Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Verses of ambiguity

One of the things that blew my mind away about the Bible – when I left the faith, that is – was suddenly realising that the Bible is not 100% complete or certain. There are still verses and sections of the bible for which meaning is still ambiguous. To see this for yourself, all that you have to do is compare different translations of the Bible. In this post, three ambiguous verses will be explored.

1 Samuel 13:1 – How old was Saul when he became king, and how long did he reign over Israel? According to the NIV (New International Version), Saul was thirty years old when he became king but according to the ASV (American Standard Version), he was forty years old. The KJV (King James Version) does not mention his age and the GNB (Good News Bible) has omitted this verse entirely. In fact, the original Hebrew text states that Saul was one year old when he became king, which is impossible. It has been suggested that the original numbers in this verse have been lost in transmission. An interesting discussion on this verse can be found
here and here.

2 Samuel 15:7 – How many years went by before Absalom spoke to King David? According to KJV and NIV, it was forty years. According to the GNB, it was four years. In Kiel and Delitzsch’s Commentary on the Old Testament, four years is argued for, simply because King David only ruled for just over forty years, and it is improbable that Absalom’s rebellion took place in the final weeks of David’s rule.

Judges 14:15 – When did the Philistines speak to Samson’s wife? According to the KJV and NIV, it was on the seventh day. According to the GNB, it was the fourth day. The Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge says the following:

The LXX reads “on the fourth day;” with which the Syriac and Arabic agree. This . . . is certainly right; for it appears from Jdg 14:17, that she wept the remainder of the seven days; for which there could have been no time, if they did not threaten her till the seventh.

These are just three of many discrepancies that I have come across. I must stress that I’m not using these discrepancies to disprove the existence of God, or to pass judgment on the relevance of the Bible. I am just raising the following question for possible discussion: is there such thing as a correct translation of the Bible?


Dar said...

I think it's impossible to interpret the symbology of that time.

The biggest difference in Christianity and Judaism is over the interpretation of one word that could mean either "virgin" or "maiden" when describing Jesus' mother. (Isiah 7:14)

Muslims acknowledge the birth of Jesus (Qur'an 3:47) but interpret him to be not the "son" of God, but rather the "servant" of God. There are several versions of the Qur'an as well.

Buddhism, Wicca and even Atheism have their sub-religions over translation.

Our language now is so complex, we can't even say "the sky is blue" without arguing over which shade of blue was intended. So to answer your question, I don't believe there can be a true intepretation, not even if you lived in that time and knew the language it was written in.

There is meaning in the symbolism, however, it's up to each individual to decide what feels right for themselves. Ultimately, we're going to beleive what we beleive no matter what is said.

Truth lies within the beholder.

r10b said...

I see the same ambiguity yet remain "in the faith." I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and every little historical oddity does not cause me to reconsider. My theology is founded on the Scripture, my faith is not; it is founded on the work and person of Christ and affirmed by the work and presence of the Holy Spirit.

To your question:

Is there a perfectly accurate translation of the Bible? Probably not.

Could God have insured a perfectly accurate undeniably precise transmission of His Word to us? Yes. (Though it's impossible to imagine what the nature of an undeniably accurate document would be. The Holocaust is denied by many.)

Are the "errors" hiccups of God's omnnipotence? Probably not, and possibly an example of it.



Truth lies within the beholder? Hopefully you're a philosopher and not a scientist, a judge, an accountant, or... well anything besides a philosopher.

JustinOther said...

Considering just the discrepancies in timing and ages, consider the following:

Check out Genesis 5. The ages of the characters are astounding. I wrote a post on it here:

Dar said...

r10b: As far as spiritual matters are concerned, yes, I believe that truth lies within the beholder.

Cori said...

I like r10b's distinction: his theology is based on the Bible, his faith on the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, the Bible does describe Jesus and the Word as being one and the same thing in John (in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God etc). But I agree that one's faith needs not stand or fall on what the Bible does or doesn't say...

r10b said...

All truth "lies with in the beholder" or is "personal" in the sense that for it to have subjective meaning for me I must have some kind of personal response to it. No one will argue that biblical truth demands a personal response. The question is, Do we have an objective revelatory truth to respond to? If not, can any decision regarding spiritual matters be considered rational?

