Monthly Archives: July 2010

Translating the Truth

Recently I’ve been enjoying a revived interest in reading (and listening to podcasts of) the Bible. It has brought with it a deep sense of recommitment to understanding the messages contained in the biblical text without preconceived ideas about what I’m going to find. It has also introduced some deep wrestling with the difficult realities involved in trying to access a ca.3500 (Old Testament) and ca.2000 (New Testament) year old set of documents written in languages that are no longer immediately accessible. My last post relating to the complexities of historical research applies equally well to the Bible.

For me, the whole process has highlighted the related fields of translation and interpretation. Christianity has always relied on both. Right from the outset the early Christians had to choose between a Koine Greek (LXX –Septuagint) and a Classical Hebrew text of the Old Testament – they chose the Greek. Then they had to interpret the Old Testament in light of the events they had witnessed in the life and death of Jesus. This interpretation became the message of the Early Church.

Soon these early Apostles and disciples were writing their own texts (in Koine Greek) and circulating them around the churches. As the Church grew they started translating these texts into other languages. Soon there were a number of documents in circulation and while there was general consensus regarding the authenticity of most of the texts, there were a few that caused some disagreement.

During the 4th century a number of synods were held to discuss and vote on the agreed texts to be considered scripture. Koine Greek was developing into Medieval/Byzantine Greek and Latin was the preferred language of the Western Empire. As such Latin became the Ecclesial language of the Western Church, centered in Rome. Latin translations became the norm in the Roman Church while Byzantine Greek continued to develop and be used in the East.

As time went on the original autographs were lost and all that remained were the copies. Two thousand years later the bible is the most widely translated book in existence and few people ever stop to consider its’ history and structure. Most Christians simply accept that regardless of which version of the Bible they are reading, it contains an accurate translation of the lost originals.

Me and my Bible

A few months after my 19th birthday I had a traumatic and desperate realization of my need for repentance and grace. I accepted the message of salvation through Jesus and became a Christian. My first encounter with Christian community was a KJV-only house church. These Christians believed in the sole inspiration of the King James Version of the Bible. They told me that all other versions of the Bible were corrupt and purposefully diluted the Word of God. They showed me scripture after scripture that was changed or simply deleted in the newer versions of the Bible. At the time I had no understanding of the history of the Bible, how it was translated, or any other related issues – so I simply believed what they told me.

I was seriously conflicted when I later attended churches that used the NIV or other translations of the Bible. In my naivety I believed that all Bibles were translated from the same manuscripts and that the translations that departed from the text of the King James were using faulty and corrupted texts. I assumed this was done knowingly and purposefully to deceive people. I thought for example that the Watchtower’s (New World) translation used a corrupted Greek original and therefore translated John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was a god”, incorrectly. If they returned to the manuscripts of the KJV, I believed, they would realize their mistake and translate the text correctly.

I assumed that it was a simple matter to go back to the originals and gain an accurate translation of the very words of Jesus and the early apostles. I never realized that these originals no longer exist and that there are thousands of variants in the manuscripts we now have.

During my studies at the Baptist Theological College I became more trusting of other translations by learning about formal and dynamic equivalence. I was told that some Bibles, like the KJV, tried to give a literal (word-for-word) translation. Other Bibles, like the NIV or TLB, gave a dynamic equivalent (thought-for-though) translation. It was up to the reader to consult the kind of translation they required and to check different translations to confirm accuracy. I still hadn’t realized however the significance of not having the original manuscripts and the variations between different copies.

Translating the Bible is much more complicated than either my initial confidence in the KJV or my later confidence in the overall consensus of different versions led me to believe.

Translating the Old Testament

Regarding the Old Testament we still have the two options that our forefathers in the faith had – Greek or Hebrew. Unlike their situation however, Koine Greek and Classical Hebrew have been replaced by modern variants of those languages. Some words have fallen out of use, grammar and syntax rules have changed. This all creates a number of problems for translators trying to understand and reproduce the text into other languages.

At the start of the 20th Century the oldest Hebrew text (the Masoretic text) dated to about the 10th Century AD, a thousand years removed from the time of Jesus. The Greek text on the other hand survived in fragments from the 1st and 2nd Century BC and in complete manuscripts dating from the 4th Century AD.

The Greek text contains various texts that Protestants now consider unbiblical, but which were part of the Hebrew collections before the time of Jesus and also found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls. Several of these “apocryphal” books are still included in the Bibles of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and considered authoritative.

When the Greek and Hebrew texts are compared they differ in a number of places. Many scholars and translators preferred the Greek text because it was older. In addition many of the quotations in the New Testament appeared to come from the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic text. However, the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the dating of the earliest Hebrew manuscripts back 1000 years. Thus the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments could face-off on equal footing.

The Dead Sea scrolls restored credibility to the 10th Century Masoretic text by showing that they more often agreed with the later Hebrew texts over the earlier Greek ones. This doesn’t automatically give preference to the Hebrew text, but rather indicates that both the Greek and Hebrew text types already existed side by side during the 1st Century. One criticism of the Septuagint, that is yet to be more fully explored by scholars, is that it appears to bear evidence of tampering.

It seems that after the early Church adopted the Greek text over the Hebrew they wished to defend their choice as supported by Jesus and the Apostles. They wished to make it appear that Jesus and the Apostles used the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew scrolls for their preaching and teaching. They did this by re-writing New Testament quotes of Old Testament passages back into the Old Testament texts of the Septuagint. Unfortunately this is not often admitted and scholars still use the faulty assumption that the re-written texts are part of the original.

Translating the New Testament

There are almost 6000 complete and partial fragments of the Greek New Testament manuscripts – more than any other ancient work in existence. In addition there are 10 000 Latin manuscripts and over 9000 manuscripts in various other ancient languages like Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and more. This fact at first excited me and gave me hope that at least the New Testament could be apprehended accurately and without controversy; but more doesn’t always mean better.

These manuscripts and fragments are divided into 3 categories based on content, which means that at least 3 different variants of translation have been handed down over the centuries – with thousands of differences even within the groups themselves. Many of these disparities are clearly scribal errors, a missed word, duplicated line etc. But amongst these obvious mistakes there are at times opposing texts that contain no clues as to which is the more accurate copy. The three groups are known as the Alexandrian (or Minority) text-type, the Western text-type and the Byzantine (or Majority) text-type.

The Western text-type shows clear manipulation and poor copying and is therefore considered the least preferable of the three options. There is great debate over whether the Alexandrian or Byzantine text-types should be given preference.

During the Reformation the Byzantine text type was preferred and used for translations like the KJV. This text-type makes up about 80% of all Biblical manuscripts and dates from the 5th century to the 16th century. In more modern times however scholars have argued that the much smaller collection of Alexandrian texts should be given preference due to their shorter readings and more ancient dating (2nd – 4th century). Therefore almost all modern translations (NIV, NAB, TNIV, NASB, RSV, ESV, ASV etc.) use the Alexandrian text-type as their primary base and only consider other texts if there are clear problems with the older text.

This position is contested by supporters of the Byzantine text who argue that amongst other issues, the small number of Alexandrian texts together with their failure to move beyond the 4th century attests to their low-status and disregard by Biblical copyists of the time. The very fact that the Byzantine text survived and continued to form the bulk of all manuscripts indicates that it was the preferred text both in the earlier centuries and beyond. Of course there is far more to this debate than I can write in a few paragraphs. Even so, I do think it is important for us to know that we usually read our Bibles with very little (if any) knowledge of these and other issues.

Conclusion – Biblical Interpretation

Personally I don’t yet know what to make of the whole issue. I may end up putting in some more research on the subject but I’m not sure it will necessarily yield answers either way. The oldest manuscripts could just as easily be right as wrong and the majority text can just as easily represent the better copy as the frequently repeated mistakes of earlier errors. One thing I do know is that while many of the mistakes in the manuscripts are just that – mistakes – it is also clear that the Bible has not escaped the corrupting influence of power. Manuscripts have been tampered with, for various reasons and we would be naïve to assume that the Bible has escaped the forces of darkness.

In the end this has all left me thinking it is probably unwise to simply read one version of the Bible and not compare it with others. The good news is that at least we can do this and seek God’s guidance when discrepancies are found. We need to trust that even though sin and evil have tried to damage the power and authority of the Bible, we have another helper that is far more reliable than any manuscript. The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth – we must trust that this is true and that God wants us to know the truth.

But this is not the end of the problem. A far more difficult area of discernment is still to be explored, one that again will only be met through the help of the Holy Spirit…but since this post is already quite long I’ll simply introduce it for next time:

Many of you may already have been quite familiar with the inner-workings of biblical translation and already use multiple versions to check and cross-reference passages. But what may at the same time be extremely obvious and yet completely overlooked is the fact that not only are we reading an option of the original, but we’re also reading an interpretation of that option.

Translating from one language to another is simply not as accurate as is sometimes assumed and translators are forced to make thousands of choices that determine how we read the text of the Bible. This becomes extremely clear when reflecting on passages like John 1:1 which I mentioned before.

