[ Doctrine in Detail ]

Topic: II. The Bible

Lesson: B. Transmission and Translation

This lesson will look at how those writings were preserved through the ages and translated into English. We will continue looking closely at doctrines about the Bible for a few more weeks. "'My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,' says the LORD"(Isaiah 59:21b) This verse from Isaiah may be taken as a promise that God's words will never depart from the mouths of God's people. This clearly implies that the very words of God would be preserved from generation to generation, and that the Holy Spirit has a part to play in this.

"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."(Matthew 5:18) Jesus himself stated that even the smallest letter and the small markings that distinguish one letter from another, like the crossing of a 't', will remain in effect until all things are accomplished. This again speaks to the lasting nature of the very letters of the writing of Holy Scripture.

Objective: To broadly understand how the Bible was preserved through the ages and the principles of trustworthy translations.

1. Original Autographs

a. Materials. The original writings and early copies of Scripture were written on Scrolls of Leather, Parchment, and Papyrus. Leather is treated animal skin, a rather tedious process and expensive writing material. It was sewed together into scrolls, which would be unrolled to be read. Parchment is an early form of paper, existing from about 3000 BC. Papyrus was a cheap and available material made from the Papyrus plant, a cane like plant from Egypt. It did not last well, but was a cheap and available material.

b. Languages. The original languages were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. We will look at these more closely. We have NO ORIGINAL manuscript or autograph today. Only copies of copies of copies!

(1) Hebrew. What was Hebrew like? The Hebrew Scriptures were originally written as consonents only. You can see how difficult this would be in English! The letters were run together with no breaks between words or sentences. At some time before 200 AD, dots and small marks were developed to represent the vowels and were inserted in, above, and below, and spaces were put between words. Since Hebrew was no longer a spoken language, the Masorites were concerned to preserve what they thought was the way Scripture was originally spoken, and the vowels chosen did determine what the words meant. After all, in English the same consonants give us RiDe, RoDe, RuDe, ReD, RuDy, and perhaps a few other words whose meaning varies. About 800 AD chapters and verses were separated and numbered.

All words in the Hebrew language are based upon three consonents. Different words are made from each three consonant stem by adding other consonants to the beginning or ending of the word or by changing the vowels. Of course, the vowels were not written in the original autographs, just as Hebrew today is printed without vowels in newspapers. However, where it is important to preserve the exact meaning, such as in a legal document, the vowels are printed. Some examples are - ADM (Aleph is not a vowel, but usually is used with the A sounding vowel) for ADaM and ADaMaH means Man and Ground (man was made from the dust of the earth). ISH and ISHaH, or man and woman.

Hebrew verbs do not indicate time as English does, and there are only two 'tenses' of verb. Either an action is viewed as complete, or incomplete. The same 'completed' verb can mean "it is done", "it was done", "it has been done", "it had already been done", or "it will be done". The same "incomplete' verb can be translated "I was already going", "I was going", "I am going", or "I will be going". The time is a matter of the context or helping words (such as IN THE BEGINNING). Because the vowels were not written in the original Autograph, Scholars sometimes interpret some verses differently by the use of different vowels. In those cases, the scholars suggest that the later Jews did not properly understand the original writings, and inserted vowels different from what would have been originally spoken. An example of the same words being translated differently according to context is found in the story of Joseph in the dungeon (Genesis 40:16-19). The word can be lifted up or lifted off, it depends on the context whether this is an honor or a death sentence!

(2) Aramaic. During the Babylonian Exile, which started around 586 BC, Aramaic became the language of the Hebrews and the entire Middle East. Most of the Jews never returned to Jerusalem or Israel in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the time of Jesus and the early Church, there were a LOT of Jews scattered throughout the world. Aramaic is used only in a few chapters of Daniel, Ezra, and a few phrases elsewhere. Some reasons for it's use was to record the very decree of Nebuchadnezzar, who wrote a testimony in Aramaic. The Jews preserved this decree in the Aramaic language in their Hebrew Bible. The same is true of a decree of Cyrus the Persian. In chapters 2-7 of Daniel, Aramaic is used as Daniel serves the Gentile nation and deals with the prophecies of the Nations. But in the later chapters which focus on the future of Israel, he reverts to Hebrew.

(3) Greek. "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son ..."(Galatians 4:4-5) You should read the whole verse, Gal 4:4-5. Part of the preparation for the coming of God's son was the common Roman government and the Roman Peace (enforced by the sword). A traveler or trader could safely travel from Persia to the borders of Gaul (France)! And the common language of the Empire, understood in all of these places and Northern Africa was Greek. Although Latin was the official Roman language, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in Greek, for the common people of Rome spoke it and the nobility understood it. That was because the Romans brought so many slaves, from their conquest of the world, back to Rome. These 'servants' spoke Greek, and they taught it to the children that they cared for and taught.

Before 1880, the only know documents that were written in Greek like the New Testament were the New Testament and historical writings of Josephus, a Jew who wrote about Jerusalem and the history of the Jews. Scholars noticed that these writings were not like the writings of Plutarch, Socrates, Homer, or any other literary figure of Greece. They supposed that a "Holy Ghost Greek" was used, a special language specially for the giving of Scripture. But - due in part to the earlier interests in Egypt which started when Napoleon conquered Egypt - large numbers of papyrus were found in excavations. These everyday letters and business documents were written in the same dialect as the New Testament! Today, scholars agree that the New Testament was not written in a 'literary' style, but in the common (Koine) spoken language used throughout the Empire. One implication is that the Bible should be translated today into 'everyday' language. While the time sense of Hebrew is open to a lot of interpretation, Greek is more specific than either Hebrew or English in terms of when actions took place and whether their effects continue.

