Literary History of the Bible
In this chapter:
Manuscripts and Transmission
Theories and Translation(s) of the Bible
Authority of the Text
In this chapter we will examine three issues related
to the accuracy and reliability of the Biblical texts. First we explore
the issue of canonization--the process by which the individual books
of the Bible were selected for inclusion in the canon. Then we raise
the issue of the transmission of the biblical texts--that is, the
issue of how they were passed down from generation to generation from the
time they were written until now. Then we look at the history of the
translation of the Bible into other languages, such as English.
How have these translations been produced? Why are there so many different
translations of the Bible available in English, and why are some of them
so different from one another?
All of these issues impact the level of confidence
that modern readers can reasonably have in the reliability of the text.
For this reason they are crucially important for any serious discussion
of the Bible.
A. Some Key Terms
Look at the following lists of terms. Can you say what each one means? Some
appear in boldface type within the chapters you have already read in preparation
for class. Others appear for the first time in this chapter. Watch for them
as you read, and return to this list when you get to the end of the chapter.
At that point you should be able to give a brief definition of each one.
|Dead Sea Scrolls
Athanasias of Alexandria
The Gospel of Thomas
B. Brief Discussion of Canonization
We do not know exactly how all the writings in the Bible
came to be assembled in one single volume, but there is clear evidence
that the books contained in the Bible originally circulated independently,
and only after a long process which we call canonization were they
gathered together into a single volume treated as canon. The
term canon means an official list of books treated by a religious
community as its authority for doctrine and conduct.
The process of canonization appears to have begun when a female prophet named Huldah authenticated an early edition of the book of Deuteronomy around 621 BCE (See 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34).
1. Introduction: A Brief Chronology of Canonization
By the fifth century BCE (400 BCE) most
Jews accepted the Torah as scripture. By the first century CE
it was considered canon by all Jewish groups. There was still some debate,
however, over the Prophets and the Writings. Most Jewish groups had accepted
the Prophets as scripture by about 200 BCE, and all of the
New Testament writers clearly accept them as such, but the Sadducees, a
group with which Jesus had frequent contact (and more than a little conflict),
probably accepted nothing outside the Torah as scripture. The Pharisees,
on the other hand, regularly cited the Prophets, the Writings and even
the oral tradition of the elders with the authority of scripture.
That oral tradition would later be gathered together
in written form as the Mishnah.
Around 100 CE canonization of the Hebrew Bible
was complete, with the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings all clearly
accepted as scripture by all Jewish religious groups. This process was
not without debate. In the years leading up to the time of Jesus, for example,
Jews in Egypt produced a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures and
used a different order for the books of the Prophets and the Writings than
the order later accepted as canon by the larger Jewish community in Israel.
They also used several books which were later rejected by Jews elsewhere.
This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible became known as the Septuagint
because of the legend that it had been produced by seventy (or seventy
two) scholars working independently but producing identical translations.
The order of the Prophets and the Writings used
in the Septuagint became the standard for the Christian community, and
the additional books continued to be used by many Christians even after
they were rejected by the Jewish community. (In fact, these extra books
may still be found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.)
Protestants have retained the order of the Septuagint, but use only
the books found in the Tanak accepted as scripture by the larger Jewish
The New Testament writers--all of whom wrote in Greek--tend
to follow the wording of the Septuagint where it differs from the Hebrew
Tanak. Still, with only one exception, they quote only from those books of the
Septuagint that are translations of books now accepted as part of the Hebrew
Within the Christian community about 90 CE
someone (we don't know who) collected copies of Paul's letters from
the churches he had served and put them all together into a single unit.
Gradually, the Gospels, Acts, and other documents were added to this collection.
The Gospels, Acts, and Paul's letters were
probably widely known and used for teaching by the early to mid
second century CE (100-150 CE). All of them were written
before the year 100 CE. It took much longer, however, for a complete
list of New Testament documents to be established. The specific books that did make it into the canon did so through long-term and widespread
use in the Christian community. Canonization was a lengthy process
of usage and habit, not the result of any act or decree of the church.
(Church decrees came later).
Why did the early Christian community decide that it
was important for all Christians to agree on the contents of the New Testament?
Why not just allow each church to judge which documents it should use?
