A member of my congregation has a friend who is an atheist. In a conversation recently the following argument was made:
I don’t know how you can turn to a book that not only originally translated from a completely dead language, but was then rewritten and reinterpreted dozens of times by the Church, meaning the Bible today is nothing like what was intended when it was written.Anonymous
These are legitimate questions. The Bible was written over a period of time: the earliest books 3,500 years ago, the latest 1950 years ago. Language changes. Writing materials don’t last. People in power can manipulate the content. How can we trust that? To top it off, copies had to be hand copied until the Gutenberg printing press in 1454 AD. There are admittedly many chances to mess things up.
One thing going for us is that the Bible is the most copied document from antiquity by far. While ancient whole manuscripts are hard to come by, there are thousands of fragments that have been meticulously stored, catalogued and shared. It has allowed people with more patience than I to compare fragments and group them based on deviations. In other words, you can figure out what copies came from what earlier copies based on the mistakes. By using this method scholars have groups manuscripts and shards into four groups. Comparison of these groups gives us the most accurate original language version of the Bible. Oddly the longer we get away from the original writing, the more fragments we find, the more accurate our original is. This is true for the Old Testament as well. The Dead Sea scrolls, though written long after the originals, was a treasure trove that demonstrated just how few mistakes and willful alterations were made by those copying holy texts.
It was also rightly noted that the language of the Bible is a “dead” language. No one speaks the language this way anymore. “Completely dead” may not be a good characterization. The Bible is written in Greek (New Testament), Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament). Hebrew and Greek are still spoken but are greatly not completely changed. A continuous line of usage among scholars has kept the understanding of these languages alive. It is not like an ancient language found in the jungle that no has seen for 1500 years. Translations from Hebrew to Greek like the Septuagint and early translations to Latin also help. The vocabulary and grammar are well known and not debated.
Could a translation into a current language have errors? Of course it could. The editorial committees that make translations have to understand the ideas being communicated to put those ideas in current idiomatic language. Some have argued against translating because of possible errors at this step. (Like the Quran is to be read only in Arabic) Still, whether on the paper or in your mind, a non-native speaker will take this step. Translations can be good or not so good.
I realize that a fair number of foreign readers read my blogs. Thanks for doing so. In many cases, English may be your second or third language. I trust your skills and God’s help to get the ideas across to you accurately.
Was the Bible reinterpreted by the Church? Fortunately for us, we can get multiple translations done by different editorial groups and compare. These translations are made from the original text as discerned by the process I described above. If you want to get technical, comparing translations is a first step, and going to the original with the many helps that exist in written or computer form is the next. You are not captive to a misleading Church body.
Our friend also noted:
Do you know that the Bible has dozens of books that were censured by the church, meaning the Bible today is nothing like what was intended when it was written? They removed every book that portrayed Jesus as a mortal man.Anonymous
First, the Bible is not a book. It is an anthology–a collection of books. These books moved about separately until third century. It was noted at that time, that there were some potential interlopers that people were using as inspired Scripture. These books were the opposite of plagiarism. Instead of putting your name on somebody else’s work, they were putting somebody else’s name on their work. This is to give divine credibility to their invention. For instance, the Gospel of Nicodemos was clearly not written by Nicodemos, a contemporary of Jesus. You can get this text if you want. I dare you to read it. It is not only not inspired by God, it is terrible literature. I would say the same thing for a more recent fraud–the Book of Mormon.
To the point made above, the Bible seeks to convey what Jesus conveyed about himself. If he was a mere mortal, who cares what He said? Jesus backed up His authority and identity with miracles seen by eyewitnesses, by fulfilling ancient prophecies, and ultimately by God giving us the ability to understand and believe. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD did exclude numerous books from the canon (the accepted list of books) of the Bible. It did so because the sources could not be verified and that these books contradicted books that could be verified. The excluded group includes books of the Apocrypha–a group of books only included in the Roman Catholic approved Bible. These were added back by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This is obviously a disputed move.
Hopefully, this helps if you have dismissed the Bible as unreliable. The Bible remains relevant because through the plan of God we still find the source of eternal life with God and a God-given purpose. Accepting half-truths about the Bible can only hurt you.