The Bible Speaks To You
by: Robert McAfee Brown
T his is not an isolated instance. This sort of thing has happened to people ever since the Bible was written. It is a fact that when people expose themselves to the message of the Bible, things begin to happen. People act in daring ways. Lives are transformed. Weaklings become courageous. A dead Church comes alive again.
Take, almost at random, three names from the history of the Church: Saint August-in, the architect of Western Christian thought; Martin Luther, the first of the great Protestant reformers; and John Wesley, the founder of what we now call Method-ism Each of these men came to his mature Christian faith the hard way. No easy transition from “the religion of boyhood” or anything like that, for them. It was a rough tough battle. And with each man it was contact with the living message of the Bible that finally tipped the scales.
This same thing is happening today. Not only to distraught Marines, but to men and women everywhere. In fact, the most significant thing in the last twenty-five years of our Protestant Church life has been what we can call “the rediscovery of the Bible.” People are finding out that the Bible is not out of date, but that it is astonishingly contemporary, and that as they turn to the Bible it casts increasingly fresh light on their own situations in 1946, or 1955, or 1964.
What Is the Bible?
If this is true, there is real point to asking once more: “Just what is the Bible anyway? Why does it continue to make this kind of impact? Why do people keep being transformed by it?” Let’s try to find out.
Today, If you were handed a Bible for the first time in your life, and given a couple of hours to jot down some impressions, you might end up with a list like this: a VERY long book, two main divisions (O.T. and N.T.—what do these terms mean?) actually not one book, but many books (66 on actual count) some books very long, others less than a page all sorts and kinds: history,short stories, a play, a love poem, philosophy, law codes, informal letters, some which baffle me completely seems to be mainly about the Jewish people and later on one of them in Particular (Jesus)
If you did a little digging into the history of the book itself, you would come up with a few further facts: book a long time being written—about 1,000 years first part written in Hebrew, second part in Greek, couple of dashes of Aramaic (what’s that?) parts of it since translated into OVER 1,000 LANGUAGES!! latest translation (into English) called “biggest publishing venture in history
Of course, such information doesn’t begin to answer the question, What is the Bible? But if you kept at it, you’d finally come up with something like the next few paragraphs.
It wouldn’t be enough to say that the Bible is the record of man’s search for God, a report on the slow, agonizing, upward quest from primitive origins to a highly developed monotheism (belief in one God). True, there are many examples of the development of the concept of God as it becomes purified and ennobled in the course of Jewish history. But as a means of understanding the Bible, this isn’t enough. It is much closer to the truth to say that the Bible is the record of God’s search for man. Throughout the Bible people seem bent ;on trying to escape from God. And in spite of this, God continues to seek after those same people, refusing to give up, continuing the pursuit in spite of countless rebuffs and evasions.
It has all the excitement and thrill of a detective story, in which the detective relentlessly chases the criminal through chapter after chapter. The same kind of relentless pursuit dominates the interpretation that the Jewish people put on their historical past, in the Old Testament. The search culminates in the New Testament, where the claim is made that God has so desired fellowship with man that finally he has not just sent emissaries or ambassadors or prophets or representatives—in Jesus Christ he has come himself! It is the most astounding word that has ever been spoken. It is the most stupendous claim that has ever been made. If anything is unexpected news,” this is.
But there is more to it even than that. The Bible not only tells how God sought his people in the past; it is also a means by which he seeks us out today. It is not just part of the dead past: it is also part of the living present. We cannot read it without a sense of being involved. For the experiences of the Biblical characters are basically our experiences. They ask questions:
And we ask the same questions, even though we use different words:
To the extent that we really ask such questions (and it takes courage to ask them honestly) we find ourselves involved in the asking and answering which goes on in the Bible. To be sure, we shall not find answers given on a silver platter, but answers were not given to the Biblical characters on a silver platter either. The answers they got had to be hammered home to them in the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” of a tragic history. They were not spun out in a philosopher’s study, or even in a Sunday school classroom. They emerged from the rough and tumble of life, and it is in the rough and tumble of life that we discover how right the Bible’s answers are.
