What is the Bible?
The Bible is regarded as the ‘Holy Book’ of the Christian Religion, just as the Koran is thought of as the basis of Islam.
On the spine of most copies of the Bible are the words “Holy Bible”. The word ‘Bible’ is related to the Greek word ‘biblios’ and we find the first part of the word in our word ‘bibliography’, which means a book list – usually a list of books related to a particular subject. The word ‘Bible’ means ‘books; collection of books; library’.
The word ‘Holy,’ means ‘consecrated, sacred; morally and spiritually perfect; belonging to, commissioned by or devoted to God’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). This word is also used to mean ‘special’ or ‘set apart for a special purpose’.
So the title of this book, the Holy Bible, means that it is a special library or a collection of books – commissioned by God, set apart for a particular purpose.
Already something special
If we study the various books of the Bible carefully we find that about 40 different people were involved as writers. They wrote while living in various countries – Mesopotamia , Greece , Egypt , Italy and, of course, Israel . The books were also written over a long period of time – about 1,500 years. The Bible then, in a very real sense, is not just one book, but a library. It is because this collection is bound together for convenience that it is often printed on very thin paper, to make the book manageable. The fact that we do have all these separate writings bound together in one volume is certainly one thing that makes it different and rather special.
Open the Bible and look at the index at the front. You will see the titles of all the separate booklets, which make up the whole Bible. They are divided into two groups: 39 in the section called the Old Testament and 27 in the part called the New Testament. The books of the Old Testament were all written before the time of Christ and the New Testament books after the time of Christ in the first century AD . Practically the whole of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek. So the whole of the Bible has had to be translated so that we can now read it in many languages.
The Bible can be trusted as a book which brings before us the mind of God Himself. If we can read, we can be transported into events which demonstrate the unfolding of the purpose of God. We can be brought close to teaching that can change our lives. We can find the way of salvation and have the opportunity of learning the true Gospel message and eventually receive the gift of eternal life.
The arrangement of the books in the Bible
For ease of reference the books of the Bible can be grouped as follows
- The Law
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
These first five books are sometimes called ‘The Pentateuch’, a word which means the ‘five’ books which are also called ‘The Books of Moses’. In the Hebrew Scripture these books are called the Torah.
- Historical Books
Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther
These books describe the history of Israel from the death of Moses to the establishment of the kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon; then the division of the Kingdom into the northern Israel and the southern Judah . Both kingdoms were eventually conquered and the people taken into exile. Only Judah was allowed to return from captivity. The return is described in the books called by the names of Ezra and Nehemiah.
- Poetic Books
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon
The Psalms are, in fact, divided into five ‘mini books’.
- The Prophets
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi
The opening verses of these books will usually say at which period of history the prophets preached.
- The Gospels
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
The Gospel writers tell us about the birth of Jesus, his ministry and teaching, his crucifixion and resurrection
The full name is ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ and the book describes the spread of Christianity and the missionary journeys of Paul.
(a) Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians
(b) 1and II Timothy, Titus and Philemon
(d) James, I and II Peter, I, II and III John and Jude
- (a) These were written by Paul to the new churches
- (b) These were written by Paul to individuals
- (c) Written to Jewish Christians in particular
- (d) Other letters written by the writers whose name they are called
Visions seen by John exiled on the Island of Patmos
The Old Testament books were completed about 400 years before the birth of Jesus and this collection of books, the Jewish Scriptures, was regarded as sacred. The order of books is different from that in the Bible and they are grouped differently, too. The Jews called the sections of the Scriptures,
- the Law (the first five books)
- the Writings, and
- the Prophets.
Divine inspiration of the Bible
There are many verses in the Old and New Testaments where the writers claim to be writing the words of God:
‘The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin : to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah… ’[Jeremiah 1.1,2].
‘Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying…’ [Jeremiah 2.1].
‘The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying…’[Jeremiah 7.1].
‘Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel : Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen …’[Jeremiah 10 1,2 ].
These examples are all taken from the book of Jeremiah. But look at any of the books of the prophets and there are many examples of the same claim.
These claims confirmed in the New Testament
When Jesus was preaching, he often backed up his argument by appealing to the authority of the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. ‘Have ye never read…’ he said on many occasions. And again:
‘why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, Honour your father and mother’[Matthew 15. 3,4 NIV].
Jesus is quoting here from the book of Exodus (in the Law) which, he says, is the Word of God. He quotes from the Psalms (in the Writings) and the Prophets in the same way.
