February 21, 2013
The Bible (from Koine Greek τà βιβλία, tà bibl'a, "the books") is a canonical collection of texts considered sacred in Judaism or Christianity. Different religious groups include different books within their canons, in different orders, and sometimes divide or combine books, or incorporate additional material into canonical books. Christian Bibles range from the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon to the eighty-one books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church canon …
Wikipedia, the entry for "Bible"
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the different versions of the Bible, and, though I wasn't intending to write a humorous column, by the time I was through writing it, the column had veered off in a comical direction and, while many people seemed to find it enjoyable, there were two main problems with that column:
(1) I never really got around to my original task of talking about choosing between all the different Bibles, and …
(2) Based on some emails and other communications I received after that column came out, some people were highly concerned about my salvation.
So, this week, I want to engage in the conversation I originally intended. I want to make some points that I felt compelled to make before I got sidetracked in my column a couple of weeks ago.
The idea of writing about the various versions of the Bible came to me when I ran into a lady at the supermarket who carried a copy of the King James Version around with her everywhere she went. She told me I needed to read the King James Version exclusively because that was the true word of God, while the more modern versions, she said, can be misleading.
The woman seemed to think the newer, more modern translations of the Bible watered down the meaning of God's word, and they failed to adequately convey the message He had intended for us.
Now I, on the other hand, have always preferred the more modern translations like The Message and The Living Bible, which use present day idioms and are much easier for me to understand.
I know a lot of people are critical of The Living Bible and other modern translations, because, they say, those modern translators have taken too many liberties; they've made some choices that have obscured the literal meaning.
They have, in other words, brought too much interpretation to it. Some argue that that's very important because every word of the Bible is literally true and the new versions often deviate from the strict meaning of the text. I appreciate that position, but I think it misses a point about literalism.
Sometimes people say they believe every word in the Bible literally, but I always wonder if they really do, because, for instance, they still have their right hand on the end of their arm.
As Jesus said: "And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matthew 5:30, New International Version)
Now, everyone has sinned and presumably everyone has sinned using their right hand at some point in their lives – yet people don't cut it off as instructed.
I know they would tell me that Jesus' remark in that situation wasn't meant as a literal command. Instead, they would say, it was a metaphor: Jesus was simply trying to convey the serious nature of sin and the importance of doing everything one can to prevent it.
In other words, they're saying, Jesus is making a symbolic or figurative statement – which, of course, means it wasn't to be taken literally.
At that point, when we make that judgement, we're already moving away from a "strictly literal" interpretation of the Bible.
In 1 Kings 18:27, Elijah tells those worshiping the false God Baal that Baal is "the supreme God." He goes on to say, to the followers who are shouting for Baal, that they might need to shout louder because Baal may be out somewhere relieving himself.
Now, is Elijah really saying that Baal is the true and supreme God? And does he really believe that Baal would no doubt answer them if he weren't out relieving himself? Elijah does, after all, say that.
No, of course that's not what he means. Elijah is clearly mocking them. That is, he's being sarcastic.
Sarcasm, like speaking metaphorically, is not a literal act. In fact, sarcasm has the very interesting distinction of presenting a meaning that is the exact opposite of what is being said.
Now those are a couple of minor examples of biblical statements being acceptably interpreted in a non-literal way; however, people are making much more important judgments of this type all the time – about what the text of the Bible actually does or doesn't say. After all, literally, the Bible says gays should be put to death and that true justice consists of an eye for an eye.
Now you might say that that was the Old Testament law and, after Jesus came and died for our sins, there was no more need to follow much of the Old Testament law. But don't forget: Jesus said He had not come to change "one iota, one dot" of the laws of Moses and the old books.
On the other hand, Jesus seems to frequently offer new rules in the New Testament. It is hard to both "Turn the other cheek," and live by "An eye for an eye."
If you want to limit the discussion to the rules in the New Testament: Women should be quiet in church and, if you marry a divorced woman, then you're committing adultery.
That's what it says, however we bring our own interpretation into the mix, and few people live by those particular rules today.
So that's how it goes: We just began the discussion and already we're knee-deep in interpretation, bringing in outside evidence, context, competing passages, cultural norms and a thousand other considerations – in an attempt to find the appropriate weight and correct meaning of various biblical passages.
Also, we're simultaneously trying to understand the uncertain or unknown motivations of the speakers – such as whether they're being ironic, sarcastic, metaphorical, literal or what.
So, to get back to the topic of the various versions of the Bible and which one you should read – well, on one level at least, the choice is difficult because there are so many versions that offer a multitude of interpretations of the word of God.
The Bible is commonly regarded as the best-selling book of all time. No one knows exactly how many Bibles have been printed, but I read several places that the number is easily over 6 billion – with an estimated 25 million Bibles produced and distributed each year.
Whatever the actual numbers, there are all sorts of differences in the various translations and versions. There are illustrated versions, versions for children, modern versions and ancient versions, and a good number of Bibles to choose from in many of the world's 7,000 or so distinct languages. Each version offers its own take on things, it's own points of emphasis and nuances – sometime there are even dramatic differences....continued on page 2