Defending the Biblical Text
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv
One of the key challenges facing the church today is defending the text of the word of God. If Satan can sow confusion about the text of God's word, it will be more difficult for Christians to keep the words of Christ. Satan hates God's word and is attacking its accuracy on several fronts. The New Testament itself lays a firm foundation for our faith. It claims that the writings of the Old Testament prophets and of the New Testament Apostles are the miraculous product of a direct intervention of God whereby He controlled these writers in such a way that the product is in every sense a direct communication of God's will to us. In a similar way to the nature of Jesus Christ, who is in every sense both man and God, so too, the Bible is both the words of the various human writers and also fully the word of God. The technical term given to this phenomenon by modern theologians is "verbal plenary inspiration". A detailed treatise of this doctrine is beyond the scope of this book, however, the result is that this doctrine gives our faith a firm and solid foundation. We might actually be on the top story of a large building built upon this foundation, but at the bottom of it all is this unshakable foundation. Satan's termites are trying to undermine this foundation.
One of the most obvious attacks on this foundation is the multitude of poorly executed modern translations which have flooded the market in the past several decades. The aim of some of these is laudable, wanting to make the Bible more simple and easy to understand. However, the Bible is written at a certain level of complexity for a purpose. Making it too simple smudges the picture the Bible is trying to present. Furthermore, any time the goal is anything but strict accuracy, the passage must then be interpreted in order to make it simple, and that introduces a subjective bias with the potential for corruption which is inherent in human nature. Paraphrases and simplified translations may have a place in the teaching of children and young converts, but like with baby food, the user should soon be weaned off of it in favor of more solid food.
Another group of modern translations focuses not on simplicity but on correct grammar. The goal is readability and correct modern language usage (English or whatever language is being used). These so called dynamic translations sometimes sacrifice accuracy for readability. It is impossible to remove all vestiges of Greek or Hebrew syntax from a work translated from those languages. Therefore, in translation work, it is important to maintain a balance between readability and accuracy. On the other hand, a few translations go to the other extreme. There are some very accurate translations that are so faithful to the Greek that they become difficult to read in the modern language.
The desire to make the Bible simple and readable is a laudable goal. The problem comes when these goals are pushed too far resulting in a loss of accuracy. However, there is another group of even more faulty translations whose goal is not so noble. Their goal is to push a doctrinal agenda. Sometimes the agenda can be the denial of the miraculous, in others feminism, in others political or economic agendas. Some heterodox Christian sects (that is, cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses) have produced mistranslation which attempt to support their doctrinal quirks. Many of these attacks, in the form of twisted translations come from what can be considered the left, or liberal, wing of Christianity or from the cults. However, because these attacks are so blatant, they are annoying but perhaps not as dangerous as some attacks on the Greek text which are far more subtle and dangerous. This other groups of attacks come from the radical right wing of Fundamentalism. I wish to address this other type of attack, which comes from within fundamentalism itself, in more detail.
One has to bear in mind that God's word results from God's desire to manifest Himself and communicate with us. Even though many things in the Bible are easy to understand, many things which God is trying to communicate to us task the ability of our language to transmit such information accurately. Out of all the languages in the world, God picked two of them to serve as the medium for this revelation. He picked one of these, Hebrew, for the first covenant, and another, Greek, for the new or renewed covenant. Aramaic was used in a few small portions of the Old Testament, but Aramaic is so similar to Hebrew that they are almost dialects of each other. Both Greek and Hebrew are highly complex languages and allow thoughts to be expressed with more accuracy, vividness, and subtlety than many other languages. Both languages have many more verb endings than most modern languages and Greek also has noun ending which have been lost in the most widely spoken Western European languages (English, French, Spanish, Portugese and Italian).
I once had a seminary professor who emphasized that anything that can be said in one language can be said in another. That is technically true, but not all languages can say it with the same efficiency. For example, the Persian language, which my wife speaks, does not have a word equivalent to the English word ‘Lord.' It has ‘mister,' it has ‘king,' it has ‘God,' and ‘ruler,' but none of those words convey exactly the idea found in the Greek ‘kurios,' in the English ‘Lord,' and in the Spanish ‘Señor.' I can explain what that word means in a sentence or two in Persian, but one cannot include a one or two sentence long description every time that word appears in the text. One Persian translation simply uses God every time the greek text uses ‘Lord' in reference to Jesus. That seems to strengthens the doctrine of the deity of Christ but is actually inaccurate. ‘God' does not mean the same thing as ‘Lord.' The Greek has a word for ‘God,' the word ‘theos,' and the Holy Spirit opted for using the word for ‘Lord'‘kurios' in many contexts.
