Bibles, Translation and Interpretation. 

It’s been a while - about six weeks in fact. Partly that was because I needed to think - I didn’t really feel as though I had much to say. We were away a lot too. On top of that, I’ve been finding life tough, mentally and physically. I’ve been a bit ‘off-colour’ physically, which is probably not unconnected to mentally struggling with ‘life’. 

This post follows on closely from the one before.  When we read our bibles we cannot really know the writers’ intentions. They were diverse people, from diverse times and places. They had different experiences of life and different spiritual experiences. They spoke, and wrote, different languages, and they lived within different cultures. And they lived a very long time ago.

That means that it’s very hard to understand what they meant to say, unless we believe the bible was literally written by God (more on that thorny little issue a little later), and that all subsequent translations have also been performed by God, and that somehow he made those ancient writers write in such a way that what they wrote would be perfectly intelligible to people living in different cultures, thousands of years later. There are those who believe that is exactly what God did. I used to count myself among their number,  but many years of careful study have shown me that it can’t be true. There’s too much 'wrong with' the bible for it to have been authored by an omniscient, omnipotent God. And it doesn't, once you really begin to examine what it says, say the same things to 'us now' as it did to ‘them then’ - we each come at the words with our own ‘cultural baggage’, our own expectations, etc., and those things all colour how we read, and the interpretations we place on the text.

We only have the words of the original writers - and translation from Hebrew and Greek (language and culture) requires very skilled interpretation based on a sound knowledge of the history and culture of the times and places in which they wrote; we tend to end up with a ‘modern’ bible - translation biased by the prejudices of the translators. And then, if we aren’t careful, we come at it, and interpret it, with all our 21st century cultural assumptions and prejudices, not to mention the things the church tells us are ’true'. 

What this means is that doing the sort of ‘letter by letter’ analysis we attempt, to wring out the finest nuances of meaning when ‘studying’ it, is not only pointless, it actually leads us down all kinds of rabbit holes. Better by far to be looking for general lessons from big chunks. The bible was never meant to be read the way we do... It was read aloud, and discussed, in groups.

Look, for instance, at the first couple of chapters of Genesis. So-called biblical literalists insist that the bible is absolutely, literally, scientifically and historically, true, and that the story of creation is literally true…

But why do people think there’s only one story? Have they never read Genesis 1 and 2 together?

Which of the two stories is the true one? They are stylistically different and largely factually incompatible. Science has its problems too, but to claim that scripture is infallible ‘because God wrote it’ when something as elementary as the differing accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is staring you in the face is, frankly, ridiculous.

I could go on, because scripture has lots of ‘problems’ like that. But, according to the fundamentalists, it’s absolutely true; it’s ‘the maker’s instructions’. They claim that it says it’s infallible...

But it doesn’t.

It does say things about itself, like this:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3: 16-17

(Actually, the word rendered ‘servant’ here is ἄνθρωπος (anthropos) which simply means ‘man’.)

There’s really lots of uncertainty about what scripture really says, once you get down to a paragraph-by-paragraph, word-by-word, analysis. The New Testament was all written in Koiné, or “common”, Greek. Koiné Greek was written in what is known as scriptio continua - which means no spaces between words and virtually no punctuation. So, a phrase like ‘weshouldgoandeatdad' could be interpreted as “We should go and eat, Dad,” or “We should go and eat Dad.” 

If you’re Dad, there’s a big difference right there: in one interpretation, you can look forward to a convivial repast; in the other, your future is almost entirely behind you!

Sentences can have different meanings depending on where the spaces and punctuation are placed. Taking another example, if English is written in scriptio continua then ‘godisnowhere’ could legitimately be written as “God is now here.” or “God is nowhere.” 

Any and all punctuation in our bibles is due entirely to the interpretations placed upon the text by modern translators. 

And that’s only the start. 

There are all the bits that were added later. Like the bits of Mark’s gospel after chapter 16, verse 8. Early manuscripts don’t have those bits. Where did they come from? Did God the Holy Spirit make a mistake when He was inspiring Mark the first time around, so then He had to ‘re-inspire’ some later copyist?

