THE TRUTH ABOUT GOD IN ALL SIXTY-SIX BOOKS
The Bible is a very ancient book, or rather an ancient collection of very ancient books. The most recent of them was written nearly two thousand years ago!
What assurance do we have that the books of the Bible read the same today as when they first appeared? And since these books were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, how confident can we be that the hundreds of translations into English and a thousand other languages accurately represent the meaning of the original documents?
Fortunately, to answer these important questions there is a vast amount of readily available evidence. None of the original handwritten copies of the Biblical books is known to exist today. But painstaking comparison of thousands of subsequent copies, along with many other sources for the recovery of the original text, has led to agreement among many scholars that for all practical purposes we have in our possession the books of the Bible as they were first written.
F. G. Kenyon, one-time director of the British Museum and a man qualified by a lifetime of experience with Bible manuscripts to speak with authority about the preservation of the Scriptures, wrote this assurance on page 23 of his widely used book Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts:
“It cannot be too strongly asserted that in substance the text of the Bible is certain…. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world…. The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries.”
For 250 pages in his book Kenyon surveys the history of the transmission of the Biblical text, from the earliest manuscripts down to modern English versions. Referring to the most recent manuscript discoveries in his day, Kenyon concludes, “They have established, with a wealth of evidence which no other work of ancient literature can even approach, the substantial authenticity and integrity of the text of the Bible as we now possess it” (page 245).
Several decades have passed since this famous scholar published his frequently quoted convictions. Important manuscript discoveries since that time have only served to confirm his earlier conclusions.
As to the dependability of the hundreds of translations of the Bible, this is a matter that can be readily examined. All translations go back ultimately to one common source, the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Therefore, all can be measured by essentially the same basic standard.
The story of the translation of the Bible is a long and colorful history. Excellent books are available on the subject, for the general reader or the most sophisticated student.
Suffice it to say that never has the Bible been so readily available in such accurate and readable translations as today. The Bible societies report that the Word of God has now been rendered into well over a thousand languages, covering almost the entire population of the globe.
How else could the Good News go to every nation under heaven, that all may have a chance to know the truth!
It makes for confidence in the versions to learn something about the men who prepared the translations and their reasons for undertaking such long and arduous work.
Tyndale risked and lost his life in his urgent desire to give the Bible to the people in their own language. Almost five hundred years ago he wrote that he “perceaved by experyence how that it was impossible to stablysh the laye people in any truth, excepte the scripture were playnly layde before their eyes in their mother tonge,” “which thinge onlye moved me to translate the new testament.”
The translators of the 1611 King James Version wrote in their no-longer-published preface that their purpose was to do that which “helpeth forward to the saving of soules. Now what can bee more availeable thereto, then to deliver Gods booke unto Gods people in a tongue which they understand?”
The committee of scholars, including Goodspeed and Moffatt, who prepared the 1952 Revised Standard Version, expressed this purpose in their preface: “The Bible is more than a historical document to be preserved. And it is more than a classic of English literature to be cherished and admired. It is a record of God’s dealing with men, of God’s revelation of himself and his will. It records the life and work of him in whom the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among men. The Bible carries its full message, not to those who regard it simply as a heritage of the past or praise its literary style, but to those who read it that they may discern and understand God’s Word to men. That Word must not be disguised in phrases that are no longer clear, or hidden under words that have changed or lost their meaning. It must stand forth in language that is direct and plain and meaningful to people today. It is our hope and our earnest prayer that this Revised Standard Version of the Bible may be used by God to speak to men in these momentous times, and to help them to understand and believe and obey His Word.”
The 1973 New International Version of the New Testament, published by the New York Bible Society International, closes its preface with these words: “We offer this version of the New Testament to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made. We pray that it will lead many into a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures and a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word, of whom the Scriptures so faithfully testify.”
