“The Bible has been so changed and mistranslated over time that it can’t be trusted.” Someone posted this on Facebook the other day. I asked the gentleman if he had confirmed that for himself or if he was simply repeating what someone had told him. I got no reply.
In the pre-Watergate world, nearly everyone referred to the Bible as “The Word of God,” even if they didn’t follow it. After that trust-shattering event, however, the world no longer views any authority with trust. Today, people who have never read a word of it, who know nothing about how the Bible got to them, will nevertheless tell you absolutely that you’re a fool if you trust it. So which is correct? Can you say absolutely where your Bible came from, how it came down to you?
You’re reading this in English, so we’re talking about your copy of the Bible in English. Since English didn’t exist in Bible times, your Bible had to be translated into English from its original languages. The first half of the Bible was originally written in Hebrew (with a smidgeon of Aramaic), the second half in Greek. Even before it was finished, the Bible had begun being translated. A couple centuries before Christ large Jewish communities had sprung up outside Israel, in places like Babylon and Alexandria, Egypt. Most of those Jews were multilingual, speaking a local language plus either Hebrew or Aramaic or both. And thanks to Alexander the Great, everyone also spoke Greek. As people shifted from Hebrew to Greek as their first language, the need was seen to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. This early translation is called the “Septuagint” based on the Greek word for “seventy,” the number of scholars that worked on the project. But how do we know we can we trust those Hebrew Scriptures, or the Greek Septuagint copies of them?
First, the Jews practically worshipped their Hebrew scrolls of scripture. They were kept in ornate cases, paraded through town on special days, and the first thing grabbed out of the synagogue in case of a fire. In those pre-printing days, new scrolls had to be hand-copied from old ones. Skeptics assume that hand-copying would have resulted in errors. But skeptics make this assumption based on another false assumption: that every generation prior to ours was dumber than we are. (Skeptics also often make the assumption that everyone in the room if not the world is dumber than they are, but that’s a discussion for another day…) No, the people living in the times of hand-copying had a greater fear of changing the scriptures than anything today’s skeptics could throw at them. “Copyist” was a noble profession, and a difficult one. A copyist would count how many letters were in a line before copying it, and count the letters in his finished line. If the two numbers disagreed, the entire scroll was thrown out! They also counted how many of each letter a scroll contained, and how many of each word it contained. They determined which was the middle letter and word in a page as well as in the whole scroll. Again, any disagreement, the entire new scroll was scrapped.
Old scrolls were not quickly thrown away. Because the Jews had a pathological fear of misusing God’s name and the scrolls contained God’s name hundreds of times, they were moved to a storage room called a genizah, owned by the synagogue. This had the advantage of allowing crosschecking, if anyone raised a question about the wording of the new scroll. After years – sometimes centuries – in the genizah, the old scrolls would be given a sacred burial. One such forgotten genizah was found in 1896 in Cairo, yielding thousands of manuscripts, some fragments nearly 1,300 years old. Scholars have been poring over them ever since. If they’d found anything the contradicted what the rest of us have accepted as the Bible since the King James Version came out in 1611, it would be front page news on CNN. Have you heard of any great revelations about major mistakes in the Hebrew text? No, neither have I. Consequently, no serious scholar questions the accuracy of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Prior to 1947, the oldest complete manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures were books called the Aleppo codex and the Leningrad Codex, both dating from the 10th century. Then, in 1947, a shepherd boy throwing rocks into a cave near the Dead Sea heard a clay jar break and, when he investigated, he found the first of what have come to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls. These manuscripts were 1,000 years older than the Aleppo and the Leningrad. Skeptics were again anxiously awaiting the huge discrepancies, mistranslations and exaggerations they were sure would have crept in over that 1000 years… and again, the skeptics were disappointed. The differences were smaller than the difference between British English and American English.
What about the Christian or Greek part of the Bible? Many early Christians were Jewish and thus familiar with the skill of copying, even if they weren’t professional copyists. In addition, Christians had an even greater impetus to copy the scriptures: Their commission to ‘Go, teach people of all the nations.’ (Matthew 28:19) That also implies a need to translate Christian teachings into whatever languages the people of all those nations spoke. As the apostle Paul worked at that commission, we get an insight into his need for written scriptures in 2 Timothy 4:13, where he wrote to Timothy, “When you come, bring … my books, but especially my parchments.” As a Pharisee, Paul had likely memorized the entire Pentateuch. Some rabbis of his day had memorized the entire Hebrew Scriptures. But Paul knew that people would be more impressed by reading something for themselves than by listening to him quoting something to them. Others of the early Christians felt the same way, and thousands upon thousands of manuscripts were copied, and thousands of fragments of those early manuscripts still exist. Some of those fragments date back to the 2nd century, and one possibly even to the 1st century, when witnesses to the events recorded were still alive.
Over the next millennium the Bible got translated into Latin, Slavic, Provençal, German, and French. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it into English for the first time. Today there are between 100 and 200 different versions of the Bible in common use in English.
“AHA!” Says the skeptic. “That’s what I mean about mistranslation! How can anyone know which one is correct?” Well, no, sorry, that doesn’t rate an “Aha!” Variety in translation does not necessarily mean mistranslation.
There is no “perfect” translation – of anything. Suppose you translate “Mary had a little lamb” into another language… any language. If you translate it correctly, it isn’t going to rhyme, and if you translate it so that it rhymes in the new language, it isn’t going to be exact. And someone else translating it will make different choices that you do. This is the dilemma of a translator: what words to choose to convey the meaning of the original.
What about bias? No translator is going to bother to translate the Bible unless he has a spiritual interest, so of course he is going to be biased. However, in most cases, that same spirituality is going to keep him honest. In the cases where his bias creeps in, a simple comparison of multiple translations will give us the correct thought.
For example, Psalm 23:1 in the King James Version reads: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Here’s how it reads in 6 other versions:
- “Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (American Standard)
- “Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Darby’s)
- “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;” (Revised Standard)
- “Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing.” (World English Bible)
- “Jehovah is my shepherd, I do not lack.” (Young’s Literal)
- “The Lord takes care of me as his sheep; I will not be without any good thing.” (Bible in Basic English)
The translator’s clearly disagree on whether God is the Lord, the LORD, Yahweh, or Jehovah. That could be bias. They differed slightly on “lack”, “want”, be without”; Young reads it as ‘do not’ rather than ‘shall not’; and the translators of the Bible in Basic English apparently were worried you might think the Lord was literally a shepherd. But if you read them all, the encouragement to rely on God to fill our needs is clear.
Of course, anyone can write anything. Who’s to say what qualifies as Scripture? How do we know that the “Gospel of Thomas” or the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” isn’t supposed to be included in the Bible? That will be a subject for another column.
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