Which Bible version shall we use?

Explore the rich history of how God led in the translations of the Bible.

Gerhard Pfandl, PhD, now retired, served as an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Since the middle of the twentieth century when Bible translations began to multiply, the issue of which Bible version should Adventists use has become a bone of contention in some churches. There are those who believe that only the King James Version (KJV) should be used, while others hold that a modern translation is preferable because of the archaic language of the KJV.

The process of translating the Bible began during the third century b.c. with the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. This translation, carried out in Alexandria, was called Septuagint (LXX),1 version of the 70, because that is how many translators were involved. The translation done in Alexandria helped provide the Bible mainly for the Jewish diaspora, especially Greekspeaking Jews who no longer spoke or understood Hebrew.

While the LXX was made for Greekspeaking Jews, in the Christian era this translation soon fell out of favor with the Jews, primarily because the newly emerging Christians adopted LXX as their version of the Old Testament and used it freely in defense of the Christian faith. “Christians came to attach some degree of divine inspiration to the Septuagint, for some of its translations might almost appear to have been providentially intended to support Christian arguments.”2 The Jews, therefore, soon produced other Greek versions.3

Christian versions

After the LXX, the oldest and most important translation of the Bible is the Syriac version called Peshitta, or “simple” version. Syriac is an Aramaic dialect that was spoken over a wide area in early Christian times, particularly in western Mesopotamia, where it was used more than Greek.

During the early beginnings of the Christian era, the churches in the East were mostly Greek-speaking; Latin was the official language in the Roman provinces of Africa and western Europe. Toward the end of the second century, therefore, we find references to Latin Scriptures in the writings of the Church Fathers. Because of the tendency of some bishops and priests to make translations of the Septuagint and New Testament manuscripts into Latin, a number of translations of various biblical texts began to appear. These fragments were later assembled and became known as the Old Latin text, also called Itala.

In 382, Pope Damasus I (366–384) commissioned his secretary, Jerome, to produce a new Latin Bible. Jerome first revised the Old Latin texts and produced a standard Latin text of the New Testament. After the death of Damasus, Jerome settled in Bethlehem, where he completed a new Latin translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew in 405. Jerome’s Bible became known as the Vulgate (vulga meaning “everyday speech”). The Vulgate Bible was the first book to be printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1456. In 1546, at the Council of Trent, the Vulgate became the official Bible of the Catholic Church.

English versions Ancient Bible versions were of vital importance for taking the gospel to the pagan nations during the early centuries of Christianity. Similarly, during the time of the Reformation, translations into various languages facilitated the spread of Reformation ideas in Europe. Since then, the Bible has been translated into many languages. According to the 2015 statistics of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, the complete Bible has been translated into 554 languages, the New Testament into 1,333 languages, and one or more Bible books into a further 1,054 languages. This makes a total of 2,932 languages out of a total of about 7,000 languages spoken in the world.4

The first complete English translation is credited to John Wycliffe, a lecturer at Oxford University, in the latter part of the fourteenth century. Wycliffe believed that “if every man was responsible to obey the Bible . . . it follows that every man must know what to obey. Therefore the whole Bible should be accessible to him in a form that he could understand.”5 Whether Wycliffe himself took part in the translation is uncertain, but under his influence two English versions of the Latin Vulgate were produced. One hundred and fifty years later, William Tyndale, who became proficient in Greek while attending Oxford and Cambridge, translated the Greek New Testament into English. This was published in 1525 in Germany and was then smuggled in bales of cloth back into England for distribution. Church officials opposed the circulation of his translation; they bought copies and burned them. Tyndale himself, after being betrayed by a friend, was imprisoned and executed in 1536 in Belgium. In 1535, one year before Tyndale’s death, Miles Coverdale published another complete translation in English. By that time, Henry VIII had made himself head of the church in England and was ready to accept English translations of the Bible.