Despite the fact that that Bible is a collection of books written over the course of about 2,000 years, and the last book was written well over 1,500 years ago, when it is judged using standard critical methods it's accuracy turns out to be between 97-99%. I'm sure you know that the evidence by which the Bible can be measured is far more abundant (by many orders of magnatude) than that of any other ancient text. Of those relatively few inaccuracies, nearly all are insignificant to the meaning of the narrative and just a small fraction of the errors has any bearing on theology, and even those are noted in any modern English translation.

Knowing the consequences, God chose to work through fallible men and women. His only undeniable work is grace.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi R10b

Thanks again for commenting. I don’t know much about the methods used to determine the accuracy of the Bible, so I won’t make any comments about it here. However, even if the Bible is one day proved to be 100% accurate, we still won’t be able to determine if the actual stories contained in the original manuscripts was actually what happened in reality. I bet the Mormons can prove that the present day Book of Mormon is exactly the same as the original manuscript (maybe up to 100%), but does that mean that we should automatically believe that the angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith?

My problem with the Bible has nothing to do with how accurate (or inaccurate) it is, but has everything to do with the incredible amount of room it seems to provide for believers to interpret its various teachings. Are we saved by works or by faith? Is the ‘once saved, always saved’ doctrine true? Are we predestined to be saved, or do we have total free choice in the matter? Christians, through the centuries, have fought and argued about these important doctrines. And there seems to be Biblical verses supporting each and every side. It’s the confusion that I have a problem with.

All the best

r10b said...

You posted a while back about an opportunity you had to be in the stands at a memorable cricket match. One of the teams was your favorite as I remember. But I'm sure there where many others in the stands, loyal crickt fans all, who cheered for the other team. Around S. Africa there must be thousands of people pulling for a variety of teams for a variety of reasons. People have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but that doesn't prevent you from forming your own in every area of life does it? But when it comes to Christianity its a roadblock.

You also had a post, regarding Heaven and, unless my memory fails me, your argument was that you didn't like the idea of Heaven because in it there would be no variety. Yet you use the plain, observable fact of variety within the Christian community here on Earth against it.

What do you want?

All the best right back at you.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi R10b

Good point!

I firmly believe that variety and differences in belief are good, simply because it leads to debate and discussion. I have no problem with debates on what particular words mean in a specific passage of the Bible, or on minor doctrinal issues. My problem with the Bible is that one would expect God to make known, in the clearest way possible, issues surrounding the very important doctrinal issues, especially on issues regarding our eternal destiny.

For example, I am an ex-Christian. I once believed in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. But I rejected that belief. Am I still going to heaven? I could be wrong, but I think some Calvinists believe that I will still go to heaven despite my atheism (as they believe that the ‘once saved, always saved’ doctrine is true), but the Methodists believe that I will go to hell (because they believe that this doctrine is not true). Who is right in this case? My eternal destiny depends on this issue.

Does God leave it up to Christians to decide on such important issues, or has God decided on what the answers should be but Christians are the ones who keep on misinterpreting the truth? If it is Christians who decide, do I go to heaven depending on the church I belonged to? If there are set-in-stone answers, but Christians keep on misinterpreting the truth, how can I be held responsible for my actions regarding belief if I’m not exactly sure what the true ‘road’ to heaven actually is?

A bunch of engineers can argue over what colour to paint a fire-escape route – that’s okay. But should I be held responsible for dying in a fire if different engineers provide me with totally different and contradicting instructions on how to get to the fire-escape in the first place?

All the best

r10b said...

Explain how any such principle could be given to humans so that no one could subject it to his own interpretation?

We've talked before about the story of the Garden of Eden. God said that Adam and Eve could eat of any tree in the garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet they did just that. What could God have done to make His meaning clearer? It seems that the influence of evil is real and people can choose to ignore or rationalize God's clear Word.

Should God make us in such a way that we cannot choose to disobey or muddle His Word?

Roger Saner said...

Hi Kevin

On a completely non-related track, any chance you can publish full news feeds off your site? Then I can continue reading via my news reader...

Also, can I invite you to "come and share your testimony" sometime with a group of friends who are meeting regularly, trying to grapple with difficult questions? I'm thinking some sort of carnival-type thing where you sit in a cage over water and any time you give an answer we don't like we get to tip you in...mwahahaa! So it'll be nice and friendly and all that...