This, of course, was the practice at first. Some churches had copies of
all of Paul's letters and one of the Gospels. Another church might have
five of Paul's letters and two Gospels. Why not let this situation continue?
2. Marcion and the Gnostics: Motivation for
Closing the Canon
A crisis arose in the middle of the second century
CE, and large numbers of Christians began to realize that unless they agreed
on the contents of the Christian canon they would not be able to prevent
similar crises in the future. This one crisis was clearly not the only
factor that led to closing the canon, but it illustrates well the problem
that an open canon posed.
Up to the 2nd century the Bible used by Christians
consisted mostly of the Septuagint and--at least in some locations--one
or more of the Gospels and the collected letters of Paul. About 140
CE conflicts within the church demonstrated the need for agreement
on the canon of christian scripture.
A Roman Christian named Marcion said that Christians
should discard the whole Old Testament. Marcion proposed that only his
edited version of the Gospel of Luke and Paul's letters should be accepted
Of course, this proposal produced strong conflict within the church.
Marcion was heavily influenced by a movement called
Gnosticism (Greek: gnosis = knowledge). According to the
gnostics, a person reached salvation by attaining a certain 'knowledge'
of spiritual truths. Reality, for the gnostics, was divided into two distinct
modes of being: the spirit realm, which is good, and an inferior physical
realm which is inherently evil. The human spirit belonged to the good spirit
realm, while the body with its desires belonged to the evil realm of physical
Marcion concluded from this reasoning that there
must be two Gods, since a good God--the Father of the Christ--could never
have created the inherently evil physical world. There must be an evil
creator God, Marcion thought. From this conclusion he reasoned that the
Hebrew Bible, which begins with the words "In the beginning God created
the heavens and the earth", must be about the evil creator God, and therefore
should not be read by Christians. Any supposedly Christian literature which
spoke too approvingly of the Hebrew Bible must also be rejected, he thought.
After deleting certain passages from Luke's Gospel and the letters of Paul,
he presented these edited versions as the only Christian scriptures.
While the process of canonization had begun long before
Marcion (note the collection of Paul's letters by about 90 CE), Marcion's
views helped emphasize the urgent need for deciding the question of what
Christian scripture should include. How could the Christian community respond
to wild theologies like that of Marcion if it had no agreement on what
counted as scripture? How could Christians argue that Marcion was wrong
in his suggestion that they only read Luke and Paul? They could answer
people like Marcion only if they had a prior agreement on which documents
really had the status of scripture.
c. Recognition of the need for agreement
After Marcion was expelled from the church in 140
CE and his gnostic teachings were condemned as heresy, his influence
lingered for some time. Many early Christians believed Marcion and left
the church with him. This led to the first major split in the Christian
movement. Church leaders were forced to respond to his teachings, and they
began to publicly defend other christian documents as authoritative besides
the Gospel of Luke and Paul's letters.
If you were asked to write a research paper to test
whether the dates given in section II above were correct, what kind of
evidence would you try to find? What would count as evidence that a particular
document was considered scripture at a particular point in time? A small
amount of evidence may be found in the New Testament itself. 2 Peter
indicates that by the time of writing of the latest New Testament documents
themselves Paul's letters had been accorded the status of Scripture by at
least one important segment of the early Christian community. At least three other kinds of evidence have helped scholars answer
the crucial questions surrounding canonization.
3. Empirical Evidence for the Growth of the Canon
A number of the leaders of the early church in the second
and third centuries, commonly called the Church Fathers, made comments
about whether they considered a particular document to be scripture. We
still have some of their writings, and these comments provide valuable
evidence for reconstructing the veiws of the early churches on the issue
of the canon.
a. Comments by Early Church Fathers
The first reference to one of the Gospels as scripture
occurs in a letter which scholars call 2 Clement (early 2nd century
CE). Justin Martyr, a few decades later, also refers to the Gospels
as though they had authority equal to that of the Hebrew Bible (though
he does not call them "Gospels", and we cannot be 100 percent sure that
he was referring to the exact documents that we now use).
