Skip to main content

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?


Popular posts from this blog

Are You an Atheist Success Story?

By Avangelism Project ~ F acts don’t spread. Stories do. It’s how (good) marketing works, it’s how elections (unfortunately) are won and lost, and it’s how (all) religion spreads. Proselytization isn’t accomplished with better arguments. It’s accomplished with better stories and it’s time we atheists catch up. It’s not like atheists don’t love a good story. Head over to the atheist reddit and take a look if you don’t believe me. We’re all over stories painting religion in a bad light. Nothing wrong with that, but we ignore the value of a story or a testimonial when we’re dealing with Christians. We can’t be so proud to argue the semantics of whether atheism is a belief or deconversion is actually proselytization. When we become more interested in defining our terms than in affecting people, we’ve relegated ourselves to irrelevance preferring to be smug in our minority, but semantically correct, nonbelief. Results Determine Reality The thing is when we opt to bury our

So Just How Dumb Were Jesus’ Disciples? The Resurrection, Part VII.

By Robert Conner ~ T he first mention of Jesus’ resurrection comes from a letter written by Paul of Tarsus. Paul appears to have had no interest whatsoever in the “historical” Jesus: “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, we know him so no longer.” ( 2 Corinthians 5:16 ) Paul’s surviving letters never once mention any of Jesus’ many exorcisms and healings, the raising of Lazarus, or Jesus’ virgin birth, and barely allude to Jesus’ teaching. For Paul, Jesus only gets interesting after he’s dead, but even here Paul’s attention to detail is sketchy at best. For instance, Paul says Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” ( 1 Corinthians 15:4 ), but there are no scriptures that foretell the Jewish Messiah would at long last appear only to die at the hands of Gentiles, much less that the Messiah would then be raised from the dead after three days. After his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus—an event Paul never mentions in his lette

Christian TV presenter reads out Star Wars plot as story of salvation

An email prankster tricked the host of a Christian TV show into reading out the plots of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Star Wars in the belief they were stories of personal salvation. The unsuspecting host read out most of the opening rap to The Fresh Prince, a 1990s US sitcom starring Will Smith , apparently unaware that it was not a genuine testimony of faith. The prankster had slightly adapted the lyrics but the references to a misspent youth playing basketball in West Philadelphia would have been instantly familiar to most viewers. The lines read out by the DJ included: "One day a couple of guys who were up to no good starting making trouble in my living area. I ended up getting into a fight, which terrified my mother." The presenter on Genesis TV , a British Christian channel, eventually realised that he was being pranked and cut the story short – only to move on to another spoof email based on the plot of the Star Wars films. It began: &quo


By David Andrew Dugle ~   S ettle down now children, here's the story from the Book of David called The Parable of the Bent Cross. In the land Southeast of Eden –  Eden, Minnesota that is – between two rivers called the Big Miami and the Little Miami, in the name of Saint Gertrude there was once built a church. Here next to it was also built a fine parochial school. The congregation thrived and after a multitude of years, a new, bigger church was erected, well made with clean straight lines and a high steeple topped with a tall, thin cross of gold. The faithful felt proud, but now very low was their money. Their Sunday offerings and school fees did not suffice. Anon, they decided to raise money in an unclean way. One fine summer day the faithful erected tents in the chariot lot between the two buildings. In the tents they set up all manner of games – ring toss, bingo, little mechanical racing horses and roulette wheels – then all who lived in the land between the two rivers we

Morality is not a Good Argument for Christianity

By austinrohm ~ I wrote this article as I was deconverting in my own head: I never talked with anyone about it, but it was a letter I wrote as if I was writing to all the Christians in my life who constantly brought up how morality was the best argument for Christianity. No Christian has read this so far, but it is written from the point of view of a frustrated closeted atheist whose only outlet was organizing his thoughts on the keyboard. A common phrase used with non-Christians is: “Well without God, there isn’t a foundation of morality. If God is not real, then you could go around killing and raping.” There are a few things which must be addressed. 1. Show me objective morality. Define it and show me an example. Different Christians have different moral standards depending on how they interpret the Bible. Often times, they will just find what they believe, then go back into scripture and find a way to validate it. Conversely, many feel a particular action is not

Why I left the Canadian Reformed Church

By Chuck Eelhart ~ I was born into a believing family. The denomination is called Canadian Reformed Church . It is a Dutch Calvinistic Christian Church. My parents were Dutch immigrants to Canada in 1951. They had come from two slightly differing factions of the same Reformed faith in the Netherlands . Arriving unmarried in Canada they joined the slightly more conservative of the factions. It was a small group at first. Being far from Holland and strangers in a new country these young families found a strong bonding point in their church. Deutsch: Heidelberger Katechismus, Druck 1563 (Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I was born in 1955 the third of eventually 9 children. We lived in a small southern Ontario farming community of Fergus. Being young conservative and industrious the community of immigrants prospered. While they did mix and work in the community almost all of the social bonding was within the church group. Being of the first generation born here we had a foot in two