By Wayne Jackson
In the long-ago biblical ages, there were occasions when God spoke personally to men (Gen. 3:9; 12:1ff; cf. Heb. 1:1). That method of communication is not operative today.
Eventually, the Lord had his will committed to written documents (collectively known as the Bible). These literary narratives can be investigated and verified, thus establishing their claims of divine origin. There is a sense in which written revelation transcends miraculous communication (see 1 Cor. 13:9-12).
There are three steps in that chain of written communication from the mind of God to that of man. They are: transmission, translation, and interpretation. Let us consider each of these momentarily.
It surprises many to discover that we do not now possess the actual manuscripts which were produced by the inspired writers. How then, does one know that these Scriptures, completed almost 2,000 years ago, have come to us with their integrity intact?
The restoration of the biblical document is accomplished by the science of “textual criticism.” Careful scholars, using various data, assemble the materials and produce a basic “text.” In this brief article, we will limit our attention to the New Testament.
There are three principal sources for the restoration of the New Testament text: Greek manuscripts, early translations, and New Testament quotations from ancient writers.
More than 5,300 Greek manuscripts (in part or whole) of the New Testament are available to scholars today. Some of these go back to the very shadows of the first century. There is a fragment of John’s Gospel that dates to the first half of the second century.
By way of contrast, there is a gap of 900 years between the oldest manuscript of Julius Caesar’s Gallic War and the original work (58-50 B.C.).
Translations are versions of the Greek New Testament rendered into other languages. There are more than 10,000 copies of the New Testament in various languages of antiquity (e.g., Coptic, Latin, etc.), and some of these reach all the way back to the second and third centuries.
There are thousands of instances where early church writers quoted the New Testament relying on manuscripts considerably older than most of those possessed today. From these “patristic” writings alone, the New Testament could be reproduced (with the exception of about a dozen verses).
There is no doubt; the New Testament text is extremely credible.
Since most Christians do not read the New Testament in Greek, they must rely upon a good translation for access to the mind of God. The translation process per se does not interfere with the integrity of the text, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus himself frequently quoted a translation, the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew OT).
It is imperative, though, that translations attempt to approximate, as closely as possible the exact message of the Greek New Testament. This, of course, is not always feasible inasmuch as there are difficulties inherent in the process of bringing thoughts from one language into another.
The translators of the older English versions (e.g., the King James Version and the American Standard Version), adhered to a philosophy now known as Form Equivalence, i.e., the idea that one should try to reproduce the original documents as precisely as possible, while maintaining a clarity consistent with good English.
Later versions have adopted a looser ideology. Largely through the influence of Eugene Nida, a scholar affiliated with the United Bible Societies, the concept of Dynamic Equivalence has become popular in recent years (see Surburg, p. 15). According to this view, the translator focuses more on conveying the original author’s “thoughts,” rather than being overly concerned with his “words.” This sort of thinking, of course, allows the translator a much greater latitude in rendition. Almost everyone concedes that the translator who operates according to the Dynamic Equivalence philosophy has a tendency to be more of a “commentator” than he otherwise would be.
The translation issue has been fraught with controversy in recent years. Some have been so radical as to suggest that the KJV is the only reliable translation of the Word of God in existence (see White’s excellent refutation). This is not the case. However, while the KJV is almost 400 years old, it remains a good translation – though it does have a few problems of its own (see Jackson, pp. 14-17). The greater danger is with the influx of a barrage of new versions that play fast and loose with the original text. But the claim is made: “’they are so easy to understand.” What difference does it make as to how “easy” something is to understand, if one is not confident that he is reading what actually came from inspired men? The good Bible student will desire a solid translation, e.g., the American Standard Version, the NASB (Updated), the KJV, the NKJV, or the “The English Standard Version”.
Even though one may be confident that in a good English Bible he has God’s Word before him, there is still the formidable task of interpreting the text correctly. Interpretation is necessary, and hard work is involved. For example in approaching the sacred text one will want to consider the following factors.
First, who wrote this document (if known) and to whom was he writing; what were the circumstances (historical background) under which he wrote?
Second, what is the nature of the document one is studying? Is it historical narrative, poetry, or prophetic discourse?
Third, what is the immediate context? Is a specific problem being addressed? Are you looking at a treatise dealing with abstract spiritual principles, or what?
Next, does the narrative contain figures of speech? Can the student identify them and attach a significance to the symbolism?
Finally, how does the immediate context relate to other portions of Scripture on the same topic?
There are well-known principles of interpretation which relate to the detection of the author’s meaning in any document. The Bible must be studied intelligently.
The revelation of God — from his mind to ours — is an intricate and inspiring process. What a thrill it is to know he has made his will known to us. Let us pursue this treasure.
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