Why Are There So Many Different Versions of the Bible?

On occasion I’ll have someone offer various arguments why they don’t believe in God, the Bible, or any other religion. I’ll just focus on one common objection I’ve heard, and it goes something like this: “There are so many different versions of the Bible. If the Bible is truly the word of God, shouldn’t there only be ONE version?”

I think this argument is based on a number of assumptions about the nature of God. It assumes that God should act and behave in a predictable or acceptable manner according to our personal preconceptions. It assumes that we have the mental capacity to know what a perfect, omniscient, omnipotent god could and should do. And it assumes that we’re good enough to know what a good god would do.

Immediately several questions come to mind. I’d ask, “How do you know what God should have done?” And, “What makes you so sure that having different versions is a mistake or a sign of an imperfect God?”

Obviously, as human beings, we’re not perfect, omniscient or omnipotent, so we really wouldn’t know what God should do, or why he did it unless he provided us a revelation or explanation. If God hasn’t offered us any information, then we can only speculate why he allowed something to happen. And when skeptics speculate like this, they often conclude that God cannot exist simply because they came up with a scenario that doesn’t make sense to them. But an argument from incredulity doesn’t have much merit. As a Christian believer, any speculation must be supported by the Bible because that’s what we recognize as our authority.

For the sake of argument, I believe that God has allowed so many different versions for a number of reasons that are plausible without calling into question his existence. The fact that there are different versions of the Bible isn’t a reason to be an atheist.

From a practical standpoint, we know that he original Scriptures were written in Hebrew and Greek. Most humans cannot read Hebrew or Greek, so it makes sense that we’d accept a translation in a language we can understand. Further, since people translate languages differently, we’re going to have different translations of the same subject matter. Invariably people will argue over wording, phrases and meanings, and that leads to different versions. As time passes and our language changes, it’s only reasonable that we’ll adopt more modern versions. Further, different groups may think they can improve upon the current version. I think all of these are commendable. But then we also have other translations and versions based on one’s personal philosophy or brand of politics. So there are both good and bad reasons for the different versions. Of course I think the versions that are most faithful to the original language are our best option.

Now I think part of the argument assumes that God should dictate only one version for everyone. But is there any merit to this? Well, if this were the case, then anyone who wanted to become a Christian and read the Bible would have to learn the original Hebrew or Greek, which isn’t necessarily a terrible idea; I’d love to be able to read Hebrew and Greek, and it wouldn’t be overwhelming to take a class and learn the language. But that’s beside the point. Sure, if God had dictated this, then that would be well and good- except that people living in poverty most likely wouldn’t have the resources to learn a new language. But would one version of the Bible really alleviate the concerns of the skeptic? Or would the skeptic find some other objection to the existence of God?

If we suppose that God did dictate that we only read the original language, the skeptic might claim that this is proof that God doesn’t exist, because why would a loving God dictate such a rigid approach to studying his word? I’m sure any objection would suffice.

From a Biblical perspective, I think there are many good reasons for all the different versions. For example the book of Acts explains how believers from every nation were able to hear God’s word in their own native tongue. I think this offers evidence that God wants us to understand him in our own language, and that language is not a barrier to the gospel.

So long as the gospel message is the same and faithful to the original text, I think the version makes little difference. In most cases it boils down to preference. Do you like the old or new King James version? Or do you prefer something more modern and easier to read?

In the end I don’t think there’s any rational argument demanding only one version of the Bible in order for God to exist. There’s no indication that God finds this unacceptable, otherwise he would have added to the commandments, “Thou shalt not read any other version of Scripture except the original text”, or something to that effect. There’s also no indication of Jesus objecting to alternate versions or translations.

Finally I think it’s actually a very powerful testimony that God is able to transform so many lives across the earth through all the various languages. The gospel message is the same wherever we go. It’s also very humbling when we can introduce the gospel into a new language for people to learn and understand.

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6 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many Different Versions of the Bible?

  1. No mention of the historical context surrounding the bible? As a skeptic I have no faith that the bible is the word of god because it’s well documented that very mortal, human beings held various councils to determine which books they would and wouldn’t include in the various versions of the bible. The fact that there are different versions doesn’t bother me; it’s the fact that there are gospels and other various books in the bible that were left out because a group of religious figureheads hundreds of years ago locked themselves in a room and hand picked what went into a book that was supposed to be the word of god themselves. That doesn’t sound very divine to me.

    • There were a lot of directions I wanted to take this, but I decided not to get too wordy, so I’m glad you brought up the historical context. That’s a whole different ballgame that I’d like to tackle on another post. But it’s definitely something worth discussing. So here we go…

      It’s true to some degree that very mortal human beings determined which books would be in the canon of Scripture, but that doesn’t nullify God, Jesus, Christianity or the reliability of Scripture. I think one’s perspective helps shape our conclusions. So while you take this as evidence against the Bible being the word of God, I see it as evidence for the Bible being the word of God. In fact I think the historical study of Scripture has helped confirm our confidence in Scripture. Now I don’t disagree that there are legitimate challenges to be addressed, but those challenges don’t undermine Scripture.

      I think firstly we need to understand God’s sovereignty. God is in control of everything, even when fallible human beings get in the way. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This means that when bad things happen, God will turn it into something good for those who love him. From this perspective, what may look to some people like a bunch of mortal men gathering around at various councils to decide what books they would or wouldn’t allow can be used by God to advance the gospel message and sustain his word. While the skeptic doesn’t recognize God’s active work in the process, believers do.

