Monday, November 09, 2020

Anonymous Asks (118)

“Why can’t all Christians agree on one version of the Bible?”

In the first century AD when the Lord Jesus walked this earth, there were two popular versions of the Old Testament in circulation (the New Testament having yet to be written). The Greek version, the Septuagint, was then about 2-1/2 centuries old, and exceedingly useful if you wanted to study the Old Testament but could not read the Jewish Tanakh in Hebrew or Aramaic.

So then, which version of the Old Testament did Jesus quote from?

The Word of God According to Jesus

New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans answers the question this way:
“Did Jesus recognize a specific text form of scripture? It does not appear so, for his usage of scripture is allusive, paraphrastic, and — so far as it can be ascertained — eclectic. We find agreement with the proto-Masoretic text, with the Hebrew underlying the Septuagint (perhaps even the Septuagint itself), and with the Aramaic paraphrase.”
Interesting. If we believe Professor Evans, despite being committed to the validity and absolute authority of the written Law right down to its diacritical points, our Lord did not appear to favor one version of God’s word over others. We may well wonder why that might be.

Understanding that requires a bit of a setup. In the book of Nehemiah, there is an account of the reading of the Law of Moses to the people of Israel gathered in front of Jerusalem’s Water Gate. Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law and a group of 13 Levites re-read it to the people and “they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading”. If I understand this correctly, what the Levites were doing was not preaching in the modern sense; rather, they were paraphrasing the written Law, which was at that time a little over 1,000 years old.

The Evolution of a Language

Over the course of a millennium, languages evolve immensely. The English of our day is sufficiently removed from the language of the original 1611 King James Version of the Bible as to create what we might call “comprehension hurdles” for all but the scholars. For example, here is the 1611 KJV text of Genesis 1:30:
“And to euery beast of the earth, and to euery foule of the aire, and to euery thing that creepeth vpon the earth, wherein there is life, I haue giuen euery greene herbe for meat: and it was so.”
Now, most of our readers have read the book of Genesis multiple times. Given a few moments, you and I can work the meaning of this out for ourselves because we recognize the verse and are familiar with how it reads in other translations. But put yourself in the place of a reader of even average intelligence coming to this for the very first time with no background in either ancient English or the scriptures, and it becomes a much more formidable proposition.

Swapping Out Letters

Moreover, bear in mind that it is wholly insufficient to say, “Well, if we swap out the letter U for the letter V and chop off a bunch of those trailing letter Es, we are halfway to modernizing the text.” Actually, no, we’re not. We may now be able to better understand which English words the 1611 translation team intended to use, but we cannot tell whether those words still bear exactly the same meanings today as they did then. Word definitions morph, shift, contract, expand, and sometimes end up meaning the opposite of what they meant hundreds of years ago. For example, in the verse above, a “foule” is a bird, the word “meat” actually means food generally, and a “greene herbe” refers to any sort of plant ... and that’s just in a single, randomly chosen verse. So then, identifying the words themselves is only a small part of the difficulty of understanding ancient translations.

Next, try to imagine how obscure that passage would be if the English language had been evolving for two-and-a-half times as long as between 1611 and today. That was the situation in Nehemiah’s day. The Israelite scribes, whose lives were devoted to the written word, understood what they were reading, and were undoubtedly used to paraphrasing it into the vernacular. The average listener had no hope of doing the same. So then, the Levites did exactly that for the ordinary people of God so that they could understand and practice what Moses wrote down for them 1,000 years before.

First Century Versions

When the Lord Jesus affirmed that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”, surely he was referring to the characters of the original Hebrew in which the Law was actually conveyed to Moses, not all the different “jots and tittles” of every subsequent translation into most of the languages on earth, some of which are notably more accurate and understandable than others.

We don’t know exactly which written versions of the Old Testament the Lord had available to him in his studies, but assuming the Tanakh of the first century was the original text God gave to Moses, it was a full 1,400 years removed from the everyday language of ordinary Jews. Even the relatively recent Septuagint was a ripe old 250+. I believe what the Lord Jesus did when he quoted the word of God in the first century was very much the same sort of thing as the Levites did in Nehemiah, except of course that the Lord naturally did it to perfection. He mined the existing translations for the most accurate and relatable possible meanings and combined them into an intelligible hybrid that actually communicated God’s truth far better than any “faithful” copy of an ancient manuscript then extant. It would not in the least surprise me to find that he even made up his own paraphrases of some of those older versions on the spot when the meaning of the original might have been obscure to his listeners, which seems to be what Professor Evans is suggesting.

If the Lord’s own example is significant (and surely it should be definitive), then what really matters in translation is that God’s intended meaning be faithfully passed on, to the very best of our ability to reconstruct it, not which words we are obliged to use in order to convey that meaning from one generation to the next or from one language to another.

Christians and Agreement

So then, back to our original question: Why can’t all Christians agree on one version of the Bible? One impertinent-but-not-completely-unreasonable rejoinder is that Christians don’t agree about much of anything else, so why on earth should we expect to them to agree about which translation we should use? (All snark aside, the issue of disagreement between groups of Christians in matters big and small is an important subject and deserves more than a paragraph or two of our consideration. I have tried to respond to it in this post).

But let’s just for a moment assume that we could agree, and that each of us would be willing to give up his or her preferred version of the Bible in favor of a “common” rendering of the text. As convenient as that might be for sharing what we believe and for enjoying public readings and group recitations, any translation we might agree upon would probably start to go out of date by the time we were senior citizens, and two or three generations later would again be obscure to all but the experts.

And that is perfectly fine. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren — assuming the Lord has not returned before then — would simply retranslate the most faithful possible reconstruction of the autographs available to them for the umpteenth time into something comprehensible to their own children. Then, invariably, just as we have experienced in our own generation, some of the older believers would cling to the wording they understand and have enjoyed since childhood and refuse to give it up, while others would embrace the newer versions, and still others would take the best and most effective bits of translation from both versions to enjoy and share, just as the Lord Jesus himself appears to have done.

Agreement? Not a chance. And yet I’m not sure there is a better way to approach a text that was not originally written in English in a world where meaning is always a moving target.

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