A Slippery Bible

Dear Reader,

My last post on how the church’s theology has changed over the centuries calls to my mind another discussion I end up having every once in a while–that of how we got our Bible and even what our Bible is. I suppose the connection is that in both cases there is no point in time or document that we can point to and say “this is what we believe; this is when we had it all right.” Certainly, Christians try to do this. We put the early church on a pedestal and feel that if we can say this is how they did it or what they believed then we have a convincing argument. But as I tried to show in that earlier post on the evolution of theology, the early church still had  a lot to work out. It wasn’t until the 300s AD that they began to nail down the doctrine of the Trinity much less things like how salvation works.

Now we may say, and I do believe, that though these doctrines of who God is and how He saves us were not fully understood,they are there to be found in the biblical text; it just took as (where us=God’s people collectively) a while to understand them. But then we get into textual issues.

If it all comes back to what’s in the Bible, we have to ask what is the Bible? And for most Christians this is pretty simple. They have a Bible they like and that’s fine. Maybe they notice that others have different translations. When there is a verse one doesn’t understand, it is good to look at other translations. Though, honestly, if the other translation seems to make more sense of the verse, it is probably because the translators have been more interpretive; they have cleared things up for you on purpose by putting in their own idea of what a difficult verse means.

It is my opinion that all translations are interpretations anyway. Some are more interpretive than others of course. And we should try to be as faithful to the original and inject as few of our own ideas as possible. But there is just not a one to one correspondence between languages, especially when we are talking about ones a different as Hebrew and English. The Muslims know this. That is why there are no official translations of the Koran. Of course, we Protestants value having the Bible in our own languages. It is important to us that God’s Word is accessible to all His people in their native language. That’s not an idea I want to give up. But at the same time, we need to be aware that it comes with a downside. There are times English is just not going to capture the sense of the Hebrew or Greek.

But fortunately, there are some of us who do study these languages (my own background is in biblical Hebrew). So we can just turn to those people to look at the original texts for us and tell us what they say, right? But again it’s not so easy. Because we don’t just have one text. Sometimes our English translations vary because they are looking at different originals. When I open my Hebrew Bible, there are all sorts of notes at the bottom which tell me that other Hebrew texts have variant readings or that ancient translations into languages like Greek and Syriac have different readings. As much as I am biased towards the Hebrew, we can’t even say that those texts are the oldest and most accurate. You have to remember that these manuscripts were copied by hand for many centuries. Errors crept in. Sometimes we can make good guesses about which ones are the errors and which are more authentic readings (this is called textual criticism), but sometimes we can’t. To put it bluntly, there is no one text we can point to and say “this is the biblical text and no other.” Sometimes one ancient text is more accurate and then in another verse another one might be preferable.

Life would be easier if God had given us a set of golden tablets written in heaven which contained the Text. But He didn’t. He gave His word piece-meal over more than a millennium through many different authors, editors, and compilers of texts.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The Bible is a slippery thing. We just can’t quite grasp it. We can’t point to one text and say here it is and no other. And yet it is still our “only infallible rule for faith and life.” How is this possible? Why didn’t God just give us one text, preferably by one author, that we can hold up as our holy scriptures?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some theories. If we had one author, he would be exalted by us more than any human should. So we have no Joseph Smith or Mohammed who wrote or was handed all of God’s Word. And even the biblical text itself, though it is the Word of God, is not God. Perhaps it remains somewhat elusive so that we cannot exalt it over the One who gave it.

And my last thought is that God just likes to keep us on our toes. Much of Christianity is a mystery. How can God be three persons in one substance? How can Jesus be fully man and fully God? These and others are tensions we just have to learn to live with because our human minds can’t fully comprehend them. So too the Bible keeps us a little bit off-balance. If our faith depends upon being able to explain and understand every mystery, every seeming contradiction, we will never be done with the questioning. There will always be another challenge to our beliefs to have to deal with. At a certain pint we all have to say “I cannot explain it all, but this is what I believe.” or perhaps even better “This is Who I believe.”



One response to this post.

  1. […] – Line 13 in Hebrew would read “Those who seek your face Jacob.” Other ancient versions have this reading and I think we have to prefer them. The Hebrew doesn’t make much sense. (For more on dealing with the fact that we have different texts see this post.) […]


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