When talking to his disciples after the resurrection, he explained to them that what had happened to him – his arrest, his suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection – were all part of the purpose of God.
‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’[Luke 24. 27 NIV].
The Old Testament books claim to be the Word of God and Jesus referred to them and quoted them as God’s Word.
The testimony of the apostle Paul
Paul reminded the young man Timothy that right from being a little boy he had been brought up to know the Jewish Scriptures. They would tell him about:
– the word means ‘teaching’, so this meant that the Scriptures would tell him what he should believe;
– they would tell him when he was choosing the wrong path;
– he could learn how to put himself right again;
- Instruction in righteousness
– the Scriptures can tell us how we can live our lives in the way that will please God.
Paul said to Timothy that the reason the Scriptures are able to do this for us, is because they were inspired by God:
‘And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.’[2 Timothy 3.15-17]
What does inspiration mean?
The word ‘inspiration’ means that the writers wrote because God had ‘breathed into’ them. He had breathed His message into them and they wrote His words. Peter wrote:
‘no prophecy of the Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’[2 Peter 1. 20,21 NIV].
The words ‘carried along’ are very strong in the original Greek from which our New Testament is translated. The Greek means ‘carried irresistibly along’. The writers had to write what they were inspired to write. The prophet Jeremiah again, is a good example of this. Because of his unpopular message, he was arrested, imprisoned, put in the stocks and on one occasion lowered into a miry dungeon. The result of this was that he made up his mind that, if this is how I am going to be treated: if this is what will happen as a result of my preaching – then I will stop. ‘I will not speak any more in God’s name’. But, he says,
‘…if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed I cannot.’[Jeremiah 20. 9 NIV]
Jeremiah was unable to stop himself speaking the message he was inspired to speak. That is what Peter meant by,
‘Holy men of God spake as they were moved’ [AV],‘carried along’ [NIV], ‘impelled by the Holy Spirit’ [ NEB ].
The New Testament
The verses and the claims we have looked at apply to the Old Testament and we have concentrated on this part of the Bible because many Christians already accept the New Testament as originating from God but will question the inspiration of the Old Testament. The Bible itself does not distinguish between the Old and New Testaments in this way.
Peter says that although Paul wrote many things that are hard to understand, his writings have the same authority as the Old Testament Scriptures. In Peter’s second letter, he wrote of Paul’s teaching about salvation and the suffering and patience of Christ. He says that Paul wrote with God-given wisdom.
‘He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things which are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures.’[2 Peter 3.14–16 NIV]
Peter speaks of Paul’s writing as having the same authority as ‘the other Scriptures’. In other words, they are Scriptures also.
Paul himself wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica:
‘we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe’[1Thessalonians 2. 13 NIV].
How the Bible was written and first translated
At one time critics would say the Bible could not have been written when it claims to have been, because writing was not known so long ago. A visit to any of the major museums in the world now shows that writing has been known, certainly from much earlier than the time of Abraham. Excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia, where Abraham came from, have unearthed libraries of clay tablets, as well as bank records, trading accounts and hire purchase agreements. Writing consisted of wedge shaped characters made in clay with a shaped stick or pen. Records required for a limited time were dried to make the tablets hard. Permanent records were baked even harder.
At the time when Moses lived in Egypt , writing was on papyrus with pen and ink. Records have survived on sheets made from the papyrus reed, scraped, soaked and laid criss-cross, pressed and dried. The natural gum made a good writing surface. There are many wonderful examples of the priestly, hieroglyphic, picture writing in the British Museum in London as well as of the everyday, simpler script.
Other permanent writing materials were parchment – scraped, stretched and dried skin – and vellum, a much finer material made from the stretched animal intestine. Ink was made from finely ground charcoal in a thin gum or egg white. Scrolls were made from sheets of parchment sewn together and could become very bulky; so when lengthy records had to be kept, successive scrolls were numbered. That is why in our Bibles we have the First and Second Books of Kings (1 and 2 Kings) and the First and Second Books of Chronicles (1 and 2 Chronicles).
If a book was important – and the sacred books (rolls) of the Jews were important – they would be copied with great care so that they could be read by more people in different places. In New Testament times, the letters to various groups of Christians were copied and passed to other groups:
‘After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea’[Colossians 4.16 NIV].
The difficulty is that all the Old Testament writers, wrote in Hebrew, and Paul wrote in Greek – as did the other New Testament writers. For us to be able to read the Bible in our own language is a real blessing. Many people over a long period of time, were involved in making this possible.
