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Understanding the Bible

– for ordinary Christians

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 3

The Bible we have now

As we have seen, the 39 books of the OT were written in Hebrew (except for parts of Daniel which were written in Aramaic) and the 27 books of the NT were written in Greek. The original manuscripts of these books are referred to as autographs. Unfortunately we do not have with us now the autographs of any of the books of the Bible. Of course there was no printing available in the days when they were written, and what people used to do was to make copies by writing down the words carefully and strenuously, and further copies were made from these copies. At the same time, we do have in the museums many ancient copies of the books.

The scribes who made copies were extremely careful in their work because they were conscious that they were dealing with the word of God, and they adopted various procedures and checks to ensure that errors were avoided. For example, when they finished copying a line of text, the scribes would count the numerical value of all the Hebrew letters used on that line, and add up those values. If the total value for a line of copied text was different from the original, there was obviously a mistake in copying, and then they would throw the new copy away and start another copy from scratch. In spite of such attempts, a few errors seem to have crept in over the centuries in the form of spelling, wrong choice of words that sound alike, etc. However, at the same time, there are a large number of ancient manuscripts available now of the OT and NT books, which are so many more compared to other ancient secular writings. As a result of this, by comparing different manuscripts scholars are able to arrive at a set of Hebrew and Greek texts which are practically the same as the original autographs (some assume an accuracy of 98.5%).

The New Testament text
When we go a little deeper into the subject, we find that there are two different Greek texts of the New Testament that are being followed by translators today. At the time of the translation of the Bible into Authorised Version or the King James Version (KJV) in English (1604-1611), a few Greek New Testament texts were available with some variations among them (mainly four versions from Erasmus and also from Stephanus and Beza). The KJV is based on the best possible reading from these texts. Nowadays many people refer to the Greek text used by KJV as Textus Receptus.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Westcott and Hort brought out a Greek text based on some earlier manuscripts which had been discovered after the KJV became available. They pointed out that later manuscripts were actually products of earlier revisions, and that earlier manuscripts were ‘purer’. Many of the new English translations are based on a further improvement of their work called Novum Testamentum Graece by Nestle and Aland. There are therefore some differences between the KJV and some of the modern translations. Some Christians claim that the KJV is the only accurate and reliable version of the Bible, and point out differences between it and the modern translations to show that the modern translations are corrupted versions or even heresies! However we should realise that modern translations use more ancient manuscripts than were available with the translators of the KJV, and so they should be seen as an improvement on the KJV (or closer to the original autographs) instead of the other way.

Old and new English
The KJV enjoyed universal popularity for a long time since it was brought out. However the 17th century English used in it has undergone a lot of changes with the result that some of those words are difficult to understand now, and some others can be misunderstood because they mean different things now. For example when the KJV says in 1 Timothy 6:18, “That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate,” and in Hebrews 13:16, “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased,” the word ‘communicate’ meant ‘share’ in the days of the KJV translators. But now it means ‘transmit information’! So the New American Standard Bible says, “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1Tim.6:18), and “And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb.13:16). So to avoid such mistakes in understanding it is better to use a modern translation to get the correct meaning, even though one may have some sentimental attachment to the KJV. The New King James Version uses the same Greek text as the KJV, even though it has improved the English of the KJV.

Approaches in translation
When we come to the modern English translations we must recognise that different approaches have been used by different translators. Some have used a word-for-word translation (e.g., the New American Standard Bible), and some others have used a thought-for-thought approach (e.g., the New International Version, the New Living Translation). By using a word-for-word approach the translation one can go towards faithfulness to the original Hebrew or Greek words. But it may not cater to the idiom and style of the modern English language, and readers may not find it smooth to read. On the other hand, a thought-for-thought approach gives up a little of accuracy for the sake of improving the flow of reading. In some places the translator’s interpretation is also seen to affect the translation without staying with the original meaning.

For example, the NIV says in 1 Peter 4:1, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.” Is it not difficult to accept that someone who has suffered in his body is able to finish with sin? Usually such people are tempted to sin more in attitude and deeds. The NASB says, “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” The Greek word used for body is soma and that for flesh is sarx, and so it is easy to see that the NIV has not done a word-for-word translation, but used a more easily understood word ‘body’ instead of ‘flesh’. If we see that the word ‘flesh’ is used several times in the NT to denote the sinful nature (cf. Gal.5:24), we can understand that those who choose to let the flesh suffer by not yielding to its desires can stop from sinning.

The English Standard Version uses the word-for-word approach most of the time, but also tries to keep in mind the readability of the language. The Living Bible and the Message Bible are paraphrases and not translations, written with the aim of conveying the message of the passages in a simple and an easily understandable manner. But then such paraphrases invariably convey something of the theological interpretations of the translators rather than the accurate meaning of the original text. The Amplified Bible provides possible equivalent and alternative English words to represent the original Hebrew or Greek words so that the modern reader can get a better exposure to the meaning.

It should be obvious that if we want to study the Bible seriously and understand what God is trying to tell us through it, it would be good to use more than one translation. We can conclude this chapter by reiterating that through the use of many manuscripts and the study of the many scholars, what we have with us now is, to a very large extent, the same text that was in the autographs. The allegation that some sceptics make that no one knows what the Bible originally said is not true at all.

Chapter 4 – Inspiration and authority

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