Some years ago, the Reader’s Digest caused quite a stir by issuing a condensed version of the Bible. Televangelists were up in arms, some going so far as to burn the book and calling for an all out boycott of the Reader’s Digest organization. Despite all the outrage, no one seems to care that there are numerous versions of the Protestant Bible, different translations, different interpretations, different concordances, each of which alters the meaning of the text, sometimes significantly. Many still view the authorized King James Bible as the official version, totally ignoring that it was based on Greek and Latin texts which may not have agreed with one another.
Marcion, an early Christian leader with Gnostic leanings, in the second century, made one of the first attempts at organizing a canonical version of the Bible. His list included mostly Gospels and Epistles and none of the Hebrew scriptures. While his version was never considered authoritative by the emerging Western Church, it served as the scripture for his congregations for several centuries, and Marcion is credited among those who began the discussions that led to the Christian canon being formalized. Thomas Jefferson compiled his own condensed version of the Bible that included the sayings of Jesus and rejected books such as Revelation, which he described as “the ravings of a maniac”.
Scholars agree that the earliest versions of most of the Gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his closest followers spoke or wrote. This would not have been unusual for the time, since only the most educated and specially-trained in society would have been able to write in Latin or Greek and most people spoke in the dialects common to the region in which they lived. Scholars have also noted many changes, transcription errors, and additions common among different texts of the same Gospel. Mark, for instance, in its familiar format, has sixteen lines added to the end of it that don’t appear in the earliest known versions, and once had a secret version that included extra lines, which was written about by early church fathers who considered it problematic but nonetheless regarded it as authoritative. The Gnostics claimed Mark had three versions, the commonly known version, the secret version, and an oral version Mark would only share directly with believers.
For many Christians in the United States, the English translation of the Protestant Bible is considered to be the inerrant word of God. This is despite the fact that the English language as we know it was not spoken by anyone when the material that made it into the Bible was being written and compiled. There is significant evidence to show that the works in the Bible are not rendered in their original form. One such example can be found in Richard Elliot Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, which recreates what Friedman has called the world’s first novel, that was chopped up and dispersed throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible itself speaks of its incomplete nature, citing in Kings and Chronicles the very works on which these summaries are based and referring readers to them, and in other places, mentioning sources that are now lost to modern readers.
With any translation there are two problems to confront: comprehension, or, does the translator understand the material he or she is reading, and interpretation, is the translator accurately conveying what the material is saying. Translating from Spanish to Italian, for instance, may not yield many overt problems, because the languages are similar and come from the same root, Latin. Translating from Spanish into German will most likely pose more problems, since the languages have very little in common. Even so, the material being translated can have a huge impact on how successful the translation will be. A shipping list of common household items will likely be easier to translate than an epic poem, since objects are much easier to describe than ideas.
The task is compounded by cultural differences. People who live in a land-locked mountainous region are likely to have ideas and concepts that would be foreign to coastal, seafaring people, even if they speak the same language. If one is trying to convey a concept to someone unfamiliar with it, it’s helpful to have concepts with which to compare it, and it’s not always possible to find a reliable comparison. Perhaps the mountain dwellers have a word to describe the sound the wind makes as it rustles through the trees. Relaying that word to the seafarers will tell them what it means, but simply knowing the meaning would not convey the memories or sensations the mountain dwellers invoke when using it. Another example would be equating the Jewish concept of a Messiah, that is a ruler from the Davidic line of kings with the Pagan concept of the Christ, a dying and resurrected savior-king such as Attis.
The people who wrote and compiled the Bible lived in a much different world, under vastly different circumstances than we do. Ideas and concepts we take for granted would be as foreign to our ancestors as theirs would seem to us. We have their static words, but not how they used their language for day to day affairs, or to communicate important beliefs or rituals. Words can sometimes lose certain nuances when written rather that spoken, as anyone who has ever misread a text or Internet post can attest. Since many of the stories which comprise the Bible started out as oral folklore, how the storyteller told the story was often as important as the words being said. Describing a leader as “great” has a different meaning if the person saying it has a sarcastic edge to his or her voice and unless this delivery is recorded with the words, the meaning will be lost. Since we were not present to hear how these stories were told, we cannot be certain how they were intended. Finally, people in a culture can develop shorthand in communicating where they leave out concepts that are generally accepted in their society, assumptions a native would know without being told. Our society takes cars for granted. If we’re communicating with an isolated tribe in the Amazon which has mostly been shielded from modern technology, telling them we “drove” someplace won’t have much meaning for them.
One cannot claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God when there are multiple official versions of the Bible that are accepted as authoritative and which do not always agree with one another. If the Protestant Bible is the inerrant word of God, then how does one assess the Catholic Bible, which is older, contains more material, and which includes the Septuagint, which was the authoritative Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures for several centuries, up to and including the time of Jesus. While one can isolate portions of the Bible which may have sprung from what seemed to be divine inspiration, such as the Psalms, or Ecclesiastes, there are many more portions that exhibit obvious editorial oversight, such as the book of Judges, which constantly reminds its readers that the stories took place before Israel had a king. Mark is believed by most scholars to have been the first Gospel and was the basis for Matthew and Luke. In his Gospel, Matthew corrects instances where Mark erred, such as in relating the pronunciation of Jesus’ final words on the cross, or when Mark, not familiar with the geography of Judea, got place names wrong. Apparently the author of Matthew did not regard the author of Mark as infallible.