2. Transmission

a. Hebrew Methods. To become a Rabbi in the ancient world, you were required to make your own copy of the Torah, the five books written by Moses. Any copy was done by a single person, who counted every Aleph (A) in each book to make sure they didn't miss any, and they continued through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Of course, any missing letter would have to be searched for and corrected. If a scroll started to wear out, or became smudged or torn, to prevent the WORD OF GOD from being defiled, the Jews would burn that scroll. For this reason, we have very few ancient copies of the Hebrew Scriptures, but we are sure that they have been accurately passed down from copy to copy. The Dead Sea Scrolls include the Book of Isaiah, which is practically identical to copies which date from 1000 years later. The Masorites took care of the Scripture, and developed the system of vowels and other markings. If they thought the Scripture had a copying error (the master copy) they would simply write their opinion in the margin, as they did not dare to presume to change a copy of God's word which they had received. The notes in the margins, and interpretations in the bottom margin, are called Masora.

b. Greek Methods. The Greek Bible was copied in a quicker manner, to fill the need in the rapidly growing Church. A scribe would read a passage of Scripture to a room of perhaps 20 scribes who copied by dictation. Of course, the most common errors would be varying punctuation (no punctuation in the originals) and spelling. Sometimes a scribe might expand a verse because he remembered words from a similar passage (especially in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Quite often, afraid of shortening the name of our Lord, he would write Lord Jesus Christ where an older copy only had Jesus Christ or Lord Jesus. Unlike the Jews, the Christians were interested in making more copies and did not take the time consuming (and expensive) step of counting letters! Some copies stayed in the East where Greek was still spoken, while copies made in the West were done by monks who primarily spoke other languages. A very tedious job.

At the time of the Reformation, Erasmus made a scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament from six manuscripts (each was only a portion of the New Testament). This text became known as the Textus Receptus or Received Text, and was the basis for the King James Version. Today, there are thousands of manuscripts and portions of the New Testament which have been examined and compiled. They form the basis of the United Bible Societies critical edition of the New Testament. In general, this text gives preference to the older manuscripts. If you simply take a vote of the manuscripts, most of which are later, you come up with a text (Majority Text) very close to the Textus Receptus. This is a matter of debate today, but I personally give preference to the earlier manuscripts. Modern translations are based on the United Bible Societies text.

3. Translation

In pre-Christian times, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek for the Jews living in Egypt. This included other writings, such as the book of Baruch, but they were never considered Scripture by the Jews. However, this early Bible is a witness to what the ancient Hebrew Bible was like. Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek into Latin, which became the standard Bible of the Roman church even into our lifetimes. Luther translated the Bible into the language of his day, in Germany, setting a high standard for the German language which still affects that language. In the 13th century, Wycliff translated the Bible (with help from others) into English.

4. English Versions

a. King James Version. Ninety percent of the King James version is taken directly from an earlier translation by Tyndale. However, the KJV was a Committee translation, with a large number of scholars of that day working carefully. They compared Tyndale's work with the Hebrew and Greek texts and made revisions where necessary. Because of this, the King James Version is trustworthy and reliable, without the bias of a single author.

Still, Shakespearian English of 1611 is not like our modern English, and it is difficult to teach children and new believers from this archaic language. In its day, the KJV was opposed by the Puritans and Pilgims who founded our New England states. They simply did not like the 'modern' 1611 version. In part it was because the KJV was authorized by the King, and pilgrims believed in separation of church and state. The Puritans did not believe in separation of church and state, but wanted to purify and cleanse the Anglican church, and getting rid of the King's version was part of the program.

b. Recommended Modern Versions. We need modern translations because of the changes in our language since 1611, the greater knowledge of archeology and History, and the great number of language resources (such as the papyrus documents and the great number of manuscripts which we can compare). Some translations are very literal, attempting to replace each Greek word with an English one and preserving the phrasing and word order of the original. It was good Greek, but does not read easily in English. The KJV and the New American Standard Version are good examples of this. The New International Version attempts to take each Greek phrase or thought and translate it into an equivalent English phrase, using English word order and grammar. This reads easier, is great for reading chapters at a time, but is not as good for word studies. The Paraphrased Living Bible is a single man's translation and interpretation. It is somewhat bias (Baptist) and less accurate, but very easy to understand. I recommend it for people who want to understand the Bible but who are not under a good Bible teacher or pastor.

Four considerations in choosing a Bible are; (1) Reliability of Translation; (2) Personal Comfort, some have grown up with the KJV and there is no need to disturb them if they understand it; (3) How Literal? Are you comfortable with a somewhat stilted NASB or KJV, or would the NIV be more useful for reading whole chapters? And (4) Comprehension (Adult/Child), I do not think many children today will benefit from Shakespearian English.


Written Assignment:

Are you confident that your Bible is an accurate reflection of what God originally gave to man in the original autographs of Scripture? Why or why not?

Reading Assignment:

None for this lesson.


Key Verses:

"My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever," says the LORD" (Isaiah 59:21b)

"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:18)


All Bible quotations are from the New International Version (NIV), (C)Copyright 1984 by the International Bible Society, used by permission.
Doctrine in Detail (C)Copyright 2002 by Ronald Miller, All Rights Reserved

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