But it is not only in questions and answers that we find God seeking us in the Bible. Not only are God’s demands and promises brought home to us, but God himself “comes alive,” and speaks to us, as we take the Bible seriously. It is for this reason that Christians speak of the Bible as “the Word of God.” This does not mean that God’s “words” are recorded in the Bible as though someone had a celestial tape recorder and then transcribed the message on paper. For, as we shall see, God “speaks” to people, not so much through statements as through his creative activity right where people are. The supreme revelation of his “Word,” his creative power, is the “event” of Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection—the “Word made flesh,” as the Fourth Gospel says.
The Bible, then, tells us of these times when God has acted upon the lives of men, and as we read it, the possibility is opened up that God can speak through those acts and events directly to us. “The Bible is a special delivery letter with your name and address on it,” is one way of putting it. So it is more than a record; it is a call, an invitation, an urgent message to us.
Using the Bible
Now if this is true, then there is a high priority question to be asked: How can I use the Bible so that it will speak to me in this way? Let us look at some of the ways in which Christians have tried to answer this question.
A.. One method which people have used since very early times, particularly with difficult passages, has been to interpret the Bible allegorically. An allegory is a story that has hidden meanings which do not appear on the surface. If I write, for example, “The raccoon had a splinter in its paw until it got to the riverbank,” this may be my allegorical way of saying that the Christian (raccoon) is involved in sin (splinter) until he has been baptized (riverbank), and I may be seriously trying to write about Christian faith in the form of an allegory about animals
Many of the Early Church Fathers interpreted portions of the Bible in this fashion. Take Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, a story illustrating what it means to be a good-neighbor (look it up in Luke io: 25-37 if you’ve forgotten how it goes). Augustine made an allegory out of the story, giving every detail a hidden signif-icance. “A certain man” was Adam. Jerusalem was the heavenly city. The robbers were the devil and his angels. The Samaritan was Jesus himself. The inn was the Church. The innkeeper was the apostle Paul. And so on. The story of the Good Samaritan was transformed from a tale about true neighborliness into an allegory of the whole Christian drama of salvation. Since religious language must always make use of imagery, the method of allegorical interpretation can sometimes serve a useful function. The danger is that one who is not a scholar and expert can “twist” a story to mean whatever he wants it to mean, and not only may the real point of the story be lost, but utterly false meanings may be “read in.”
B. In sharp contrast to the allegorical method is the view that the Bible is to be interpreted literally, often with the further claim that since every word is directly inspired, all parts are therefore of equal profit and value. This is a much newer way of interpreting the Bible than the allegorical way. Luther, for example, the first Protestant Reformer, made sharp distinctions between various parts of the Bible, calling James an “epistle of straw,” and stating that he saw little religious value in the book of Revelation. Whether his judgments were correct is not so important, for the moment, as the fact that he felt free to make them. But later Reformers, having continued with Luther to repudiate the absolute authority of the pope, turned more and more to a belief in the absolute authority of the Scriptures, interpreted in such a way that to be a Christian meant believing the words of the Bible, the statements contained within the covers of the book, as literally true in all particulars. In what way did this raise a problem?
For one thing, it is true that religious language must resort to symbolism, imagery, and poetic description on certain occasions, and such use of language loses its religious significance if taken literally. When Jesus told us to be as little children, for example, he didn’t mean that we were supposed to wear diapers
There is an ethical difficulty in the position “literalists” sometimes adopt, that all the parts of the Bible are equally true and inspired. There is-or ought to be-a clear difference between the attitude of Ps. 137 toward the enemy, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (v. 9) and Jesus’ attitude toward his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34). Such statements are clearly not on the same level of spiritual significance. To put every part of the Bible on the same level of importance as every other part is to find oneself in the difficulty which faced the man who opened his Bible at random to get advice on a difficult problem, and had the misfortune to light on the words, “And Judas went and hanged himself.” Not content with this cold comfort, he tried again, this time opening to the words, “Go and do likewise.”
The Bible is not a static collection of proof-text answers to questions, to be used in such fashion as this, and such a realization exposes the main difficulty of approaching the Bible as a series of statements each one of which is literally true and of equal worth. The question is whether or not the God of the Bible actually chooses this way of revealing himself. Although we will be pursuing this problem in the next chapter, we must repeat again what has already been said, that in the Bible we find God revealing himself not so much in statements as in events, and persons, and acts. In other words, a personal God strives to enter into personal relationship with his children. We cannot enter into personal relationship with an impersonal book, but we can enter into personal relationship with a person, with Jesus Christ. And it is thus the person about whom the book is written, rather than the book itself, who is the subject and object of our faith. Protestants firmly believe
in “the authority of the Bible,” but this is because it is the Bible which has brought them face to face with Jesus Christ. God confronts them in a living person, not merely in information about that person.
It is somewhat like a letter from a friend. You don’t value the letter so much for its phrases and style as because it brings the friend closer and helps you to know him better. The constant presence of the letter may be nice, but it is a pretty poor substitute for the constant presence of the friend. (Anybody who has been in love will understand this.) Luther made the point well-if we may change our image rather abruptly-when he said, “The Bible is the cradle in which Christ lies.”
C. Another way of using the Bible has been to interpret it critically, that is, from the point of view of a literary study of the text. For a long time scholars have studied early Biblical manuscripts, trying to determine when the books of the Bible were written, by whom they were written, to whom, the situation out of which they came, and so forth. Since people sometimes deride this way of interpreting the Bible, it must be stressed that Christians today owe an immense debt to these scholars. Because of their efforts, we now have the tools for a better understanding of the Bible than has ever been possible before. To know when a book was written, by whom, for whom, what the author’s intention was—all this is clear gain.
The main difficulty with this approach, therefore, is not that it is wrong or irreverent, but that by itself it is incomplete. It is interesting to learn, for example, that there are two Creation stories in Genesis, and it is fascinating to compare their similarities and differences. But this is valuable only as a tool to help us toward more fundamental problems: What is the meaning of the stories of the Creation? What do they tell us about God’s concern for us? What are the implications of the
notion that God has made the earth, and particularly that he has made us? The critical approach by itself does not give us answers to these questions.
D. The above ways, then, are not fully adequate ways of understanding and using the Bible. Is there a more significant way? The way that will be suggested here (and will be pre-supposed throughout the rest of this book) is that we read the Bible as actors who are involved in the Biblical drama of God’s search for men.
We are part of this drama. We cannot separate ourselves from it. We cannot understand the Bible as an ancient manuscript chiefly of interest to antiquarians or museum keepers. We must understand it as a living book addressed to us, in which we identify ourselves with those who stand under God’s judgment and those who receive God’s forgiveness. The fatal error is to read the Bible as a spectator rather than as a participant, to make the faulty assumption that we can sit in a box seat watching the drama, when actually we are on the stage taking part in the drama.
This means that when Amos thunders out to the people of Bethel that they are guilty of wrongdoing, we hear him speaking to us as well. He not only tells us what was wrong in Bethel—he is telling us what is wrong in Minneapolis, Houston, La Jolla or Grovers Corners or wherever we may be living today. t means that when Jesus says to the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” that is a question that is being directed at us as well. Who do we say that he is? We are being asked to decide, just as the disciples were being asked to decide. It means that whether Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden,” or whether he says, “You also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity,” he is talking to us as well as to his first century audience.
We become actors or participants, then, not only by knowing something of the historical situation in which a word is spoken or an event takes place, but chiefly by seeing that word or that event in relation to our own situation, so that the word becomes a word addressed to us, the event an event charged with meaning for us. We take part in the demands and the promises made by God, and in the hopes and fears of his people as they walk across the pages of this book. Their story is now our story. As they are “his people,” so are we.
Here’s one example of how it works. Shortly after Holland was overrun by the Nazis in World War II, a group of Dutch Christians were put in jail by the Gestapo. Months later, when one of them was to be released, he offered to take a message to the families of the others. What should they say? One of them finally produced a letter, which in rough translation went as follows:
Please try to understand that what has happened to us
has actually worked out for the advancement of the
gospel, since the prison guards and all the rest here are
coming to know Christ. in fact, we hear that many of
you on the outside have gained courage because of our
imprisonment and are speaking the truth more boldly
than ever before.
We hope that we shall not need to be ashamed be-
cause of our witness but that we may be bold enough so
that Christ’s influence will be spread by us, whether we
live or whether we die.
Now those sentences should have a familiar ring. For what the writer of the letter had done was to take portions of a letter which Paul had written while he too was in prison, 1,900 years before (Phil. 1: 12-20), and make them his own. The Dutch Christians, in sending this letter, were testifying that the experience of Paul was their experience, the message of Paul was their message, the God of Paul was their God. They were participants in the Biblical drama.
Mostly Facts and Figures
(Where Did the Bible Come From?)