In at least three cases, someone in the early church
made a list of what she or he considered to be scripture and sometimes
even offered an explanation for why each document should be accepted. These
lists demonstrate the diversity of views in the early churches. They usually
contained the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul's letters, but beyond that they
b. Early Canon Lists
The Muratorian Canon is an early list dating
from some time between the end of 2nd century and the early 4th.
It lists the following items and gives arguments supporting each one. (The
items in boldface type are not found in present day New Testaments.)
1. The Muratorian Canon
|4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)
13 letters of Paul
1 Peter (but not 2 Peter)
Wisdom of Solomon
Apocalypse of Peter
On Easter Sunday of the year 367 CE Athanasius
of Alexandria, Bishop of the church in Alexandria Egypt, presented his
church with an Easter letter. In this letter he listed the books now found
in the New Testament and argued that these should be the ones used in Christian
churches. This is the oldest list which agrees totally with the list
of books Christians use today.
2. Athanasius of Alexandria's Easter Letter
Codex Claromontanus is a sixth century copy of
the Pauline epistles plus the letter to the Hebrews in Greek and Latin. An
early canon list,
dating from the fourth or early fifth CE, was inserted between the letter
to Philemon and the one to the Hebrews in this manuscript. That list includes four books
as scripture which would later be rejected as non-canonical.
3. Codex Claromontanus
Books included in the Codex Claromontanus list, but later
|The Epistle of Barnabas
The Shepherd of Hermas
|The Acts of Paul
The Revelation of Peter
Other than these four books, however, the list in Codex Claromontanus agrees
substantially with the present list of contents for the New Testament.
Finally, we have many ancient copies of the Bible which
can serve as valuable evidence. To the surprise of some students, a number
of these Bibles contain books that are no longer in the Bible today. Others
are missing some books that are used today.
c. Ancient Copies of the Bible
Codex Alexandrinus (5th century CE), for
example, contains both 1 and 2 Clement as part of the NT. While
1 Clement is a letter written about 96 CE by a historical bishop of Rome,
2 Clement is a pseudonymous document written later.
Comments by early Church leaders, early canon lists,
and ancient copies of the Bible all provide evidence suggesting that canonization
of the New Testament involved a long process of debate, with a consensus
arising only after several centuries of the Church's experience with these
Revelation, Hebrews, and several of the
Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, James, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude) took
much longer to be accepted into the Canon than did the other books. Even
the Gospel of John was not accepted by some of the early
churches since some parts of it seemed to them to support gnostic teachings.
4. Books Accepted Late
Two events helped resolve the debate over the canon.
First, Athanasius' Easter letter (367 CE, discussed above) had tremendous
influence. Athanasius was a respected church leader, and his views on this
topic seemed compelling to many other church leaders who came after him.
Second, Jerome's translation of the Bible into Latin (4th century
CE), knowns as the Vulgate Bible, soon became the standard for the Latin-speaking churches, and Jerome
followed Athanasius list.
5. The Definitive List
Each of the books of the Bible originated separately
and at first circulated independently of the others. They were gradually
gathered together into a single collection and gained the status of scripture
through longterm use in the churches.
Canonization served at least two main purposes:
it helped clarify acceptable Christian belief, and it gave a certain level
of unity to the diverse churches spread over the vast Roman Empire.
III. Manuscripts and Transmission
Once the contents of the Bible were settled, how was
that Bible transmitted from generation to generation so that it has survived
until now? Another way of approaching this issue would be to ask, "How
certain can we be that the documents in the Bible are faithful copies of
the ones written by the original authors? How confident can we be that
the text we have is what they wrote?"
Virtually all scholars familiar with the evidence
presented by the manuscripts (handwritten copies of the Biblical
texts produced before the invention of the printing press) would agree
with the five basic statements of fact listed below. They would agree on
this basic evidence, but might disagree widely on what the evidence implies.
A. Five Basic Facts about Manuscripts
and Transmission of the Texts
First, a diverse group of scholars--including
very liberal ones and even fundamentalist ones who are familiar with the
manuscripts--would agree that none of the original manuscripts of
any biblical book have survived to the present. What we have are
copies of copies of copies, no two of which are exactly identical (except
that some of the tiniest fragments may be identical to the relevant passage
in a larger manuscript).
Second, they would agree that scholars
must reconstruct the original texts from the evidence provided
by these copies.
