What version of the Bible is most authentic? What version has been used by the largest number Christians for the longest period of time? Have I just stated the same question in different words or have I asked two distinct questions? Since I am a lawyer by profession, I suffer from the lawyerly proclivity for never giving a straight answer to a straight question. If authentic means “closest to the words penned by the original authors,” then we have two separate questions. It is quite clear that most Christians for the longest period of time have used versions of the Bible which almost certainly differ from the original wording of the original writers.
Bart Ehrman has written two books in which he energetically points out those differences. The first is a scholarly work entitled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and the second is a popular work titled Misquoting Jesus. The thesis of both Ehrman's books seems to be that copyists changed the wording of key passages of scripture to conform the words of the Bible to their own belief system. Refuting that contention is not the aim of this essay, so I will just say I believe the contention is easily refuted and move on. (See Craig Blomberg’s excellent works, Can We Still Believe the Bible? and The Historical Reliability of the Gospels).
Anyhow, by 1611, when the venerable King James Version (KJV) of the Bible was rendered into English, the Bible text they used for the translation did not contain some of the original words of the original writers and contained some words which were not written by the original writers (See, e.g. John 8:1-11). But although it may not have been “authentic,” the KJV New Testament has a good claim to be based on the text which has been used by the largest number of Christians for the longest time. Up until the 1500’s most Christians used a Latin translation of the New Testament done by St. Jerome in the Fourth Century. Known as the Vulgate, it was the basis of the Catholic Douay-Rheims (DRV) translation which was completed in the early 1500’s. The first versions of the DRV never really caught on.
About the time of the invention of the printing press in the mid 1500’s, it was recognized that there was a need for a standard Greek translation of the New Testament. After all, the New Testament was originally written in Greek. The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus collected as many manuscripts of the New Testament as he could lay his hands on and compiled them into a Greek text. None of his New Testament manuscripts were complete, so to fill in the gaps he retranslated the missing passages back into Greek from the Vulgate. Erasmus’s text, with some revisions, became known as the Textus Receptus, the “received text.”
When the KJV was translated into English (1611), they used the Textus Receptus as the basis for the New Testament. About 100 years later, Bishop Richard Challoner revised the DRV using the Textus Receptus, and it was after this that the DRV became popular. So the Textus Receptus formed the basis of the New Testament for Protestants beginning in 1611 and for Catholics beginning in 1749. The Textus Receptus thus reigned supreme in Western Christianity for a period of approximately 400 years (1519-1900). Then came the Historical-Critical movement in Biblical studies.
Historical-Critical Bible scholars saw that the Textus Receptus didn’t agree with many early manuscripts of the New Testament, and that the early manuscripts didn’t agree with each other. It didn’t really matter that the vast majority of these discrepancies were trivial and that non-trivial discrepancies didn’t affect Christian doctrine, they wanted an “authentic” New Testament. They decided to apply their scholarly knowledge to the problem of figuring out which among the many conflicting passages was the most authentic. The result was the Westcott-Hort text, published in 1881.
The most singular thing about the Westcott-Hort text is that, being pieced together from multiple manuscripts, it is a version of the New Testament that no early Christian ever used. Nevertheless, it supplanted the Textus Receptus and became the forerunner of modern texts such as the Nestle-Aland and the UBS. Most modern translations of the New Testament are based on these modern critical texts. So now we’ve got an “authentic” New Testament text that no early Christian ever even saw. Whether these modern English translations have successfully captured the “authentic” text of the New Testament is open to debate. I’ve read several different versions from several different denominations, and what I’ve noticed is that the translations of various disputed passages always seem to endorse the theology of the denomination sponsoring the translation.
So what modern English translation most faithfully captures the original text of the New Testament? Who knows? I think it’s much easier to answer the second question. The Textus Receptus wins that contest hands down. It’s been used by Western Christianity for centuries, and it is based on the most common ancient family of Greek texts—the Byzantine text. At least that’s the family which has had the most copies survive to modern times. Casting about looking for a modern translation of the Textus Receptus we find—the New King James Version (NKJ).
Now let us look at the Old Testament and see what we can make of it. Almost all modern Protestant versions of the Old Testament are based on the Masoretic text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible. We can be sure that no early Christians used the Masoretic text because it didn’t exist during the early days of Christianity. The Masoretic text began to take shape around 1000 and took its final form by the late 1300’s. Of course, modern scholars have gone behind the Masoretic text to try to find the original words written by the original authors, and their findings have been incorporated into the modern translations. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is based on an ancient Greek translation of scripture known as the Septuagint, which was originally intended for use by Jews living outside Israel who could not read Hebrew. Sharp-eyed readers of modern translations will notice that when Jesus quotes scripture, it sometimes differs from the text of that scripture found in the Old Testament. This is because Jesus was quoting the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Bible.
Early Christians used the Septuagint, and the Septuagint forms the basis for the Catholic Old Testament. That’s why the Catholic Old Testament has more books in it than the Protestant version. (The books known to Protestants as the Apocrypha). When Protestantism broke off from Catholicism, they wanted the Old Testament to be authentic, which they read to mean more like the Jewish Bible. So they adopted the Masoretic text as their Old Testament, purging the books which weren’t in the Masoretic text. By trying to become more authentic, they actually produced a less authentic Old Testament. Which leads us to this conclusion—among the archaic English translations of the Bible, the Catholic DRV is truer to early Christianity than the Protestant KJV. Why? The DRV’s Old Testament is based on the Septuagint. So where do we find the most authentic modern English Old Testament? I’d have to say it probably comes from one of the modern Catholic translations. But you have to be careful—some modern English Catholic Old Testaments are based on the Masoretic text.
We can sum up what we’ve learned so far with three points: (1) The Septuagint is the Old Testament text recognized as authoritative by the greatest number of Christians for the longest period of time. (2) The Textus Receptus is the New Testament text recognized as authoritative by the greatest number of Christians for the longest period of time. (3) The most “authentic” modern English Bible translation is going to be based on the Septuagint and the Textus Receptus.
Where do we find such an edition of the Bible? I don’t think we can find a Roman Catholic or a Protestant Bible which will meet our criteria. We can, however, find one. While Western Christianity was replacing the Septuagint with the Masoretic text and abandoning the Textus Receptus for modern critical texts, one branch of Christianity clung to a Bible based on both the Septuagint and the Textus Receptus—the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 2008 the St. Athanasius Academyof Orthodox Theology published the Orthodox Study Bible (OSB). For the New Testament they used the New King James Version, and for the Old Testament, they took the NKJ and reworded it wherever it disagreed with the Septuagint. Protestants would be uncomfortable with the OSB’s Old Testament—some of the books have different names (e.g. I Samuel is I Kingdoms), the order is different, there are too many books, and the chapters and verses sometimes differ.
I myself am partial to the KJV, having read it from an early age, so that’s what I usually read. For modern translations I like the Protestant New American Standard and the Catholic New American Bible. Until I examined a copy of the OSB I always discounted the NKJ as not “scholarly,” but the OSB changed my mind about it.