At some point in their studies, every student of biblical history runs into the same dilemma: With so many different translations of the Holy Bible available, which translation is best for historical study?
Experts in biblical history will be quick to point out that no Bible translation should ever be regarded as definitive for historical study. That's because by itself, the Bible is not a history book. It's a book of faith, written over four centuries by people with very different viewpoints and agendas. That's not to say that the Bible contains no truths worthy of study. However, by itself, the Bible is not reliable as a single historical source. Its contributions must always be augmented by other documented sources.
Is There One True Bible Translation?
Many Christians today believe erroneously that the King James Version of the Bible is the "true" translation. The KJV, as it's known, was created for King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) in 1604. For all the antique beauty of its Shakespearean English that many Christians equate with religious authority, the KJV is hardly the first nor the best translation of the Bible for historical purposes.
As any translator will vouch, any time that thoughts, symbols, images, and cultural idioms (especially the last) are translated from one language to another, there is always some loss of meaning. Cultural metaphors do not translate easily; the "mind map" changes, no matter how hard one tries to maintain it. This is the conundrum of human social history; does culture shape language or does language shape culture? Or are the two so intertwined in human communication that it's impossible to understand one without the other?
When it comes to biblical history, consider the evolution of the Hebrew scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. The books of the Hebrew Bible originally were written in ancient Hebrew and translated into Koine Greek, the commonly used language of the Mediterranean region from the time of Alexander the Great (4th century B.C.). The Hebrew scriptures are known as TANAKH, a Hebrew anagram that stands for Torah (the Law), Nevi'im (the Prophets) and Ketuvim (the Writings).
Translating the Bible From Hebrew into Greek
Around the 3rd century B.C., Alexandria, in Egypt, had become a scholarly center for Hellenistic Jews, that is, people who were Jewish by faith but had adopted many Greek cultural ways. During this period, the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who reigned from 285-246 B.C., was reputed to have hired 72 Jewish scholars to create a Koine Greek (common Greek) translation of the TANAKH to be added to the Great Library of Alexandria. The translation that resulted is known as the Septuagint, a Greek word meaning 70. The Septuagint also is known by the Roman numerals LXX meaning 70 (L=50, X=10, therefore 50+10+10=70).
This one example of translating Hebrew scripture points out the mountain that every serious student of biblical history must climb. To read scriptures in their original languages in order to trace biblical history, scholars must learn to read ancient Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and possibly Aramaic as well.
Translation Problems Are More Than Just Language Problems
Even with these language skills, there's no guarantee that today's scholars will accurately interpret the meaning of sacred texts, because they are still missing a key element: direct contact with and knowledge of the culture in which the language was used. In another example, the LXX began to lose favor beginning around the time of the Renaissance, as some scholars held that the translation had corrupted the original Hebrew texts.
What's more, remember that the Septuagint was only one of several regional translations that took place. Exiled Jews in Babylonian made their own translations, while Jews who remained in Jerusalem did the same. In each case, the translation was influenced by the commonly used language and culture of the translator.
All of these variables can seem daunting to the point of despair. With so many uncertainties, how can one choose which Bible translation is best for historical study?
Most amateur students of biblical history can start with any credible translation that they can comprehend, as long as they also understand that no translation of the Bible should be used as a sole historical authority. In fact, part of the fun of studying biblical history is reading many translations to see how different scholars interpret the texts. Such comparisons can be more easily accomplished by the use of a parallel Bible that includes several translations.
Translating for King James, translated by Ward Allen; Vanderbilt University Press: 1994; ISBN-10: 0826512461, ISBN-13: 978-0826512468.
In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath; Anchor: 2002; ISBN-10: 0385722168, ISBN-13: 978-0385722162
The Poetics of Ascent: Theories of Language in a Rabbinic Ascent Text by Naomi Janowitz; State University of New York Press: 1988; ISBN-10: 0887066372, ISBN-13: 978-0887066375
The Contemporary Parallel New Testament: 8 Translations: King James, New American Standard, New Century, Contemporary English, New International, New Living, New King James, The Message, edited by John R. Kohlenberger; Oxford University Press: 1998; ISBN-10: 0195281365, ISBN-13: 978-0195281361
Excavating Jesus: Behind the Stones, Beneath the Texts, by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed; HarperOne: 2001; ISBN: 978-0-06-0616