The Temptation to be Right

© Copyright 2009, 2011 by Joel R. Hall – All Rights Reserved

One of the biggest temptations facing the Body (a.k.a. the Christian Church) is the lure of being “right”. This especially applies to what we think the Bible says. The biggest problem with succumbing to this temptation is that we probably know a lot less than we think we do.

First of all, you have the translation problem. Not only was the Bible written in a different language, it was written in multiple different ancient languages, none of which we understand all that well. This is often a source of much confusion for many Christians, because we tend to think of this in terms of modern languages. But translating from a language like ancient Hebrew or Greek is a very different animal from translating between say modern Chinese and English. Bear in mind that even modern translation can be a very tricky proposition due to differences in idiom and nuance. This difficulty is magnified many times when translating from an ancient language.

The chief problem is that, unlike a modern language, you can’t just go ask a native speaker what is meant by a particular word or phrase since there are no native speakers left. To illustrate this problem further, first go and read some Shakespeare and then go read some Canterbury Tales. Yeah, it’s English, but not the same English you and I speak. If we have trouble understanding our own language after a few hundred years, imagine how much worse it would be after a few thousand.

The Old Testament, written in ancient Hebrew, is the part of the Bible that presents the greatest challenge to translation. There are several aspects of this language that contribute to this challenge: small vocabulary, small alternate manuscript sample size, and vast changes in cultural communication norms. When it comes to ancient Hebrew, even top scholars frequently disagree on the meaning of certain words and phrases. Worse yet, just because scholars agree on the current best understanding of the meaning of a given word or phrase, does not guarantee that they are correct.

The situation is a bit better in the New Testament, but even there, scholars are not always in agreement. While Ancient Greek is a bit richer language than ancient Hebrew and is not quite as separated in time from the present, it is still no walk in the park to arrive at an accurate translation. Punctuation and idiom are two of the biggest hurdles in the New Testament.

And translation is not the only issue in compiling a modern Bible. A comparison of all copies of ancient Bible manuscripts will show that variations exist which can have some fairly significant impact on arriving at a “correct” English text.

Ok. Now that I’ve bored you silly, let me at last get to the point: our understanding of the Bible is by definition incomplete. Yep. You heard it here. We don’t have all the answers.

Some would say that this is a problem. Critics would question how an intelligent person could base their faith on a book about which there are so many questions. Indeed, this is the chief complaint leveled at the Bible and the Christian faith by Muslims. They regard the Koran as the only perfect book: written in Arabic with the meaning of every verse verified from the very beginning of their faith.

My answer to this is very simple: the uncertainties surrounding the Bible are not it’s biggest weakness; they are it’s biggest strength! I believe that, as a species, our understanding of God has evolved over time. Not because God had changed, but because we are slow learners. The Bible reveals the most important Truth in the person of Yeshua. His message is quite simple: God loves you enough to redeem you at the expense of his perfect incarnation. But, just as Yeshua revealed the Plan behind the scriptures of the Old Testament that, although they were always there in plain sight, were missed by the leading scholars of His time, I believe that some of the mysteries of the Bible which have baffled scholars for centuries and may well have led to either mistranslations or misinterpretations are actually further revelations just waiting for God’s timing to be illuminated.

In the end, when all is revealed, we will all marvel at His amazing work of art called the Holy Bible. It is His Word: a work of many ages; a masterpiece that no man could ever have contrived.

In the mean time, we as Christians must be careful about what we insist the Bible says. I’m not saying that we should doubt the resurrection or the passion or any of the big Truths of the Bible. I’m saying that we need to be aware of the limitations of what we do know and that only comes by studying the footnotes, commentaries, and other scholarly works written by those that have actually wrestled with the issues outlined above. In this way our faith can be based upon a realistic view of what we do understand and will prevent us from pontificating about those things that we don’t. After all, He did tell us to seek that we might find.


© Copyright 2009, 2011 by Joel R. Hall – All Rights Reserved


About Joel Hall

Onward through the fog!
This entry was posted in Musings on the Bible, Spiritual Living and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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