The first major translation
When Egypt was part of the Greek Empire, around 250 BC , the Emperor Ptolemy Philadelphus established an important library at Alexandria . His aim was to collect a copy of every important book, wherever in the empire it came from. Josephus, the Jewish historian describes the way in which the sacred books of the Jews were included in the library:
‘Demetrius Phalerius, who was library-keeper to the king, was now endeavouring, if it were possible, to gather together all the books that were in the habitable earth, and buying whatsoever was anywhere valuable, or agreeable to the king’s inclination, (who was very earnestly set upon collecting of books;) to which inclination of his, Demetrius was zealously subservient.’[‘Antiquities of the Jews’ Josephus; Book XII, Chapter 2, Para.1].
This is so similar to accounts of the efforts of those who work for modern wealthy collectors! We can understand, too, how ‘zealously subservient’ Demetrius was. His life as well as his livelihood might depend upon how well he did. He was commanded to get in touch with the Jewish leaders in Israel to arrange for a translation of the Jewish Scriptures to be made. He wrote to the High Priest who, Josephus tells us, wrote the following reply:
‘It is not fit for us, O king, or to overlook things hastily, or to deceive ourselves, but to lay the truth open: for since we have determined not only to get the laws of the Jews translated, but interpreted also for thy satisfaction, by what means can we do this when so many of the Jews are now slaves in thy kingdom? ’[‘Antiquities of the Jews’ Josephus; Book XII, Chapter 2, Para. 2].
In other words, the High Priest was saying that they could work with much more enthusiasm if something could be done to deal with the ongoing problem of the number of Jewish political prisoners still being held. He did not say the work could not be done; the arrangements were already being made, but such was the keenness of the Emperor to obtain the Jewish Scriptures in Greek, that tradition has it that he agreed to 100,000 Jews being released.
Six Greek and Hebrew scholars were selected from each of the twelve tribes of Israel and because, tradition has it, that eventually 72 took part in the work, this important translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek became known as the SeptuagintVersion. When the work was finished, Josephus wrote:
‘When the labour of interpretation was over… Demetrius gathered all the Jews together to the place where the laws were translated, and where the interpreters were, and read them over. The multitude did also approve of those elders that were the interpreters of the law. They withal commended Demetrius for his proposal, as the inventor of what was greatly for their happiness… Moreover they all, both the priests and the ancientest of the elders, and the principal men of their commonwealth, made it their request, that since the interpretation was happily finished, it might continue in the state it now was, and might not be altered.’[‘Antiquities of the Jews’ Josephus; Book XII, Chapter 2, Para. 13].
The scriptures of Jesus and the apostles
In New Testament times copies of the Old Testament books were available in the synagogues in Hebrew but copies of the Septuagint translation of the books of the Old Testament into Greek were also available. Although the Greek Empire had now been succeeded by the Roman Empire , the language of the educated for official purposes was still Greek. The language of the Jewish synagogue was Hebrew but the language of the home and the street was Aramaic (or a mixture of Aramaic and Latin).
On one occasion when Paul had been arrested he was about to be taken into the Roman barracks by the soldiers and he said to the commander, ‘May I say something to you?’ The commander immediately replied, ‘Do you speak Greek?’ He thought that Paul was an Egyptian terrorist that had started a revolt sometime earlier. Paul asked permission to address the crowd, and he stood on the steps and
‘When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence”. When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet’[Acts 21.37–40; 22.1,2 NIV].
The use of both Greek and Hebrew is very helpful to our understanding of the Old Testament. When quotations are made from the Old Testament by the New Testament writers, because the New Testament was written in Greek, it is usually the Septuagint Old Testament that is quoted.
Luke tells us that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and he was given the roll of Isaiah to read. He found chapter 61 and read:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted’[Luke 4.18].
Jesus would have been given the roll written in Hebrew but because Luke is writing in Greek, he makes the quotation from the Greek Septuagint version. If we compare this with Isaiah chapter 61 in our Old Testament, we read,
‘The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek’[Isaiah 61.1].
You may have noticed that the New Testament (NT) reading from Luke has the word ‘gospel’ whereas the Old Testament rendering is ‘good tidings’ (or good news). The difference is because Jesus is quoting from the OT (Old Testament) book of Isaiah. Although we read both OT and NT in English, the quotation in Luke has been translated twice: from Hebrew to Greek to English. However, this reminds us that the meaning of ‘gospel’ is ‘good news’ and if you look at a translation into more modern English like the NIV (New International Version), that is exactly what it says,
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’[Luke 4.18 NIV].