We have then a complete Bible—printed, bound, ready to be read. But, ask anyone how it came to be in its present form, and you’re in for real trouble. Instead of answers, you’re liable to create chaos of questions. Something like this:
We must try to bring some order out of this chaos. Only as we know something of how this book came to be what it is can we fully appreciate it.
Two Points to Start With
Right off the bat we need to remember two things.
Point number one. The Bible is not a book that “fell out of heaven” complete from start to finish. To believe such a thing may be good Mohammedan doctrine, for Moslems believe that the Koran made its appearance in finished form; it may be good Mormon doctrine, for Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon was given as a finished product to Joseph Smith. But it is not good Christian doctrine, for Christians are aware that the Bible did not suddenly appear all finished and done, but that it was “a long time in the making”-over 900 years! Close this book and think for two minutes about the fact that Jesus was able to read what we call the Old Testament, and that when he was reading it, almost two thousand years ago, not a single one of the New Testament books had yet been written.
Point number two. The Bible was not written in English. Our Bible is a translation. Jesus did not speak English. Moses did not talk with a Boston accent. Luke had never read Shakespeare. And unless you learn Hebrew and Greek, with a dash of Aramaic thrown in (something few readers of this book are likely to attempt in the near future), you will never read the Bible in the language in which the authors wrote it. Our English Bible is simply an attempt to give an accurate translation of materials which were originally written in other languages.
How It All Started
Suppose. for the sake of argument, that something wonderful has happened to you. You have gotten 100 % in an algebra test you were sure you were going to flunk.
Or, you have gotten a good job for the summer. Or, you have fallen in love What do you do? You have to share the news with someone else. This doesn’t mean necessarily that you are being boastful. You just have to let your joy “spill over” to someone else.
Now suppose, for the sake of argument, that something even more wonderful has happened. You have had a lot of puzzling perplexities about the meaning of your life, and an experience has clarified them.
Or, you have fitfully tried to pray and one day found out that you were not praying to a Blank, but were in communion with the living God. Or, you have experienced a bitter tragedy and discovered that you were not alone but that God was there with you.
What do you do?
Although at first you may be very shy about it, sooner or later you find that once again you have to share the news with someone else. That life makes sense, that God is real, that you are not alone-these are things of such monumental importance that you simply cannot keep quiet about them once you know their truth. Now suppose, once more for the sake of argument, that this loving God whom you now know makes it plain to you that he wants to use you to make him and his will more real to those about you.
What do you do this time?
Even though you may at first be timid and afraid, you finally just must speak. You must share the news with all who will listen. You find yourself in the same situation as the prophet Amos: “The Lord God has spoken,” he said, “who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3: 8).
If you can imaginatively put yourself in these situations, then perhaps, just perhaps, you can begin to understand why and how the Bible came to be written. If people have good news, they share it. If they have bad news, they share that too. And if they are conscious that God is real, and if they see life in terms of his demands, and his promises, then they have to share that viewpoint, and all that it implies, with others.
It is this sort of tiling that we find taking place in the Bible. Some of the Biblical writers find that God has forced them to speak out in his name. These men we usually call “prophets.” And the things they say are so important that they are written down for others to read. Or a great event takes place in Jewish history (a victory over the enemy, let us say) and a song is composed for the occasion. The song interprets the event as a vindication of the power and glory of God, so it becomes an important part of the people’s understanding of how God relates himself to their lives. Or a tragic event takes place (a nation forced into exile, let us say) and someone has the God-given in sight to see that this is the way God’s love has to express itself toward those who rebel against him. The message is saved and the people begin to see that all history must be viewed as the theater where God is the chief actor. Or the songs which are written for their public worship of God come to be a means by which God’s presence is realized even when they are not in the Temple-so the songs are preserved and written down, along with the other sacred writings.
The point is that all these writings are a response to God’s activity and concern with his people-and over the centuries a sizable body of literature is built up. This literature takes on significance precisely because it has developed in this gradual way, for it makes plain that God deals with people right where they are, right in the struggles and agonies of their real flesh-and-blood history.
Getting It Down—with an Alphabetical Twist
Our Old Testament is the end product of this gradual process. And our appreciation of its contents can be heightened by a recognition of how this process of “getting it down”. into its present form was done. It is, of course, possible to read these books profitably without extensive knowledge of their origins, but to know how the accounts were woven together is often a help when we run across two or three different accounts of the same event. (You needn’t remember every detail of what follows, but it will help if you can keep the general picture in mind.) Let us see how the first six books of the Old Testament (called the “Hexateuch,” from the Greek meaning “six scrolls”) came into their present form.