Arabic, on the other hand, has no generic word for ‘God.' The most commonly used Arabic translation uses the word ‘Allah.' This makes Jesus the son of Allah. Now, the word‘Allah' is probably related to the Hebrew word for God, ‘Elohim,' which is the term for God used in the Old Testament. The true Arabs are descendants of Abraham and ‘Allah' probably originally referred to the God of Abraham. Therefore, it is technically accurate to use the term ‘Allah' when referring to God in Arabic. However, a certain personality and certain attributes have been ascribed to Allah by Islam which are highly inaccurate from a Biblical perspective, and that makes the use of the word ‘Allah' in the Christian Bible disorienting if not outright confusing. Therefore, even though anything that can be said in one language can probably be said in any other, some things will be so difficult to say that at least some of the meaning will be obscured by almost any translation. God specially prepared two languages to serve as the medium for His written revelation in order to minimize the distortions and limitations inherent in all human languages.
When I first started studying neurophysiology (the study of how nerves and the brain function) my advisor advised me to read a one thousand page plus introductory textbook. I spent most of one summer reading through it. I remember one afternoon coming to the realization that I had read a particular paragraph four or five times and I still had no idea what it meant. I then analyzed the paragraph from a linguistic point of view and realized that only about one out every four words were normal English. The other seventy five percent was composed of a thick complex technical language. To me the sentences sounded something equivalent to "The beta gobildigook closes ionically and then the molecular geshindigs gobelsplate on the bundeskline allowing the gamma gobildigooks to fuse interjiberswatly." Several chapters earlier all of these esoteric terms had been defined, but because I did not then understand their broader context, the definitions were difficult to comprehend. Now I had acquired a passing glimpse of the context but I did not know what it was that was acting within the context. Therefore I had to go back to the definitions to get a better understanding, now that I had a small glimpse of the context. Then I would go back to the difficult paragraphs with the better understood definitions to try to work my way through to a better understanding of the context. This process continued all throughout graduate school.
The material being dealt with was so foreign to common experience that normal language did not suffice to communicate ideas efficiently. Therefore, common language was used as a foundation to define technical terms using either new words or giving new meanings to old words. These carefully defined terms could then be used to communicate more accurately, complex new information. Consequently, these terms acted like beams and columns placed upon the foundation of a building which in turn were used to create a linguistic superstructure which could be used to present the key concepts of the field.
All complex bodies of knowledge work like this. The Bible is a highly complex body of knowledge because its subject is the most complex Being of all, the Creator of all the complexity in the universe. He is the creator of DNA, of quantum mechanics of black holes of poetry of beauty and of all the complex things that mystify us. If we wish to gain a careful and accurate understanding of God's word, it is necessary at some point to acquire at least some passing rudimentary acquaintance with at least a few terms and grammar points of the Biblical languages. As stated before, God chose Greek and Hebrew as the vehicles for His written revelation for a purpose. These languages are more accurate and can express what God wanted to communicate more efficiently than other widely used human languages. In addition to their innate complexity and powerful grammatical structure, Greek, for example, had been used widely in philosophy and science, so the language had developed an extensive vocabulary and words had acquired detailed meanings. These already precise words had been used to translate the Old Testament into Greek in a widely used translation called the Septuagint. Therefore, by their use in that translation many words had acquired a Biblical theological usage as well. Furthermore, the Septuagint served to connect the meaning of Greek words to Old Testament Hebrew words. It gave Greek words a connection to the Old Testament Hebrew Biblical context.
It is inexcusable for teachers of the Bible and for Pastors to not be able to use at least the most basic Biblical language tools in the preparation of their lessons and sermons. I have come across pastors who defined the terms in their text using Webster's dictionary and saw no need to even open up a concordance to see how the Greek term behind the word was translated in other passages. This is an exercise which is so simple that even a grade school student can learn how to do it, so no one can use the excuse that he is a pastor, not a scholar. It is interesting that I knew a missionary who had apparently learned to preach like this from his pastor back home, but when he started preaching in Spanish and was forced to compare the English and Spanish translations he began to refer to the Greek much more frequently.
I once attended a service in another church in rural Puerto Rico, which is a Spanish speaking country, and I heard another missionary preach on the passage where Elisha causes the axe head to float on the water (II Kings 6:5). This missionary had not been able to learn Spanish very well, so he had a tiny little English church in a small town in rural Puerto Rico attended by a handful of bilingual Puerto Ricans who had lived in the United States but did not like it and came back but had lost fluency in Spanish and never bothered to re-learn it. Therefore, he was preaching out of the King James Version which describes the object which Elisha caused to float as an axe head. The whole point of the sermon was that if the young man who was using the axe had checked the axe head to make sure it was firmly attached to its wooden handle, it would never have fallen off. Therefore, if we want to serve God we need to examine our axe head. "Have you, brother, examined YOUR axe head lately, or is it about to fall off?" Well, this is logically weak to start with, because the axe was borrowed, and perhaps was not strong enough for the job, no matter how well it had been checked. Axes were scarce in those days and at least the young man was enterprising enough to go out and find one.
