Diving Into The Bible (Part Three)
When a diver is underwater, they are in an environment which they don’t and can’t live. The Bible gives an account Peter walking on water….not breathing under it! In a similar way, the Bible was written in times and places impossible for us to live in today. That said, we should do our best to understand the environment in which the books of the Bible were written. To do this, we need to first learn at least a little about a book of the Bible:
Who wrote the book?
When did they write it?
Where did they write it?
Who were they writing to?
What was going on at the time?
I recommend reading an introduction to a book of the Bible before reading the book itself. Don't skip over these introductions if your Bible includes them! If your Bible doesn't include introductions to each book, I recommend finding a resource similar to The Essential Bible Companion: Key Insights for Reading God's Word, by Walton, Strauss and Cooper.
Not only can we not breathe underwater, but the deeper we go the more the pressure builds. When you read the Bible in context, pressure builds when you learn about linguistic, textual, historical and cultural issues.
There are several linguistic pressures we need to equalize when diving into the Bible. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Just like in English, words in these languages can have multiple meanings. For example, consider the English word “Set.” According to guinessworldrecords.com:
The word with the most meanings in English is the verb 'set', with 430 senses listed in the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989. The word commands the longest entry in the dictionary at 60,000 words, or 326,000 characters.
The English word “fear” appears in the English Standard Version Bible (ESV) 340 times. In Hebrew and Greek, fear can mean to respect, revere or frighten. Fear can mean to be in awe of, be alarmed by, be afraid of, be terrified of or be frightened of morally. When we read an English translation of the Bible, we need to be careful with projecting our modern sense of word meanings onto the biblical text. Consider the meaning of the word fear in the following verses:
....for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7, ESV).
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7, ESV).
To equalize the pressure of word meaning when reading the Bible, I recommend:
Reading multiple English translations of the Bible.
Reading the Bible with a Concordance and looking up the meaning of significant words.
Another language pressure which builds when you dive into Scripture is the issue of textual variants. Here is an example found in the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:9-13, ESV).
You might be wondering where "Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever"went? Those familiar final words are actually a doxology (i.e., a word of praise) found in the Didache, (a.k.a. the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). One translation which does include this doxology is the King James Version (KJV). One translation which does not is the New International Version (NIV). However, the NIV contains this footnote after Matthew 6:13, “... some late manuscripts (include)... for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Translations which do not include the last line include the ESV, American Standard Version and the Tree Of Life Version. Translations which do include the last line include the Holeman Christian Standard Bible (in brackets w/footnote) and the Complete Jewish Bible.
When you dive deep into the Bible, pressure builds when you learn the early manuscripts we have of biblical texts are not 100% identical. That said, the early manuscripts are remarkably similar given copies were done by human hands. Further, the majority of textual variants are minor issues like spelling or grammar errors. However, there are some significant textual variants including:
Mark 16:9-20 - some of the earliest manuscripts do not include these verses.
John 7:53-8:11 - the earliest manuscripts do not include these verses. Further, this particular account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is not recorded in any other Gospel.
Acts 21:25 - the KJV contains an additional thought about Torah observance not found in other translations.
Is the pressure building a bit thinking about all this? Do these textual variants mean the things in these verses never happened? Not necessarily! It simply means textual critics, scholars who study and date manuscripts in an attempt to discern what was written in the autographs (i.e., the originals), have determined to the best of their knowledge that those verses or words were not likely in the original texts.
When considering textual variants, here are things you can do to equalize the pressure:
Read multiple English translations. When you see a difference, check for footnotes.
Keep John 21:25 in mind: Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (ESV).
As scribes copied the texts, they may have felt convicted Jesus truly said or did something not recorded in the version they were working with and decided to add them in an effort to correct, or make more accurate, the text.
The Bible is rich and deep, so we must dive deeper. When the pressure builds, know there are no manuscripts from antiquity as trustworthy as the biblical texts even though there are textual variants.