Here’s how it happened. Perhaps as long ago as 900 B.C. (nearly 3,000 years ago!) an early writer compiled a series of stories about the tribes in southern Palestine, and sometime later additions were made to this account so that the Northern tribes would not be left out of the story. In these accounts, the Hebrew word used for God was one which we would write as “Yahweh,” and which in Hebrew would be YHWH (or, as it is sometimes written, JHVH). For this reason the document is called the “J” document, and where JHVH occurs in the early part of our Old Testament we can be pretty sure that the passages in question are from “J.”
Later on (perhaps between 750-700 B.C) another writer wrote a similar account of the history, this time with chief emphasis on the Northern tribes. Since he did not believe that the “name” of JHVH was known until the time of Moses, he used another Hebrew word for God, Elohim. His document is therefore known as the “F” document. Later on the accounts were woven together, to form what you should be able to guess is called “JE.”
Now the Northern tribes, who had by this time become a kingdom, met a disastrous military defeat in 722 B.C., and in the chaos following this experience a group of people came to feel that the disaster was due to the faulty worship of God.
Consequently they wrote another history, with special emphasis on how worship should be conducted. About a hundred years after the defeat, in 621 B.C., this document was discovered in the Temple. It led to sweeping reforms. Much of this document seems to be contained in what we call “Deuteronomy,” so it is called, naturally enough, “D.” So important did it become that it was woven into the other historical accounts, to form “J ED.”
There was a final step. The Southern Kingdom likewise went down to military defeat, and the people were taken into exile. Once again they wrote their history, this time with special emphasis on the importance of Jerusalem as a center of wor- ship and of the priests as the directors of the religious life of the people. Because of its “priestly” emphasis this document is known as “P.” The four documents were woven together to form “JEDP,” and it is out of this composite that the books of Genesis through Joshua come. In the opening chapters of Genesis, for example, the account of the Creation in Gen. 1:1 to 2:4 is from the “P” strand, while the account in ch. 2: 4f. is from “J.”
These different writers sometimes stress different elements in their nations’ history, but they are united in their belief that their nations’ history can be understood only in terms of God’s sovereignty over that history. History as the workshop of God —that is their theme. God speaks to them through these historical events, and they come to discern his will as they read the events in the light of that belief.
The Process Jells at Jamrna
While all this was going on, other books were being written, so that by about 200 B.C. most of the Old Testament material had finally been gathered together. In addition to the Hexateuch there were other historical narratives, the writings of the prophets, a hymn-book, a short story, a book of sad wailings, regulations ranging from where to worship to the accepted way to slaughter animals, and so forth. The variety was covered under three headings. The first heading was known as The Law and covered the first five books of the Old Testament. The Prophets comprised the second grouping, and included not only the major and minor prophets, but also many of the historical books, such as Joshua, Judges, etc. The remaining books were known simply as the Writings. This collection, which came to 39 books in all, became more and more generally accepted, and a council of Jewish rabbis, meeting at Jamnia, Palestine, about A.D. 90 or 100 decided that no more books should be admitted to the group of sacred writings thereafter..
The First Translation
Remember that, except for a few scattered verses in Aramaic, these books were all written in Hebrew. Now the Hebrew alphabet had no vowels and no punctuation. What is more, all the letters were run together. If you wrote that way in English, you would get something like this:
If you can guess where the vowels go, and what they are, and how to divide the words thus found, you can finally figure out that this sentence actually reads: >
I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, WHO BROUGHT YOU OUT
OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, OUT OF THE HOUSE OF BOND-
AGE. YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.
(Ex. 20: 2, 3)
And even though omitting the vowels saves space, it is obviously quite a stunt to read this kind of writing; to deal with this problem “vowel points” began to be used on later manuscripts, little marks placed under or over the consonants to indicate what vowels should be inserted where.
As time went on, more and more Jews learned Greek, and fewer and fewer could read Hebrew accurately. Therefore beginning about 270 B.C. and extending up into the Christian Era, Jewish scholars made translations of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. These documents were the ones used by the early Christians, and are known as the Septuagint (from septuaginta=seventy) because according to a tradition seventy (-two) scholars produced the translation in seventy (-two) days.
About a dozen books in the Septuagint were not included among the approved Jewish Scriptures by the Council of Jamnia. These books are called the Apocrypha (meaning “bidden” or obscure ‘). Our Old Testament does not include them, since it is based upon the Hebrew documents. They are included in Roman Catholic Bibles, since the official Roman Catholic translation made extensive use of the Septuagint.
A “New” Testament
It took about 700 years to get the Old Testament written down. The New Testament, by contrast, was completed in about 100 years. Its books were not written in Hebrew but in Greek. They were not written in the stately classical Greek of Plato, but in an ordinary, market-place dialect, known as koine. At that, the Gospels represent a kind of “translation,” for Jesus and his disciples spoke, not Greek, but Aramaic, and their spoken Aramaic had to be translated into written Greek. You can find a few Aramaic expressions in the Gospels, such as Jesus’ cry from the cross, “Fbi, Fbi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15: 34), and his words to a girl, “Talitlia cumi” (ch. 5:41).
Many people fail to realize that the earliest New Testament writings are not the Gospels, but Paul’s letters. The first of these, I Thessalonians, may be as early as A.D. 50. Paul had no idea that he was writing “sacred Scripture”; his letters were “occasional pieces,” jotted down to help churches to deal with specific problems. They were almost always circulated among the early Christian churches, and a collection of them gradually developed. They form a substantial part of our New Testament.
The rest of the New Testament writings (except for the Gospels), fall into two main classifications. Some of them were written during times of persecution, such as the letter to the Hebrews, the letter called First Peter, and (while you might not guess it from a quick glance) Revelation. In these writings we get a clear witness to the bravery of the early Christians as they stood firm against a hostile pagan world. Other letters combat a heresy which was common around the end of the First century. (A “heresy” is not a belief that is totally false; it is a belief that over-emphasizes part of the truth, and can thus pretend to be the truth itself.) The stock heresy in this period was the notion that while Jesus was God incarnate, he was not fully man, but only seemed to have a human body. Hence the belief was called “Docetism,” from the Greek word meaning “to seem.” It goes without saying that if this belief had won the day it would have destroyed Christian faith, since the whole point of Christian faith was precisely the claim that Docetism denied, namely, that in Jesus God fully indwelt a human life, and that this was a true human life, not a fake. This situation helps us to appreciate more fully the emphasis of the Fourth Gospel, on “the Word made flesh,” and similar statements in the three letters of John. Second Peter and portions of the “Pastoral Epistles” (I and II Timothy and Titus) combat this and other false positions. This does not mean that the New Testament books are merely negative, but only that we can understand their positive message more adequately if we also know what they were seeking to deny.
The Development of a “Canon”
Marcion, an early heretic, came to the false conclusion that the Old Testament and the New Testament were about two different gods. He decided to draw up a list of sacred writings that would meet with his approval. He began by excluding the entire Old Testament, and in his New Testament included only the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters that he felt were “safe.”
Church gradually began to develop a standard list of authorized writings. They included the Old Testament, of course, seeing in it the preparation for the mighty acts of God fulfilled in the New Testament in Jesus Christ, and they gradually reached agreement about which, out of the many new Christian writings, should be approved. By A.D. 200 there was pretty general agreement about the Gospels, The Acts, and Paul’s letters. Other writings were “on the border” for some time, but by A.D. 367 a list had been approved which contained the 27 books that comprise our present New Testament. These writings came to be known as the “canon,” coming from a Greek word meaning “norm,” or “standard,” since they were the norm or standard for Christian faith, and still are.
Testament Covenant = Agreement
It is time we cleared up one minor mystery. The word “testament” has been smuggled into this discussion a number of times, without making clear just what it means. As a matter of fact, just what it means is by no means easy to say, since it is a poor translation of a Hebrew word. The better English word would be “covenant,” an extremely important Biblical word (as we shall see in Chapter ‘5) which means the agreement or relationship established between God and man. The “Old Covenant” (what we call the Old Testament) is an account of the agreement between God and his people. The “New Covenant” (what we call the New Testament) is the account of the new relationship established between God and man in the person of Jesus Crist. Since the New Covenant completes rather than wipes out the Old Covenant, both Covenants or Testaments are included within our present Bible.
Jerome Produces the Vulgate
By the third century A.D. you could get a Greek Bible ( the Septuagint) or one in Greek and Hebrew. But perhaps you didn’t read Greek, let alone Hebrew. The only language in which you knew your way around was Latin. And since most educated people were in the same situation, the pope commissioned a scholar named Jerome to translate the Bible into Latin. This translation, done between A.D. 385 and 405, is called the Vulgate (from the Latin vulgatus meaning “usual” or “common”) because it was in the common or “vulgar” tongue of the people. It became the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church.
There is one interesting effect that this translation had on later Church history which illustrates the problem of translating the Bible. The Greek word used in Matt. 4-17 is metanoite, which we would translate in English as “repent, turn about, begin again, get a fresh start.” (“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”) The Latin which Jerome used was poenitentiam agite, which can be translated “repent” but which can also be translated “do penance,” and it was in this latter sense that Jesus’ command was understood in medieval Christendom. Jesus’ words thus became, “Do penance and believe in the gospel,” and they are so translated to this day in the Douay (Roman Catholic) New Testament. Around this notion the sacrament of penance developed, and the belief that we must do certain things in order to secure God’s forgiveness. When Protestant scholars went back to the original Greek, instead of stopping at the Latin, they found that there was no clear basis for the sacrament of penance in this verse, and it was abolished from Protestant practice.
Luther Brings the Bible to the People
By the end of the Middle Ages, only priests and highly educated people (not necessarily synonymous) could read and understand Latin. Now new translations were needed in the languages ordinary people spoke, particularly since the Prot- estant Reformation had restored the Bible to the central place. In the life of the Christian. When a group of Martin Luther’s friends spirited him off into hiding, at a time when his life was in danger, they probably had no idea that their concern for his safety would result in one of the most influential of all Biblical translations. Luther, hidden in the Wartburg Castle, used his time of enforced leisure to translate the New Testament into German (1522), just as later on he did the Old Testament (1534).
The German people had not had the full Bible in their own tongue before this time, and Luther did his translation in such a way that the Bible became a living book that they could understand. Instead of making a wooden literal translation, he tried to get the flavor of the events, so that people could imagine them taking place in their own locality. There were robbers on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho —it must have been just as dangerous as going through tile Black Forest at night! When Luther translated Ps. 46 (“God is our refuge and strength”) he conveyed this idea by conjuring up the picture of a strong medieval castle with thick wails, a wide moat, safe and strong and protecting, and gave tile psalm the subtitle “A mighty fortress is our God.” The Germans knew what that meant! To make sure that they could understand the sacrificial requirements in Leviticus correctly, Luther checked the material with his butcher.
First Glimpses of an English Bible
But how did the Bible get into English? Legend says that back in the seventh century a stable .hand at Whitby named Caedmon had sung portions of the Creation story and the life of Jesus in English, and we know that in the eighth century a great churchman known as “the Venerable Bede” translated the Fourth Gospel into English.
The first complete English translation, however, came from the pen of John Wycliffe (or Wiclif or XVyclif or Wickliffe or Wycklife—they weren’t particular about spelling in those days). Together with some scholars, he finished the New Testament in 1380 and the rest of the Bible by 1382, using Jerome’s Vulgate as his text. All the copies, of course, had to be written out in longhand, and Wycliffe sent out groups of people called Lollards to read these Bibles and expound them to the people in the market places. On the basis of what he found in the Bible, Wycliffe opposed many elements in medieval Christianity, and was a forerunner of Protestantism. As a result, his writings were condemned and his books burned. Since Wycliffe had inconsiderately died before they could burn him too, the authorities dug up his bones and burned them. Such was the price one had to pay to make the Bible available to the ordinary people.
Smuggling for the Glory of God
The next translator, William Tyndale, was less fortunate, for Tyndale was still alive when the authorities clamped down on him, and he was strangled and burned for his pains. But Tyndale had two advantages in making his translation that Wycliffe did not have. Johann Gutenberg had invented movable type, so that Tyndale’s translation was able to be printed in large quantities. And the Dutch scholar Erasmus had produced a scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament, so that Tyndaie was able to base his translation on the original tongue, rather than being dependent on the Latin. When things got too hot for Tyndale in England, he went to Germany and had his English Bible printed there. The Bibles were then smuggled into England in great bales of cotton. One angry bishop bought a lot of the Tyndale New Testaments and burned them publicly. Tyndale took the profits made from the.bishop’s purchases and printed a new edition!
