All posts by Gary Zacharias

The Bible–Confusion, Controversy, and Clarification–Part 2

Ark of the Covenant


Steven Spielberg brought the ark into our movie theaters and homes with his famous movie The Raiders of the Lost Ark. It might be good to set the record straight here. The ark was a sacred portable chest that contained key items important to the Jewish people. It was the most important sacred object of the children of Israel during the wilderness period.


It was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold and four rings of gold through which carrying poles were inserted so that nobody actually touched the ark. On the top was something called the mercy seat, which was a slab of pure gold which fit exactly on the top of the ark. It measured roughly four feet by two feet by two feet, so it was not very big. The Jews constructed that as they wandered in the wilderness after escaping Egypt. Inside the box were placed the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, manna (the miracle food used by God to sustain the people in their wanderings), and the rod of Aaron, representing his priestly role. Later, after they came into the land promised them by God centuries before, they lost the ark to the Philistines in a battle. These enemies of the Jews soon returned the ark to its rightful owners because it had caused disasters for them. David eventually brought it to Jerusalem where it was later established in the Holy of Holies of the Temple which Solomon, David’s son, built.


What’s especially interesting about the ark is its disappearance. In 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar, leader of the Babylonians, destroyed Jerusalem. From that point on, the ark disappeared. There are all sorts of stories regarding its final resting place. Some say it was hidden by the Jews as the Babylonians approached their city and is buried somewhere in Jerusalem. Others report that Jeremiah took the ark and buried it on Mount Nebo in today’s Lebanon. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims it has the original ark which is kept under guard. There are stories from South Africa and Zimbabwe that natives ended up with the ark and have hidden it somewhere in their territories. The Knights Templar have also figured in stories of the ark’s disappearance; it was claimed that they took the ark to Chartres Cathedral in France. There are even some who suggest the ark made its way to America or Ireland. So, if you have some money and some spare time, you may want to find out for yourself where the ark ended up.


The Bible–Confusion, Controversy, and Clarification

Let’s switch topics here. For the next several blog posts I’d like to discuss  subjects that you may have wondered about. Even if you haven’t given some of these topics any thought, I hope they spark an interest in the Bible for you. They are in alphabetical order, so here goes.


Apocrypha versus Apocalypse


People get these mixed up all the time. The word “Apocrypha” means things that have been hidden away. The term refers to texts of uncertain authenticity or writings where there is confusion about the author. Specifically when it comes to Judeo-Christian writings, it refers to any collection of texts that are not counted among the official 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. It doesn’t mean these are bad books or evil in some sense.


These works, which were written sometime between the 200s B.C. to New Testament times, include Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Sirach (sometimes called Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, First and Second Maccabees, the two Books of Esdras, various additions to the book of Esther, the book of Daniel, and the prayer of  Manasseh. These books were generally excluded from Protestant churches for a simple reason: Jesus and the apostles never quoted from any of these books. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches included most of them because they believed they were of value for moral uses. One key point to remember is that they were never included in the Hebrew Bible. They did show up in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).


What’s funny is that the term “Apocalypse,” so easily confused with “Apocrypha,” actually means just the opposite – a lifting of the veil, a disclosing of something previously hidden. The book we often call Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, in Greek is actually called the Apocalypse of John. You can understand why as you read the book, noting the things that are revealed to the author.


Actually, apocalyptic writing is found in other books of the Bible and among other Jewish writings, so it is considered a specific genre of writing with its own rules and expectations. We will be discussing this further, but key features include dreams, revelation of mysteries, visions of the future and end times, use of symbolism, otherworldly beings and activities.


Which translation??

So now we have looked at the history of Bible translations. That’s nice, but the key is to pick one and read it. It can be a bit overwhelming when trying to choose which translation to use. There are several things to keep in mind as you consider this issue. Some translations are considered literal, which means they attempt to keep as close as possible to Hebrew or Greek words and grammar.


Then there are dynamic translations which still want to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but put their words and idioms in English. Finally, there are free translations which don’t worry as much about using the exact words of the original; instead, they attempt to translate the ideas from one language to another.


So where do well-known translations land with these three types of translations? Literal translations would include the King James Version, New American Standard, Revised Standard Version, and English Standard Version. Those that are considered dynamic translations would include the New International Version, the New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, the Good News Bible, the New Living Translation, and the Revised English Bible. Those that qualify as free translations are Phillips, the Living Bible, the New English Bible, and The Message.


I would suggest staying away from the free translations because the translator has updated the original texts too much. They come very close to being commentaries rather than Bible translations. I think your best bet is to stay with dynamic translations because they attempt to blend specifics of the Hebrew and Greek texts with our English language.


Good ones for you to consider might be Today’s New International Version, the Good News Bible, the New American Bible, or the English Standard Version. A couple of other good ones would be the New American Standard (updated) or The New Revised Standard Version. Whatever you choose, just be sure to read it!