However, I was sitting there with the Spanish translation, the Reina Valera, open on my lap and this translation does not say that the axe head fell off; instead, it says that the whole axe itself, head and tail, fell into the water. Therefore, it simply slipped out of the young man's hand. This completely invalidates the main point of the sermon. This man knew my stand on the King James controversy, so when I pointed this out to the missionary he said that the problem with me was that I was always looking for errors in the Bible. I do not look for errors in the Bible, this interpretational difference reflected in the two translations simply jumped out at me because I was using the translation of the Bible in the local language. It also happened to be the case that this church accepted both the King James Version and the Reina Valera as being accurate translations. I was using the Spanish translation because Spanish is my native tongue. It just so happened that the Spanish translation was a little different than the English one he was using. This missionary did not consider it necessary to even crack open the Spanish and take a passing look in the local tongue at the passage he was about to exposit. When I asked him about this difference, he did not address my question but simply questioned my devotion to Christ. The problem is that an honest answer to my question might have put in question his own devotion to Christ (because he had not taken the time to check the Spanish) so he chose to attack my devotion instead.
Since I also know some Hebrew I looked up the passage in the Hebrew as well. The original Hebrew text says neither axe head nor axe. It simply says that the iron fell into the water. The English translators assumed that the axe had an iron head and a wooden handle, while the Spanish translators assumed that the instrument was a one piece instrument made completely from iron. We do not know which assumption is correct, the original text does not say. However, the interpretation made by the pastor has no foundation in the original text. He was simply preaching common sense. Common sense is fine, but it is not the same as preaching the Bible and should not be passed off as such. This is the way that Satan slowly eats away at the foundation. He first substitutes God's truth with common truth. Both are still true, but one is presented with the firm foundation of God's word, while the other is hanging off the side of the cliff anchored only to the preacher's "because I say so." When the hearer is buffeted by the storms of life the edifice on the cliff is bound to come crashing down. I can only surmise that this contributed to the woeful inability of this small church to grow and reach the lost in the area.
I do not want to sound overly critical of missionaries. After all, they are the product of their churches back home. In fact, they are probably the best that these churches produce. These are the members devoted enough to leave the comfort of their home towns to fulfill the great commission in a foreign country. However, if this is the best that the church is producing, then the church probably needs to rethink the way it trains its missionaries and pastors. This rethinking needs to start at the very top. I spoke by telephone with the director for the Caribbean for a large, well known independent Baptist mission board. This man was the pastor of a large church somewhere in the South of the United States. I discussed some issues with him having to do with a certain missionary church . He was not a very pleasant man and was rather rough in his speech. His conclusion was that Baptist churches are independent and the missionary/pastor can basically do what he thinks is best, and if a church member does not like it he can always leave and go to another Baptist church down the road. After all, there is a Baptist church on just about every street corner. Well, there may be a Baptist church on every street corner in the South in the United States, but not in Puerto Rico. After all, that is the whole point of missions, starting churches where there are none. If this missions director does not realize this, then he is too uniformed about missions to have such a high position within a missions organization.
The attitude described in the preceding paragraphs stem from a point of view which has become common among many fundamentalist churches and which is threatening to again split the movement. These stories were included to show the damage this view can cause. This is a particularly heinous attack on God's word because it is so subtle and so clever. The attack is to elevate a good translation to the level of the actual word of God. Even if one rejects the assertion that the Greek and Hebrew were specially chosen because they are uniquely suited to convey God's word, any person who is fluent in two languages can attest to the fact that even the best translations loose some of the clarity and crispness of the original. This is even true when the subject matter is secular in nature (such as literature, movies, or science). I hate to see an English movie in its Spanish translation because it always loses something, unless it was meant to take place in a Spanish setting.
The foundational problem at the bottom of the textual controversy is the fact that God has given to us, sin contaminated, fallible humans a perfect and divine gift in the Bible. However, every time a human touches it he stains it, whether it be in the preaching of the word, in its interpretation, in its translation or in its mere copying. We have an infallible word but it is born by fallible men. The college and career pastor of the church I attended in Illinois while I was in medical school told me a thought provoking story about a seminary classmate of his. One time when this classmate was asked to pray before one of his classes, in front of all his seminary classmates, he had the audacity to ask God to keep him from ever preaching error from the pulpit. Well, God answered his prayer. A few weeks later he was dead from leukemia. That is the only way we can avoid preaching error.