The 1976 Good News Translation concludes the preface by stating that “the Bible is not simply great literature to be admired and revered; it is Good News for all people everywhere—a message both to be understood and to be applied in daily life. It is with the prayer that the Lord of the Scriptures will be pleased to use this translation for His sovereign purpose that the United Bible Societies has now published The Bible in Today’s English. And to Christ be the glory forever and ever!”
The hundred-member team that produced the 2001 English Standard Version add these final words to their preface: “We know that no Bible translation is perfect or final; but we also know that God uses imperfect and inadequate things to his honor and praise. So to our triune God and to his people we offer what we have done, with our prayers that it may prove useful, with gratitude for much help given, and with ongoing wonder that our God should ever have entrusted to us so momentous a task.”
One sometimes hears it suggested darkly that one reason for so many different versions of the Bible is that unprincipled scholars have desired to twist the words of Scripture to their own theological advantage. Such charges have usually been made by those who have had little or no experience in the difficult and delicate work of translation. The evidence does not support this accusation.
For my own satisfaction I have examined all the more influential versions of the English Bible, comparing them verse by verse with each other and with the original. I have looked especially for what might appear to be willful distortion of the text for doctrinal purposes. Such instances are so extremely rare as to make themselves conspicuous and readily noted by the student.
I have more than two hundred different English translations of all or part of the Bible in my modest collection. Among these, only a handful fail to qualify as straightforward translations of the original text.
There is, for example, a New Testament translated “from the metaphysical viewpoint.” There are the ones already mentioned in the previous chapter as “revised by the spirits,” or corrected “by direct revelation.” Also, when a version seems to be the special possession of some religious group and contains unusual translations that are given special emphasis by the group, this is a warning to beware.
Truth needs no special version of the Book!
It is true that the versions vary in methods of translation, from very literal to very free. And the more idiomatic and unambiguous the translation, the more the version will reflect the translator’s understanding of the meaning.
If the version describes itself as a paraphrase rather than a translation, as does the very popular The Living Bible, one would do well to heed the advice so candidly given by Dr. Taylor himself in his preface: “There are dangers in paraphrases, as well as values. For whenever the author’s exact words are not translated from the original languages, there is a possibility that the translator, however honest, may be giving the English reader something that the original writer did not mean to say.”
But there is paraphrase and interpretation to some extent in every translation, including the more literal King James. There is no way this can be avoided. Safety lies in using several versions, with a balance between the more literal and the more free, and comparing them with each other. The differences can be so instructive that I am glad for every version that I own.
As a freshman in college I decided to spend the rest of my life in the study and teaching of the Bible. That year I began to learn Greek, then later the other languages and tools for the detailed study of the Scriptures. After college I had the privilege of pursuing graduate studies in a university divinity school which at that time seemed to offer the most comprehensive program in the Biblical field.
Now, after sixty years of teaching Bible, it is still my most rewarding experience to join with a group in the book-by-book study of the entire Scriptures. About each of the sixty-six books we ask the same basic question, “What picture of God do you see in this book?”
No one is told what he ought to see or what he should believe. The Bible is God’s gift to everyone. It belongs equally to us all. The same Spirit of truth who inspired the writers of Scripture stands ready to guide each student to see the true meaning. And as he leads the members of each group to new insights and clearer understanding, it is a great pleasure to be of assistance to each other.
So far it has been my privilege to take more than 140 such trips through the whole Bible. Each trip takes about a year; some have taken much longer. The groups have ranged in size from an intimate dozen to several hundred. For the first nineteen years of teaching, most of my students were preparing for the gospel ministry. Since then, most have been students of medicine, dentistry, and other healing professions.
Some of the most instructive trips through the sixty-six books have been with groups made up of faculty colleagues from the various schools in the university where I teach. Other groups have met in communities nearby and have included people from all walks of life and from the young to the very old.
No two trips through the Bible are ever the same. But there are two basic questions that invariably arise. If the purpose of the Bible is to reveal the truth about God, why are there so few specific statements about him? And why do the Scriptures seem to contain so much apparently unimportant detail?