Recently I’ve been reading biblical interpretations by Unitarians (God is only One) and Binitarians (God is two in One) and realized that even when I cross reference different versions, I’m still reading Biblical translations that affirm Trinitarian (God is three in One) interpretations. Both the Watchtower and the Bible Society use the same Greek Manuscripts when interpreting John 1:1 and yet one group comes to a Trinitarian (or Binitarian) position while the other comes to a Unitarian position. If our Bibles are being interpreted by Trinitarians, are they truly unbiased translations of the original texts, or are they just as much an interpretation as the Watchtower version is?

I’ll take up my thoughts on Biblical interpretation in my next post and consider it specifically in terms of what we believe about Jesus and God.


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The “science” of History

So the last 3 or 4 weeks I’ve been engrossed in alternative understandings of the early church; the development of the church into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and the “heretical” groups who provided an alternative to the developing consensus.

In an age in which technology allows us to – fly around the world in 90 ton flying machines, send photos, music and information to each other through the airwaves, and provide power to our cities by splitting atoms, creating steam, turning turbines and moving electrons – it appears as though human beings have acquired immense knowledge of the world around them. In one sense this is absolutely true – the science of technology has given us insight into countless phenomenon and provided us with the tools to harness the power of the earth in unbelievable ways – but not all sciences have been as successful.

The word history come from the Greek historia (στορία) and indicates knowledge acquired by investigation. In this sense it is very similar to the word science which comes from the Latin scientia, also meaning knowledge. Now while the natural and physical sciences have provided major insight into our world, insight that has directly affected our technological advancement, the science of history has been far less successful. The apparent success of the one and failure of the other is due, in large part, to the tools and methods employed and (more importantly) employable by each.

The Scientific Method seeks to explain the events and processes of nature in observable and reproducible ways. History on the other hand relies on the memories of others to tell a story about what has happened in the past. While the findings of natural science can (usually) be judged and evaluated by repeating the experiment – history cannot!

Unfortunately however, in an age where our intelligence has surpassed our wildest imagination, the average person simply believes that the successful domination of the science of history is automatically included in the powerful feats of modern man. But should anybody ever attempt an actual investigation of history, in which the outcome of such an investigation would hold serious consequences for the investigator – say perhaps an investigation into the history and development of the early church – it would gradually become apparent that history has a bias and a shadow that muddies the waters of reflection and darkens the memory so that the truth revealed is (perhaps incurably) obscured.

I once read that history is written by the winners. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it has become much clearer to me since then. George Orwell followed on from this understanding of history and said “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Once history has been written – with all the bias, lies and deception capable of fallen human beings – it is written. It’s extremely difficult to look back over the expanse of 2000 years and try to get back to the reality of what really happened and what it was really all about. That wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t affect the present and the future – but it does!

What you believe about the past, especially as a Christian, directly affects the way you think about the present and the direction you will go in the future. While on the surface it may seem that the 30 000 Christian groups, denominations and traditions are separated over issues of theology, it would be more accurate to say they are separated by their history.

Each of these groups (and of course it’s more true of some than of others) is reaching back across time and space and telling their story – the history of the birth and development of Christianity. Each group has its’ heroes and its’ villains and each group explains its’ existence as the providential work of God in the face of the continual onslaught by the forces of darkness.

The Catholics tell of their fight against the evil forces of the Roman Empire and their providential victory both over Rome and over the heretical Arians, Ebionites and Marcionites. Later they tell of the lies and wickedness of the Protestant Reformation and the insidious evils of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. But God, they say, protected his Roman Catholic Church and brought it through the terrible trial and their history will show that without a doubt they are telling the truth.

The Orthodox tell of their holy battle against the Western Corrupters and the devastating effect of the rise of the Papacy. The persecution continued under Islam and then under Communism. But thankfully God has protected His One True Church and through the careful retelling of history the Orthodox can prove that they are this Church.

The Protestants tell of their spiritual awakening through the power of the Holy Spirit and their retrieval of the lost history of the Christian Church. They tell the story of the evil Catholics and their corruption of the simplicity of Early Christianity. They also tell of the evils of the Jews and how they sought to bind the young church back under the yoke of Judaism. The success of Protestantism is, of course, proof – that the Spirit of God has sanctioned the history of Protestantism and validated the truth thereof.

These three major traditions are evidence enough of the complexity involved in trying to recapture the past. There are many, many more stories like these and many more groups that tell the story through other eyes and emphases.

Currently I’m exploring the history of Christianity as told by the various Messianic groups. They tell the story of a Jewish Messiah sent by God to restore all things to his God and Father. They have many things in common with other Christian groups and many things that are different (even amongst themselves). But as they say…”the devil is in the details” and when it come to history, it’s the details that are the most difficult to see.

