Sunday, November 20, 2011

For the Bible Tells Me So

Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
2 Timothy 3:15-17, Common English Bible
The Bible is the story for us of God's revelation to humanity, in the story of Israel and in Jesus Christ. As Marcus Borg says in The Heart of Christianity, to be a Christian is to be centred in the God of the Bible.

I believe what this early Christian document, the Second Letter to Timothy, says: Scripture is inspired by God. However, this does not mean, for me, that the Bible is infallible and inerrant. Much of what ancient communities wrote was inspired, but is not meant to be historically factual; this does not mean it is false, as it is true in the sense of metaphor, and witnesses to truths about God.

There are commentators who state that if any part of the Bible is held not to be literally true, then the entire edifice of faith collapses. I think this does a disservice to both the Bible and Christianity, and devalues metaphorical language. It also does not serve the Bible well to state that one translation only is valid. We do not have one definitive version of the original texts - the Common English Bible lists five different manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint for the books of Samuel alone. The 1611 Authorized Version, called the King James Bible, is now celebrating the 400th anniversary of its beautiful language which has made such an impact on English literature and speech. Yet we now have better Hebrew and Greek manuscripts than were available to the King James translators. All translators have to make choices in rendering ancient words and their underlying concepts into today's speech.

In the season of Advent we will be reading from two translations in worship at Ingleside and Newington: the King James, to end the 400th anniversary year, and the new Common English Bible. This should provide some great, and thought-provoking, contrasts between a venerable translation and a fresh version. I think we can learn from how the translators have rendered, for instance, the Isaiah 64 reading for next Sunday:

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.
Isaiah 64:6a, King James Bible

We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.
Isaiah 64:6a, Common English Bible

What do these words tell us about ourselves? About the translators? About the attitudes and taboos of the time? Does the way the CEB translates the Hebrew speak to us in a way that the King James does not (or the New Revised Standard's "filthy cloth" or The Message's "grease-stained rags")? Lots more to come.

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