The value of an historical translation
This example is a simple one that confirms the meaning of a word with which we were probably already familiar – the word ‘gospel’. Sometimes the value of a translation made before the time of Jesus is much more important. Isaiah foretold that when the Saviour came, he would be born of a virgin:
‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel’[Isaiah 7. 14].
Bible critics have said that the word that Isaiah used and which is translated virgin, really only means a young woman, so the prophecy does not have the special significance that Christians claim. It is true that the word in Hebrew translated virgin can also mean a young woman. But what did it mean when Isaiah made that prophetic statement?
When Jewish scholars 250 years before the time of Christ were translating the Prophecy of Isaiah into Greek, they used a Greek word which could only mean ‘a virgin’. Two and a half centuries before the time of Christ, the Jews themselves understood Isaiah to have prophesied that the Messiah when he came, would be born miraculously of a virgin.
The inspired NT writer Matthew, leaves us in no doubt about the accuracy of the prophecy:
‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us”’[Matthew 1. 22,23 NIV].
Further translations of the Bible
The next major step forward
Up to the early centuries after Christ, the Old Testament manuscripts in Hebrew had been copied and copied for generations. The originals were no longer in existence but great care was taken in the copying and every manuscript was checked and rechecked. Because the books were sacred to the Jews, every letter of the text was counted before any copy was regarded as authoritative. The Greek translation was also available and many copies of this had been made too.
The New Testament manuscripts written in Greek were also being copied. As Christianity spread, so the copies were taken all over the Roman world. But, language was also changing. Latin was now the language of the Roman Empire and fewer and fewer people could read Greek. Because of this, a monk called Jerome made it his life’s work to translate the Bible – both Old and New Testaments into Latin. His translation was called the ‘Vulgate’. The English word ‘vulgar’ really means common or ordinary and the Vulgate was the Bible in the common or ordinary language – the language of the people. It was the Vulgate that was to be the Bible of Christianity for many centuries.
It was this Bible, which came with Augustine to bring Christianity to the British Isles ; it was the Vulgate which went with Christianity to Spain , to North Africa and to other parts of the world. Sadly, with the break up of the Roman Empire , fewer could read the Bible for themselves. Latin was no longer spoken and they had to rely on priests and missionaries to explain what the Bible taught and often their teaching was biased.
Times change and language does too
As the years went by the cycle of change repeated itself. When Greek was spoken, the Hebrew Old Testament could not be read by people who did not understand Hebrew.
Under God’s good hand the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek (see chart opposite). In the early centuries of the Christian era, the official language of the Roman Empire was Latin and so the work of Jerome was essential in enabling both Old and New Testaments to be read.
The English translations
As has already been explained, it was the Latin Vulgate that came with Christianity to Britain with Augustine in AD 597 – but people in England did not speak Latin so the work of translation had to continue. The next article in this series traces how the Bible was translated into English.
The Anglo-Saxon spoken by the people of Britain was very different from the English spoken today, but the Bible was needed in Anglo-Saxon. By AD 709 Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherbourne, had translated many of the Psalms into West Saxon and 25 years later the Venerable Bede translated the Gospel of John. King Alfred who many people only know about, because of the story about him burning the cakes, translated a number of the Psalms in the early part of the 10th century AD.
History was moving on and so was the language of the people. 1066 was the date of the Norman invasion of England and the language was now being changed by its mixing with Norman French. No more Saxon translations appeared but the foundations of our modern English Bible were being laid. John Wycliffe was Master of Baliol College, Oxford. He resigned from this post and became priest of Lutterworth and by the year of his death in 1384 he had completed his life’s work of translating the whole of the Bible from Latin into English with the help of a group of faithful followers. This Bible was hand-written and it would have taken about 10 months for a written copy to be made. So although the Bible was being made available in the language of the people, it was not freely available.
The Church in control
The extent to which people understood the teaching of the Bible was under the control of the priests who could quote from the Latin text and could not be contradicted. However, two great developments meant great changes in the Bible translation story.
Firstly, more Bible manuscripts were coming to light and scholars were able to study the Bible not only in Latin, but by looking at copies of the Old Testament in Hebrew and of both Testaments in Greek. These could be compared with translations into Saxon but the authority of the church still limited the access that ordinary people had to the Word of God.
