In yesterday’s post we used the King James Version as an example of how Bible translation got standardized.
In fact, King James was so serious about producing a standardized Bible that he did indeed “set the standard” for Bible translation.
Why is this so much a concern?
Well Paul Little just comes out and says it: “How do we know that the text of the Bible as we have it today, having come to us through so many translations and versions over the centuries, is not just a pale reflection of the original?”
Can you imagine a person who doubts the Bible asking this question?
If anyone asks you this question, the short answer is “we know it is accurate due to careful comparison.”
The first copies of the Bible were of course written on perishable materials, papyrus to be exact. This type of writing material was made from the papyrus plant in Egypt and Syria. The oldest papyrus fragment known dates back to 2400 BC. It was difficult for papyrus documents to survive except in dry areas.
The Bible had to be copied and recopied for hundreds of years before the invention of the printing press. That is the only way they could preserve the text.
The person who doubts the Bible may be imagining at this point some scribes trying to copy Bibles by hand in poorly lit buildings with poor eyesight but let’s stop the imaginings.
That was not the way the copying was done.
As I wrote about the King James Bible as a standardized effort in the time of the printing press, the Jewish people long before the time of King James and the printing press also worked hard to eliminate errors in the time of hand copying. Jewish scribes were called Masoretes, special classes of men with the Jewish culture who had one duty in life; to preserve and transmit Biblical documents with what Josh McDowell calls “practically perfect fidelity.”
This is not an exaggeration: “they kept tabs on every letter, syllable, word and paragraph.”
Over the years, pieces of the Bible have been discovered and when they have become available, Biblical scholars set about determining the accuracy by comparison.
The best translations of today’s Bibles don’t happen in a slipshod manner. The same care that the Masoretes put into their work goes into the scholarship that results in reputable modern Bibles.
Let’s look at an example.
My favorite Bible is a translation called the New International Version. It has a very good reputation among Bible students and pastors today. The NIV began in 1956 with the formation of a small committee to study the value of producing a translation in the common language of the American people. The work began in 1965 with the core translation group of scholars using Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. They wanted to produce an easier reading Bible than the King James version but they went about their work in a serious way just like the King James Biblical scholars. They took ancient Biblical fragments, comparing them to other Biblical fragments and then translating the extant documents into modern English. It took 100 scholars over ten years to do this work.
Recent archaeological and linguistic discoveries helped in understanding passages that have traditionally been difficult to translate. Paul Little writes of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in 1947. He states that these scrolls were the “greatest archeological discovery of the century.” The scrolls went back in time to 150 BC.
What did the Biblical scholars do with the scrolls after they were available for examination? They checked their content against other Biblical fragments; they wanted to make a judgement about the Bible through careful comparison of texts.
Little writes of the findings [using the Book of Isaiah as an example]: “A comparison of Isaiah 53 shows that only 17 letters differ from the Masoretic text. Ten of those are mere differences of spelling, like our ‘honor’ or ‘honour’ and produce no change in the meaning at all. Four more are minor differences, such as the presence of the conjunction, which is often a matter of style….Out of 166 words in this chapter, only one word was really in question and it does not at all change the sense of the passage.”
Little says “This is typical of the whole manuscript.”
Certainly we can get “deep in the weeds” of the process of Biblical translation but I don’t imagine most readers of this blog want that.
If you ever have someone say today’s Bibles have been translated, retranslated and paraphrased so much. How could the documents the Bible rests upon be reliable? Without going too far into detail, you can share the serious nature of Biblical textual study.
Why is the study done?
Well, the Bible is special. Josh McDowell in his book The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict says it best. The careful handling of the Bible through the ages sets it apart. It cannot be compared to other books. Doubters may list their favorite books and say things like “it is just a book; you ought to read it like any other book.”
Now you know. It is not just a book.
McDowell says “The Bible should be on the top shelf all by itself. The Bible is unique.”