Chapter 4: A Biblical Text? The Variety of Versions
Not only do we not have any “original” of any biblical book, neither do we possess any “final” authoritative form of any biblical book. The ancient manuscripts we possess in Hebrew and Aramaic (OT), and Greek (NT) exist in pluriformity (multiple, and diverse forms). The ancient translations we possess in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, and Coptic, also point to the pluriformity of the original language texts from which they were translated. Many of the differences are minor and explainable as obvious scribal mistakes or amendments, but some of the differences (and not just a few) are quite significant indeed. The evidence makes it very clear that the biblical texts have always existed in pluriformity, not only in ancient manuscripts and codices, but in modern Hebrew/Aramaic (OT) and Greek (NT) collections and in modern translations.
As Gillingham notes, “…any original and definitive ‘biblical text’ is out of our reach. All we have are the copies, and copies of copies, and translations of copies … The multiplicity of translations points to the same issue even with respect to our own ‘English Bible’ [that] a pluralistic, open-ended way of reading is the only way forward” (p. 72). Many Christians, however, read their Bibles with the naïve assumption that they are reading the most accurate translation of the most accurately reconstructed Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts. That’s just not the case. That’s why there are minor and significant differences between both ancient manuscripts and between modern translations. The significant differences are not just word order, or spelling differences, or even additions or deletions. These differences often reflect on changing or opposing portrayals of God’s nature, work, and/or will for creation.
Note the following quotes from Gillingham’s chapter, with which I wholeheartedly agree:
- The Greek text, like that of the Hebrew, is found in various recensions, and in different canonical collections, depending upon the linguistic and cultural needs of the Christian communities who used them (p. 100).
- One definitive biblical text, whether of the Old or of the New Testaments, is therefore a contradiction in terms (p. 100).
- …even when speaking of the English Bible, it is impossible to propose any one definitive text as having final authority (p. 100).
- The wide variety in the English translations—some using the Hebrew text as their primary source, others the Greek, and yet others the Latin—shows just how much the different theological interests affect the bias of the final translation. … Hence again, even with English translations and version, pluralism is the order of the day (p. 110).