Back to Translations of the Bible

OK, I’m back to my blogging now that Palomar College has started its new semester. Let’s continue our review of translations of the Bible. Take a look at past posts to see the whole history. I’m always amazed at those who stick to the old King James translation. It has beauty in an old-fashioned way, but it is based on few manuscripts and has a 17th-century vocabulary and style that can be confusing to modern readers.


All these alternate translations (see previous posts) were based on the King James tradition, but many other English translations have been made that are entirely independent of this tradition. One example is the New English Bible, which broke away from the word-for-word principle by replacing Greek constructions and idioms with those of contemporary English. In 1963 the New American Standard Bible came out. In addition, the most popular translation, the New International Version, was completed in 1978. Because it is not tied to a literal, word-for-word translation, otherwise obscure expressions frequently are turned into phrases with meaning and appeal. For example, “proselytes” becomes “converts to Judaism,” “all flesh” becomes “all people,” “prayed constantly” becomes “prayed regularly.” The Good News Bible, which came out in 1976, has been a pioneer of translations that employ a simple vocabulary and short sentence structure. Other works such as the Living Bible and The Message are recent paraphrases rather than true translations. A recent success has been the English Standard Version, which appeared in 2001. It’s a revision of the 1971 edition of the Revised Standard Version.


English Translations–After the KJV

Eventually, some weaknesses in this translation made more recent revisions necessary. For one thing, the King James Version rests on an inadequate textual base, especially regarding the Greek text for the New Testament. The translators had used essentially a medieval text that had some mistakes that had accumulated through the years. The key point is that the King James Version is a translation of an inferior Greek text. Since 1611 so many more early and better manuscripts have been found. Another problem of this translation is its many archaic words – howbeit, holden, peradventure, thee, suffer (today we say “allow”). In addition, the King James Version includes errors of translation.


As a result of these problems, new translations poured forth, especially in the last 150 years. In 1901 the American Standard Version came out, which was based on the Greek text. It was far superior to that used by the King James translators. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version was released in an attempt to improve on past problems. Its greatest achievement was its readability in an attempt to recapture the beauty of the King James style in a way that is clear and pleasing to the reader. Even this translation did not please everyone, so in 1990 the New Revised Standard Version was published. It altered paragraph structure and punctuation, reduced old-fashioned words, strove for greater accuracy and clarity, and eliminated all masculine-oriented language when references are made to both men and women.


More English Translations of the Bible–A Focus on the King James Version

A flood of translations and revisions followed. One popular one was the Geneva Bible of 1560. It became the Bible for the family. It was the first translation which printed each verse as a paragraph and to  put words in italics not represented in the original texts. It was the Bible used by Shakespeare in his later plays, it was the one used by the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, it was brought to Plymouth on the Mayflower, and it was the one Bible with its improved Hebrew and Greek scholarship that was an intermediate step between Tyndale and the King James version.


Because some Bibles were used in churches, while others were used at home and some were favored by Protestants while others were favored by Catholics, there was a need for a Bible that was satisfactory to all. In 1604 King James of England summoned a meeting of representatives of diverse religious groups to discuss the question of religious toleration. At this meeting people raised the possibility of a new translation. The Geneva Bible had a lot of commentary added which represented the views of John Calvin and the Reformation. For this new translation the king said there  were to be no notes of comment except what was essential in translating the text. Over 40 Greek and Hebrew scholars were selected and divided into six working companies, which focused on key books and then allowed all the other companies to review their work. As a result, this new translation was the product of no individual or group, but of the reviewers as a whole. In 1611 the Authorized Version, better known as the King James Version, was published. It immediately displaced earlier Bibles used in the churches and established itself as the translation for English-speaking people around the world.


It became hugely popular for several reasons. First, Greek and Hebrew scholarship had made tremendous strides since the time of Tyndale. Secondly, literary scholarship and learning in general at this time were at a high. It was the time of Elizabethan prose and poetry, the time of Shakespeare. As a result, the words and phrases were written in a classic English style. Another reason for its success was its timing. A good English translation was needed, and the translators were able to profit from both the excellencies and the shortcomings of previous translations. One final reason for its success was the fact that it was the work of not a single individual or party. England had been torn by religious factions, and partisan translations would not solve the problem. The King James Version was noted for its deliberate impartiality in regards to religious opinions.



English Translations of the Bible–A History

Another phase of the Bible’s transmission lies in the history of English translations. Back in the seventh century, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the late 600s A.D. named Caedmon arranged in verse form stories of the Bible. This is the first known attempt to put the Bible accounts into the native Anglo-Saxon language.


The Norman Conquest in 1066 A.D. modified the old, Germanic language and created what we now call Middle English. The first memorable name in the story the English Bible is John Wycliffe (1330-1384). He grew up in an England full of faction and unrest due primarily to the popes excessive demands for money. Wycliffe emerged in the controversy over papal oppression as the champion of the people. Unlike so many of his time, Wycliffe believed the common man was worth something. As he said, “No man was so rude a scholar but that he might learn the words of the Gospel according to his simplicity.” He undertook a translation of the Scriptures from the Latin into the English tongue and completed this in 1382, having created the first English translation of the complete Bible.