And it’s still happening: translators putting their own ‘slant’ on the meaning when it doesn’t quite say what they think it should. One minor example. Romans 5:9 (in the New International Version - and several others) says:

“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from the wrath of God through him!”

The Greek just says τῆς ὀργῆς ('the wrath') rather than ‘the wrath of God’. The NASB at least italicises the ‘inserted’ bit (but then doesn’t seem to say why - at least in the printing I saw):

“Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”

It isn’t even clear that ὀργῆς (orgés) actually means ‘wrath’; it’s the word from which we derive the English words orgy and orgasm. The primary meanings (from Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon) are natural impulse or propensity, from which is derived a second set of meanings - temperament, disposition, mood; ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ come a long way down the list . Therefore the verse could be interpreted as meaning

“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from (our?) natural impulses through him!”

So, scripture  isn’t infallible, inerrant, or what-have-you. Certainly not when you translate it from a 2000 year old Mediterranean culture and language into a modern Western one.

Does that make it ‘wrong’?

I direct you back to 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 above.

We need to be careful not to allow it too much authority - indeed, no more than it claims for itself. (Heresy alert!)

If we give it too much authority, then we begin to run into problems. And some of those problems are fairly fundamental...

How do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament, with His penchant for plagues, and His (I need an alliterative ‘g’ word for enthusiasm) for genocide, with the God we see in Jesus, who says:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’" Matthew 22:37-39

Jesus goes on to say that he is the image of the Father - so any picture we make for ourselves of what God is like, must acknowledge that. 

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” John 14:8-11

As Brian Zahnd wrote: God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like - but now we do.

The Jesus we see in the New Testament is generous and incredibly eager to forgive (the woman at the well (John 4) being just one example). He seems very different from the God with 'anger management issues’ which we seem to see in the Old Testament. That apparent dichotomy becomes less of a problem if we take scripture less literally; if we allow for the words being ‘coloured’ by the culture in which they were written, rather than insisting that they were written by ‘men-acting-as-automata’ (i.e. controlled directly by God)... And remember, from our examples above (and the general principles they illustrate, for this is scripture-wide) that it’s impossible to maintain the ‘men-acting-as-automata’ fiction for more than a few sentences, if we’re being intellectually honest.

I would say that we ought to read scripture in the light of what we know of Jesus. Jesus ought to be our supreme authority, not the bible. The bible ought to be subject to the Living Word of God (Jesus!). That is, I admit, apt to get us into some little difficulty, because the one place we see the Living Word clearly is in the bible...

I haven’t quite worked out how to deal with the circularity of that argument yet!

Regarding the ‘god with anger management issues’ - it’s not clear to me that He really is angry. There are a number of possibilities.

1. He is angry with everyone; he has ‘issues’ with anger management. This seems pretty unlikely, given the character of His Son, through whom we see God the Father most clearly (but who, nevertheless, does appear, at first glance, to exhibit some of those traits in a few of His parables).

2. He has a PR problem. Those ‘telling His story’ either didn’t hear right, or were expecting something they didn’t get, and told a different story from the one He wanted. Certainly, the stories of other contemporary peoples are ‘similar’ in style - they have angry, jealous, gods who smite their enemies willy-nilly (and their ‘friends’ too, when the mood strikes them).

3. There is an ‘evolution’ in His nature... Not likely, given all the ‘the same yesterday, today and forevermore’ stuff about God's character.

4. There is an evolution in ‘presentation’ for reasons of evolving culture and understanding.

Personally, I prefer a combination of possibilities 2 and 4. That does, though, deal quite a blow to the idea of biblical inerrancy. But it makes most sense to me in the face of the available evidence.

Anyway, all that’s probably more than enough to get me burned at the stake - or whatever the modern evangelical equivalent is (‘unFriended’ on Facebook perhaps?).

God bless you!

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2022