Their third point of agreement would be that
the oldest surviving copies of any of the books of the Hebrew Bible
were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and date from around 150 BCE.
Before the discovery of these scrolls, the oldest complete copy of any
Old Testament book dated from the 900s CE. The Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore
are tremendously important for reconstructing the text of the Old Testament,
since they are roughly 1000 years older than the next oldest complete copies.
[Incidentally, the differences between the DS Scrolls and Codex Leningradensis
are relatively minor, suggesting that the process of transmission was amazingly
Further, our diverse group of scholars would agree
that the oldest complete copies of the New Testament date
from the fourth century CE (300's CE), and finally, that the oldest
fragments of any New Testament book date from the second
century CE (100's CE).
B. A Few Implications of these Facts
Rather than seeing this evidence as a cause for concern,
many biblical scholars see the diversity of evidence for the original text
as incredibly fortunate. If all of the copies were identical would we not
have to suspect that someone had gathered up the copies at some point and
destroyed the ones they thought were wrong? If that had happened we might
never be able to evaluate their judgment. As it is, however, it is clear
that this was not done. The early churches preserved even those
copies which differed from the ones they thought were best. That means
that we have an incredible wealth of information from which to work when
we attempt to reconstruct the exact wording of the original text. While
we may not be able to have total certainty about the wording of some verses,
we have better evidence for the wording of the text of the New Testament
than for any other document from the ancient Western world.
We do not have the original copies of any of the books
of the Bible. None of the original authors' copies have survived. Most
of our oldest fragmentary copies of the New Testament date to about 200
CE, though one piece containing four verses from the Gospel of John dates
from about 125 CE. Our oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible are among
the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from about a century and a half before
C. Manuscript Types and Textual Criticism
The oldest copies of the Christian Bible as a whole,
Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, date from the fourth
century (300s) CE. These were written on parchment.The parchment
copies date from the period after Constantine I (Emperor of the
Roman Empire) came to power and encouraged literary productivity. Diocletian
had earlier attempted to exterminate Christianity. He had Christian books
burned. His attacks help explain why no complete copies of the NT from
before Constantine I remain. During the time of Diocletian Christians often
cut up copies of documents like the letters of Paul and send pieces home
with different members of the congregation so that if the authorities found
part of the document, they would not be able to destroy all of it.
After Constantine came to power, Christians pioneered
the use of the codex, a group of individual sheets bound together
as in a modern book. This system replaced the use of scrolls
since it was more practical for finding scriptural passages.
We can divide the available manuscripts into types
on the basis of the materials used to produce them and the type of writing
(orthography) used. The earliest copies of the New Testament books, and
perhaps all the biblical books, were written on papyrus, a material
which is not very durable. As the communities which used these texts became
more affluent they copied them onto parchment--animal skins used
for making scrolls which would last many generations. Some of these early
parchment copies have survived to the present.
1. Manuscript Types
The great fourth century codex editions are written
in uncial (or majuscule) script--large capital letters written
in continuous script with no punctuation or spaces between words. Later
manuscripts, called minuscules, are written in small cursive letters,
with spaces added between words and individual letters connected to form
groups and syllables.
How do scholars decide which manuscripts to follow when
they produce a new translation of the Bible? Often they use a standard
critical text produced by weighing the evidence presented
by the manuscripts.
2. Modern Textual Criticism
Perhaps the most valuable manuscripts are the early
uncials. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, for example,
date from the fourth century and are extremely valuable for reconstructing
the text of the NT. While Codex Vaticanus is the older of the two, Codex
Sinaiticus is more complete. Two other uncial manuscripts are slightly
later: Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Bezae.
a. Weighing the Manuscripts
In addition to these early uncial copies, textual
critics must consult hundreds of fragments, quotations from Church Fathers
(2nd-4th century), minuscule editions, and translations into Latin, Coptic,
Syriac, etc. Each manuscript must be evaluated to determine its age
and reliability. In all, there are over 5000 ancient manuscript copies
of parts of the New Testament alone, no two of which are identical, but
with the help of modern text-critical tools scholars are able to evaluate
them and determine which ones are most reliable.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls beginning in 1947
near Qumran provided us with copies of books of the Hebrew Bible
about 1000 years older than the ones available before that time. Before
this discovery the oldest known complete Hebrew manuscript of the Tanak
dated from near the year 1000 CE. The Dead Sea Scrolls were produced
before the destruction of Qumran in 70 CE and many of them may date
back as far as 150 BCE.
