Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Should Christians Be Troubled by Uncertainties in Bible Translation?

If you are reading a modern English translation of the Bible, you may come across footnotes that refer to the documents the translation is based on.  These footnotes say things like, ‘Early manuscripts do not contain this verse’, ‘Two early manuscripts do not contain Jesus’, ‘Late manuscripts add against you’, etc.  etc.

There are thousands of surviving manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages that the Bible was originally written in.  Yet, apart from a few manuscripts that consist of very short fragments, the wording of no two manuscripts agrees in every detail.  These footnotes are therefore providing information about differences in the manuscripts that have come down to us.

The reason for differences in manuscripts

The reason for differences in biblical manuscripts can be found in the copying that was done by scribes. 

As copies were made in the centuries before printing was invented, scribes frequently made mistakes.  And they also often deliberately changed passages to make them read more fluently or to get rid of things in the text that they found theologically problematic.  This has resulted in a large number of variations in the wording of the scriptural manuscripts known to us today.

Uncertainties in reconstructing the original text

Obviously we want to know as best we can what the original text said.  So, in order to try to determine as accurately as possible which of the various readings were original, scholars perform what is known as textual criticism. 

Often the word ‘criticism’ has negative connotations, but that’s not the case in this context.  Here it just means ‘analysis’, and biblical textual critics are scholars who analyse the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of Scripture in the manuscripts that have come down to us to try to get as close as possible to the original wording.  There are many devout Christians who spend much of their life’s work doing this.

Despite the efforts of textual critics, it should be recognised as a fact that it has not been possible to determine the original wording of the Old and New Testaments in every detail.  Nor will this ever be possible as long as this imperfect world remains. 

Sometimes the evidence is quite evenly divided between potential readings, and critics often disagree about what the original reading is most likely to have been.  Furthermore, as new manuscripts are discovered, some readings become more or less probable, and there is every reason to think that this will continue to happen in the future.

It should therefore be understood clearly that no group of textual critics who are preparing a Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text for a Bible translation will ever reconstruct the original wording perfectly.  There are far too many uncertainties for that.

Uncertainties in interpreting the reconstructed text

Furthermore, even after a certain reading in one of these languages has been chosen as the most likely original, it is sometimes unclear what the word or words meant.  Translators obviously have to choose between options, but sometimes they will disagree, and it is impossibly implausible to think that any Bible translation will avoid all mistakes in interpretation. 

Perfect translations are impossible

For two reasons, then, it is not possible for us to have a perfect translation of the Bible in any language, despite the good intentions and best efforts of those involved.  At times, the original text will be incorrectly reconstructed, and at times the reconstructed text will be incorrectly interpreted.

This is not just the consensus of biblical scholars generally.  Even the vast majority of scholars who affirm the doctrine of biblical inerrancy take this view.  Nearly all scholars who say that they believe in biblical inerrancy mean that they believe the autographs, i.e., the original writings, were without error.  They don’t mean that God has preserved the biblical text from all minor errors as it has been handed down to successive generations over the centuries.  Nor do they mean that we can make a perfect Bible translation today. 

Those who say the King James Version is perfect

There are actually a few Christians who claim that there is such a thing as a perfect Bible translation.  A small number say that the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version) is a perfect translation.

This, however, is a strange and completely indefensible belief. 

To begin with, there were several different editions of the KJV made within a few years of each other in the early 17th century, and the editions differ from each other in many ways.  So those who say that the KJV is a perfect translation need to specify which edition is the perfect one, which they rarely, if ever, seem to do.

Second and much more importantly, we need to be crystal clear that if an edition of the KJV really were perfect, it would be the only perfect translation of the Bible there has ever been in any language.  All translations differ in terms of the precise Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts that they follow.  And they all differ in how they interpret parts of these texts.  The KJV therefore disagrees in numerous minor ways, and probably in some more significant ways too, with every other Bible translation there has ever been, including those that predate the KJV by over a millennium.   

It is absurd to think that God chose to make a perfect Bible translation in English but not in any other language.  This idea should be firmly ruled out. 

Should Christians be troubled by uncertainties?

It should be regarded as a fact, then, that there has never been a perfect translation of the Bible in any language.  We are unable to perfectly reconstruct the original text of the biblical writings.  And we are unable to avoid all mistakes in interpretation. 

So should Christians be troubled by this?  Should we be concerned that Bible translations are misleading us?

Not at all, for a number of reasons.