A Rash of New Translations
Although Tyndale met a martyr’s death, the impact of his work was felt, and it gradually became safer to produce an English Bible in England. In 1535, just ten years after Tyndale’s New Testament appeared, the first complete printed Bible appeared in English, the work of Miles Coverdale, who used much of Tyndale’s translation, but completed the Old Testament, which Tyndaie had only partially done. Most of the portions of the Bible used in the present Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are based on Coverdale’s version.
New translations appeared thick and fast in the ensuing years. Tue Great Bible (1539) had royal approval, and got its name because of its size. Copies of it were chained in the churches. Later a group of Puritans fled to Geneva, Switzerland, to be free from persecution during tile reign of “Bloody Mary” (so called because of her persecution of Protestants), and while they were there, they produced the Geneva Bible (1560), which was tile first Bible to contain numbered verses. This Bible was very unpopular among the English bishops because tile translators put Calvinistic interpretations in the margins. The bishops countered with the Bishops’ Bible (1568), but it was never popular except among the bishops. The most famous of the English translations was the Authorized Version, usually called the King James Version (1611). Forty-seven scholars were appointed by King James I of England to do a new translation based on the original languages of Scripture and making use of all the available English translations thus far made. And although many translations have been made into English since then, no one of them has seriously challenged the popularity of tile King James Version, until recently.
The Need for a New Translation
Why bother with new translations, if we still have the King.James Version, with its incomparably beautiful English prose?
Here are just a few reasons:
1. The usage of English words has changed tremendously since
1611. In 1611, the word “prevent” meant “precede.” In 1611,
Phil. 4:14 was translated, “Notwithstanding, ye have well
done, that ye did communicate with my affliction.” That may
have been clear in i6ii, but it is not very clear today. It sim-
ply means, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.”
2. A more basic reason for a new translation is that the sources
available to the translators in i6i I were pitifully meager com-
pared to those now on hand. The King James translators had
a couple of dozen imperfect Greek manuscripts, none earlier
than the tenth century, and their New Testament text had
over 5,000 copyists’ errors.
3. Recent archaeological discoveries have clarified our under-
standing of certain parts of the Biblical texts. Today there are
thousands of manuscripts which have been dug up in Palestine
and Egypt, and by comparing these, the translators can un-
derstand the original meaning of disputed passages much bet-
ter. In 1948, for example, in a cave near the Dead Sea, a group
of manuscripts were discovered, some of which were written
between the second and first centuries we. This is incom-
parably old for a manuscript—a thousand years older than
other existing manuscripts—and the scroll that contains The
Book of Isaiah has clarified passages that up until now have
always been obscure.
The Newest Translation
For these and other reasons a new, up-to-date, and reliable English translation of the Bible has recently been completed-the product of fourteen years of intensive work by outstanding scholars. The New Testament appeared in 1946, and the Old Testament in 1952. If you have ever been puzzled, for example, over those perplexing verses at the beginning of Ps. 8 in the King James Version, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies..” you will find the difficulty resolved in the Revised Standard Version:
Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted
by the mouths of babes and infants,
Thou hast found a bulwark because of thy foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
Here are other examples of similar clarification:
K.J.V.: Take no thought for your life. (Matt. 6: ~)
R.S.V. : Do not be anxious about your life.>
K.J.V. : Be not high-minded. (Rom. ii: 2o)
R.S.V. : Do not become proud.
K.J.V.: My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. (James 2:1)
R.S.V. : My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
Translating Will Continue
The “R.S.V.” will probably become the standard translation in our lifetimes, though the King James Version can continue to be used with it, with immense enrichment. But new translations will be nude, and wiii continue to be made, as long as people read the Bible. For word usages will change, and new manuscripts will be discovered which will cast further light on the intent of the original writers. Thus it is never right to “freeze” the translation process and assume that, say, the King James Version bound in black leather and printed on thin paper is the only “real” Bible. Until the end of time men will be engaged in one of the most significant of all pursuits- the attempt to render the Word of God in the words best suited to make that God come alive in the hearts and minds of men.
The BIBLE Speaks to You
Copyright MCMLV, by: W. L. Jenkins
Published by: The Westminster Press – Philadelphia
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