Monday, May 21, 2007

How Did we Get our English Bible?

How Did we Get our English Bible? 01

Christians base their faith on the Word of God, the Bible. One of the mottos of the Reformation was sola scriptura, but even Catholic and Orthodox Christians hold the Bible as the most basic source of faith and practice. How reliable is our Bible? Consider this -- we do not have the original manuscript for any Biblical book. In fact, of the thousands of ancient copies of the various Biblical books we have, no two are exactly the same. In once sense, we are at the end of history's longest and most complex "telephone" game, where each person whispers into the ear of another. Where do we get the confidence to base our lives (and deaths) on such a text?

King James Version,
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

New International Version,
For there are three that testify:

Catholic Bibles contain the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and 1&2 Maccabees, as well as "extra" text in Esther and Daniel compared with the Protestant Bible. The Orthodox Bible also contains 1&2 Esdras, Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151 and 3 Maccabees. What are we to make of this?

One of the most popular criticisms of Christianity in the United States today goes something like this -- Since we don't have the original manuscripts, we can't know for sure what the Apostle Paul or Moses wrote. History is written by the winners. Only the powerful elite were literate enough to copy manuscripts (or hire scribes), and they had the opportunity to re-write the scripture to fit their needs.

Finally, the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) are all dead. No one speaks them anymore. How do we know that our perception of the meaning of these original words and sentences is accurate? Further, so much meaning is lost in translation, how can we trust an English (or any other language) translation?

An old Italian proverb says "Traddutore, traditore!" or, "Translators, traitors!" Or, as another has said, "All translation is a polite lie."

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On the other hand, Christianity is the only religion that recognizes the religious and moral authority of translations of the holy writings. Torah must be read in the ancient Hebrew, and translations of the Qur'an are commonly called "interpretations" because they are not to be used for any serious religious discussion. In other words, every copy of the Qur'an is in Arabic. On the contrary, New Testament authors quoted from a Greek translation of the Old Testament, referring to it as the Word of God.

Our oldest Hebrew manuscripts are the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the late 1940s. These manuscripts were written about 300 years before Christ. Previously, our oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were about 700 A.D. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain all the books of the Old Testament except Esther and are remarkably similar (almost identical) to the medieval texts in content and arrangement.

Sometime in the Middle Ages, as the ancient Hebrew language died out, scribes began putting vowel and accent marks into the text, which naturally does not contain these. Compare the copy of the top picture with the bottom.

Another important source to help us understand the original text of the Hebrew Scriptures is the Septuagint (or LXX, so named for the 72 translators), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The LXX was created starting in Alexandria about 300 years before Jesus. This became the standard Bible of the early Christian church. It was the version quoted by the New Testament writers and by the church fathers. We have manuscripts containing portions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy which date in 2nd century BC. This was the primary text of the Old Testament until the Latin Vulgate in the 400s A.D.

Christianity is still heavily influenced by the LXX. For example: In response to the second (of the 10) commandment, Jews would (and still) refrain from saying God's name out loud. When they came to his name ("Yahweh"), they would pronounce "Adonai" instead. When the LXX came to translate God's name, they used the Greek word for "lord" which is a good translation for "adonai" but not for "Yahweh." When the Vulgate translated this word, it continued the tradition of substituting "Dominus" meaning "Lord." Today, modern English follow this same pattern started by the LXX. For more information, you can check the translator's introduction to your English Bible translation.

We have far more information about the origins and preservation of the Greek Testament than the Hebrew one. It was written in the 1st century and each of the books was passed around from church to church and copied by pastors. Individual church communities began collecting various books.

After a few centuries Christians became a threat to the Roman Empire. Church communities had to decide which books were worth dying for, and which were not. This became the basis for the discussion that will end with a definite set of inspired books for the New Testament.
On the materials for writing, Charles Ryrie says,
Papyrus and parchment were the two most widely used materials in making books in ancient times. Though as strong as hand-made paper when fist made, papyrus deteriorates faster and the writing on the back side of a papyrus sheet is read with difficulty because of the vertical lines of the strips of the papyrus plant on the verso. Parchment, however, is more durable and can be easily written and read on both sides. Moreover, parchment could be made anywhere there were animals, while papyrus grew mainly along the Nile.
Parchment is made from the skins of sheep, calves, goats, antelopes, and other animals (one writer even suggested rabbits). The younger the animal the finer the parchment. The finest quality of very thin parchment is commonly called vellum and came from lambs, kids, and calves and sometimes from animals not yet born. The term “parchment” includes vellum, but vellum is distinguished in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a fine kind of parchment prepared from the skins of calves (lambs or kids).” Vellum was used in deluxe volumes, such as those which might be presented to royalty or great dignitaries of church or state.

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