After James I became king of England, he authorized a new translation, which, since its publication in 1611, has been known as the Authorized or King James Version (KJV). More than 50 scholars, versed in Greek and Hebrew, were responsible for its production. It captured the best of all the preceding translations and far exceeded all of them. This version has justifiably been called the “noblest monument of English prose.”6 Based on the best of the earlier English versions, the KJV remained “the Bible” par excellence wherever English was spoken for more than three hundred years.

Nevertheless, at the end of the nineteenth century scholars felt that a revision was necessary because (1) knowledge of the Hebrew vocabulary had increased since the beginning of the seventeenth century (about 1,500 words appear only once in the Old Testament); (2) the Greek text underlying the New Testament was the Textus Receptus (see The KJV controversy, following) that was based on late medieval manuscripts; and (3) many English words had become obsolete or archaic; others had changed in meaning. For example, the word knop in Exodus 25:31 is an archaic word for the bud of a flower or for an ornamental knob.7 The word prevent (1 Thess. 4:15) in the seventeenth century meant “to go before,” or “precede” rather than “to hinder.”

In 1870, the Convocation of Canterbury voted to sponsor a major revision of the King James Version. When the complete Revised Version appeared in 1885, it was received with great enthusiasm, but its popularity was short-lived because most people continued to prefer the Authorized Version.

The KJV controversy

In 1516 , the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament in Basel, Switzerland, which became the basis of the Textus Receptus (Latin for “the received text”). Unfortunately, none of the Greek manuscripts available to Erasmus were older than the tenth century.8 Theodor Beza (1519–1605), a biblical scholar and successor of John Calvin in Geneva, improved and popularized Erasmus’s text, which, in 1633, became known as the Textus Receptus. It preserves a form of the New Testament found in the great majority of Greek manuscripts.

Since the time of Erasmus, a number of older Greek manuscripts with variant readings from the Textus Receptus have been discovered. The most important among them are two manuscripts from the fourth century: one is called Codex Vaticanus because it was found in the library of the Vatican, and the other is called Codex Siniaticus because it was discovered in 1844 in the library of St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. By the nineteenth century, the number of variants among known Greek New Testament manuscripts was estimated between 150,000 and 200,000.9 In 1881, therefore, two English scholars, Brooke F. Westcott and Fenton J. Hort, published The New Testament in the Original Greek, which was based primarily on the ancient codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus.

This Greek New Testament is attacked by KJV-only defenders because most modern translations are no longer based on the Textus Receptus, but on the Westcott and Hort text and later revisions of the Greek texts. One of the chief arguments of KJV-only defenders is that the King James Bible translators relied on the Textus Receptus because it was providentially preserved from scribal mistakes and intentional changes through the centuries. By contrast, the Westcott and Hort Greek text, it is alleged, is based on manuscripts produced during a period of apostasy in the church and not providentially protected from scribal changes. “Translations based on them are therefore unreliable.”10 These are interesting assumptions that, however, cannot be proven. While the fourth century certainly was a time in which false teachings entered the church, there is no evidence from the existing New Testament manuscripts, some of which come from the second and third centuries, that these doctrinal errors affected any of the Greek manuscripts produced during that time. 

One of the most frequent criticisms of modern versions is the supposed omission of terms connected with the divinity of Jesus. For example, where the KJV repeatedly has the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:11; 16:31; 1 Cor. 5:4; 2 Cor. 11:31, etc.), modern versions read only “Lord Jesus.” The omission of the word Christ in these texts is seen as a denial of Jesus’ divinity. Gail Riplinger, a leading proponent of the KJV-only defenders, writes, “Texe Marrs warns, ‘New Age leaders believe and will spread the apostasy that Jesus is neither Christ nor God.’ New version editors become ‘New Age leaders by this definition.’”11 She completely ignores the fact that the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ,” which appears about 80 times in the KJV, also appears 63 times in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and 60 times in the New International Version (NIV). While the Textus Receptus uses this phrase more than 80 times, the older Greek manuscripts use it only about 60 times, but this does not mean that they in any way deny that Jesus was the Christ.

