COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Bible Translation
The Bible is the most translated, most printed book in human history. It is the first book ever printed with the new Gutenberg Press when it was invented. It has sold more copies than any other book, still selling 40,000 copies a day. Through history it has arguably been the most influential single work of all time, taken as a single book, with titles of novels, quotations, laws, principles, and philosophies built on it for almost two millennia. There was a time when every western man, woman, and child were at least familiar with the Bible, and many in other areas of the world.
As time has gone on, that familiarity has become less common, and the Bible's sales have dipped lower than before. At the same time, skepticism and rejection of the Bible's teaching has grown. Through the centuries, there have always been voices of doubt and mockery, but these voices have gotten louder and more numerous in the last century.
We are told that the Bible is a fascinating collection of stories, but unreliable historically. We are told that the book has been re-translated so many times over the years that it bears only a passing resemblance to the original writings and is not a trustworthy document. We are told that people injected their own ideas and writing into the scripture while translating, such as monks writing in a few lines of what they preferred to hear, perverting the original manuscript.
Institutions of higher learning regularly teach and produce books attacking the validity and veracity of scripture, from multiple angles, with the latest such attack by Bart Ehrman in books such as Misquoting Jesus.
Has the Bible been re-translated so often that its like the "telephone game" where what you get at the end bears little to no resemblance to what you started with? Is it true that there's so little original material that it is pointless to even attempt to get to the original manuscript? Were the repeated stories done by word of mouth and lost their connection to the first telling? And did monks and translators inject their own ideas and statements over the years, polluting the text?
"The greatest proof that the Bible is inspired is that it has stood so much bad preaching."
The first thing to understand when you're dealing with translation and in particular translating the Bible is that it isn't like you going to Google Translate and typing in a sentence. Translation takes a great deal of training and time, and the people who do so aren't just looking for an approximate rendition but as close and careful a transition to the new language while retaining as perfectly the meaning, subtleties, and specific intent of the author as possible.
When you translate a book, you try to get it as close as you can to the original language, so that the power and literature of the text is retained in its new form. When you're doing so with a text you believe to be the word of God Himself, you are even more careful about it.
There have been translations of the Bible done before by a single person, mostly centuries ago. Martin Luther translated the Latin Vulgate into German while fleeing Roman Catholic persecution, for example. However, it is rare today and almost universally rejected for several reasons.
First, it is very difficult to translate ancient Greek and Aramaic into modern language. Some words are not exactly known any longer, and because the written language at the time often left off definite articles such as "the" which makes meaning a bit more obscure.
Second, it is a massive, monumental job which requires hundreds of hours of painstaking work using ancient texts. This is extremely tiring and stressful, and error is likely to show up in terms of spelling and skipping bits. More eyes on the project mean less likely to make a mistake.
Third, human beings are biased individuals, and the more people who work on something, the less likely one person's viewpoint is to change or manipulate the text into what they'd prefer it said rather than what it plainly says.
There are other reasons, but the truth is, almost every single translation since the 1560 original has been done by a team of scholars rather than a single person. Working as a committee, they check each others' work, lean on each others' expertise, learn from each others' understanding, and work together to try to find the most accurate, most plain translation from the best manuscripts available.
"Too often we see the Bible through whatever lens we get from our culture."
And there are a lot of manuscripts out there. There are more ancient manuscripts of the Bible in existence than any other text of that time period, by many multiples. There are roughly 25,000 ancient manuscripts of the Bible from before the printing press, 6000 of them from the 9th century and earlier.
But what about that translation process, what about the validity of the Bible, how do we answer objections? Well here are a few common ones that are often used:
Objection. The Bible has been re-translated so many times, its totally corrupted!
Answer. The Bible isn't the "telephone game" because not only is each person trying to meticulously get everything exactly right, it isn't a continuous chain of translating the last copy. Each translation since the Geneva Study Bible in the 16th century has tried to go back to the best, more reliable old manuscripts. Each time they try to go back to the best, oldest material available instead of just using what the last guy(s) did.
O. There are more differences in the many manuscripts than there are words in the new testament (more than 400,000)!
A. This is true, however, 99% of those differences are extremely minor. Experts estimate that less than 1% of variants are meaningful (change meaning) and viable (has a chance of going back to original text). These variants are things such as a change in word order or a misspelled word or the use of synonyms. Most of the rest are irrelevant to theology and actual meaning of the text such as writing "Jesus Christ" instead of simply "Jesus." What's left we can weed out through use of many copies. 70% of these differences in text are words so misspelled or blotched that translators have no idea what they even mean but can be picked up in other texts.
O. There's no original text of any of the Bible!
A. Correct. We have no original text from any ancient text, such as Homer's writings, the biography of Julius Caesar, or Thucydides' histories.
O. There are so many different manuscripts and copies, they can't be reliable.
A. Actually, as common sense would suggest, the more copies the better. That gives us more ability to check against each other, compare, and get an increasingly accurate and proper text.