b. The Dead Sea Scrolls
Beginning in the early 16th century, scholars like Desiderius
Erasmus attempted to establish a reliable Greek text of the New
Testament. In 1881-1882 B.F. Westcott and F.J. Hort published
New Testament in the Original Greek. Today there are reliable critical
editions of both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. These texts
are the result of careful, detailed studies of the available manuscripts,
and they provide modern scholars with the ability to see the wording of
an amazing number of the manuscripts without having to travel to the museums
where they are housed.
c. Standard Critical Texts
Translators have a much more reliable basis for
their translations than ever before. Many differences between the King
James Version (KJV) and the more recent translations stem from the
availability of such a well researched critical edition. The text available
to the KJV translators was based on far fewer manuscripts.
The earliest copies were written on papyrus.
As the communities which used these texts became more affluent they copied
them onto parchment. Some of these early parchment copies have survived
intact to the present.
The oldest copies of some of the books of the Hebrew
Bible were among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The oldest complete
copies of the NT date from the fourth century CE, though much older fragments
are also available.
The diversity of manuscripts allows us to reconstruct
the original text with a high degree of accuracy.
C. Definition of Terms
Take a few minutes now to examine the lists of terms below.
Do you know the meaning of each one? Why is each one significant? Look back
at the discussion above and try to identify each one.
Dead Sea Scrolls
The Masoretic Text
Westcott and Hort
Examine the following lists of terms. What does each
one mean? Who are the people named in these lists? What is significant
about the dates? Use your textbook to help you find the information you
Theories and Translations of the Bible Once the wording of the original text has been determined,
scholars must then translate that text into modern languages for the churches
to use. Let us begin our study of the translation process by examining
a few key terms.
|Venerable Bede (730s CE)
John Wycliffe (1384 CE)
|William Tyndale (1525)
King James Version
Authorized Version (1611)
B. Mini-lecture on Translation Theory
and Translations of the Bible
Long before there were translations of the Bible into
English, Christian and Jewish scholars had produced translations of the
Hebrew Bible in languages such as Greek, Latin, and Syriac. After examining
a few of these early translations we will look at the first translations
into English, then address a number of issues related to more recent translations
of the biblical texts.
The earliest known translation of the Hebrew Bible
is often called the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a translation
into the common Greek of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. It was produced
by Jewish scholars in Egypt, but became particularly influential for the
early Christian missionary movement since most of the earliest missionary
work (including all of Paul's journeys) took place in Greek-speaking areas.
1. The Septuagint Bible (LXX)
The term Septuagint comes from the Greek
word for seventy. The legend which circulated widely about the origins
of the Septuagint--but which is certainly exaggerated--claimed that it
was produced by seventy (or seventy two) scholars working independently.
According to the legend they all produced identical translations. Because
of this legend, the common abbreviation for the Septuagint is the Roman
numeral LXX (seventy).
The Septuagint is significantly different at many
points from the Hebrew text we now have for the Old Testament. This could
mean either that it is a particularly sloppy translation or that it is
on a Hebrew original which was itself different from the Hebrew text known
The LXX and the New Testament continued to circulate
in Greek in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. In the west, however,
the dominant language was Latin. Translations of the NT into Latin began
to appear early. This process culminated in the production of the Latin
The Latin Vulgate translation, which remains the official
Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, was produced by Jerome (c. 374-419
CE). The Roman Empire collapsed in the late fifth century (400's) under
the weight of barbarian invasions. During the Dark Ages of the early Medieval
period, new European languages began to appear. Latin remained the official
language of the Roman church, however, and no major new translations appeared
for nearly 1000 years.
2. The Latin Vulgate
Translations of the Bible into English began to appear
over 1000 years ago, but the English of those translations was so different
from the English that we speak today that you would hardly recognize a
word of them.
3. Early English Translations
Even during the dark ages a few people did attempt to
translate the Bible into one of the new European languages. The first credited
with doing so was the Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk and historian
of Anglo-Saxon England. In the 730s he rendered part of Jerome's
Latin Vulgate into Old English. If you could see a copy of Bede's work
you would not recognize it as English.
a. Early Translations from the Vulgate
Not until the 14th century did the entire Bible
become available in English. John Wycliffe finished his translation
in about 1384. The national church, however, feared the consequences
of the Bible being read and interpreted by laypersons. Wycliffe's translation
was condemned in 1408 and the church forbade any further translations.
Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing
press in 1455 made the production of Bibles much easier. This
fact, together with a movement called the Protestant Reformation, insured
that the Bible would at last become available to a larger reading public
b. The Printing Press and the Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation began in Germany
in 1517. A German priest named Martin Luther strongly protested
corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. His German translation
of the Bible in 1522-1534 was the first translation in a modern European
language based on Hebrew and Greek texts rather than the Latin Vulgate.
It served to increase the desire for an English translation made in the
The first English translator to work directly
with the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts was William Tyndale. His English
translation of the NT was published in Germany in 1525 (later revised
in 1534). Though Tyndale's work was done well after the invention
of the printing press, it was produced by hand since he could not afford
the cost of printing. Tyndale was eventually burned at the stake for his
c. English Translations from the Greek and Hebrew
The first printed English Bible (the Coverdale
Bible) appeared in 1535, only one year after the revised edition
of Tyndale's Bible. While the church forbade the reading of Wycliffe's
and Tyndale's translations, it permitted the distribution of the Coverdale
Bible, which relied heavily on Tyndale's work.
Matthew's Bible (1537), which contained additional
sections of Tyndale's OT, was revised by Coverdale and the result was called
the Great Bible (1539). The Bishop's Bible (1568) was a revision
of the Great Bible, and the King James Version was intended as a
scholarly revision of the Bishop's Bible. The Geneva Bible (1560),
produced by English Puritans in Switzerland, also significantly influenced
From this rapid overview of early English translations
from the Greek and Hebrew texts you can see that in the period between
1525 and 1611 many new translations of the Bible appeared in English. The
King James Version was the latest in this wave of translation work.
The King James Version was authorized by James I, son
of Mary, Queen of Scots, who appointed 54 scholars to make a new version
of the Bishop's Bible for official use in the English (Anglican) Church.
After 7 years labor, during which time they consulted the oldest manuscripts
then available, they produced the King James Version in 1611. At
first many English readers were skeptical about the new translation, but
in time it won the favor of the public and eventually put most of the other
English translations out of print.
d. The King James Bible
The tremendous popularity of the King James Version
can be explained by two factors. First, it was a much more polished literary
production than most of its predecesors. Second, it was a very carefully
done translation which made significant improvements on the accuracy of
I want to address two issues with regard to more recent
translations of the Bible. First, why do we need them? Second, why do they
differ so much from one another?
4. Modern Translations of the Bible
We need more recent translations of the Bible than the
King James Version for two main reasons. First, the English language has
changed significantly since 1611. Read the following verses from the KJV:
a. The Need for Modern Translations
Would you read these texts differently if you knew that in 1611 the word
"prevent" did not mean "stop from doing something" but "come before" or
"come into the presence of"? In some cases this knowledge could make a
Psa. 59:10 The God of my mercy shall prevent me: God shall let me see my
desire upon mine enemies.
Psa. 79:8 O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies
speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low.
Psa. 88:13 But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall
my prayer prevent thee.
Psa. 119:148 Mine eyes prevent the night watches, that I might meditate
in thy word.
Amos 9:10 All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, which say,
The evil shall not overtake nor prevent us.
1Th. 4:15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which
are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them
which are asleep.
Second, we need more recent translations because
we can do a far more accurate job today of reconstructing the exact wording
of the original text than was possible in 1611. In 1611 the translators
of the KJV had at their disposal only a handful of manuscripts for some
portions of the Bible. Today we have hundreds of manuscripts for some of
those same texts.
There are two main reasons that modern translations
of the Bible differ so much from one another. First, the translators must
decide which manuscripts to translate. Different decisions lead
to different translations. Second, even if they agree on the proper manuscripts,
they may differ on how they believe a good translation must be produced.