Reasons not to be troubled about uncertainties in reconstructing the text

To begin with, there is no need to be concerned about uncertainties in reconstructing the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of the biblical writings.  There are several points to make here:

(1) The surviving manuscripts are unanimous about much in these texts. 

(2) In a great many cases, differences between manuscripts involve minor variations that can’t even be translated into English differently.

(3) In many cases where manuscripts differ, it is clear that a scribe has made an unintentional mistake that can quickly be rejected.

(4) Even when manuscripts disagree in meaning and we are unsure which reading was original, it is often the case that none of the options says anything that is factually untrue.

(5) Even when we can’t be sure that a manuscript avoids saying something that is factually untrue, it almost always concerns a trivial issue. 

(6) No important matter of doctrine or practice stands or falls on a textually uncertain passage alone.  There will be other scriptural passages that teach about the same subject and which are textually not in dispute.

Reasons not to be troubled about uncertainties in interpretation

For similar reasons to the above, there is no need to be concerned about uncertainties in how to interpret the reconstructed text:

(1) A large majority of the time it is clear how to interpret the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. 

(2) Even when scholars disagree, it is often the case that none of the options involves anything that is factually untrue.

(3) Even in those places where there is the possibility that an interpretation might involve something that is factually untrue, it almost always concerns a trivial issue.

(4) It is never the case that a key matter of doctrine or practice stands or falls on an uncertain passage alone.  There will be other passages where the meaning is much clearer.

We can trust God

The above points all carry some weight.  However, there is a more important reason not be troubled about uncertainties in Bible translation. This is simply that we can trust God not to have allowed Scripture to become misleading in anything of importance. 

In eternity past God decided to create the Bible to teach people important things they need to know.  So we can trust that He has taken all necessary steps to ensure that this project would succeed.  If it were impossible for us to make a good reconstruction of the text, or if it were impossible to interpret it correctly in important matters, God’s Bible project would have failed.  But as Christian believers we can be sure that He has not allowed this to happen.

The Bible gets the job done

Basically, we can say that God has enabled Christian Bible translators to do what they need to do for Scripture to accomplish its purpose.  Our translations are good enough to get the job done that God wants them to do, and that is what counts.

Why has God not allowed us to make perfect translations?

So the Bible accomplishes its purpose.  This means that it infallibly teaches us what is true in all that is important for life and faith. 

Nevertheless, it is still a fact that God has not enabled us to have perfect Bible translations.  He could have done this, however, so why hasn’t He?

Well, the ways of God are as high above human ways as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:9), so I don’t claim to be sure that I know why.  But I will make a few comments and suggestions.

First, as long as the Bible accomplishes its purpose, that’s good enough.  It doesn’t need to be any better than that.

Second, if God had acted so that we could confidently know the precise wording of the original text and could interpret it perfectly, it might be obvious to everyone that He had performed a miracle.  It might almost serve as a proof of the truth of the Christian faith.  Yet God has clearly not chosen to prove this truth, at least not plainly.  Instead, for some reason known to Himself, He has chosen to set up a system of faith, where we believe without seeing or full proof. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t good reasons for believing in Jesus.  There are.  But these reasons don’t amount to full proof.  They don’t take away the need for faith without seeing.  If, in creating the Bible, God had performed a miracle that no one could deny or even that it would be hard to deny, it would surely have contradicted the faith system that He has set up.

Third, more than a few Christians today unintentionally tend to treat the Bible as an idol, i.e., as an object of false worship.  However, minor flaws in our translations help to work against this tendency.  And yet these imperfections are not serious enough to stop the Bible accomplishing its purpose.  It isn’t difficult to see the hand of God in this arrangement.

Approaching the Bible

In the light of uncertainties in our translations, then, how should Christians today approach the Bible?

Well, as I have already said, the vast majority of uncertainties involve trivial matters, and even those that are more significant are made up for in other passages.  So, basically, Christians should just get on with using the Bible without worrying about uncertainties. 

Trust the textual critics and translators to know what they are doing.  There are many devout Christians who have worked, and are still working, tirelessly in this field.  And, as someone who has some knowledge of the relevant areas, it is my firm view that the techniques they use are sound.

I recommend using a modern translation, since these are better than the translations of some centuries ago.  For English speakers, personally I think the English Standard Version is a good choice. 

If there is a particular passage that you are looking at in detail, I would recommend not relying on just one translation.  A good place for comparing English translations is  If, when looking at a passage, most translations read in a certain way and only one or two differ, in my experience it is usually the majority reading that has the stronger arguments supporting it.

See also:

Insisting That the Gospels Are Pure History Causes Problems