Bible Versions Controversy


Ajith Fernando*


Recently I saw an email about some new Bible versions which seems to have had a wide circulation on the internet, and I thought I should respond to it. I do so because sincere Christians may fall into the serious sin of making false accusations about their brothers and sisters in Christ who have worked tirelessly to produce accurate Bible translations. I know many of these translators personally and I know how committed they are to godliness, to the Bible and to honest and sincere faithfulness to finding what the authors originally wrote.


Here is a comment in the letter:


I’m sure you know that New international Version (NIV) was published by Zondervan but is now OWNED by Harper Collins, who also publishes the Satanic Bible and The Joy of Gay Sex.


HarperCollins also owns Thomas Nelson that publishes the New King James Version and the King James Version. It is part of a huge media conglomerate—News Corporation—which is the second largest media group in the world. It owns Star TV, the UK newspaper The Times, the US paper The Wall Street Journal, Twentieth Century Fox and a whole heap of other companies.


I have talked to the people at Zondervan and they say that HarperCollins does not interfere with the editorial matters—that is the content of the things they publish. Zondervan is governed by a written strongly Evangelical publishing philosophy and they are committed to publishing books that accord with such a doctrinal stand. Their products also conform to this. When HarperCollins bought Zondervan in 1988, they assured the folks at Zondervan that they will not be made to compromise their ethos. My friends at Zondervan told me that the day that happens, they will all leave. I’m suppose this is so about Thomas Nelson also—though I do not know people there.


Thomas Nelson and Zondervan together represent over 50 percent of the Christian book market published in the USA. This means that the books of most of the favourite Christian authors we read will be published by a HarperCollins related company. Some other Evangelical publishers have also been bought over by secular companies. Multnomah and WaterBrook now belong to Penguin Random House. Howard Books belongs to Simon and Schuster.


Incidentally, the NIV is not produced by Zondervan. The NIV is a project of Biblica (formerly called International Bible Society) who hold the copyright. But the translation proper is done by a group called the Committee on Bible Translation and the folks at Zondervan tell me that they are not permitted to make any changes on the text. That committee consists of evangelicals with impeccable credentials.


The NIV and English Standard Version (ESV) has now removed 64,575 words from the Bible including Jehovah, Calvary, Holy Ghost and omnipotent to name but a few…


Holy Ghost: When people translate accurately they must use words that accurately carry the original meaning to the contemporary audience. The Bible was written in very understandable, common Greek (Koine). It is not the Greek of the famous classical Greek literature. It was the Greek of everyday conversation which was very difficult for modern scholars to find outside the Bible. Only recently did they find receipts, letters, contracts etc. written in Koine Greek. It was very important to the biblical writers that they use the language that the common people understood. “Holy Ghost” therefore would be an inaccurate translation by the biblical standard of communication because Ghost does not mean Spirit today, though it may have meant that when the King James Version was written. Therefore it is right for the newer translations to say Holy Spirit rather than Holy Ghost.


This is why so many words were changed in the newer translations. When I was a teenager I wrote a sermon on, “Suffer the little children to come unto me” (Matt. 19:14 KJV). I wrote that children must suffer when they come into the kingdom of God.” I did not realise that “suffer” could take the meaning of “permit” in the 17th century. It no longer means that. Now the ESV and NIV accurately render it, “Let the little children come to me,”


Calvary. Luke 23:33 literally says “When they came to the place called Kranion.” Kranion is the Greek word for skull. The place where Jesus was crucified was probably so-called because it looked like a skull. In Aramaic (the language that Jesus probably spoke) the word for skull is Golgotha. The Greek manuscripts of Mark 15:22, Matthew 27:33 and John 19:17 transliterate the place’s Aramaic name Golgotha, and also supply the Greek translation of the name – Kranion (i.e. Skull). Luke, who wrote to a very Greek audience, only uses the Greek translation Kranion without mentioning the Aramaic name Golgotha. The English name Calvary comes from the Latin word for skull, Calvariae. The Latin translations of Luke 23:33 translated Kranion as Calvariae. This held sway for so many centuries as people in the Western world were not permitted to read the Bible in any other language than Latin by the Roman Catholic Church. So Christians began to call the place where Jesus was crucified by the Latin name Calvary rather than the original Aramaic name Golgotha.


The KJV was published less than 100 years after the Reformation, and Roman Catholic terminology was still very commonly in use. However, the KJV translated Kranion as “skull” in Mark 15:22, Matthew 27:33 and John 19:17. Only in the Luke 22:33 does it translate Kranion as Calvary. As the influence of Roman Catholic words got less we are not surprised to find that, by the nineteenth century, translators of Luke 23:33 were opting for the accurate translation of Kranion, which is “Skull.”


Jehovah. Jehovah is a rendering of YHWH, the name of God, which has the idea of “the One who is.” We do not know for sure how YHWH should be pronounced, since the original Hebrew Bibles did not write down the vowels. That is why vowels are missing in YHWH. In the centuries before Christ, the Jews did not want to pronounce the name of God, for fear of taking this sacred name in vain; so when they encountered YHWH in the Bible they substituted for it the word Adonai, which means, my Lord. Following this lead, most English translators decided to render Yhwh as LORD (all caps).  


