Thursday, July 17, 2008

How can we know

I get asked, from time to time, how we can know that what we have in the Bible in our hands today is the same as what was written hundreds and hundreds of years ago. (I also get asked why I believe that what is in the Bible is what God intended to be in it, but that is a different matter) This is a short essay I wrote as a summary of what I have learned while studying the history of the scriptures. As with any writing, I gained a great deal of precision while writing it. I originally wrote this in 2004, and have updated it every year or two, mostly to improve the grammar.

It is still in a greatly simplified form.

I have tried to keep it to less than
three printed pages. There are
about half dozen notes at the end.

The Jews have had responsibility for assembling and keeping the Old Testament scriptures intact ever since they were written. The first five books were written around 2000 BC, the rest of them were passed down verbally until the time of the prophets[1] - when they were put into written form - while the Jews were in exile. Before this time, many of them were written in one form or another - but at the time of the prophets (and by the prophets), they were assembled and the whole was created. The elders and leaders were taken as captives to Babylon about this time and many of the peasants either went to Egypt, or were scattered. Some families[5] of them were not found until around 1970, in eastern Africa.

The Jews took the responsibility of keeping the scriptures seriously - to the extent that any error at all would result in doing an entire page over from beginning to end. But were they successful in keeping them intact? Here is some of the evidence that the scriptures are still intact.

The scattering of the Jews - and later, the scattering of the Christians - has become instrumental in keeping the purity of the scriptures. Ever since about 400 years BC, a few spiritual leaders of the Jews from every known region they occupied have met about every 100 years and compared their copies. This has prevented errors from creeping into the text - as an error found in one region's copies would be obvious to the representatives from other regions. In addition, some copies of he scriptures were lost to the world for many hundreds of years - and were found later. These also show that the scriptures have been kept faithfully.

Christians have done a similar job with the New Testament. Like the Jews, repeated persecutions caused them to scatter from west of Egypt to east of Persia and North of Bavaria (Southern Germany) in the first couple hundred years AD. Again, the spiritual leaders from these scattered regions met from time to time (sometimes with hundreds of years lapse in between) and one of the activities they engaged in at these meetings was to compare their copies of the Scriptures and their thoughts on interpretations of those Scriptures. Any changes to one set of Scriptures would show up as different from copies brought from other parts of the world.

While transcription has been precise, and fairly easy to prove (each one is simply an exact replica of all others), translation from the original languages to another has been a lot messier. While the original words never change - the languages we translate into are in continuous flux, and to a lesser extent the meaning of the original words is sometimes disputed.

Be advised, the King James Version is not the end all of accuracy. While great pains were taken to ensure its accuracy ( about 90 people worked on it for something like 15 years) they could not be any more accurate than the material they had to work with and, as they were all Englishmen, the particular world view they held. There are certain feature of it that are invaluable in studying, and no scholar of the Bible should be without a copy of the King James Version.

Also, the Roman Catholic Bible is not considered in this essay, since I do not study from it and it includes the apocrypic[2] writings, which are not considered by many Christian scholars to be sacred text. Most Bible scholars read these writings after studying the rest of the Bible, but most don't teach from them.

There are many different translations of the Bible into English, not because the Bible has changed but, because English has changed. In most translations the fight is over which words are best to use, to convey the original meaning. For instance, one passage in the New Testament says that Jesus will send us a councilor. There is some debate as to whether to translate the word as comforter, helper, advocate, or teacher, because the original word has a shade of meaning that encompasses some traits of each of those things. The King James translates it comforter. (Some translations, however, ARE considered inaccurate [3])

After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, the New American Standard Bible (NASB - published and refined from 1952 to 1995) and the New International Version (NIV - first published in1974 and refined in 1984) were created (And the Revised Standard Edition - for the Brit's).

The differences of substance due to our improved knowledge, from earlier translations, is less than 1%, but they are substantially easier for today's reader. The NASB is considered THE standard for exacting translation. The NIV has had some controversy. The original (1974) seems to have been released prematurely - and became the subject of much venom. (Christians take accuracy seriously.) The later releases largely corrected the deficiencies (some differences from the King James and the NASB exist for readability), but many Christians have been slow to forgive.

[1] Time of the Prophets refers to an era around 400 to 800 BC, when many prophets rose up to witness to the people of Israel that they were going astray and that they would be driven into exile from the Promised Land.

[2] The apocrypha is a set of writings, added to the scriptures by the Roman Church in the 1500's. Some of them were present at the time of the Prophets, but were not included - the prophets didn't consider them cannon. Also, there is no record of Jesus quoting from any of them. When the New Testament was assembled in the 3rd (or was it the 4th?) century they were not included, primarily because Jesus did not quote from any of them, and secondarily because the Jews did not consider them cannon. (The word cannon means measure - it is the standard by which all things are measured)

[3] A few good and a few bad translations are named in the FAQ on the Electronic Bible web site E Bible dot Org - maintained by Micheal Paul Johnson. My own standard for accuracy is slightly more conservative than his, but we are in general agreement.

[4] Much of the information in this article can be
found in Zondervan's Pictorial Bible Dictionary.
Any errors are entirely my fault.

[5] Most of those found were evacuated to Israel shortly before a local war. It was determined they were indeed Jews, through DNA testing.

No comments: