I am the BEAD of life [sic]

Don’t you just LOVE Graham Rawle’s wonderful series of Lost Consonants? They really are hilarious. And totally harmless, of course.

But before printing presses, when the only way to copy a document was to create a ‘manuscript’ by copying it out by hand, the loss of a consonant might not only lead to confusion but also to ongoing misinterpretation. As the manuscript containing the error got copied again and again in the future.

Take, for example, a verse in the Old Testament – originally written in Hebrew - such as 1 Samuel 8.16. Using the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament on which the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is based) this translates as ‘he will take…the best of your cattle and your donkeys.’ But, if we use the medieval Hebrew text (on which the New King James Version is based), it translates as ‘he will take…your finest young men and your donkeys.’

So how do these very different translations come about?

Well, the Hebrew word for ‘your young men’ is bhrykm and the Hebrew work for ‘your cattle’ is bqrykm.

As you can see, one unfortunate copyist, after a long day at his manuscripts, must have got one letter wrong and so later copyists copied the same error and later translators working from these copies ‘quite rightly’ translated the word – but unwittingly perpetuated an error not only in the text but now in the meaning.

All this points to the extraordinary history and science involved in creating the translations of the Bible we use today. And why it’s important to think about the translations we use and to compare different translations, when we are studying the Bible.

Unlike Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence,’ for example, whose handwritten original is preserved in the United States’ national archives, no such ‘handwritten ‘original’ exists for any biblical book. What do exist, however, are thousands of manuscripts – copies by hand – which were copied over a period of about 1,400 years. And, although the vast majority of these manuscripts are very much alike, later manuscripts do differ significantly from the earlier copies and translations. In fact there are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament, as well as thousands in Latin; and no two of them anywhere in existence are exactly alike.

Going back to the example from 1 Samuel, the version based on the Septuagint is more accurate because the Septuagint translated the original Hebrew text into Greek some time before the miscopy was made, so it preserved the original ‘your cattle.’ The accidental change to ‘your young men’ was made later, affecting medieval Hebrew manuscripts, but was too late to affect the pre-medieval Septuagint.

All this goes to show how important it is to recognise that - no matter how much we love one particular translation of the Bible – perhaps because of its poetic language or because iof its readability, we are at the mercy of the translator when we read the Bible and we are, therefore, inevitably caught up in the business of interpretation.

To say you take a literal interpretation of the Bible in fact makes no sense. You are either (if you read Hebrew or Greek) taking a literal interpretation of a copyist’s version and interpretation. Or (if you are reading an English version of the Bible) you are taking a literal interpretation of the translator’s interpretation of a copyist’s version and interpretation.

Copyists and translators all, of course, have worked hard to preserve the texts that have been handed down to them and to convey what they believe was the intended meaning of the original authors. But, all in all, it’s easy to see that mistakes can and do arise. And sometimes changes are not just mistakes but have been deliberately made by copyists and translators to ‘clarify the meaning,’ which can mean to clarify their particular theological interpretation of that meaning.

So when you are reading the Bible, do try to bear all this in mind. Despite all these problems, God does continue to speak to us very powerfully through his word and there is no doubt that overall copyists and translators have very accurately conveyed the original meaning of the texts.

But let’s remember the history and science that lies behind what we read. And let’s have more humility when we take copied and translated verses and use them as ammunition to fight our theological battles.

Otherwise, the heart of the gospel – loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves – may end up being lost in translation.

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Posted by Martine Oborne