. The KJV and NKJV seem to use inferior translation methods but should not be ignored. They contain a very accurate representation of the translations prominent in the 12th century Eastern areas. Other translations, which use the Eclectic Text, are likely more accurate in many ways, or at least do the best job of translating to an understandable and meaningful English equivalent.

When studying the Bible, your best option is to study using various translations, note the differences, and strive to understand why the various translations differ. In nearly all cases, the differences in translations do little to change the meaning of the text.