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Do you really know what the bible says?

By A happy Ex missionary ~

This is the second time that I write a text to post on this website. My first text was two years ago and it is titled “Just to get it off my chest”, being about my struggles and hopes as a new ex Christian and ex missionary. It has been three years now since the last time I stepped into a church and, thanks to much effort, I am in a much better situation than the one described in my first text. I managed to graduate this year and got my English degree (in only three years instead of four, by taking more classes than usual). I also started a Postgraduate course and now I am a master’s degree student of literary theory (in Brazil, many universities are public and, therefore, free) I still have to share an apartment with a flatmate, but he is a very nice person, so it’s ok for now. With this introduction made, I now can really get into the issue I would like to bring you all.

Last week I attended a seminar on translation. Although my master’s research is not specifically about that, I have been working as a freelancer translator since last year, to make some extra money, so, the seminar came in handy. Then I remembered that, when I was still a missionary I used to read articles and books about bible translation. Indeed, I considered to become a missionary translator for a few years. For those who might not be familiar with the issues involving bible translation, we can sum it up by saying that the original biblical texts disappeared long ago and now we only have copies of copies of copies of copies of the original texts. (A very good book about this is “Misquoting Jesus”, by historian Bart D. Ehrman).

I will focus on the new testament for now on, for its relevance in Christianity and western society is, in my opinion, heavier than the old testament. The new testament was written firstly in Greek, and then, translated into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and many other ancient languages until it was translated to the modern languages of nowadays. Thus, it means that your English new testament, or my Portuguese new testament, or any other new testament in any other language of the world, is a translation that cannot be compared with the original written texts.

There are still many Greek manuscripts that survived until the 21st century, but they are later copies, copies of copies of copies of the first versions. Biblical scholars vary with the implications that it has for the quality of the modern translations. Some say that it doesn’t matter that we don’t have the original, because we have so many copies and variations and texts of the Church fathers that we can pretty much recreate the original text. Some are not so optimistic and think that years of Church Tradition, lost copies and varieties in the manuscripts make it impossible for us to know how the original text was like. Considering what I studied about translator, I think that not having the original sources is a much bigger deal than the more traditional scholars want to admit.

Having all that in mind and thinking about the translation theory that I have just studied, I can’t help but to think if it makes sense to talk about what the bible says so decisively when we do not know the original text itself. I think that because translation theory states that a good translation is one that brings the intention of the author of the original text as much as possible. But, if we do not have the original text, how can we understand the author’s intentions? A practical example might be helpful to clarify my argument here.

To get my English Major I decided to write a final paper about Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road”. It is a novel that was translated into Portuguese, so, I decided to use the Portuguese translation for my analyses (it may sound odd but to the final paper of my English degree I was not obliged to write in English). The professor who was my advisor, however, did not let me use the Portuguese version alone. I had to put the original English text together with the Portuguese translation when I quoted the novel. Thus, the Portuguese translation could be compared with the original English text in the analysis of the novel. After reflecting about literary and linguistics theory it makes total sense. If I want to analyze a novel written in English, it is very important to know the text in English, even if there is a Portuguese translation available. No translation, as good as it may be, can replace the original text, no translation can be a 100% accurate, so, the original text is always necessary. It has to do with author's intention.

About author’s intention, in literary theory, there are those who think that it is not important, those who think that it is a kind of important and those who think that it is the most important thing in a literary analysis. There is room for debate here. When it comes to the Christian faith, though, it is usually not so opened. We can say that most Christian, especially those who had a theological training, would say that the intentions of the authors of the biblical books are the most important things to consider in interpretation, and that’s why theologians study Greek and ancient history in seminaries, to try to think as the people who wrote the bible used to think and then understand the text better.

However, the fact is that we do not know what exactly the original authors wrote, so we cannot know their intentions as well as we would want. And, if we cannot know that, we cannot make a good translation, since a good translation is one that brings the author’s intentions as much as possible. Therefore, the English new testament, the Portuguese new testament, or any new testament in any language of the world, is not a good translation, because, even if they are very close to the Greek manuscripts used as their sources, it is impossible to know if these Greek manuscripts are loyal to the original texts written in the first place. (another difficult matter is that the huge amount of Greek manuscripts that are available nowadays contradict each other, so how to determinate the best Greek manuscripts to use in a translation when the first sources are long gone?)

If we consider all these issues and think about the gospels and the teachings of Jesus Christ, things get even messier. Even the first Greek manuscripts were probably not very good historical accounts of the deeds and teachings of the historical Jesus. Most historians agree that Jesus was a poor, illiterate, prophet Jew who spoke Aramaic. It does not mean he was stupid, it just means that he had no access to the formal education of his time. Even if he was a genius and learned how to read Hebrew, he probably could not speak or write in Greek, which was the lingua franca of the time.

The fact is, he did not write anything at all and everything that he said, he must have said in Aramaic. But the gospels were not written in Aramaic. The gospels were written in Greek, so, there is already a linguistic gap between his actual words and what was written into the gospels. In other words, the original gospels were, in a sense, already a translation (there are even passages in the gospels in Greek that make more sense if you know the Aramaic language). Jesus spoke in Aramaic and it was translated into Greek. And since he died without writing anything, the original gospels were already a translation that could not be compared with the original words, which means, they were already not a good translation. These lost original gospels were copied and copied and copied and copied to many languages in a time that there was no press, electricity, or even glasses to help the copyist to see better, so, tell me about the quality of the translations that we have now?

Consequently, after all these facts, which are only introductory due to limitations of space here, if one does not use the religious argument of god’s providence and be completely honest, it can be said that there is no way to know the exact intention of the authors of the new testament. There is no way to make a good translation of the new testament into any language and, therefore, the new testament should not be analyzed and interpreted as it was a definitive text, free of problems, as it has always been.

Tell me about Christocentric view of the bible now! We do not even know for sure if what Jesus taught made it into the original gospels, let alone into the copies of copies of copies which survived until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. And we most certainly do not know if Jesus teachings made into the translations to our vernacular languages (Portuguese, Japanese, English, French, etc).

So, what does the bible say about things? Before that I would like people to ask Which bible? Which translation? According to which manuscripts? And, what about the originals?

Although the answer to these questions are not easy, people talk about what the bible says in ways that actively interfere with other people’s lives.

To those who want to judge others by biblical standards, I would ask: “Do you really know what the bible says? Really? Do you?