Bible Translations, Not Inspired
Debates over Which Bible
Occasionally, I will run into someone who holds an especially high view of a certain version or translation of the Bible. Sometimes, this perspective follows denominational lines: Roman Catholics have the Douay-Rheims, Reformed churches laud the Holman Christian Standard Bibles (recently updated as the Christian Standard Bible), Dispensationalists fervently search their Scofield Reference Bibles, and Fundamentalists hold to the King James Version. Even when not holding rigidly to one particular version for theological or denominational reasons, most American Christians have a preferred translation of the Biblical text.
Our contemporary conversations over the best version of the Bible is nothing new. Indeed, one of the factors that assisted with the so-called “parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism was which version of the Jewish scriptures was to be preferred: the Greek (Septuagint) or Hebrew text. Likewise, Christians have been arguing about which versions of the New Testament are more accurate since at least the third century.
By the sixth century, numerous forms of the Bible existed in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. While the most famous of these—Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the update of the Old Latin Bible—would reign (more or less) supreme throughout Western Europe until the Reformation, for much of history, many Christians have had to discern between differing versions of the Biblical text. Modern conversations about the sufficiency and profitability of particular Bible translations are merely the latest stage in a 2,000 year journey by the Church to understand God’s revelation to humanity in the most accurate and understandable way possible.
Learning from the History of the Bible
There is much to learn from the differing Bibles—versions and translations—of history. Many of these Biblical texts differ considerably, not so much in terms of content as in sources used, books included, and languages used. Modern Bibles are produced en masse via printing technology in a variety of languages, providing today’s Christians with inexpensive access to the uniform, vernacular biblical text in a single book (a pandect). For much of Christian history, Bibles were expensive, varied (if even slightly) from copy to copy, appeared in comparatively few languages, and came in multiple books.
History also teaches us that when reading the Bible, we cannot forget that we are reading a translation, and that translations always involve some level of interpretation. Therefore, not only do we read (for example) Ephesians in a different language and linguistic context than in which the Apostle Paul wrote, but we also read Ephesians through the lens of a specific set of Biblical scholars (usually noted in the front) and histories of Bible translation (i.e., Bible translations tend to come in families of related translations).
Irrespective of your view on the authority, inspiration, or inerrancy of the Bible, all Christians must realize that contemporary Bibles are significantly different than those to which most of our forefathers in faith had access. I highlight this not to problematize either contemporary or historic Bibles, but rather to try and infuse this realization into ongoing conversations about the Bibles we use and the doctrinal considerations arising therefrom. To more properly understand the history of Christianity and why some Christians have specific doctrinal emphases, it is almost always beneficial to consult the Biblical base of their theologies.
Bible Translations, Not Inspired
Such an investigation will reveal much more than just information about a particular version of the Bible, it will also often underscore that Bibles are always produced—by copyist or copier—by erring, fallible humans. Sometimes production errors result in theological controversy; at other times, they result in almost comical readings of the Biblical text. Below are some of my favorite (in)famous mistakes in English Bible history:
Matthew’s Bible (1537), “The Wife-Beaters’ Bible”
Proof that study notes and footnotes are not inspired: Notation on 1 Peter 3:7 reads, “And if she be not obedient and healpeful unto him, endevoureth to beat the fear of God into her head, that thereby she may be compelled to learn her duty and do it.”
Geneva Bible (Second Edition, 1562), “The Place-makers’ Bible”
Matthew 5:9 reads, “Blessed are the placemakers: for they shall be called the children of God”. Homemakers everywhere loved this passage for years until it was fixed.
King James Version (1612), “The Printers’ Bible”
Psalm 119:161 reads, “Printers have persecuted me without a cause” instead of “Princes.” Rarely mentioned by advocates of the “KJV Only” position.
King James Version (1631), “The Adulterers’ Bible” or “The Wicked Bible”
Exodus 20:14 (the Ten Commandments) reads, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” This version was recalled almost immediately, and only 11 copies are known to exist today.
King James Version (1716), “The Sinners Bible”
John 8:11 reads, “Go and sin on more” rather than “Go and sin no more”.
New English Translation (2001), A.K.A. “The Prostitutes Bible”
Proverbs 2:16 reads, “To deliver you from the adulteress, from the sexually loose woman who speaks flattering words.” In the first printing of the New English Translation, there was a footnote at the end of this verse with a 1-800 number. The translator was writing the notes for this verse on his computer when he got a call and, unable to find a pen, he made note of the number on his computer. Unfortunately, he forgot to erase the number later.
May these examples remind us of the fallibility of human editors—even editors of the scriptures—and our need to continue humble conversations about the words of God, whichever Bible we use.
Image courtesy of Angela Michelle Schultz.