This was altered by the second great change. The development of printing meant that once the type had been set up, copies could be made available in great numbers instead of it taking nearly a year to copy the Bible by hand. By the end of the 15 th century Bibles were being produced in French, German, Italian and Spanish and in 1530 the first printed Bible in English appeared. This was the work of William Tyndale, whose aim was to make the Bible widely available so that even a ploughboy could read it.
William Tyndale said that if God spared his life, before many years he would cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than did the Pope.
His work was not approved by the clergy who saw their authority being eroded. Tyndale’s copies of the New Testament were confiscated and burnt at the instigation of the Bishop of London. However, as the copies were taken, so more were printed on the continent and smuggled into this country. Eventually, Tyndale himself was betrayed, arrested and tried for teaching that people could learn the Gospel themselves from the Bible and he was burnt at the stake on 6 th October 1536.
Se that ye gaddre not treasure vpon the erth, where rust and mothes corrupte, and where theves breake through and steale. But gaddre ye treasure togeder in heven, where nether rust nor mothes corrupte, and where theves nether brek up not yet steale. For where soever youre treasure ys, there will youre hertes be also. The light of the body ys thyne eye. Wherefore yf thyne eye besyngle, all thy body shalbe full of light. But and yf thyne eye be wycked then all thy body shalbe full of darckenes. Wherefore yf the light that is in the, be darckenes: how greate is that darckenes.[Matthew 6.19-23 Tyndale’s translation]
Deciderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam in 1466. He was a scholar and a reformer who worked for many years in England and was Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He published an important Greek text of the New Testament with his own translation into Latin. He could not understand why the church spent so much time studying the supposed miracles of those they called saints and ignored the wonders of God’s plan of salvation (‘In Praise of Folly’). Erasmus influenced Martin Luther and provided a basis for the work of Tyndale (see page 22).
‘I wish the sacred Scriptures were translated into all languages of all people, that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scots and Irish, but even by the Turks and Saracens. I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, and that the traveller may with his narratives lighten the weariness of the way.’
If you look at the quotation opposite from Tyndale’s English translation you will see that language is still changing. This is not the language that we speak today. There was also another problem. Bibles being translated by Protestant scholars often had footnotes which were anti-Roman Catholic. So when the Old Testament records the time when the people were told that there was no need to bring any more gifts because there was enough for the work of building [Exodus 36.6,7] , a footnote in one Bible says, ‘When will the pope say “Stop” and prevent people still bringing gifts to build St. Peter’s?’ The Catholic scholars put anti-protestant footnotes in their Bibles.
There were arguments about the footnotes and there were arguments about which was the best translation. In 1604 a conference was held at Hampton Court Palace that resulted in King James ordering a new translation to be made:
‘In the Geneva translation some notes are partial, untrue, seditious and savouring of a traitorous conceit. To conclude the point, let errors of matters of faith be amended and indifferent things be interpreted and a gloss be added unto them’
The Authorised Version and more recent translations of the Bible
In 1611 the King James ‘authorised version’ was produced. 47 scholars in six groups met at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster. The title page says that it was:
‘Translated out of the Original Tongues (so the scholars went back to copies of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures) and with the former Translations diligently compared and revised by His Majesty’s special command.’
Language was still changing, as those of our readers who studied Shakespeare at school will know very well. For example, ‘To prevent’ now means to stop something happening. The English word comes from the Norman French ‘pre’ and ‘venir’ (to come) so at the time of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version ‘to prevent’ meant ‘to come before’.
Paul wrote (as translated in the AV) that when Jesus returns, ‘those that are alive will not prevent those that are dead’ [I Thessalonians 4.15] . He did not mean that those who are alive will not stop those who are dead. He meant that they will not ‘come before’, or have any advantage over those who are dead – because when Christ comes, ‘The dead in Christ shall rise first’ [verse 16] . The New International Version translates the verse:
‘We tell you that we who are now alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep; For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first’[I Thessalonians 4. 15,16 NIV].
More recent translations of the Bible
Many other words have changed their meaning and the ‘old’ verb endings (‘cometh’ instead of ‘comes’) and the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in the Authorised Version make the language of the text unfamiliar. (Note: there is a difference between saying the language is unfamiliar and criticising the translation itself).
However, towards the end of the 19th century it was felt desirable to produce the Revised Version. The whole Bible was issued in 1885 although the New Testament was available earlier. So there has been a continuous effort in the last hundred years to make sure that the Bible is available in a language that is accessible to everyone. Some translations have been more successful at achieving this aim than others.