The true father of the English Bible is William Tyndale. Having received a good education at Oxford and Cambridge, Tyndale desire to give to the English people a translation of the Bible based not on Latin, but the original Greek and Hebrew. To an opponent he once said, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that drives the plow shall know more of the Scripture then thou doest.” In 1524 he had to leave England because of threats against his work. The following year in Germany his translation of the New Testament was completed. His work had associated him with Martin Luther, so those who opposed the Reformation and Luther became enemies of Tyndale. Early in 1526 he was able to publish his translation, which was smuggled into England and bought with enthusiasm. He then started translating the Old Testament from Hebrew.


For several years he was an exiled, hunted man always on the run. Tyndale was eventually captured by those who opposed the Reformation and imprisoned near Brussels. Steadfast to the end, on an October morning in 1536 Tyndale went to the stake. He was strangled and burned, crying out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” His translation was for the common person – he used the word “love” instead of “charity,” ” repentance” instead of “penance.” He coined such words as Passover, scapegoat, mercy seat, and long-suffering. It was Tyndale who created such well-known phrases as the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the salt of the earth, daily bread, consider the lilies of the field how they grow, shepherds abiding in the field, eat drink and be merry, only begotten son, in my father’s house are many mansions, in the twinkling of an eye, and behold I stand at the door and knock.


Continuing to Look at Translations of the Bible–the Vulgate

The next major translation occurred during the Roman Empire. Since Rome was the dominant power, Latin translations came into use all over the empire. They were done informally and arose independently, differing from one another.

These differences set the stage for the translation into Latin called the Vulgate. By the way, this term simply means common or commonly accepted. A man named Jerome, born about the year 345, had studied Latin and Greek. He nearly died with a severe fever and had a dream in which God challenged him for not being a sincere Christian. As a result, he resolved to devote the rest of his life to the study of the Scriptures. For several years he lived among Syrian hermits and began to learn Hebrew. He eventually served under the Bishop at Rome when there was an obvious need to create a single, official Latin translation.

It took many years, but Jerome completed both the Old and New Testaments by 350 A.D. His translation was a huge improvement because the other, older Latin translations have been based on the Septuagint. But Jerome went back to the original Hebrew for his Old Testament translation.

The Vulgate reigned as the Bible of Western Europe for 1000 years. When at the end of the Middle Ages demand for the knowledge of Scripture increased dramatically, it was the Vulgate which was first translated into languages of the people. The first printed Bible (the Gutenberg Bible) was a beautiful Latin Bible.

Many words used in English translations today are due to the Latin Vulgate – congregation, consecration, conversion, exhortation, justification, ministry, sanctification, testament, Calvary. Eventually the Vulgate was made the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, and it remains so today.


How We Got Our Bible–Translations


It’s been a long road from the original scriptures in Hebrew and Greek to the Bibles we hold in our hands today. The story of Bible translations is long but interesting.


One of the most important Bible translations ever made was the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek. Around 250 B.C. 72 elders, six from each of the 12 tribes, were selected to meet in Alexandria to translate the Old Testament. For some reason the original number of 72 has been rounded down to 70 – Septuagint, its Latin name. In the city there was a large Jewish population, so a translation from Hebrew to Greek would have been needed.


First the Pentateuch was translated and then the other books over an unknown period of time. Scholars are certain that before the time of Jesus the entire Old Testament was accessible in Greek. The Septuagint presents many problems – was there one early Greek version or several? Or were there various editions of it? There are numerous textual variations between the Septuagint in the Hebrew text, but the great majority of these are minor.


The influence of the Septuagint has been great. It gave us the names of several of the books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), it grouped the books into law/history/poetry/prophets, it subdivided 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and so forth. For a while it was the only Bible for the early Christian church. It was the text most often quoted by the apostles and writers of the New Testament. Many New Testament terms and phrases come right out of the Septuagint, including words like apostle, atonement, covenant, faith, forgiveness, glory, law, peace, redemption, righteousness, and truth.


Last Section on New Testament Canon

We will look at translations in future posts, but for now let’s finish the story of how the New Testament was put together:

By the last half of the second century, substantial lists of the New Testament books appeared. One of the earliest lists contains all the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and perhaps 3 John. From the very first time that books of the New Testament are mentioned, the four Gospels we currently have (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were always included; no other collections of Jesus sayings (for example, the Gospel of Thomas) were ever mentioned. In the third century, a church father, Origen, listed the four Gospels we know. He seemed hesitant about Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John. By the mid-300s A.D. the 27 books of the New Testament we have today were accepted. Again, just a reminder that the disputed books were questioned, not because they taught some odd doctrine but, especially in several instances, because they were not well-known and widely circulated in all church areas. Like the Old Testament writings, the New Testament books do not depend upon the decision of the church or a council of bishops. Any council that did meet simply recognized what had been accepted by the church with a growing conviction over several hundred  years.