The Bible’s Changing Words

Sarah Bowman

Sarah Bowman, Master’s In Theological Studies, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary (2008)

I am familiar enough only with Western Christianity to answer your question, and with the history of the English Bible. It’s a long, convoluted story, starting more than three thousand years ago with Moses on Mount Sinai. I write from the perspective of a skeptic.

“Updating” is probably not the correct term, because so far as I know the goal of Bible Societies and Bible translators is to “get it right,” meaning to clearly translate into English the exact meaning of the words God is believed to have originally dictated to Moses, the Prophets, Apostles, and others who wrote the Bible.

Hebrew to Greek Translation: Septuagint

Originally the Bible was not written in English, but in Hebrew (Torah or Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) and possibly a number of other ancient languages. By the late centuries Before the Common Era, Greek was the official language of the Western academic world, to be superseded centuries later by Latin. The first major translation of the Hebrew Old Testament was completed in 132 BCE. Regarding the background of this translation:

QUOTE: Seventy-two Jewish scholars were asked by the Greek King of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphus to translate the Torah from Biblical Hebrew into Greek, for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria (Wikipedia).

Known today as the Septuagint because of the seventy scholars who made the translation, this became the Holy Text or Scriptures used by Jesus, his Apostles, the Early Church, and some of the Early Church Fathers. The Septuagint is the Scriptures on which the New Testament is based. This is important because until the late twentieth century, most Christians adhered to Bibles based on “spin-offs” (to use a computer term) of the Septuagint.

Let me outline the genealogy from the Septuagint to today’s modern Bibles, along with the main points to impact Christian values, beliefs, and behaviour.

Virgin vs Young Woman

The Septuagint did not transliterate exactly word for word from the Hebrew, creating a few changes between it and the original Hebrew Scripture, the most famous being the prophecy of Isaiah about a “virgin” having a baby. The original prophecy in Hebrew said “a young woman shall have a baby.” A young woman could obviously be married and not be a virgin. But the Early Christian Church read the Septuagint, which said “A virgin” shall have a baby. Hence the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus/Mother of God.

Greek->Latin->English

Skipping a lot of details and centuries, the next major “update” or translation was from the Greek into the Latin Vulgate. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church and culture formed itself around this Latin translation. Fast-forward another thousand years or so and people no longer speak Latin. Europeans speak English, German, Spanish, French, Italian… King James of England had the Latin Vulgate translated into English in the 1600s, providing the people with a Bible in their own language, the KJV Bible. Martin Luther did this for the German people in the 1500s. I cannot speak for other languages or other parts of the world.

Biblical & Textual Criticism

But by the 17–1800s, German scholars decided to look at the Bible with the same critical eye and textual criticism they had been examining other ancient texts such as the Odyssey. You can imagine the mess they found. Because each language has its own vocabulary and rules of how to put together words properly, documents cannot be transliterated directly from one language to another exactly word for word in the same order. Above we the first mistranslation (of the Hebrew OT) in which the Greek changed “young woman” into “virgin.” Whether that was intentional or accidental cannot be known, but in my estimation it is possible for that kind of thing to happen naturally and automatically (innocently) when translates from one language to another. Anyone who knows more than one language is familiar with the phenomenon.

Proliferation of New Translations

By 1800 AD/CE, the Old Testament had been translated from: Hebrew->Greek->Latin->English, each copying off the other, mistakes and all. The New Testament came onto the scene at the Greek stage of the game; it was written in Greek. There are arguments that parts of both the Old and New Testaments were written in other languages and local dialects, which is beyond the scope of this post. Earlier manuscripts of various parts of the Bible have been found than the Septuagint. By the 1960s, Bibles were being translated based on these earlier manuscripts. One important difference in the newer translations was changing the KJV word “hell” to “Hades.”

Hell vs Hades

I suspect that was important because people needed a means to cope with the horrifying news of Hitler’s human incinerators at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. In the early 1960s, TV with its live visual transmission of horrifying scenes was also new, demanding ways of coping. I am thinking all of this may have motivated moderate and progressive Christians not to tolerate a cosmic incinerator operated by a merciful all-loving God in heaven. For them, Hades—a term that merely means “the grave” or “place of the dead”—was far more acceptable.

But conservative Christians felt that removing hell from the Bible was corrupting God’s Holy Word and giving an already out-of-control society permission to live like animals. Wanting to preserve the purity of God’s Holy Word, they clung to the KJV as though it were the words God originally dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai.

But the archaic English used in King James’s Bible boggles the mind of modern Christians. Thus, updated versions are being published that remove some of the most archaic language while keeping beloved traditional passages. Since I am not on a Bible Society I don’t know how these decisions are made.

More progressive Christians and scholars never give up trying to get at what God really said to Moses and the apostles, at what they really meant in the ancient languages. Evangelical Christians keep making claims about finding new fragments of ancient manuscripts, or making new discoveries about old fragments. All of the above calls for new translations of the Bible in light of these new insights. Given the controversy over single words like “virgin” vs “young woman” and “hell” vs “Hades,” perhaps this is understandable.

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