How Can We Believe in the Bible? Part 2 - Translation

Last week, in "Part 1 - Memory", I tried to address the question raised by the amount of time it took to write the texts of the Bible, and therefore how reliable those texts would be in conveying the truth of the original events. As it turns out, the ancient world was much more reliable and accurate in passing on oral tradition than today would be, simply because ancient memories were so much better than they are today.

Now the second major question that many ask when wondering about how accurate the Bible is, that of translation from one language to another. The original Bible texts were written in two languages, Hebrew (most of the Old Testament) and Greek (remaining Old Testament and all of the New Testament). Of course these were not the SPOKEN languages at the time of Jesus, and many of us know that translations since then have varied throughout the centuries.

The translation that most of us in the English speaking world know is the "King James Bible" translation, complete with all of its "thou's" and "begats," made familiar to us by their use in the movies. The King James Bible is an Anglican Bible, by the way. Anyone that has ever heard "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." knows the poetry of the KJB.

A more modern translation would read, "The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want." because that would be closer to what we would actually say in this day in age. Even better might be, "The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall LACK" or "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in NEED."

Which one is the right one? Well, as long as we know what it means, it doesn't really matter, does it? Because they all mean the same thing. God takes care of everything for us.

Why not just say then, "God takes care of everything"? The reason is, that is too far away from the original HEBREW, which was written to communicate something, but POETICALLY, so that multiple meanings can be derived from it. That was how it was intended by its writer, which we still believe, was influenced and inspired by God.

So when people decide to translate the Bible, these people being highly educated Biblical scholars, they go to great lengths to make sure that the original intent, both textual and poetic, are maintained. At least they're supposed to anyway.

This doesn't always happen mind you, but its supposed to.

The history of translation is a bit varied however. The first person to do it was a grumpy guy named St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into the common language of his day, LATIN. His translation was called the Vulgate, because it was the "vulgar" or "common" language. His intention was to permit EVERYONE to be able to read the Bible. Somewhere along the lines, people forgot this however, and as Latin because a dead language, his was still the official translation, that only scholars could read. Not even priests were ALLOWED to read the Bible (for fear of mis-interpretation) unless they had a Doctorate in Scriptural Theology.

Nonetheless, his translation was fairly good - based on copies of the original texts, which had been handed down in their original languages, pretty much word for word. These still exist today and are actually, believe it or not, widely available - but we don't use them in Church anymore because nobody speaks ancient Hebrew or ancient Greek anymore, not even Hebrews or Greeks.

I should correct myself here - I believe that the Greek translations MIGHT be used in Greek Orthodox churches, but don't quote me on that. In that event, the priest would then have to interpret the translation during his homily because it would make about as much sense to todays Greek audience as Shakespeare, or better Chaucer, would to a modern English audience.

Anyway, in the WESTERN Church, the Vulgate was it, until along comes Martin Luther, who thought - this is stupid, no one can read the Bible any more, so he, being a REALLY SMART guy, translated, using Greek and Hebrew texts, the Bible into the common language of his time, medieval German. He didn't translate the Vulgate, he went BACK TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL, like a good Biblical scholar should.

The King James Bible is the result of the same process, translated into the English language. However, KJB has been criticized at times for being a little too poetic, and not quite historical enough. It also might have been a little too affected by the culture of Elizabethan England, rather than ancient Palestine.

English translations of the the Catholic Bible are just slightly more recent inventions. The most famous is the Douay-Rheims Bible, which is a translation, not of the original texts, but of the Vulgate. So unfortunately, its not a very good translation. It just isn't okay. Then because of its, at times, unreadability, and the fact that good old KJB had such a HUGE influence on the English speaking world, a guy named Bishop Challoner revised it, mixing its text with the KJB, and kept the Douay-Rheims title. This is the Douay-Rheims Bible that has been passed down, right down to recent history.

That is, until Vatican II, in the 60's when everything changed. Emphasis on historical intention, the kind of emphasis old grumpy-pants St. Jerome intended, was re-asserted, and new translations, from the ORIGINAL texts were again encouraged. This led to the Jerusalem Bible, which was a translation from original in FRENCH.

Unfortunately, for quite a while, the only translation us English types had available was an English translation of the French Jerusalem Bible, right up to about the mid-70's to early 80's. Then we got our own translations - the New American Bible, New English Bible, New Revised Standard Bible - all based on original texts. Another English translation also came along, the Good News Bible (some of us remember getting these in Grade 4), that's because they are deliberately translated into more common vernacular language.

Which one's the RIGHT one - well, actually, they ALL are. All of them are approved by the Vatican as close enough to the original texts, and at the same time sensible enough for the modern reader to understand, that they can be considered the same WORD OF GOD that was given to us originally in Hebrew and Greek. There are some other translations that don't mind you, like "the WAY" or "the Reader's Digest Bible" or even "the Action Bible" - these are fine, but they aren't THE BIBLE.

Bottom line, we don't need to worry about whether or not the original intention of the scriptures has been lost somewhere in the translations. The Church has made great efforts to make sure that the Bible continues to be true to its original text, so it can fulfill its original purpose, to bear witness to the TRUTH.

More to follow.