Someone once asked me why God would give us a perfectly inspired Bible and not give us a perfect infallible translation or even a perfect copy of the text of the Bible in the original languages. I think there are at least two reasons why God did this. First of all, I believe He did this is to show us how sinful and fallible we are, that we cannot even take care of such a precious gift. When we refuse to recognize this fact and do not carefully separate God's perfect work from our feeble, corrupt acts of service, we fall into the same error reflected in the false doctrine of salvation by works. If we allow God to work through us, He produces works which bear fruit. However, it is God's part of that work which has eternal value, not our part.
Furthermore, if there was an absolutely perfect copy of the Bible somewhere, it would be in some shrine displayed as an idol and someone or some group would be trying to use it to make money and get power. Imagine if the Russian Orthodox Church or the Vatican could claim to have that perfect copy. They would use it to prove their supremacy. Wars would be fought over its ownership and Satan would try to destroy it. The way it is now, the text of the Bible is spread across the world contained in thousands of manuscripts owned by many different groups and individuals. Each manuscript varies very slightly from every other manuscript and in order to come as close as possible to reconstructing the exact original text it is necessary for all these groups to share their findings with each other in order to compare all the variant readings. No manuscript lies in a shrine as an object of worship and people are encouraged to obey God's word rather than to worship God's word.
There is now an ongoing effort by various different groups to translate the English King James Version of the Bible into Spanish. One notorious example of this is the Reina Valera Gomez Version being promoted by Chick Publications, the group that prints the Chick Cartoon Tracts. I was saddened to see that this version and the reasons to support it were prominently displayed on their website.
Now, it is interesting that all of these groups are Christians who live in the United States and who want to translate the King James into other languages. I have not seen any of them who wish to translate the Spanish Reina Valera or the version in other languages back into English. It is the height of nationalistic and cultural arrogance for those who hold this view to believe that God has perfectly preserved His word in English but has not already preserved the word of God in the Spanish language. What right and what Biblical support do they have to state that the Word of God is perfectly preserved in the English King James Version and not in the Spanish Reina Valera Version? Someone could just as easily claim that it is the Spanish which perfectly preserves the word of God and the King James Version should be corrected using the Reina Valera.
I sent Chick Publications an e-mail asking them to support me in producing a King James Version corrected using the Reina Valera. I suggested we could call it the King James Lopez Version (KJLV). I never heard back from them. Unfortunately, the cultural and nationalistic pride exhibited by these misguided brethren is probably what is going to make the United States the seat of the empire of the Antichrist (as discussed under the three Babylons above). I want to emphasize that we are not against the use of the Chick Cartoon Tracts. Up to the point when this went to print the author has passed out over twenty thousand Chick Tracts at his ophthalmology office in Puerto Rico. We are actively involved in passing out God's word and willing to use every useful tool at our disposal for that purpose.
The key issues of the textual controversy have been amply and carefully discussed elsewhere. However, I encourage the reader to consider the following general principles. First of all, God's word is not preserved in any one single manuscript but in the totality of the manuscripts and versions. There is absolutely no verse or passage in the Bible which can be used to identify a particular manuscript or even a family of manuscripts as being completely faithful to the original text. There are some verses which many students of the Bible believe promise that God's word would be preserved. However, I have never seen a passage of scripture which identifies where, that is in which manuscript, it will be preserved. If you really look at the substance of the argument, most of the time they conclude that the true text is the one approved by the Catholic church (the so called Textus Receptus produced by Erasmus, a Catholic monk). Therefore, our textual preferences are based on extra Biblical evidence and fallible human assessment of that evidence. This is so obvious that it is a wonder that there is any controversy at all. We can have differences in our preferences for one manuscript or family of manuscripts over another, but we must realize that this is based on opinion, not doctrine. However, when someone elevates a particular translation or a particular Greek or Hebrew text to the same level as the perfect inspired word of God, they are making a doctrinal statement, one for which there is no Biblical basis.
A second principle is that translation automatically implies interpretation. No two languages have an exact word for word correspondence for the meaning of their words, nor is their grammar exactly equivalent. We saw above the example of languages that lack the word God and Lord. All translations of the word of God loose some exactness in their meaning when compared to the text in the original languages. If you or I as individual we were to make a translation from the original languages we would sometimes have to chose between different meanings of a word and try to capture the nuances of the original by choosing the most similar word in our target language and these choices would be influenced by our biases and interpretations. Some of these choices would be less than ideal. If this is true of any of us in the present we must assume that it is also true of those who made translations in the past, unless the Bible specifically names exceptions, and it does not.
