The Bible Is Not Perfect (but It Also Is)
I'm bracing myself for an onslaught of debate when I say this, but I believe that the versions of the Bible we have today are not perfect. In fact, I would go so far as to say they have flaws. We Christians often talk about the "inerrancy" of Scripture, which means that the Bible is the divine Word of God. It also means that God did not make any mistakes when he was orchestrating its creation. I believe this to be true, but I don't believe that the versions of the Bible we read today are perfect and without error, at least in one sense. Here's why:
The Bible is a Translation
First of all, the Bibles that we read today are actually translations of copies of manuscripts. They aren't the original thing. We have the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Standard (NASB), the New Living Translation (NLT), the New International Version (NIV), and the well-known King James Version (or as my hermeneutics professor often called it: the King Jimmy). And that's just to name a few! We all know that these are translations of scripture, but we often forget to take the time to understand what this really means for us as the reader.
You see, the Bible was written thousands of years ago over the course of a long period of time. It was written in several different ancient languages, primarilyGreek and Hebrew. These languages are extremely different from modern English. In fact, the original manuscripts of the Bible did not have punctuation or paragraph structures. Therewerenospacesbetweenwords. The grammar of Ancient Greek and Hebrew are completely different from modern English. Furthermore, there were no chapter divisions or verse numbers.
To complicate matters further, there aren't always corresponding words in English for those in Greek or Hebrew. Two examples would be the Greek words "Agapao" and "Phileo". Both are translated as "love" in English, but they both can have slightly different meanings and usages. (1) When we read English Bible translations, we are unable to see this. So, information can get lost in translation. In other words, the Bible translations that we have today are not perfect. They can never be perfect. This is exactly why we have so many different versions of the English Bible. Is one of them God's ordained communication to English speakers? No, of course not. Each of them has their own share of pros and cons.
Bringing the ancient writings of the Bible into modern English is no easy task. In fact, large teams of translators and interpreters usually work together to get the job done. They do their best with what they have, but ultimately they cannot create one "perfect" translation. We have so many different versions of the Bible because people disagree on interpretation methods and conclusions.
So, let me be clear: the writings contained in the Bible were inerrant in their original forms, but none of our modern day translations are perfect. The book Grasping God's Word explains that there is often a vast "river of difference" that must be crossed in order to adequately determine the meaning of scripture. This river consists of differences in language, culture, time, and situation. If we don't consider these details, we may come to the wrong conclusions and wash downstream in the waters of misinterpretation.
So, the Bible, as we have it today, is not perfect. That's not to say that God didn't have a role in its development, because he did, but we have to admit the limitations of our context and our language.
I believe this is an important message because if we don't come to turns with this fact, we can easily interpret the Bible incorrectly, assuming that we know what it means. Maybe an example would help illustrate this point.
Let's say that I was driving home from work and my roommate sent me a text message that said, "Hey, pick up some cheese from the grocery store on the way back." I say "okay" and head into the store. As I approach the aisle where the cheese is sold, I'm faced with a dilemma. There are about thirty different types of cheeses: sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, swiss, gouda, gorgonzola, parmesan, ricotta, pepper jack, colby-jack, and provolone. My roommate just said he wanted me to get "cheese", so I find one that I like and head home. Upon arrival, I find out, much to my roommate's dismay, that I should have bought cream cheese, not swiss!
In this situation, there were several things that led to my hypothetical self buying the wrong cheese. First of all, my roommate didn't specify which cheese to get. I made a decision based solely on my preference and knowledge of the situation. I could have called my roommate while I was at the store in order to seek guidance on which cheese to buy, but instead I choose to stick with a surface-level reading of his text message, thinking it wouldn't make a difference.
Here's where it gets interesting. In that situation, my roommate's text message was, in fact, his inerrant word. It was exactly what he meant to text me. Furthermore, it was definitely him who contacted me, not an imposter claiming to be him. The problem arose when I tried to apply his request. I interpreted his message incorrectly and assumed I should just choose a cheese myself.
Okay, so that analogy isn't perfect, and it's a little bizarre, but it serves a purpose. You see, the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but it's easy for people to misinterpret it or translate it incorrectly. This is one of the areas in which the Holy Spirit helps us.
What Does All This Mean?
Just because none of our translations are perfect does not mean that we should ignore the Bible or treat it as unimportant. Would I have looked at my roommate's text message about buying cheese and ignored it simply because I wasn't sure what kind of cheese he meant? Of course not! And the Bible is vastly more important than a simple text message, so we shouldn't neglect careful study of it just because it can be confusing.
So how do we study the Bible then? There are lots of different methods for proper Bible study, but here are a few tips and tricks that I've heard over the years:
1) Read from multiple translations. If words are translated differently depending on the version, take note and consider why that is. By evaluating different translations, you're taking a step to prevent yourself from obtaining a narrow understanding of what a passage might mean. Also, beware of reading paraphrases such as The Message Bible. The Message Bible is the work of one man, communicating what he thinks Scripture means.
2) Read commentaries. It will take extra effort and work, but by reading credible theologians and interpreters, you are able to evaluate and consider a variety of opinions in order to come to a better understanding of what God is communicating.
3) Pray and ask God for clarification. Don't stand in front of the cheese aisle and neglect to "call" God in order to ask for help. As Proverb 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
4) Know yourself. Evaluate your personal biases and experiences in order to see if they may be affecting your interpretation of scripture. Don't pick out a kind of cheese simply because you want it or are accustomed to it.
5) Be willing to admit when you get it wrong. I could have easily complained and gotten angry with my roommate for not being more specific about the cheese, but ultimately I've made the error myself. In the same way, we should not blame God for our misinterpretations. And we certainly shouldn't throw out the rest of Scripture if we've come to believe something that simply isn't true.
Again, God's Word is perfect. The interpretations and translations of it, however, are not. Coming to terms with this fact has helped me to appreciate the Bible all the more. In fact, I'm writing about this subject because God has been developing a love for Scripture in my heart, and I want to help others read and study it correctly.
When we admit that Bible translations aren't perfect, we're forced to study Scripture prayerfully, asking God for clarification.
Yes, let's call the Bible inerrant because God definitely means everything he says, but let's not turn that into a free pass for us to read it carelessly.
(1) The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon