The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Lesson 5

Translations of the Bible

Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

Craig Blomberg
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Lesson 5
Watching Now
Translations of the Bible


A. Prior to the KJV

B. KJV (1611) and NKJV


A. Formal equivalent (ASV – NASB, RSV – NRSV, ESV)

B. Dynamic equivalence (LB – NLT)

C. Optimal equivalence (NIV, CSB, NAB, CEB)


A. Luke 1:1–4

B. All basically agree


A. Remember how similar all translations are, despite their covers

B. Sufficiency and clarity of Scripture for all things necessary for salvation and Christian living

C. No translation is 100% formal, optimal, or dynamic

D. Inclusive language often sheds more heat than light

Class Resources
  • An introduction to the common myths that challenged the historicity of the gospel message. Some of the myths have no connection to any historical evidence (e.g., the Da Vinci Code), recently discovered “evidence” is often distorted (Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature), and Blomberg concludes that we should be initially skeptical of new findings.

  • How did Christians arrive at the canon of 27 authoritative documents that were from God and therefore foundational for Christian belief and living? Blomberg looks at hints from the New Testament itself, the citations and writings of the Apostolic Fathers, third century discussions, and the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century. None of our four Gospels were ever questioned, and no other gospel was put forward as equally authoritative.

  • Looks at the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. They show an interest in the infancy and final days of Jesus, but are of no historical value. There are gnostic gospels (mostly fragmentary) that are more esoteric, philosophical speculation, and Blomberg reads sections from the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Are the copies of the Greek New Testament accurate? Are the variations among the manuscripts so significant that we can no longer trust them? What about the two paragraphs that some Bibles say are not authentic? This discussion is called “Textual Criticism.”

  • Are the translations of the Bible reliable? Do they faithfully convey the meaning of the Greek? Why are they different and do they disagree on the essentials of the Christian faith?

  • Nothing covered so far guarantees that what the Gospel writers said is true. How do historians make assessments about reliability of claims made in ancient works? How do we know who wrote a document, when did they write it, and were they in a context in which they could know what actually happened?

  • There was a 30 — 40 year gap between the events of the Gospels and the writing of the Gospels. Can we trust the accounts of Jesus’ life as they were told during this time period. Were the Gospel writers even interested in preserving history? Were they in a position to do so?

  • Three recent areas of study encourage us to accept the reliability of oral tradition. They are studies in the nature of an oral culture, how the Gospels follow an informal controlled tradition, and the effect of social memory.

  • Discussion of the literary dependence among the gospels, formally known as the “Synoptic Problem.” Argues that Mark was the first written source, and Matthew and Luke borrow from him, from a common document (“Q”) and used their own material.

  • What kind of books are we dealing with? Different kinds of literature will be analyzed differently in terms of reliability. If it is fiction, we will analyze it a certain way. How should we read the Gospels?

  • While archaeology can’t prove certain things, it can corroborate many of the details of the Gospels and should encourage us to look forward to even more discoveries. Blomberg looks at Jesus’ imagery, the sites he traveled, the results of recent discoveries, and the weight of artifacts encouraging us to trust the Bible.

  • There is a belief that any and all Christian evidence is tainted, and so only non-Christian evidence should be investigated. Not only is this falacious (“silly and nonsensical”), and there is non-Christian evidence that tells us a surprising lot about Jesus.

  • Now that we have seen some of the criteria that historians use to judge the reliability of an ancient document, we will use those same criteria on the apocryphal and gnostic gospels. Blomberg uses the twelve criteria of historical reliability.

  • What is the resulting picture that we find of Jesus? For those who find only a small portion of the Gospels reliable, their picture of Jesus that results from the  limited sections of the gospels will be somewhat different from those who find a large portion as reliable.

  • Why do so many different scholars have such different views of Jesus? There actually is more similarity than at first is expected, but the differences are due to things such as scholar’s presuppositions. What then are the criteria for accepting a historical document as authentic?

  • Given the criteria established for historical reliability, which portions of the Synoptics have the strongest claim to being authentic?

  • Considering all the questions raised about the quest for who Jesus is, what can we know for sure? What is the core of the gospel tradition that does not require faith?

  • We have been looking at topics pertaining to the general trustworthiness of the Gospels. Now it is time to look at specific issues that might question the reliability of the Synoptics. Does looking at a cross section of the “apparent contradictions” give us more confidence?

  • Continuing the purpose of the previous chapter, Blomberg looks at specific harmonization problems between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

  • Looks at the overall features of John, arguing that they show the gospel to be a reliable witness to Jesus.

  • Now that we have looked at the issues of John’s reliability in general, Blomberg starts working through individual passages that have raised questions for some people. The question is whether or not Jon’s teaching dovetails with teaching in the Synoptics. Much of the issue has to do with presuppositions and the burden of proof, and the evidence Blomberg cites is often when John’s teaching finds a connection with Synoptic teaching or with historical data.

  • This quest was due to a new emphasis on the historical reliability of John. Some events in John have a greater claim to authenticity by liberal critics. Blomberg then looks at a theme throughout John of Jesus as the Purifier, which parallels the Synoptics account of Jesus healing people, making the unclean clean. This too argues for a greater part of John's gospel being historically reliable.

  • Paul discloses quite a bit of information about the historical Jesus in his letters. His letters come from the 50’s and early 60’s, before the gospels were probably written, so he is an independent witness as to whom Jesus was based on a reliable oral tradition.

  • Blomberg summarizes the previous lecture and continues by pointing out the similarities of key themes between Jesus and Paul. Instead of seeing differences between Jesus and Paul, these themes actually show how similar they are. Blomberg concludes by explaining why Paul does not make more allusions to Jesus.

  • Miracles are natural and expected if in fact God exists. But does he exist? If a person begins with atheistic presuppositions, then miracles are impossible and those portions of the Bible unreliable. This is not a detailed discussion of the topic but a quick summary of the arguments.

  • Do miracles outside of the Bible that parallel biblical miracles call into question the veracity of the latter? The fact of the matter is that they were different and often later than Jesus’ miracles.

  • Can we believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? If not, then this part of the gospel story is not reliable. Blomberg covers general issues and specific problems, and then positive support for the virginal conception.

  • What led a band of defeated followers of a failed Messianic claimant begin to preach him as Lord and God? If the resurrection is fiction, then the belief of the early church still needs to be explained. Alternate explanations fail to impress; and there is evidence for a bodily resurrection.

  • Does a defense of biblical reliability lead to any new insights about Jesus himself? Or does it simply bring us back to the status quo of historical Christian orthodoxy? Have our churches been preaching a balanced picture of the Bible, or have they been selective?

  • Blomberg summarizes the main points he has been making.

An in-depth look at the charges against the historicity of the gospels, and the evangelical answers.

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Historical Reliability of the Gospels


Translations of the Bible

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:00] This is the course on the historical reliability of the New Testament Gospels. This is segment number five entitled The Translation of the New Testament and especially of the Gospels. We said at the end of our last segment that we were finally ready to look at the question of the reliability of the text. Now that we know it is accurate, now that we know we have chosen the right gospels, the right sources in general for the life of Jesus. And that's true. As long as you can read Greek. But since some of you, maybe most of you taking this class will not be going directly from the Greek. There is one question that may well come to mind. Can I trust my translation in English or Chinese or Arabic or Spanish? And I'm not an expert on Chinese or Arabic. I can't read either language. I can manage in Spanish, but. I've been asked to deal with the English text. Which translation? Should I use? Are they all equally good? Are some better than others? Even just in the English language. If we go back. In history. To the earliest English Bible translations. We discover a number that were produced without the authorization of any ecclesiastical body. And one of the most famous of those was produced by John Wickliffe, whose name today attaches to a major international Bible translating society who had to go into exile from his native England as a result of his efforts. But even in the Roman Catholic world of the 16th century, of the 1500s contemporary with the Protestant Reformation, increasingly European languages were being used for Bible translations, even in Catholic circles. There was, in the English speaking part of Europe, a work called the Bishop's Bible. There was another one known as the Geneva Bible, still a third one called the Great Bible.


[00:02:42] And in fact, much of the language of the King James translation of the Bible, which would soon become by far the best known of the English translations, was borrowed from these and also from John Wick Clift's work. It was, however, in 1611 that an amazing milestone took place. The production of what in Great Britain to this day is usually called the authorized Bible. The A.V.. And in the United States, often predominantly called the King James version. Not because James, the Sex of Scotland, who became James the first of England, wrote any of it or translated any of it, but because he commissioned a team of several dozen of the finest English language scholars of ancient Hebrew and Greek, that he could identify a very tedious and time consuming labor of love based on several dozen of the best manuscripts that were available of the ancient languages and written in Elizabethan English, written in the vernacular well known to modern people, not just from the King James Bible, but from the plays of William Shakespeare, whose zenith was at approximately the same time just a decade or two earlier. Elizabethan English sounds very strange to us today. We do not go around greeting people, saying, Hail fair maiden. How. Dust the prosper. On this merry occasion. But that's how Shakespearean language functioned and that's how much of the language of the King James Bible appeared. The King James translators did the very best. They knew how to with the very best scholarship of their day. And the result was a magnificent translation in the common vernacular of the. English speaking people in the early 1600s. It was so successful that although various other English language translations appeared usually by individual scholars, none had much of an effect on the world until into the 19th century.


[00:05:30] Even today, there is a definable portion of the Bible reading public that so values the language of the King James that the translation, called the new King James version, was published in order to preserve as much of that language as possible. But update words that simply meant nothing in modern English or were actually misleading because they had come to mean something different, like the word conversation, meaning conduct, or the words suffer meaning aloud. When Jesus said in King James, English, Suffer, the little children do come unto me. He was merely asking that they be permitted to come. And there wasn't anything like we mean by suffering in modern English. But there are many. 20th and now 21st century translations. Perhaps too many. Given the number of languages in the world that still lack a translation of the Bible and the number of languages in the world that may have only one or at most, two options. But the English speaking world is a huge market and a capitalist world for production and sales of Bibles. And. We can today identify three main approaches. To Bible translation. That refer. First of all. To a formerly equivalent translation like the King James was in its day. Trying to prioritize the preservation of the meaning of the text, of the structure of the original language when English. Could be rendered in the same word order and still be meaningful. A high degree of accuracy. One of the advantages of. Elizabethan English was the ability to distinguish between a second person singular and plural form. In. Academic English. We use you to mean both use singular and you plural. There are slang ways to differentiate. Of course you can talk about your. You talk about all y'all. Uns use guys.


[00:08:20] And so forth. But King James had vow and the. And other forms for other sentence structures. Those have been lost in modern English. Those have been lost, thankfully, even in the new King James. But there are a variety of translations, beginning with what was called the American Standard version in 1901. That was updated in the sixties to the new American Standard Bible, which itself has an updated edition that was published in 1995. The major ecumenical translation just after World War Two, known as the revised Standard version, which has been revised in two different directions in more recent years, the new revised Standard version continuing the ecumenical tradition and the English standard version produced by an exclusively evangelical publishing house. All of these translations prioritize meaning structure, accuracy, precision. Over at times when there is a trade off, such features as clarity, ease of understanding and intelligibility. In the 1960s as well. A major change occurred in the publishing of English language Bibles, especially in the United States, with a man named Ken Taylor, who produced something called the Living Bible. Paraphrased. It was acknowledged to be a paraphrase of the old American standard version. Taylor said he did not know Greek or Hebrew. He took what was the most highly literal and at times almost unintelligible translation of the old ASV and did his best to render it into English that would interest his teenage kids. And it was wildly successful. As an autobiographical note, one I became a believer through is for Christ. At age 15, it was brand new. Completed. The entire Bible had just been finished and I devoured it and it actually made Bible reading interesting to me, which neither the King James nor the RSV, the only options of my childhood ever had.


[00:10:48] So I will be forever grateful for the living Bible paraphrased, but it was not a bonafide translation. There are places that it took too much liberty with the text to be justifiable as an accurate rendering. And so Ken Taylor's son, Mark, who happens to be my age and has been the president of Tindale House Publishers and Carroll Stream, Illinois for a number of years now in the 1990s, commissioned a team of 90, all in New Testament scholars, to produce an accurate translation, but leave his father's wording intact any place where it could be justified from the original languages. The result was what is now called the New Living translation, and it is one of many, but really by far the most successful of many translations that are dynamically equivalent. Dynamic equivalent seeks to prioritize clarity. Intelligibility. Ease of understanding. Even if at times that means using simplified language that doesn't capture quite all of the nuances that a more technical term might capture in rendering something in Greek and Hebrew, even if at times it means rearranging the word order in a sentence or even in a paragraph to avoid what sounds somewhat stilted in a formerly equivalent translation. For ease of understanding. More recently, there have been other translations, such as the contemporary English version, the CV, the New Century version, the NSC V in mainline Protestant circles, a little bit older than the new Living, but not as old as the living Bible. Paraphrase is the good news Bible. And all of this have, to their credit, gained readership that had never previously before been interested in or even very successful in trying to read the Bible with understanding. A third approach. And of course, there are points on a spectrum. Not every translation fits perfectly into any one of these slots.


[00:13:12] But a third major position on a spectrum is what some have dubbed an optimally equivalent translation. That is to say they try to prioritize meaning and accuracy on the one hand and clarity and intelligibility. On the other hand. Not intentionally giving either one of those two the consistent upper hand. The result is that in general the translation will seldom be quite as precise as the formally equivalent translation, and it will seldom be quite as fresh or arresting as the fully dynamically equivalent translation. But hopefully it will be most useful in the broadest cross-section of circles in ministry and for the broadest cross-section of the population. Or someone who is very well educated, has the ability to use Bible reference works, perhaps does not have access to or a desire or ability to learn the biblical languages. A formerly equivalent translation can be extremely useful. For the person learning English as a second language, or someone who has not had the access to education that many English speakers have, or for someone who is just so familiar with the Bible in all their translations that they want a very fresh rendering, dynamically equivalent translation can be very useful. But for the broadest cross-section of contexts, one probably wants something like the new international version, or in more recent years, the common Christian standard Bible or the in Roman Catholic circles, New American Bible, or now a quite recent new mainline Protestant edition called the Common English Bible. Somebody by now should be asking, can you illustrate this with actual passages? Thank you for asking. Luke. One, one, two, four. The opening Prolog to Luke's gospel is in the Greek one long, convoluted sentence, a paragraph length sentence. If we start with the classic standard, the gold standard, a formal equivalence, the King James version.


[00:15:55] Luke one 1 to 4 reads as follows Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them onto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first to write unto Thee in order. Most excellent Theophilus that thou might know the certainty of those things who are in Thou hast been instructed. Got that. And maybe you do. If you are familiar with King James English. If you're not, you probably struggled at some place. Let's turn. By way of contrast to a. Dynamically you covalent translation. And the gold standard of dynamic equivalent translations the multi. Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitnesses reports circulating among us from the early disciples, having carefully investigated every thing from the beginning. I also decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. One sentence has become three, but I trust most listeners will agree it was easier to understand. What happens if we turn to an optimally equivalent translation? Like the new international version, many have undertaken to drop an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us. Just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning. I too decided to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.


[00:18:15] Not one sentence, not three, but two in between the other two. Probably closer in terms of intelligibility in the 21st century to the new living. But in terms of structure and word order closer to the King James, in terms of meaning. It is an attempt to prioritize the best of both. Tasks that translators have before them, recognizing that it will never be quite as outstanding in either. Hopefully, however you recognized. That the same Greek surely underlay all three of those translations. It was the same content. There wasn't any uncertainty as to what Luke was trying to say, even in English translation. The differences were very minor compared to everything that they had in common. Sometimes as Christians engage in what some have dubbed the translation wars. This fact is lost sight of. Sometimes when Christian publishers take one single version of the scriptures and market it with dozens of different covers. So that we have the busy moms Bible and the teenage boys backpacking Bible and the golfer's Bible and the chunky Bible shaped like a cube and the flexi Bible, which looks like it has a Lego cover. Only the dots are squishy and on and on and on. The non Christian, whether it's searching on Amazon or going into the rare still standing Bible bookstore. Says, How do I know which of these to take? Can a golfer's Bible really have preserved the same text as a busy mom's Bible? What do they have to do with each other? And the uninitiated think that we are talking about separate translations. Rather than separate covers, sidebars, footnotes, pictures, illustrations of the identical text. We need to be clear about the difference between an edition of a single version like the King James, the New International, The New Living, or whichever, and different versions.


[00:21:12] It's great that. There is always a niche market that will buy and read a Bible. Because of its cover. But let's not lose sight of the difference between the cover. And the insides. Let's remind ourselves of how similar all translations are. Especially if you want to get the big picture. The Protestant reformers consistently spoke about the sufficiency of Scripture, the clarity of Scripture, not to solve every last doctrinal debate. But to be clear enough in any moderately decent translation into a language other than Greek or Hebrew, with all things necessary for salvation and Christian living. Let's never lose sight of that fact. And let's also be aware that although we can place the various translations generally into one of these three categories, there will always be specific texts that are exceptions that for one reason or another were translated much less literally than in a translation that is otherwise highly literal or that were translated highly literally. In a version which is otherwise more dynamically and equivalent. And let's also not lose sight of the fact. That debates over inclusive language. Has often shed more heat than light. Inclusive language is the use in English of language that does not sound like it is specifying one gender or the other. When the original Greek or Hebrew was not specified one gender or the other. English was simpler 100 years ago. Perhaps even 50 years ago. You could walk into a room and say, Let him, who is without sin, cast the first stone. And most women would understand that they want to be throwing stones either. You could talk about. Sons. You could talk about the generic use of he. You could say brothers. And people understood that men and women alike were included. Some segments of the English speaking population still do, but they are increasingly in a small minority.


[00:24:10] And especially for a non churched population. It would be extremely odd for. A speaker to address a mixed audience. And say, Good evening, brothers. Women would wonder why they were being excluded. And so across the spectrum of translations, there are different ways of dealing with this issue as well. But they don't affect the meaning of the text. They don't affect what is being taught the doctrine, the ethics. They don't affect, for purposes of this series, our ability to understand what the gospel writers wrote, what Jesus was teaching. And. How we are to interpret it and apply it in our lives today. So now. Not merely for those who. Can read Greek. We are indeed ready, even in any one of the English translations just discussed. Even the living Bible paraphrased even Eugene Peterson's The Message, which is a much wilder paraphrase than the living Bible ever was. Not a paraphrase to derive detailed doctrine from, but even from it we can gain the main contours of the gospel writers claims about the life and teaching of Jesus. And now we must ask the question we've all been waiting for. Can we believe it?