“Why do some Bible translations have different words for the same verse?” Underlying this excellent question is a subtle doubt as to the trustworthy nature of the biblical text. It is important to be prepared to help youth think through this issue well.
Besides the fact that English can say the same thing in different ways, thereby reading a bit differently because of variety, some translations are based on different manuscripts. At times, one manuscript uses a different term than another manuscript in the same verse.
When approaching this topic, it is important to understand several key terms. The first two are “autograph” and “manuscript.” The original copy of a writing, the one the author writes, is known as the “autograph.” The the term “manuscript” refers to a copy of the autograph (in this case, the Bible). Due to the challenge of preserving texts over long periods of time, the only items available are copies (manuscripts) of the original writings (autographs) of the Bible (as well as other ancient writings).1
In brief, underlying the different translations of Scripture are various groups of manuscripts. Within the available manuscripts are some differences (called “variants”). The science directly addressing this issue is called textual criticism. Dr. J. Harold Greenlee defines it as follows,
Textual criticism is the study of copies of an ancient writing to try to determine the exact words of the text as the author originally wrote them.2
As a parent, it is important to understand several key points regarding variants and the science of textual criticism. With even a basic understanding, you can help your child intelligently work through this fascinating issue.
First, it is important to point out that the variants (numbering around 400 thousand for the New Testament) are well known to Christian scholars and teachers.3 In other words, this is neither a new issue nor an impossible challenge to address. Notably, variants are discussed by Christian scholars as early as the third century A.D.4
Second, the rise of minor differences in the wording between written copies of any ancient text should not be a surprise. In fact, due to the human copying process this would be expected. As Dr. Bruce Metzger states,
It was inevitable that such handwritten copies would contain a greater or lesser number of differences in wording from the original.5
Metzger realizes that humans bring a degree of inconsistency in any endeavor. Since God used people in the transmission process of preserving His Word, slight changes are expected but pose no real challenge to the Christian faith (more details below).
Third, by far, most variants are minor in nature. Dr. David Black states,
[I]t is essential to keep in mind that the great majority of variants (instances of different wording) between manuscripts are of relatively minor importance. These generally involve such matters as spelling or word order, which minimally affect translation or the sense of the text. Analogous instances of variation in English would include the spelling of “center/centre” and “labor/labour.”6
Clearly, an alternate spelling of terms should not be viewed as a significant challenge to the integrity of Scripture. The overwhelming majority of variants fall into this minor category.
Fourth, variants that are considered to be more significant fail to call into question any major Christian doctrine. Nothing of substance is lost through any variant of the biblical text. John 1:18 serves as a good example.
Variant 1: No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son (υἱος), who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (NKJV)
Variant 2: No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God (θεος) who is in the booms of the Father, he has explained him. (NASB)
In this verse, some Greek manuscripts read “Son” (υἱος, as evidenced by the NKJV) and other manuscripts read “God” (θεος, as evidenced by the NASB). While the goal is to know which reading is the original, notice that nothing of theological substance is lost by either reading. The book of John clearly portrays Jesus as the Son of God, thus the variant “Son” (υἱος) entails no theological problem (1:34, 49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; 20:31). Additionally, the book of John clearly portrays Jesus as God (fully divine), thus the variant “God” (θεος) entails no theological problem either (John 1:1; 8:58; 20:28-29).
Even with a few “significant” variants (though none significant enough to question any main Christian doctrine), it must be remembered that there is (approximately) 99% agreement for the biblical text between the thousands of manuscripts and portions of manuscripts. As Black states,
. . . such variants should not overshadow the overwhelming degree of agreement that exists among the ancient manuscripts.7
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the biblical text enjoys more textual support than any other writing from antiquity. Here is a comparison of manuscript support for three books from antiquity and the New Testament. The results are astounding.
Chart comparing support for books from antiquity 8
|Book||Written||Earliest||Gap||# of Copies|
|Gallic Wars||100-44 B.C.||900 AD||1,000 yrs||10|
|Annals||A.D. 100||A.D. 1100||1,000 yrs||20|
|Natural History||A.D. 61-113||c. 850||c. 750 yrs||7|
|NT||A.D. 50-100||c. 125-325||50-225 yrs||Over 5,000|
This chart shows that the support for the New Testament far exceeds the support for other texts from the same era. It must be noted that other books from antiquity also have variant readings (sometimes substantial) yet are accepted as reliable. If minimally supported documents can be accepted as reliable, then a book like the Bible should be too.
Parents can help their children think through this issue with clarity. Here are some helpful things to begin the process:
- Does a typo (spelling mistake) in a document render it untrustworthy? As you prepare for this topic and discussing these issues, be sure to look for typos in news reports, textbooks, and other common sources of information. Even with modern capabilities (e.g., computers and copy machines) typos exist. Are these sources considered untrustworthy due to typos? Why or why not?
- Of all books available from antiquity, no other text is as well supported as the biblical text. How should the massive amount of support for the biblical text be viewed?
- If you have further questions on this excellent issue, how should you proceed? Hopefully, the inquiring mind will pursue the truth even further. Delve into this topic. Read up on it. Find out more. Discover. Learn. Trust in God’s Word by applying it to your life.
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1. Wendy Widder, Textual Criticism, ed. Douglas Mangum, Lexham Methods Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), 34.
2. J. Harold Greenlee, The Text of the New Testament: From Manuscript to Modern Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 2.
3. Daniel B. Wallace, The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation. Danielbwallace.com, accessed February 21, 2017. https://danielbwallace.com/2013/
4. Bruce M Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration 3rd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 151-152.
5. Bruce Manning Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), xvii.
6. David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism : A Concise Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 13.
8. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Rev. and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 408.