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Can I Trust the Bible?
For one who believes in the God of the Bible, it is relatively easy to shrug off any question of the trustworthiness of our modern translations of Scripture by saying, “God protected His Word as it was transmitted from generation to generation.” However, for the unbeliever or the believing skeptic, there must be better answers than this to the question, “how reliable is the modern-day Bible?”
An important piece of evidence in favor of the reliability of Scripture is that the Jews considered the Old Testament, to be God’s sacred words for them, intended as instructions for family, cultural, religious and political structure. Much of it was considered to be of divine origin immediately after it was given and was treated as such. It should also be stated that the Jews believed that the divine speech ceased, immediately following the writing of the book of Malachi.
Though oral tradition is a part of both the Old and New Testaments, the different accounts of the same situations are extremely similar, showing that the eyewitness accounts and subsequent transmission can be depended on with a fair degree of certainty. Also, the concept of written material being the only reliable medium is a distinct characteristic of modern western culture. Much of the New Testament is an allusion, or outright quotation of the Old Testament, showing that the early church gave credence to the Old Testament Canon and Christ Himself quotes from all three divisions of the Old Testament, the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.
Though we have no original documents from the Old or New Testaments it must be acknowledged why we have no original documents; the temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed not once, but twice during the time of transmission. Another, and perhaps more significant reason why we have no originals is that they were destroyed out of reverence for the content of the text. Because we know the process and devotion early scribes had for the text we can be reasonably certain of their accuracy and reliability. For example, we know that among many other rules, “no word or letter was to be written from memory.”[i]
We can be certain that from the writing of the Old Testament to the Septuagint translation, to the writing of the New Testament , to the canonization of the Scriptures, to Wycliffe’s first English Bible in 1382, to Gutenberg’s first Bible on a printing press in 1455, to the King James in 1611 the Word of God was treated with the extreme care and reverence that it deserves. Because of modern advances and the comparative ease of writing, copying and accessing information, it has become possible for there to be many different translations of the ancient texts. For public reading, or reading to children, the Message translation or the New Living Translation would allow for ease of understanding and ease of reading. However, for serious, personal Bible study, the New American Standard Bible is ideal in my opinion (and endorsed by Moody Bible Institute). In addition, the ASV is considered a good personal study Bible.
There is a noticeable difference between “single text” translations of the Bible and the “eclectic text” translations. The KJV, KJII and the NKJV are translated from a single text, as opposed to many other translations, which come from various texts. The latter is preferred by modern Bible scholars and considered more true to the original intent. Also, the method of translation must be considered. The ASV, RSV, NASB and NRSV are word for word translations as opposed to the NEB, GNB, NLT and Message versions, which attempt to communicate the same intent and emphasis as the original text using the unique idioms of the English language (a “thought for thought” translation). The downside of translations of this style is that the English language morphs so rapidly that, according to Wegner, the new translation can seem to be obsolete almost as soon as it is published.
Sometimes, doctrinal differences can arise based on differences in Bible translations, if the contenders are unwilling to look any deeper linguistically than the Bible in their hand. (For example, Proverbs 18:24 reads in the KJV “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother ” and in the NASB“A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”) Obviously, this can be both detrimental and divisive. In any case, we can be certain that the modern Biblical translations have been carefully transmitted, examined and preserved by men and women dedicated to God’s Holy Word. Scribes, both ancient and modern have sacrificed time, effort and even life to provide us with the best possible rendering of Biblical events and we owe it to them, and to ourselves to at the very least survey the transmission of the Scriptures.
[i] Wegner, Paul D. "Pg. 172." The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999. N. pag. Print.