But what if the Bible should consist solely of God’s claims about himself? On what basis would we believe them?
When John the Baptist was languishing in prison, he began to wonder if Jesus really was the Christ. He sent two of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one who was to come or are we to look for somebody else?”
Did Jesus answer, “Indeed, I am the Christ. And I expect John to believe it”? Anyone could make this claim—even the devil himself. Only on the basis of evidence could John’s serious question be given a satisfactory reply.
So Jesus answered John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see—that blind men are recovering their sight, cripples are walking, lepers being healed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised to life and the good news is being given to those in need. And happy is the man who never loses faith in me” (Matthew 11:3–6, Phillips).
The Bible is a record of the things that God has said and done. But most of the Bible is made up of the historical details that describe the situations within which God so acted and so spoke. Without these details we would not be in a position to understand why God chose to speak and act in such a variety of ways. Details which would otherwise seem of little significance have their value in helping us to reconstruct the historical setting within which God was seeking to reveal himself to his people.
On each trip through the sixty-six books it soon becomes apparent that the same principle of interpretation that is applied to any ancient document must also be applied to the Sacred Scriptures. It was the context that determined the meaning of a passage when originally written. To the extent that we can recover the original context, we are able to recover the original meaning.
On a first reading of the Bible, there are many events and teachings that appear to put God in an unfavorable light. There is the fighting and killing in the Old Testament, the apparently cruel punishments, the representations of an angry God. They sometimes even seem to support Satan’s charges that God is arbitrary, unforgiving, and severe.
In 1926 Joseph Lewis, an avowed atheist, described as “the Enemy of God” in his authorized biography, published a book entitled The Bible Unmasked. In this openly hostile volume Lewis has collected the most unpleasant stories of immorality and bloodshed he could find in the Old and New Testaments.
He includes the sad story of the Levite and his concubine told in Judges 19 and then asks the question, “What moral good can our children receive from the reading of this inhuman, brutal and degrading episode?… Can any element of this story inspire strength of character, or of duty to our fellow-men, or of anything that will elevate the moral life of man?” (pages 115, 116).
I mentioned this book years ago to one of the groups going through the sixty-six books. A premedical student made this thoughtful observation: If you should take a medical book designed for family use, cut out all the descriptions and pictures of disease, and publish these by themselves, the resulting volume would be useless, even repulsive, to the ordinary reader. But there is value in including these descriptions in the medical book, since they are presented in the setting of the remedy.
The same is true of the Scriptures. The Bible is very candid in its depiction of sin. Even the sins of the saints are honestly portrayed. Such candor only increases the credibility of the Biblical record. But these examples of the ugliness of sin never stand in isolation. If they did, they would be useless, and perhaps better never read. But in the sixty-six books of Scripture, sin is always presented in the setting of the remedy.
It is this setting that must never be overlooked. And it involves not only the immediate historical context of each recorded event but the far broader setting of the great controversy between good and evil—the charges of Satan, the answers of God, and the plan of salvation and healing.
Mindful of this total setting, the student learns to view the Bible as a whole and to relate all its parts to the one central theme, the revelation of the truth about God. As he reads on from book to book, there begins to appear a pattern of consistency behind all the stories. There gradually emerges a picture of an all-wise and infinitely gracious God who seems willing to go to any length to keep in touch with his people, to stoop and reach them where they are, to speak a language they can understand.
It has been my experience with each Bible study group that the further we read, the more we are moved with love and admiration for the One who would be willing to run such a risk, to pay such a price, in order to keep open the lines of communication between himself and his wayward children.
Our main concern is not with what happened to the Levite and that poor woman, or to Samson and Delilah, to David and Bathsheba, to Gideon and his fleece. The all-important question is, “What do these stories tell us about God?”
The great purpose of the Bible is to reveal the truth about our heavenly Father that we may be won back to him in love and trust. This truth, this everlasting Good News, is to be found in every one of the sixty-six books.