There are a number of places where modern versions are stronger and clearer on the deity of Jesus than the KJV. One example is John 1:18. The KJV reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Modern versions such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) read, “only begotten God,” and the New International Version (NIV), “but God the one and only Son” instead of “only begotten Son.”

Two lengthy passages are not found in the earliest manuscripts. One is the closing verses of Mark (16:9–20) and the other is the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53–8:11). Most modern versions include these passages but indicate their omissions in the ancient manuscripts in various ways. For example, the NIV has a bold black line after Mark 16:8 with a note, “The two most reliable early manuscripts do not have Mark 16:9–20.” Because we do not have the original autographs, we do not know whether these stories were lost in the process of transmission or whether they were later additions of oral reports. Whatever the case, their omission in the ancient texts does not warrant the charge that modern versions have changed God’s Word.

Modern versions

The proliferation of new English versions in recent decades has made it necessary to consider carefully which translation one is going to use and for which purpose. First, we need to recognize that there are three basic types of translations: (1) The formal or literal translation attempts to translate as close as possible to the original wording, for example, the King James Version (1611), the New King James Version (NKJV 1982), the Revised Standard Version (RSV 1952), and the New American Standard Bible (NASB 1971, 1995). (2) The dynamic equivalence translation is not so much concerned with the original wording as with the original meaning, for example, the New English Bible (NEB 1970), the New International Version (NIV 1978), and the Revised English Bible (REB 1989). (3) The paraphrase Bible seeks to restate in simplified but relatable ways the ideas conveyed in the original language, for example, and The Living Bible (1971), The Message (1993), The Clear Word (2000). Paraphrases are more like commentaries. For example, KJV renders Colossians 2:9 as: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” But The Message Bible provides an expanded version of the same verse: “Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him.”

So, which version shall we use? For serious Bible study and preaching, it is helpful to consult several good versions. Good modern standard translations are the RSV, the NASB, and the NKJV. For personal and family devotions, a paraphrase may be used. Paraphrases, however, should not be used in Sabbath School or in the pulpit.

Ellen White and Bible versions

Ellen White used Scripture profusely. All her articles and books are saturated with scriptural quotations from the KJV. Did she use other versions? Yes, but sparingly. Among the modern versions that Ellen White occasionally used were the English Revised Version (1885) and the American Revised Version (1901).12

Ellen White did not hesitate to use other versions, but she preferred the KJV. Nevertheless, she never made the use of the KJV a criterion of orthodoxy. She was aware of the fact that copyists and translators over the centuries had introduced some changes in the text; nevertheless, she could say, “I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word,”13 and so should we.



1 The word Septuagint comes from the Latin for “seventy” (abbr. LXX); a reference to the seventy-two Jewish elders who, according to a legendary account, made the translation.

2 F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, rev. ed. (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), 141. In Isaiah 7:14, for example, the LXX uses parthenos (virgin) rather than neanis (young woman), which is generally used to translate the Hebrew word almah.

3 For instance, the versions of Aquila and Theodotion, among others.

4 See “Scripture and Language Statistics 2015,” Wycliffe Global Alliance, October 1, 2015, http:// www.wycliffe.net/en/statistics.

5 F. F. Bruce, The English Bible (Oxford: University Press, 1961), 13.

6 J. H. Skilton, “English Versions of the Bible,”in New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), 333.

7 R. Bridges and L. Weigle, The King James Word Book (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), 196.

8 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 102.

9 However, none of these variant readings affects any of the teachings of the Bible.

10 S. Thompson, “The Great Bible Versions Debate,” Record, July 22, 1995, 5.

11 G. A. Riplinger, New Age Bible Versions (Munroe Falls, OH: AV Publications, 1993), 313.

12 Michael W. Campbell, “Ellen G. White and the King James Version,” in The Book That Changed the World, ed. Nikolaus Satelmajer (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2012), 122.

13 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 17.

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Gerhard Pfandl, PhD, now retired, served as an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

June 2016

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