The Bible has been translated into many languages from the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. As of November 2014 the full Bible has been translated into 531 languages, and 2,883 languages have at least some portion of the Bible. Versions and paraphrases themselves are not “inspired” by God. Some ultra-conservative Christian groups wrongly suggest that the King James Version has special authority as a version over all the others. It is true that the KJV has had the greatest impact of any translation and for the longest time (1611 through the present). But there is no special divine authority attached to it over others.
As Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible, like all languages, have some idioms and concepts not easily translated, there is in some cases an ongoing critical tension about whether it is better to give a word for word translation or to give a translation that gives a parallel idiom in the target language. The further away one gets from word for word translation, the easier the text becomes to read while relying more on the theological, linguistic or cultural understanding of the translator, which one would not normally expect a lay reader to require. On the other hand, as one gets closer to a word for word translation, the text becomes more literal but still relies on similar problems of meaningful translation at the word level and makes it difficult for lay readers to interpret due to their unfamiliarity with ancient idioms and other historical and cultural contexts.
The Bible gives us principles of interpretation in 2 Corinthians 4:2 and Proverbs 8:8–9: Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2).
All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; There is nothing crooked or perverted in them. They are all straightforward to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge (Proverbs 8:8–9).
In other words, we are to read and understand the Bible in a plain or straightforward manner. This is usually what people mean when they say “literal interpretation of the Bible” I try to use the term “plainly” so I don’t confuse people.
Reading the Bible “plainly” means understanding that literal history is literal history, metaphors are metaphors, poetry is poetry, etc. The Bible is written in many different literary styles and should be read accordingly. This is why we understand that Genesis records actual historical events. It was written as historical narrative.
Reading the Bible plainly/straightforwardly (taking into account literary style, context, authorship, etc.) is the basis for what is called the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, which has been used by theologians since the church fathers. This method helps to eliminate improper interpretations of the Bible.
I have never said I was better qualified to interpret the language of the Bible then the author of each book was. Instead, I am relying upon the hundreds if not thousands of archaeologists, and linguists, including the study of evolutionary linguistics, which investigates into questions related to the origins and growth of languages; historical linguistics, which explores language change; sociolinguistics, which looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures; psycholinguistics, which explores the representation and function of language in the mind. These folks are continually digging up the relics of the past and analyzing the words imprinted, painted or scored upon shreds of papyrus, on cave walls or shards of pottery or.
These folks have the wherewithal to examine each and every letter of the alphabets of these ancient languages and determine of the nuances of the combinations of letters and words and phrases. I trust them to determine whether a new finding changes the meaning of a word or a phrase and they pass that knowledge on to the thousands of seminary theologians who then review all known occurrences of it within the known Bible. If changes in the words need to be made than the various editions of the Bible’s are upgraded.
I would never presume to quote a passage from the Bible and tell you that that was the correct way of interpreting it, unlike you. When I write that this is how these Bible verses can be interpreted, it is based upon the tens of thousands of hours of work from the hundreds if not thousands of professionals that know far more about that subject than I do.
I have learned a great deal – and refined significantly the way I look at the issue of inerrancy. I believe that the original manuscripts of the Bible were produced inerrant, but it is my discernment that many, many believers today have a view of inerrancy that could not possibly have been that of the writers of the Bible. They fail to account for differences in the way ancient persons thought, acted, or perceived the world.
At the same time, Skeptics, too, have the same sort of misconceptions, basically these:
- That, as one writer puts it, inerrancy means that God preserved the text through the ages and through translations inerrantly. This is held by no one I know of other than perhaps the King James Only group.
- That “error” is judged based on 21st century standards of what constitutes a mistake – when in fact, we ought to judge by the standards of the day in which the Bible was written.
The question that must be asked is, “Would this be regarded as ‘inerrant’ by the standards of those who originally wrote the text?” The answer in every case I have found so far is NO — and the difficulty is increased because inevitably what the ancients regarded as a form of narrative art — within which precision could acceptably be compromised — is regarded as an “error” today.
Let’s now compose an answer to these presumptions, and make a case for the claim that logically and practically, it would have been impossible to maintain an inerrant text through the ages.
The most cogent form of the argument of Skeptics today asks: “If the original manuscripts of the Bible were inerrant, why didn’t God preserve their inerrancy through their copying and translation?”
Although it is always scholarly to consider the original languages, why should that be necessary with the “word of God?” An omnipotent, omniscient deity should have made his all-important message unmistakably clear to everyone, everywhere, at all times. No one should have to learn an extinct language to get God’s message, especially an ancient language about which there is much scholarly disagreement. If the English translation is flawed or imprecise, then God failed to get his point across to English speakers.
One wonders where this person has acquired someone free of theological bias. There is not a single human being with bare-minimum mental capabilities who has not formed some opinion about the origins of life and the universe. Those who claim to be completely “without bias” in this area are not being honest.