Actually I was thinking, if you're keen we can do this in the form of a conversation/interview, with me asking questions and us dialoging around that. Let me know.


Kevin Parry said...

Hi Roger

Thank you for you invitation. I would be happy to join you guys one evening. Let me know when you guys are meeting next. I am disappointed though about the cage over the water idea - I was expecting something along the lines of cream pie flinging :-)

With regards to publishing full feeds from my site: I’ve only recently added a FeedBlitz option to my blog. I new at the whole news-feed thing – so I’m not sure what would be appropriate. Do you perhaps have some suggestions?

By the way, I don’t have your email address. If you read this, can you please email it to me (you will find my email address under my profile).

All the best

Kevin Parry said...

Hi r10b

Should God make us in such a way that we cannot choose to disobey or muddle His Word?

I can accept the possibility that humans are at fault here, that we are the one’s who are muddling and misinterpreting God’s perfect word. If this is the case, how do we know what the real truth is with regards to the list of doctrinal issues that I listed earlier? Can we be judged for believing in muddled messages?

And this leads to another question: how do you know that you are not following a muddled version of God’s word?

Thanks again for your comments.

All the best

IAN said...

I am glad that inspite of your personal beliefs, you are still concerned with the ambiguous verses in Scripture. I sence that you would love to defend Scripture even though you find it hard to. This is important. As long as the Bible causes concern and debate amongst people - it may be defended as TRUTH!Great site!

BC500 said...

Question: Is there is there such thing as a correct translation of the Bible?

Answer: Well yes, most Bibles are “correct”. The question you are really asking, “Is there a Technically Perfect English Translation of the Bible”, and the answer is no, and there can never be, because of the human language problem, the different translation processes, differences in the assembly in original language documents and copying errors.

Let me explain.

First, the English language is always changing adding and deleting words and changing the meaning of existing words so there is no one Bible, in English, that can ever be technically perfect.

Second, how Bible scholars interpreted the Bible when they translate is different. They can follow the “Word for Word” or “Thought for Thought” method or something in between. For example if you take the original writings in Greek and copy it word for word in English it makes little sense. Plus there are some Greek words that we have no single corresponding word in English. So even the “Word for Word” people have to rebuild the Greek sentences into English sentences.

Third, then there are the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) source documents that have been assembled for translators to use, here is a list of 7 for the Greek New Testament named for individuals or teams that did them: Pierpoint & Robinson, Hodges & Farstad, Nestle-Aland, Westcott & Hort, Stephens, Alford, Tischendorf.

Fourth, we don’t have first originals, known as the autographs, but we do have over 5,366 copies of whole and fragment New Testament documents that hundreds of Bible scholars have spend their lives studying, discussing and researching to give us the original language source documents mentioned above. When looking at the New Testament there are 793 verses that have differences, true variants. While that looks like a large number it is out of 7,958 verses, making the variants less than 10%, and again most of those variants are minor differences like spelling or typo’s. Anyone can review them in Bruce Terry’s work, “A Students Guide to Textual Criticism” which can be found at: http://bible.ovc.edu/tc/index.htm (down loaded it covers 257 pages). So check it out for yourself!

Also, while there were errors in copying it did not happen like you probably think, one copy made from another copy, etc. Multiple copies were made from the same original. So the copyist did not make the same type of error all the time. Experiments have been done with many students making a copy of the same original document. The resulting copies have different degrees of quality. Then they reconstructed the original only using their copies, and ended up extremely close to the original. 100’s of devoted Bible scholars have been reconstructing the Bible for us over the years. They examine the documents much more closely than we can image, looking at tiny details of language and usage to get at the truth. The bottom line is that the differences from the variants are not material to God’s message being found in the Bible.

There is much more that could be said about the four issues mentioned above but you can see how complicated it can get.

Just a comment while God is perfect and He could have made the Bible a technical perfect document, but did not. He gave His perfect Word through imperfect humans, but they still managed to get what God wanted us to know perfectly enough. You might say that God is so perfect he could have provided only one Gospel account. But none of the human transcribers of the Gospels were perfect enough, so God gave us four Gospel accounts. That way God made sure all He wanted communicate to us about Jesus, came through.