      As for the historical perspective of Scripture, Eckhard Schnabel writes that the Pentateuch was present early in Israel’s history- since the time of Moses. Some have tried to push the canonization of the Pentateuch to sometime after Israel’s exile and Josiah’s promulgation of the law, and the Torah to the time of Nehemiah. The discovery of the law in 2 Kings 22 didn’t begin the canonical process, but confirmed the already existing authority of the law. This canon depends on the history of the Pentateuch, so it can’t be firmly dated and defined as we’d like.

      Some scholars have argued that the closing of the OT canon occurred in the first half of the fifth century BC, while others have argued for the beginning of the second century BC. So there’s no consensus on the canon. The final stages of the history of the Old Testament canon may have happened at the Council of Jamnia around 70 AD, although even that has been questioned. We don’t know if there was an open or closed canon at Qumran. As for the apocrypha, there’s not much evidence that it was included in the Alexandrian canon, and there are legitimate questions about their status. However the apocryphal books weren’t considered to be part of the Bible for the first part of the church’s history, they’re not part of the earliest canons, and the church fathers didn’t quote them as Scripture.

      We don’t know if the OT canon was fixed by a formal council or a specific group, but either is a possibility. It does seem that the OT canon was firmly established before the first century AD, and it’s clear that Jesus and the apostles accepted Scripture as the word of God. So it should be no surprise that the Bible’s authority is considered divine revelation.

      Despite all the questions surrounding the canonization of the Old Testament, we can still see the legitimacy of Scripture as God’s word. And we can even see the beginnings of the New Testament Scripture during the life of Christ and the early church at the time of Pentecost. In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter upholds Paul’s writings along with the Old Testament Scripture, and the words of Jesus were given divine authority.

      Of course there were disputes over the canon of the New Testament as well, and that includes the early Biblical scholar, Origen. We can also see that Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria included a list of the Old and New Testament canon, and it was accepted by the synods of Rome, Hoppo Regius and Carthage by the end of the fourth century. Not only that, but the church already had a New Testament by the end of the first century with the collection of the thirteen epistles of Paul between AD 80-110, the four gospels put together by John, and 1 Peter, 1 John, Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas were being read in the churches.

      It may have been Gnosticism that led the church leaders to wrestle with what books conveyed the true teaching of the gospel and how they developed the final canon. And some believe that it was the influence of Marcion that forced the church to establish the canon of Scripture. Montanism played a role in closing the canon as well. So there were many factors in determining the canon of Scripture, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that this is a reason why we can’t have faith that the Bible is the word of God.

      I agree with Schnabel that we have a dependable foundation for the proclamation of the gospel because Scripture is the revealed word of God and is truthful and trustworthy. The canon of Scripture didn’t fall from heaven, but has a distinct human element in its history. The canon of Scripture is the outcome of human involvement and God’s sovereign will.

      Another reason why we can have confidence in Scripture is because the entirety of the Bible is intertwined and spans a consistent history with the role of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross and our future in God’s Kingdom to come through salvation. The unifying factors of the Bible help demonstrate the divine inspiration from God.

      The accuracy of historical data speaks for its authority, as does fulfilled prophecy. Archaeological discoveries, such as Jericho and the capital of the Hittites, have confirmed many of the Bible’s claims, and the prophecy in Isaiah about Cyrus rising up as the King of Persia 150 years before it happened. Not only that, but the prophecies about the coming Messiah were fulfilled in Christ.

      I think the skeptic must first deny the existence of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in order to conclude that the Bible cannot be the word of God. I don’t think one can come to that conclusion on the facts alone. Because once we assume that God is real and is able to speak revelation to man, then one has to admit that it’s possible that the Bible could be exactly what it claims to be- God’s word.

      With all this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bible is the most read and published book in history. And with all the different copies of Scripture found, the original text has been preserved remarkably well with few errors. Most of the errors found in over 5,700 copies of the Greek New Testament are spelling mistakes, grammar, or word order and don’t affect the meaning of Scripture.

      Some critics, like Ferdinand Christian Baur, assumed that most of the New Testament wasn’t written until late in the second century AD, but archaeological evidence has confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament with the John Rylands manuscript (AD 130); the Chester Beatty Papyri (AD 155); and the Bodmer Papyri II (AD 200). According to Biblical archaeologist William Albright, there’s no solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about AD 80. Research by Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson led him to conclude that the whole of the New Testament was written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

      I’ll close with this quote from B.B. Warfield: “[The] whole of Scripture is the product of the divine activities which enter it, not by superseding the activities of the human authors, but by working confluently with them, so that the Scriptures are the joint product of divine and human activities, both of which penetrate them at every point, working harmoniously together to the production of a writing which is not divine here and human there, but at once divine and human in every part, every word and every particular.”

  2. Jonathan, your argument is spot on, and it applies to many objections that are raised. We may not understand something. We may not agree with it. But those are not arguments against God’s existence. I don’t understand and agree with many politicians, and yet they exist.

    @ryan59479, the church at the time saw a need to look carefully into which books were inspired and which were made up. Their decisions weren’t arbitrary. They looked carefully into the history and provenance of what was accepted into the canon. It was a perfectly reasonable thing do, and how else would it be done? And again, the fact that you may disagree with how the books were chosen is not an argument against God’s existence. The two issues are independent from one another.

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