When 2 Bible Translations Disagree, Which One Is Right?

 

Have you ever been listening to a preacher who is using a Bible translation different from the one in your lap? Generally, the wording is similar enough to avoid confusion; in fact those differences often provide little insights. But occasionally the differences are so striking that you get distracted.

When Bible translations differ greatly, what’s going on?

A reader emailed me with just such a question: “I thought maybe you’d have some insight into the English translations of 2 Samuel 23:5,” he said. And he listed them:

For does not my house stand so with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant. . . . (ESV)

If my house were not right with God, surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant. (NIV)

Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant. (KJV)

He asked: “Is the KJV anomaly simply an interpretive translation choice on their part or is the underlying text different?” In other words, among the minor copyist errors that make every Hebrew (or Greek) manuscript of any size differ at least a tiny bit, are there differences at 2 Samuel 23:5?

Great question. And we’ll answer it later. But first, we’ll ask the more general question: if you can’t read Hebrew or Greek, how can you know which differences between English translations are due to textual variants and which aren’t?

This question is important, because if our goal as Bible readers is to know what the Bible means, we have to start by knowing what it says.

Let me give a simple and then a more complicated answer to the question.

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The simple answer

The simple answer is this: any difference between Bible translations that is significant enough for you to notice is almost certainly not due to a textual variant.

Most differences between Greek and Hebrew texts are excessively minor. For example, can you guess which difference between the KJV and ESV at Matthew 1:18 is due to a difference between the Greek texts underlying these two versions?

   Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. (KJV)     Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (ESV)  

Did you guess it was “espoused” vs. “betrothed,” or “Spirit” vs. “Ghost”? Nope. It’s that little word “as”: “When as his mother Mary was espoused.” The textual base of the KJV has one word here (γάρ, gar) that the textual base of the ESV does not have. But this variant, like so many others that were based on ancient scribal mistakes, makes no difference in meaning.

Another reason differences you notice between English Bible translations are rarely due to textual variants is that almost all contemporary Bible translations are based on the same Greek and Hebrew texts: the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. Basically, the KJV, NKJV and a few comparatively minor players such as the MEV are the only English Bibles widely available which use different textual bases (and, again, they’re not very different at all).

If you spot a perplexing difference between two English renderings of the same phrase, assume the translators are looking at the same Greek or Hebrew words and have good reasons for translating them differently.

The complex answer

The science of “textual criticism” is the complicated work of determining—based on scribal habits and other factors—which variants are most likely to be original. So the more complex answer is that, yes, some differences between translations are due to differing “textual critical” choices—even among contemporary translations which are using the same base texts.

Psalm 22:16b is one example, and you might be able to guess that textual issues are present simply because the translations are not just all over the map; many are on apparently different maps:

  • ESV: they have pierced my hands and feet
  • AV: they pierced my hands and my feet
  • MEV: like a lion they pin my hands and my feet
  • NASB95: They pierced my hands and my feet
  • HCSB: they pierced my hands and my feet
  • NIV: they pierce my hands and my feet
  • NET: like a lion they pin my hands and feet
  • NLT: They have pierced my hands and feet
  • CEB: oh, my poor hands and feet
  • REB they have bound me hand and foot
  • NEB: they have hacked off my hands and my feet
  • NABRE: They have pierced my hands and my feet
  • LES: They dug a trench for my hands and feet

“Pierced” is the most popular option. But “pinned,” “hacked,” “bound,” and even “dug a trench” are considered viable options by highly trained people, all of whom—readers should presume—had good reasons for what they did. Not all these differences are so great that they suggest textual variants, but when “a lion” comes bounding into two of the translations, you know something is going on in the Hebrew textual tradition.

In a passage like this one, it seems pretty important to sort out the textual critical problems—because this is an apparent Old Testament prediction of the death of the Messiah. If David was not indeed prophesying about his great-great (etc.) grandson, Christians shouldn’t claim that he was. You can confirm your suspicion that a given passage is the site of a textual variant in two ways.

First, you can always check the footnotes in your English Bible. The ESV at Psalm 22:16, sure enough, has a note saying that its reading is supported by “some Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac.” It adds, however, that “most Hebrew manuscripts [read] like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet.”

Second, you can check the Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible. It has a somewhat longer note at Psalm 22:16, one that mentions the role played by the Dead Sea Scrolls in determining the original reading of this passage. (Many Logos base package owners also have Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, and it is worth checking, but it requires some knowledge of Greek and of textual criticism.)

Back to 2 Samuel 23:5

And that brings us back to 2 Samuel 23:5, the subject of my reader’s question. Neither the Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible nor any footnote in an English translation mentions any textual variant in this passage that might explain why the ESV, NIV, and KJV differ. You may safely presume, therefore, that the differences are due to legitimate but contrasting ways to take the underlying Hebrew. A commentary can help you here, but more than likely the commentary will only do for you what you ought to try to do for yourself first: look at the context and make some observations about which reading makes the most sense.

2 Samuel 23:1–7 contains the last words of King David. They are full of gratitude for what the Lord had done for him. The KJV rendering, therefore, feels awkward to me. He just got done saying “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light”—and now he’s going to say, “Although my own house was not just, even so the Lord has blessed me”? I think the literal ESV rendering and the slightly smoother and more interpretive rendering of the NIV both get across the point that the context demands: David’s house is right with God, and this is one signal reason for God’s blessings on that house.

However, David did commit terrible injustices: he took a man’s wife and then killed him so he could keep her after she got pregnant. God’s blessings on him were indeed given despite his sin—though his sin also brought serious consequences, including supermarket-tabloid-level dysfunction in his family. So maybe the KJV translators were right.

The KJV translators were not dummies. Neither were the ESV and NIV translators. If such gifted people disagreed over the proper rendering of a phrase, most likely they have discovered legitimate ways to translate it. Commentaries will rarely, in my experience, give a decisive reason to take one over the others—or the translators would have already taken it.

Differences between translations are instructive; they help raise interpretive questions you might not have thought of. But if you start thinking that a given difference between translations is due to textual variants, you’ll confuse the issues, waste your time, and perhaps miss out on what’s really going on in the text.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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Written by Mark Ward