Furthermore, on what basis does this critic determine what a “true fundamentalist” should believe, and why does the possibility of human error in translation make an equal possibility the corruption of the original — and how has he become omniscient enough to know what an omniscient deity could or would do?
Hardened skeptics often call Christians “bibliolaters” – thus implying that the Bible is some sort of “leather-covered security blanket” that Christians worship and would be frantic without.
First, it is plain that neither the Bible nor a belief in inerrancy is required to be a Christian. In this day beyond when most people cannot even remember what their name is without consulting their drivers’ license, literacy would be a prerequisite for belief, which would be absurd being that the Bible was written in a time when up to 95% of the given population was illiterate. It is clear that “the Word of God” for most people was not what was written on paper, but was the original idea recorded on paper.
Second, in light of this, why we do not have inerrant copies of the Bible today. But for comparison we might consider Muslim treatment of copies of the Quran. While it does not seem that Muslims hold to quite the view that every copy is inspired, consider some standard treatment of the text even in its current state:
It has to be wrapped in a nice cloth. It has to be put on this thing that looks like a stand so you don’t put it on your lap. It has to be duly kissed on front, back and top before you open it and most of all you believe it is all the truth and NEVER EVER DARE question it’s integrity and when you read it you have to recite it in a prose, you don’t read it like a book and some people move back and forth, i.e sway slightly when they recite it.
Christians are already called bibliolaters now; what if they went this far? How far would any “people of the book” go if they believed every copy was divinely inspired?
Furthermore, consider that the laity in many parts of the early church were forbidden to have their own copies of Scripture; how if those copies had each been inscribed with God’s seal?
Bottom line: God wants us to worship HIM, not scraps of paper. Indeed, it may be said that the while the creation of inerrant originals was highly important, their loss and destruction was equally so. There are some less important philosophical reasons why we do not have inerrant copies and translations. The inquisitors can readily come up with reasons why we don’t all have inerrant copies of the Bible, but become absolutely catatonic when valid reasons are provided.
Some people have the mistaken notion that the Bibles we have today are unreliable because of constant retranslation. But the translations we have today are not the end of a long chain of translation. They are translated directly from Hebrew (O.T.) and Greek (N.T.) manuscripts.
The translation process has produced improved modern Bibles in several ways:
- a) Better original texts from the science of textual criticism: By studying and comparing the many available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, scholars are able to determine the original as accurately as possible. This has given us better Hebrew and Greek originals from which to translate into English.
- b) Better understanding: Recent scholarship has helped us to better understand various Bible terms in light of Bible culture.
- Not having inerrant copies encourages freely-made decisions and independent thinking. One of the most amazing arguments I have seen from Skeptics is that Christians like to impose their will upon others. How can such Skeptics object to a lack of inerrant copies and translations of Scripture? God would not force a decision for His Son upon anyone; it is a choice that must be freely made.
- Inerrant translations would be logistically impossible for mankind to handle. No one person has the same exact understanding. No language, no culture, has exactly the same structure and outlook. That being the case, how would it be logistically possible – and again, not coercive – to provide inerrant copies and translations for every person on earth? Skeptics often point out how much difference there is between believers when it comes to translating and interpreting particular parts of the Bible; imagine how bad that controversy would be if we each had our own copy with different contents attuned to ourselves.
- God’s message in the Bible may be summed up in just a few exemplary verses, upon which the rest are built; and these few verses are the height of simplicity. the Bible’s messages are mostly straightforward and simple. The Bible has two primary components, OT and NT, that may be summarized easily in a few words. Jesus and the Jews of His time and before summarized the OT with the two commands to love God with all that was in you, and love your neighbor as yourself. The NT, too, may be summarized with just a few words – notably those of John 3:16, although certainly there are other good candidates. Neither the Bible nor belief in its inerrancy is required to become a Christian. All that is needed is acceptance of these few words and what they represent; the rest is equivalent, spiritually speaking, of enforcement codes – how to live the life that God has called you to. Thus there is no need for inerrant copies when the basic message, all that is essentially needed, is so crystal-clear.
Why do we have translation problems with the Bible? The answer is that there are ALWAYS translation problems with ANY document and translations between ANY two languages. There are a variety of reasons for this. Let us look at some specifically relevant to the Bible.
Textual criticism has indicated that we have received the text of our Bible quite well – we are able to achieve 95% accuracy for the OT, 99% accuracy in the NT. That means only 50 pages of the OT and 3 of the NT are questionable – and that is a transcription rate that historians would be delighted to have for any ancient document.
Indeed, it is amazing to observe some of the measures taken, especially by the Masoretic scribes, to ensure accurate transcription. But the scribes, concerned with copying “word for word,” were not attempting to accommodate later humans who might not understand the terms, figures of speech, etc. of their day. The reverence associated – even necessitated – with transcribing God’s Word certainly would be impressed upon Biblical scribes, and would reinforce the idea that the exact words were important. However, words are meaningless without understanding, and that is why it is unfortunate that context was not always preserved with the exact words.