Years ago there was a church that was almost divided by a debate over Bible translations. The young pastor wanted to replace the worn, tattered pew Bibles with beautiful new ones. There was only one problem: the Bibles he was replacing were in the King James Version, and the ones he wanted to buy were the New International Version. Some of the church members believed that the KJV was the only translation of the Bible truly inspired by the Holy Spirit – all the other ones were corrupted by Satan and the Catholic Church. The tension came to a head during a prayer meeting, when one member held her King James Bible (originally published in 1611) above her head, and yelled, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”
The actual story of how the King James Version came to be, of course, is more recent – and more complicated.
Some people go their entire lives without giving much thought to how the holy book they hold so dear came to be. It would be nice to imagine that an angel flew to earth and handed someone – perhaps the Apostle John – a ready-made Bible with all the approved books contained within, written in fancy-sounding English. Unfortunately, the question of Biblical inspiration – and the resulting questions of interpretation and translation that come with it – are much more complicated than that.
One important text is 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thorough and equipped for every good work.”
The question, of course, comes in interpreting this verse. What exactly does it mean that scripture is inspired by God? And which books count as scripture, anyway? The Protestant Bible – including such translations as the King James Version and the New International Version – consists of 66 books: the thirty-nine Old Testament books that originated as Hebrew scripture, and then twenty-seven New Testament books of history, prophecy, and letters. These books don’t even show up in a list together until a letter by a bishop from 367, and it took until the 5th century for both the Eastern and Western churches to agree on the books in the New Testament.
The Catholic Bible contains several more books, including Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, and more. These books are known as deuterocanonical books, and cannot be found in the Hebrew Bible. To make things more complicated, over the last several years many self-proclaimed “lost gospels” have come to light, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Peter. We’ll learn more about them in our discussion of Gnosticism, but for now, it’s important to understand that they are almost certainly not written by whom they claim to be, and they contain doctrines that directly contradict the rest of the New Testament.
Even if we can all agree on what books belong in the Bible, people still disagree on what inspiration means. Scholars generally describe theories of Biblical inspiration into three categories: dictation theory (God dictated the Bible word-by-word), verbal plenary inspiration (God guided people to write in their own words), and dynamic inspiration (thoughts are inspired but expression is independent to each author). These terms may seem obscure and scholarly, but they’re incredibly important, because people’s views on Biblical inspiration affect their hermeneutic – that is, their understanding of how the Bible should be translated and interpreted.
A 2011 Gallup survey reports that “a 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God, but that it should not be taken literally.” If you don’t believe that the words you find in the Bible are the exact words of God, how does that affect your interpretation of Genesis? How about the Levitical Laws? Or the letters of Paul?
The history and details of Biblical inspiration and translation are way too complicated to sum up in one blog post, but it’s incredibly important as we embark on this journey that you start to think about how you read the Bible – and which Bible you’re reading. Your Biblical hermeneutic determines the tool kit that you’ll be using to build your Christian worldview – and people with different tool kits will build vastly different things.
Related texts or passages to consider: 2 Peter 1:20-21; 1 Kings 12:22-24; Luke 1:1-4
• Different people in the Bible identify different reasons why they chose to write something. Read the following examples. What are the different motivations or circumstances of the writers? (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3; John 20:30-31; 1 John 2:1; Deuteronomy 31:24-29; Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; Jeremiah 36:1-8; Habakkuk 2:2-3; Romans 15:14-29)
• Many people struggle with the Bible because of what it contains - war, violence, tribalism, discrimination, moral failures, blood sacrifices, demons, monsters, slavery, and all other sorts of things appear for some reason or another in this collection of books. Do you think that something like that can still be considered inspired? Why do you think the Bible might have so many negative things in it?
• Are there certain parts of the Bible that you trust more than others? Why or why not? Does the Bible imply that certain parts are more authoritative than others?
• Are different translations for different things? Should some not be used for certain tasks (i.e. public readings in church, Bible study). What are some of the things translators have to take into account when translating? (i.e. word by word vs. thought by thought translation, maintaining vs. changing gendered language)
• Do you have a favourite translation of the Bible? Which is it? Why do you like it?
• If you speak a second language, try finding a Bible in that language. Choose a favorite passage and compare the two in English and your second language. What differences do you notice?
• Read John 21:25. What does this verse mean to you? Reflect on it a little. What are the implications? Are we part of the ongoing story of things Jesus is doing? If so, why/how?
• The Bible Project has a great series on How to read the Bible - and it explains a lot about what the Bible is made of and how it was meant to be read. Watch some of these videos. How might this influence your understanding of translation? How might this affect your understanding of what it means for the Bible to be inspired?
• Some people think that the Bible should be treated as a series of myths or object lessons that don't need to be taken as literal history in order to teach something valuable. To be sure, the Bible does have stories like this - Jesus uses parables to illustrate his lessons! But is it right to treat the Bible