O. Almost all of the oldest mansucripts are fragments, just pieces, you can't write a text using bits and pieces!
A. Actually, because there are so many, yes you can, by fitting them together. The oldest complete copy we have of the New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus, from the 300s.
O. The texts are so old they are ruined, you can't get a good copy from close to the original time period.
A. This is true in many cases; the letters Paul wrote for example were handed around so much and read so many times by different people they probably just fell to bits. However, a papyrus manuscript could last for hundreds of years, and would have been recopied over time as carefully as possible.
O. Monks wrote their own bits into the Bible!
A. We have found a few rare instances of this - monks being as reverent as modern Christians regarding scripture kept it rare - but they were easy to spot because we have so many copies and manuscripts from so long ago. Again, translators aren't using a translation from the middle ages to copy from, but ancient pieces often from before 900 AD.
O. The true manuscripts of the Bible are being repressed and hidden away, I read Dan Brown's books!
A. Err, yeah, that's why we have over 20,000, because they're being kept from us.
"The existence of the Bible, as a book for the people, is the greatest benefit which the human race has ever experienced. Every attempt to belittle it is a crime against humanity."
THE HISTORICAL RECORD
The truth is, over the years the archaeological and non-Biblical supporting evidence has proved the Bible to be amazingly accurate and reliable as a historical document. Putting aside theology and the supernatural elements, the Bible can be used reliably as a trustworthy historical document as many skeptics and archaeologists have learned over the years. As I wrote in the Historical Jesus piece:
Luke in particular is a place to find historically trustworthy information. In Acts, for example, the book (written by Luke) is riddled with details and information that was known to someone alive at the time, but could not and was not known or understood in the centuries later until archaeologists dug up the evidence.
In fact, archeology also supports the historical accounts of events in the New Testament. In the early part of the 20th century it was not uncommon to find scholars who claimed the Bible was patently false and riddled with historical inaccuracies. You can't find many of those any more - and the ones who make these claims are working on old texts and little information.
Now, if the Bible is that accurate and reliable as a historical document, why would you act as if it isn't a reliable copy? If the copies were so ruined by translation, mischievous monks, and lack of original text, then the historical parts would be too. And they aren't.
The truth is, these texts are astoundingly accurate and similar. Each time a new piece is found, it is incredibly similar to the ones translators already knew about. Scholars are amazed at how consistent the Bible has been copied down and passed on through the years.
Meanwhile, the skepticism and reaction to the Bible is strangely inconsistent to that with other ancient texts. As I've written about in an earlier bit on the historical Jesus, the gospels are more concurrent with the life of Jesus on earth than any other historical figure from the time period.
- Julius Caesar? Lived about 100 BC, earliest copy about 900 AD. 10 manuscripts.
- Plato? Written roughly 4th century BC, earliest copy 900 AD or so. 7 manuscripts.
- Homer's Iliad? Written 900 BC, earliest copy 400 BC, 643 manuscripts
- Thucydides histories? Written about 450 BC, again about 900 AD is the earliest manuscript, and we have 8 total.
- Aristotle? Written about 350 BC, earliest copy 1100 AD. 49 manuscripts.
- Aristophanes? Written about 400 BC, earliest copy about 900 AD. 10 manuscripts.
For example, we have more copies of Homer than any other ancient author. Only 2200 copies exist-almost all very fragmentary as compared to ten times as many of the New Testament. As you can see, the earliest manuscript we have of Homer's work came centuries later, while the earliest New Testament manuscripts were within decades of the actual events.
In fact, the average classic author has fewer than 20, most 2-3 copies known to exist. These manuscripts average 500 years after the original writing, sometimes 1000 years for earliest copy. Yet nobody claims we can't trust or use any of these ancient writings, that they're riddled with error and should be relegated to nonsense. Should we reject the histories of Julius Caesar because they're so few in number and so long after his death?
"Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand."
If scholars are consistent they should either treat the Bible as reliable as they do Thucydides' work, or treat these other ancient texts with at least as much hostility as they do the Bible. Its almost as if they have some other reason for their complaints and attacks than scholarship.
Something that modern college students, and apparently professors, don't seem to realize is that every single objection, complaint, and attack that they give today echoes that of centuries ago. They aren't new attacks, and they've all been dealt with long ago. It might seem fresh and new to you in your comparative religion course, or to a publisher when you knock off that "why the Bible is a bunch of crap" book, but it really isn't.
The Bible is very reliably translated, as a matter of historical and easily discovered fact. That's what you'd expect if people who believed in a wrathful, all-powerful God zealous for His word were working on translating it.
You don't have to believe the supernatural, faith-based parts of the Bible, in fact you won't unless the Holy Spirit helps you see and understand. But you do have to trust its reliability and historicity, if you want to be consistent and show good scholarship.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.