How I Read the Bible Now (Pt. 2)

(Part one of this series is available here.)

Sometimes I start something hoping to finish it right away.

This was not one of those endeavors.

But not to fear! I have some more to say on this subject, so I’ll get right down to it.

A (very) brief history of the scriptures

As I explained in part 1, I am still learning to balance my perspective of scripture against the backdrop of the Church. See, for a long period of time, there was only one Christian church. There were schismatic groups that started to form in the early centuries (like the Montanists), but these groups tended to fade after a while (yes, I know about the Nestorians, but I consider that a different animal). Then, in 1054 AD the bishop of Rome and the Sees, which were largely centered in Byzantium and the east, pulled away from one another. This has become known as the Great Schism. In the west, Roman Catholicism grew and flourished outwards towards the wilds of western Europe and in the east, the Byzantine Orthodox Church was growing towards Asia.

All this history is to show that there was a maintained church structure for 1,000 years and that the array of denominations we have today is a more recent anomaly. This means that the scriptures we have today are not detached from recent history. They are very much a product of the chasm of language and understanding that grew over time. In the early church, the holy scriptures were largely written on parchment scrolls and the copies were kept in the Christian schools. Books began to come about in the middle ages and it was expensive to purchase a Bible for personal use, being as they were hand-copied.  So, the Church is where people went to hear scriptures and learn them inside and out. The Church delivered the scriptures from the beginning.

We have learned the plan of our salvation from no one else other than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us. For they did at one time proclaim the gospel in public. And, at a later period, by the will of God, they handed the gospel down to us in the Scriptures-to be the ‘ground and pillar of our faith.  – St. Irenaus, Against Heresies

One must also take into account that the Old Testament which Jesus and His apostles read from was a version called the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation originating in the 3rd century BC. It was the version Paul quoted out of. Jesus may have likely read from it as well. The Old Testament most people possess in these days is a translation by the Masoretes into Hebrew from the 7th and 10th century. The King James Version, for example, takes it’s Hebrew root from the same manuscripts Luther used for his translation, which is the Masoretic text. Now, this isn’t necessarily an awful thing, but the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts have some slight variances. The Septuagint also wasn’t widely circulated after awhile and was largely kept in eastern churches. The Roman Catholics mainly used Latin via the Vulgate.  Considering the Reformers and the Catholics weren’t too fond of one another at the time, the Reformers weren’t too fond of using the Vulgate as their source for translation.

Now, there are variations between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text sources. Consider the differences in Isaiah 53 between this English translation of the Septuagint and the King James version:

Septuagint

1 O Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed?
2 We proclaimed His presence as a Child, as a Root in a thirsty land. He had no form or glory, and we saw Him; and He had no form or beauty.
3 But in comparison to all men, His form was lacking in honor. He was a man in suffering and knew how to bear sickness. His face was turned away, and He was dishonored and not esteemed.
4 He bears our sins and suffers for us, yet we considered Him to be in pain, suffering, and ill-treatment.
5 But He was wounded because of our lawlessness, and became sick because of our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruise we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray. Man has gone astray in his way, and the Lord delivered Him over for our sins.
7 Although He was ill-treated, He opened not His mouth. He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before his shearers, so He opens not His mouth.
8 In His humiliation His judgment was taken away, and who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth, and because of the lawlessness of My people He was led to death.
9 I will appoint evil men for His burial and rich men for His death, because He committed no lawlessness, nor was deceit found in His mouth.
10 The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if You give an offering for sin, Your soul shall see a long-lived seed.
11 The Lord wishes to take away the pain of His soul, to show Him light, to form Him with understanding, and to pronounce righteous the Righteous One who serves many well; and He shall bear their sins.
12 Therefore He shall inherit many, and will divide the spoil with the strong, because His soul was delivered over to death. He was considered among the lawless, and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered over because of their sins.

Authorized King James

1 Who hath believed our report?
and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant,
and as a root out of a dry ground:
he hath no form nor comeliness;
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
and we hid as it were our faces from him;
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
yet we did esteem him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment:
and who shall declare his generation?
for he was cut off out of the land of the living:
for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death;
because he had done no violence,
neither was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him;
he hath put him to grief:
when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied:
by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many;
for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he hath poured out his soul unto death:
and he was numbered with the transgressors;
and he bare the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

There are subtle differences between the text which have some profound impact towards Christian theology (maybe for some people more than others). We do know now that the Dead Sea scrolls have many places which favor the Masoretic text over the Septuagint in the Hebrew language, but these fragments still date after the time of Christ (about the 2nd century), so there’s still some speculation on the accuracy. A good read on which is more authentic can be found at the Mystagogy blog.  It can depend on which way you choose to see the history, but the differences can matter.

You may be thinking in your head of an imaginary conversation with me where you ask, “why does it matter to you?” It matters to me because it seems that it’s less suspect to trust the translation which Jesus and Paul and the apostles depended on rather than a translation made by a Hebrew community which did have a possible agenda in de-legitimizing Christianity after such passages like Isaiah 53 were often quoted from the Septuagint in order to prove Christ’s fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. Besides that though, I am trusting the church, which used this translation for centuries and continues to use it to this day. The Catholics do have a version much closer to the Septuagint than the King James. And the Orthodox Church still uses it’s Septuagint sources, but have carefully translated them from Greek into other languages.

For me, it’s not just about one version of the Bible being better than the other. I am seeing that the Church and the scriptures had a symbiotic relationship for a long time and that relationship devolved around the same time the Great Schism happened. They became even further wedged apart after the Reformation. (I do understand the Reformation had a good reason to happen, by the way.) Yes, there have been abuses as scripture was kept secret from being read by the people, but before Gutenberg’s printing press, there wasn’t some nefarious plot to keep people ignorant. Actually, many of the peasants and poorer classes just weren’t literate and the Church made it their job to educate people on Christian doctrine.  (This is also partially why icons were very important as well, but that’s another post altogether.) A good education was often tied to Christian doctrinal education.

To an extent, we are all trusting the translators and the Church which cradled the scriptures for centuries. The question is, which track in history are we going to trust most?

(Part one of this series is available here.)

 

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