They may have different translation theories. Let's look at these
two issues in reverse order. Let's examine a few key issues about translation
theory, then we will look briefly at the question of manuscripts.
b. The Differences between the Modern Translations
The views of translators on the nature of translation
itself and the level of literalness a translation should exhibit influence
the final form of their work.
1) Translation Theory
A translation is a statement in one language of something
originally stated in another. If I had started the term by saying to you
"Buenas tardes, alumnos. Me llamo Micheal Palmer. Soy su profesor de
la historia y la literatura de la biblia. Vamos a estudiar la historia
cultural, sociológica, y política de la época de los
documentos bíblicos," you would need a translation if you don't
speak Spanish. A translator would have to first decide what I meant,
then say something in English which means as close to the same thing as
possible. [By the way, the Spanish text means roughly, "Good afternoon,
students. I'm Micheal Palmer. I'm your History & Literature of the
Bible professor. We're going to study the cultural, sociological, and political
history of the time of the biblical documents."]
Almost all of the versions of the Bible available
in English are translations. That is, a translator or group of translators
started with the text of the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and restated
what they believed it to mean in English. One of the versions available
today, though, is not a translation. The people who produced the
Living Bible did not start with the text of the Bible in
Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. They simply took the King James Version
and restated it in their own words. For that reason, the Living Bible,
while it may be very helpful to some people in terms of their own spiritual
development, is not an accurate tool for finding the exact meaning of the
All of the versions of the Bible now available in English
(including the King James Version) are also paraphrases to
one extent or another. A paraphrase is a restatement of a message, usually
for the sake of clarity, using different words. For example, let's imagine
that you said to me, "I won't be in class next Tuesday." I could related
this information to someone else in several different ways. I could say,
"She said, 'I won't be in class next Tuesday.'" That would be a direct
quote. On the other hand, I could say something like, "She said she wouldn't
be in class next Tuesday." That's not a direct quote, but it is a good
paraphrase. It accurately represents what you said, but uses slightly different
words to do it.
There is an important sense in which every translation
must also be a paraphrase. It would be impossible to translate a message
from one language into another and use exactly the same words. No word
in Greek or Hebrew means exactly the same thing as any word in English.
No word in English means exactly the same thing as any word in even a closely
related language like Spanish (though some are deceptively close). Even
if all the words of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek did have exact matches in
English (and they don't), the grammar of these languages is different from
the grammar of English. The order of words in a sentence is different from
one language to another. Some words, such as the verb "is" in the sentence
"Mary is tall" are required in English, but not in Greek, so they have
to be added to make an English translation understandable. Because of these
differences it is impossible to translate from Greek and Hebrew into English
When people make comments like "I like that version
of the Bible because it's a translation, not a paraphrase," they are not
accurately understanding the nature of paraphrase or of translation. The
distinction that they are really making is not one between translation
and paraphrase, but between literal and non-literal translation.
Some translations of the Bible were produced by translators
who tried to be as literal as possible. Whenever possible, they
used one English word to represent each Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word.
Many scholars now feel that these translations have led to serious misunderstandings
of some biblical texts. Some good examples of extremely literal
translations are the King James Version, the Revised Standard
Version, and the New American Standard Version. The New Revised
Standard Version is also literal, but slightly less so than these.
c) Literal vs Non-literal Translation
The positive contribution of these literal translations
is that they sometimes let the serious Bible student see something of the
structure of the text in the original language, but they can also be deceptive
in this regard as well. There is really no substitute for reading the text
in the original language. No English translation can provide direct access
to the structure of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts.
Other translations have been produced by people
who, recognizing the inherent problems involved in overly literal translations,
have attempted to translate the meaning of the biblical texts without
much concern for how many English words it takes to do so. These translators
have attempted to produce more accurate translations by being less
literal. They have attempted to translate meaning-for meaning rather
Some good examples of non-literal translations
are the New International Version, the Today's English Version
(Good News Bible), the Contemporary English Version, and
the Revised English Bible. While these translations avoid the problems
of overly literal translation, they depend heavily on the ability of the
translator to correctly understand the context in which each verse of scripture
was written and how each verse fits into the larger passage around it.
As you will see later in this class, it is not always easy to uncover the
social background of some biblical texts.