The New English Bible was conceived in the 1940s as a new translation from the original languages into the best contemporary English and was completed in 1970. A tremendous amount of work went into consulting not only language experts, but historians, geographers and archaeologists so that decisions could be made as to whether the word for a place should be translated as ‘town’ or ‘village’, for example. The translation was hailed as authoritative and good, but the text sadly, soon became dated. For example we read in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus is ‘The effulgence of God’s splendour and the stamp of God’s very being’. [Hebrews 1.3 NEB] Did we use the word ‘effulgence’ in 1970? The AV of 1611 translates the same verse: ‘Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person.’
In the last 35 years the New International Version, The New King James Version, The Good News Bible, among a number of others – have been produced by teams of scholars, checking and re-checking each others’ work. In addition there have been a number of ‘one man’ translations. All have their supporters. All have various strengths and weaknesses as far as being translations into the language or the ordinary people.
What is important as far as the Bible student is concerned, is that we are able to hold in our hands a book which brings before us the mind of God himself. If we can read, we can be transported into events which demonstrate the unfolding of the purpose of God. We can be brought close to teaching that can change our lives. We can find the way of salvation and have the opportunity of learning the true Gospel message and eventually receive the gift of eternal life.
We can have all this by reading the Bible in our own language and by following its teaching. No minor blemishes of an imperfect translation can prevent this, whichever of the standard translations we read. Can we be sure of this?
Why today’s Bible can be trusted
Can we be sure that we hold in our hands a book which can convey to us the mind of the Almighty? We will look at just one criticism of the reliability of the Bible in English. It has been said that if you look at the early history of the Bible – not just in the centuries immediately before the invention of printing – but in the hundreds of years that followed the writing of the original manuscripts, because those manuscripts were copied and copied and copied, mistakes must have been made. Once printing was invented, the translations and versions were ‘static’ in a sense, but before that…? There are two main arguments (among others), which refute this criticism.
The Samaritan Pentateuch
When the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, they completely evacuated the centre of the land and brought in remnants of other nations they had conquered. They were allowed to occupy the land and take over the deserted farms, but this block of foreigners would prevent the southern kingdom of Judah uniting with the remains of Israel and causing trouble for Assyria. This worked well as a political strategy. The foreigners became a separate entity with Samaria as their capital and centuries after, at the time of Christ, it was still said that the ‘Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’ [John 4.9].
However, when the foreigners first came into the land they felt that they would only prosper if they adopted the gods of the land. They obtained copies of the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures called the Pentateuch (See the first article in this series – Volume 18.8). For hundreds of years, with no contact with the Jews, they preserved and copied and recopied these manuscripts, and adopted many of the religious practices of the Jews.
If the copies of the copies of the copies of the Jewish Pentateuch had gradually included mistakes (and presumably the Samaritans might even be expected to have been less careful!), then, after a long period of time the Samaritan and Jewish Pentateuchs would have a number of significant differences. A number of important Jewish and Samaritan manuscripts have been discovered. They can be compared, and such was the carefulness of the copyists (under divine providence), that the critics cannot argue that the early documents are unreliable.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is well known. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 at Qumran are parts of most of the Old Testament scrolls as well as some complete scrolls. The complete roll of Isaiah is probably the most famous and received the greatest publicity.
The Scrolls from Qumran date from well before the time of Christ and as far as Isaiah is concerned it jumps back a thousand years earlier than the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the prophecy then available. It suddenly became possible to compare copies of Isaiah a thousand years apart. If there were errors of copying it would immediately be apparent.
This is why the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was so important (as well as being fascinating and faith stimulating). There can be no doubt that when we open our copies of the Bible and read what Isaiah has written – in our English language – we are reading, as closely as we can get, the thoughts and ideas that Isaiah wrote when he first penned them, words inspired by God. It was Isaiah who wrote,
‘To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’[Isaiah 8. 2].
It was Isaiah who describes so vividly the kingdom that Jesus will establish when he returns. It is the inspired prophet Isaiah who foretold the first coming of Jesus as the Saviour [Isaiah 53] . It is Isaiah who reminds us that when man was unable to save, God’s arm brought salvation [Isaiah 59.15–16, 20].
Preface by the Translators to the King James Version AD 1611
‘How shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? Translation it is that openeth the windows and letteth in the light, that breaketh the shell that we may eat the kernel, that pulleth aside the curtain that we may look into the Holy Place, that removeth the cover of the well that we may come by water’