My Life in Circles

Over the last few months I’ve spent most of my time investigating the claims and theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Well, that came to an end recently and I’ve begun to see this exploration with some outside clarity again.

Most of the posts on this blog are in praise of Orthodoxy and while doing the research I had been more or less convinced of the Churches arguments for historical credibility. But now, while I’m still pondering somewhat, I’ve begun to sense the holes in some of their claims. An old friend and a new friend have challenged me to reconsider what I know and to spend some time with the bible – both of which have left me doubting many of the Orthodox positions. In addition, I’ve come to some new insights regarding claims to historicity and the ease at which one can use history to support your claims (in the same way one can use the bible to support your particular theology).

I can’t tell you how many times I simply feel like I’m going round in circles. Just when I’m quite confident that I’ve left something in the past and moved on…I hit a wall and realize it’s all too familiar.

My hope is that rather than circles I’m moving in some kind of spiral and every time I re-encounter something I move towards greater depth of clarity regarding each issue. This is my hope…but I’m in no way sure that it’s the case. It’s equally possible that I’m simply stuck on a theological merry-go-round with no way to get off!

Through my recent critique of Orthodoxy I’ve bumped into some familiar “old friends” that I thought I’d laid to rest…but apparently they’d like me to spend some more time with them.

So what are some of these recurring themes that I keep slamming into?

1.  Who is Jesus?

Are the ancient councils of the Roman Catholic Church really the only options regarding who Jesus is? If we believe that the Church of Rome corrupted so many apostolic doctrines and practices, why do we simply take it for granted that they were right about Jesus? Who were those early heretics that claimed the churches interpretation of Jesus was wrong – do we just accept that it was the correct one or have we actually given these other interpretations a fair hearing and understood why these men (and woman) disagree/d with the status quo.

2.  What is the bible?

The best-selling book of all time! But how many of us really know the issues surrounding the book that we all hold so dear. Like the fact that most contemporary translations of the Old Testament are made using the Greek translation which differs from the Hebrew manuscripts. What does it mean for us that there are a total of 4 different categories of ancient New Testament manuscripts and that nobody agrees which ones actually match the original autographs of the New Testament. Do we really realize how much interpretation goes into translation and that it has serious consequences for our understanding of the bible’s teachings.

3.  The Law and the Christian

Mainline Christianity has always taught that Christians don’t need to obey the Old Testament Law. The Catholic Church officially changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (with no scriptural basis for doing so) and removed the second of the 10 commandments from their catechism (splitting the last commandment in two to retain the number 10). In recent years Messianic Christianity and other prophetic movements have claimed that the Catholic Church parted ways with the early church on this issue. They say that realizing that the Law cannot save us and discarding the Law are two very different things. What exactly did Jesus mean when he said that not a single “comma or full stop” would be removed from the law (except those parts that he fulfilled – like the abolishment of the sacrificial system) and that if we break the least commandment or teach others to do so we shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Should we be keeping the Sabbath and all the other Laws in the Old Testament?

4.  Is there really a Christian Mysticism?

I loved mysticism and spiritual experience before I loved Jesus. And when I found out that Christianity had a mysticism I was immediately interested. At first it did concern me that the only places I would find this mysticism were in Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but my desire for experiencing God transcended my fears. It just had to be true, otherwise, why would I want it so badly. But recently I’ve been wondering what exactly it is that I’m after with my mysticism. Am I simply wanting to wallow in the energies of God because they make me feel good? Did I simply replace my one time drug addiction for a God addiction? Just what is the relationship between mysticism and my desire to feel good?

5.  Christian Apocalypticism

No matter how you read it, the bible is an apocalyptic book. It is full of warnings, signs and prophecies relating to the end of time. I once held a very negative view of the world based on my understanding of the bible and its’ apocalyptic warnings. But the negative outlook became too much for me and I tried hard to see the world with different eyes – to have some hope that maybe the institutional church and the institutions of the world were not all as bad as the bible said they would be. My engagement with the theology of the emergent church and my exploration of Orthodoxy was part of my hope of finding some light in the church. But recently I’ve been challenged once again to stop looking at the world and the church with rose colored glasses and to accept the truth that I saw many years ago. Are we naïve to believe that there is still some hope left or are we just in denial about the true spiritual emptiness of the world around us?

Well, these are my current struggles and I’ll probably be writing more about them in the weeks to come – they’ve veered me quite far off the path of Eastern Orthodoxy and that’s okay. I simply pray for God’s grace to see the truth in a world that hates the truth and tries to extinguish the Light wherever it appears. May Your Word be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.