Jehovah was a term first used at the start of the 12th century AD. It came from the consonants YHWH to which were added the vowels of Adonai; A, O A, giving us Yahowah. When the Hebrew Y was translated into English the old translators changed the Y to J. In Sri Lanka the Catholics and the New Sinhala Bible follow this practice. The Old Sinhala Bible kept the more accurate Y instead of J. Therefore the Old Sinhala translation uses words like Yesous, Yohan and Yoshua, rather than Jesous etc. Today most scholars think that the best way to pronounce YHWH is “Yahweh.”


The name YHWH appears over 5000 times in the Old Testament. Most English translations, including the KJV, translate it as LORD (all caps). But four times the KJV translates YHWH as Jehovah. This happened when the name was given special stress (Exod. 6:3; Psa. 83:18; Isa. 12:2; 26:4). Three times in the KJV Jehovah was included in translating what we may call compound names (Gen. 22:14—Jehovahjireh; Exod. 17:15—Jehovahnissi; and Judges 6:24—Jehovahshalom). Good translators don’t need to translate a word in the same way always. They must choose a word that accurately carries the meaning intended by the author. So it is valid for the KJV translators to choose to translate YHWH seven times in a different way to their translation of YHWH in over 5000 occurrences. The translators of the ESV and the NIV decided that there was insufficient reason to change the translation in these 7 cases from what they used over 5000 times. It would be unfair to accuse them when they decided to be more consistent than the KJV.


The email says:

The NIV and ESV has also now removed 45 complete verses. Most of us have the Bible on our devices and phones especially OLIVE TREE BIBLE STUDY APP.

Try and find these scriptures in NIV and ESV on your computer,  phone or device right now if you are in doubt:

Matthew 17:21, 18:11, 23:14; Mark 7:16, 9:44, 9:46; Luke 17:36, 23:17; John 5:4; Acts 8:37

…you will not believe your eyes.


I know many of the translators of the NIV and the ESV. I know how careful they are to find the best rendering that is as close as possible to the original. There are many manuscripts they work with. Manuscripts differ. This is because they were written down by hand and transferred down from generation to generation before the ages of printing and photocopying. During this process there were inadvertent changes that came about, resulting in different groups of manuscripts. Sometimes scribes added explanatory paraphrases. Occasionally if a scribe who was writing down saw something strange that looked like it was wrong, he changed it to what he thought it should be.


The King James Version people also had to compare and make decisions as to which was probably the best rendering considering the different renderings in the different manuscripts. Before the KJV there were several other English Bibles which they used along with the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts that were available at that time. Since the KJV was produced, an enormous amount of archaeological work has been done. Other families of manuscripts were found and many esteemed scholars believe that some of them are older and more accurate than the ones the KJV had access to. Often the closer in time to the original a group of manuscripts is, the more accurate they are. Therefore since the late nineteenth century, translators on a very few occasions have taken a path different to what the KJV took. This was when they thought that a word here or a sentence there was not in the original but was added later. No doctrines are compromised and this concerns a very, very small percentage of the Bible.


The church will keep fighting about this as the KJV was for long considered the only true Bible by many English-speaking people. They have not reckoned with the fact that there were many, many translations of the Bible into numerous languages before the KJV was translated into English.


In their desire to be faithful to God and to the original manuscripts, scholars will keep searching for the best rendering. And if they change something from the KJV it is because of that desire to be true to what they believe the biblical writer wrote. After all, we all want to find what the original manuscripts said.


The KJV was a great Bible, a masterpiece in many ways, commissioned by King James I (However, this king did some other things which the evangelicals of his day, who sought to be true to the Bible, were very unhappy about). The 54 translators of the KJV made use of many of the English translations that had preceded it, especially the translation by William Tyndale. The KJV served the English speaking world admirably for centuries. But it was one of a series of hundreds of Bibles written in numerous languages. In the German-speaking world, the Luther Bible has a similar place to that which the KJV had in the English speaking world. The translators of each language Bible seek to be true, as best as they know how, to the original manuscripts. Of course we do not have the original manuscripts now. But we have enough evidence to know almost entirely what the original manuscripts contain. Not a single essential doctrine of the Bible has been compromised by this process.





It is a dangerous thing to make false accusations against sincere scholars who are trying to be true to the Bible. The Bible speaks very harshly about the seriousness of false witness. We must be very careful! I am amazed at how many Christians are unafraid to accuse fellow Christians without making sure that the accusations are correct. When they attack other Christians they are attacking themselves as we belong to the same body—the Body of Christ. This is why I am very scared even to forward the many warning messages that come to me. This happened with the allegations against Procter and Gamble. The false stories said about them ended up dishonouring the church and the church’s Lord and Master. It gave the impression to the world that Christ’s messengers are frauds who circulate lies.


*I am grateful for some technical assistance from the Rev. Simon Fuller in the writing of this article.