Because translation implies interpretation, it is important for a serious student of the Bible to have at least some acquaintance with the original languages and to look at various different good translations when he is studying a particular passage. If the student or pastor is blessed by knowing more than one modern language then it is important to look at good translations in both languages. Since this author knows English and Spanish, he always looks at the best translations in both languages when preparing a lesson or sermon. This comparison of translations is similar to the comparison of various accounts encouraged by the existence of four gospels. The first three gospels, especially Matthew and Luke present much of the same material but from a slightly different point of view. As stated elsewhere, this gives the account depth and allows a greater understanding of the message which is being presented.
Finally, we must be careful to not hide God's word in a language which is no longer understandable because it is so old. Satan tried this trick before and was successful in condemning millions of people for many centuries to the ignorance of the word of God. As the Christian church spread throughout the Latin speaking populations of Western Europe it became necessary to produce an accurate translation of the Bible into Latin from the Greek and Hebrew texts. Jerome undertook such a project, starting with the New Testament in 382AD and finishing the Old Testament in 405AD. Since it was written in the common language of the western Europeans it was called the Latin Vulgate, which means ‘common Latin' (from which we get the English word ‘vulgar'). A polished and standardized form of Latin based on an older form of Latin was used in scholarly and official writing during this period although no one spoke this language nor was it ever spoken. It would be akin to the form of writing lawyers engage in and is called Classical Latin. However, the Latin Vulgate Bible was written in the commonly spoken form of Latin.
This was quite a good translation for its time and became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic church which was great as long as people still spoke Latin. However, by the 9th century, about four hundred years after the Latin Vulgate was translated, the local forms of Latin had changed enough to make it difficult for common people to understand Latin. Latin was gradually evolving into what are now modern national languages such as Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. However, educated people still spoke Latin so Latin remained the official language of scholarship, government, and the church. Since the official Bible remained the Latin Bible, fewer and fewer people were able to understand the Bible and had to rely on the misinterpretations of the somewhat better educated priests. The situation was worse in those countries where most people spoke a language derived from German, a language very different from Latin, such as in Germany, England and the Scandinavian countries. This allowed many superstitions and errors to creep into the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the people accepted it because few people could understand the Bible any longer. Ignorance of the Bible deepened until the creation of the printing press, after which the Bible began to be translated into the spoken national languages of the people of the world. However, it was not until the last century that the Roman Catholic church finally abandoned their insistence on the use of Latin in church.
We are now faced with a very similar situation in the United States. The King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611, is about 400 years old. Much of the wording of the KJV is based on the translation of Tyndale (as much as 75% for the OT and 83% for the NT) which dates back to 1526 for the New Testament. This means that much of the wording and grammar of the KJV is about 500 years old. The English of this time is considered early modern English, but English before 1500 is considered middle English. That means that middle English was spoken only 26 years before the language reflected in the majority of the text of the KJV. People no longer speak this language and most unchurched people find it difficult to understand. This is specially true of immigrants who are not native English speakers. Shortly after I first wrote this we were having a men's breakfast at our church in Puerto Rico. A man has been coming who is an agnostic but likes the fellowship and likes to argue with us. He is a Puerto Rican raised in the United States who moved back when he retired. He actually decided to start reading the Bible, but he asked us why they made the English Bible so difficult to understand with all the ‘thee's' and ‘thou's'. In contrast, he claimed that the Spanish Bible was easier to understand. Unfortunately, his command of the English is better than his ability to read Spanish, so he actually could not understand either translation very well. We had to explain that the English translation is about 400 years old while the Spanish was last revised in 1960.
Now, to those of us who grew up in church the language of the King James Version is beautiful and fairly easy to understand. This is because we were exposed to this language since we were children, which is the ideal time to learn a language. We heard it preached, memorized passages in it and heard it read at home during family devotions. To us it has become a sort of second language, an ecclesiastical, church, language. Just like the Dutch and Germans settlers and immigrants who for a while preserved the language of the old country by using it at church, we have become a linguistic minority within our country. However, the majority of the population, especially those who are saved as adults, or who speak English as a second language, need an accurate translation of the Bible in contemporary modern English. Those staunch supporters of the King James Version of the Bible who are translating that version into Spanish should instead be working on translating it into up to date English. We need to provide the Bible in a form which is both as accurate and as easy to understand as possible. I fear that the staunch King-James-only supporters may be falling into a Satanic trap designed to keep the Bible hidden from the masses.
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