Many readers find it helpful to compare several
different translations of the Bible. Reading both a literal and a non-literal
translation can be particularly instructive. Read both and see how they
differ, and ask yourself what the differences indicate about the way the
translator understood the passage you read.
If you are a Religion major, or just want to seriously
improve your Bible study skills, you might also consider studying at least
one of the biblical languages.
Another factor influencing Bible translations is the
particular manuscripts (hand-written copies) of the Bible the translator(s)
used. Translators must decide which copies to translate. Some of the differences
between the modern English translations stem from the fact that the translators
used slightly different manuscripts. Many of the oldest and most reliable
copies we now have were not available when the King James Version
was written, for example. Many of the more recent translations are based
on these more reliable manuscripts.
C. The Bible Used in This Class
I will normally read from the New Revised Standard
Version (NRSV). This translation has become recognized as an extremely
accurate one and is now used in many of the most respected scholarly study
Bibles. It is fairly literal, but abandons a literal reading when a less
literal reading produces a more accurate translation.
I will sometimes discuss other translations in class,
but it is important for you to have the NRSV text as a point of reference.
You may be asked to read from it in class, so you should bring your copy
to class with you when we start discussing the biblical texts.
The Bible has been translated into many languages, and
has been translated into some of them multiple times as scholars have gained
a better understanding of the form of the original texts and their meanings.
Translation became necessary even before the birth of Jesus, and it has
remained necessary as Christianity and Judaism have spread into new areas
where other languages are used.
The King James Version was for many years the favorite
translation of the Bible into English, but it was not the first.
The invention of the printing press made the publication
of new translations easier, with the result that today we have multiple
translations available to us in any of several of the world's must used
Canonization, transmission, and translation may all
impact the level of confidence readers may reasonably place in the accuracy
of the biblical texts. How should this knowledge be related to one's view
of the authority of the text?
and Authority of the Biblical Text(s)
While some views of biblical inspiration claim that
the authority of the text is directly dependant upon its accuracy, the
issues of accuracy and authority are not necessarily directly tied to each
other. Examine the following graph of views of the accuracy and authority
of the text.
What would a person with view A say about the accuracy and authority
of the text? What about B, C, and D?
A person whose view of the text is represented by
point A on the graph might say something like this:
The text is extremely accurate, and for that reason it is extremely
authoritative. If the Bible says don't commit adultery, then I must not
commit adultery because I believe firmly in the authority of the text.
A person whose view of the text is represented by point
B might say something like this:
Yes, the text is extremely accurate. We have an amazing number
of manuscripts which provide us with a wealth of information about the
exact wording of the text, so we can do an unbelievably accurate job of
reconstructing the original text.
This person, though, might commit adultery, or steal, or do other things
prohibited by the text because she or he does not believe the text has
any authority. "It may be accurate," she might say, "but so what? Who cares
A person whose view is represented by point C might
say something like this:
We can't possibly reconstruct the biblical texts accurately.
There are thousands of manuscripts and none of them are identical. How
can we have any chance of doing an accurate job of reconstructing the original
text. And even if we did, how could we know that the translations we have
accurately represent the meaning of the original. Look at the differences
between them. Surely you can't think that they all accurately represent
the original text. Which one is right?
And after making this argument she or he would ignore the advice and council
of the text, assuming that an inaccurate text can't possibly have any authority.
A person whose view is represented by point D would
say something like this:
I don't believe we can really know what the original text said.
At least not the exact wording. The evidence is just too diverse. And yes,
I know there are serious differences between the translations, and I don't
really know which one is best. Buy you know, for me it really doesn't matter.
When I read the text I hear the voice of God. The text doesn't have
to be perfect for God to use it. God uses poeple who are not perfect.
Why can't God use a text which is not perfect. When I hear God speak, even
through an imperfect text, I know it is the voice of God, and God's voice
has authority for me. If God says, don't commit adultery, then whether
he said it with an active voice verb or a passive voice one, it still means
don't do it. So I'm not going to.
The issue of the authority of the text is fundamentally
an issue of faith. It cannot be proven or disproven by examining
the history of canonization or transmission or translation. Still,
failure to understand the processes of canonization, transmission, and
translation can easily lead to inauthentic faith based on false assumptions.
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