My friend Arnold phoned the other day to ask about Bibles. He said he had a Bible once but can’t find it, so he went to a book store and saw about twelve different kinds of Bibles and didn’t know which one he should get. So he decided to call me and ask me about it.
“Well, Arnold,” I said, “I’m glad you’re interested in reading the Bible. What brought that on so suddenly?”
“My nephew Ralphy said he got himself ‘born again’ and twits me all the time about my biblical illiteracy. He’s always on my back about it. He keeps quizzing me, like when he asked me if I knew who preached the Sermon on the Mount and I guessed it must have been somebody like Billy Graham and he laughed like crazy at me. He says any educated person should know something about the Bible, since, he says, so much of world literature refers to biblical things.”
“So what Bible does he use?” I asked.
“I think he uses the Saint James Version, or something like that.”
“Do you mean the King James Version?”
“That’s it,” Arnold said. “Ralphy says that’s the true version.”
“So all the other versions aren’t so “true”? I asked.
“Not according to Ralphy,” Arnold replied. “All the other versions change the Bible, because they’re translations, and they change the original King James Version.”
“The King James Version is also a translation,” I countered.
“It is? Ralph says he uses the “original” King James Version, so I thought that was the “original” Bible.”
“Well, first of all, nobody can use the original King James Version, because it first was published in 1611 and there are 600 words in it that are no longer used in the English language.”
“How did that happen?” Arnold asked.
“Because language is a living thing,” I said, “and you know that we don’t speak the same English as people did back in 1611.”
“Of course, I should have known that.”
“You also know that the Bible wasn’t originally written in English, don’t you?”
“Oh, you mean Hebrew? I guess I new that.”
“The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. That’s why we need translations, and up-to-date translations into the languages that we now speak. That’s what the original King James Version did: it translated the Bible into the English that people spoke back in 1611.”
“So no wonder I was looking at twelve different Bibles – they’re all different translations, is that it?”
“Yes,” I said. “There are about 25 different Bible translations into modern English on the market today.”
“Why is that, anyway?” Arnold asked. “Can’t they all just go back to the original Hebrew and Greek and come out the same, so that we don’t get confused all the time?”
“Because we don’t have any original copy of any biblical book. We have to rely on copies, and copies of copies, compare them, and reconstruct what can be accepted as the original Hebrew and Greek texts.”
“Man, is that ever complicated,” Arnold said. “You mean, when you guys say the Bible is divinely inspired, like my Ralphy does, you’re really talking about the original biblical texts – which we don’t have?”
“Right. But actually we’re fortunate to have around 5000 ancient manuscripts – some complete, some fragmentary – of the New Testament alone, which scholars can compare in order to be relatively certain of what the biblical authors were writing.”
“So why so many different translation then?” Arnold wanted to know.
“Because language changes, and several newer translations are also written for different audiences, like children’s Bibles, for instance. Just in general, we need a new translation about every 25 years, since new words and new expressions come into being virtually every day.”
“I don’t know whether I can absorb all this, Richard. Just tell me what Bible you would recommend for me to read.”
“I would suggest the New Revised Standard Version – and use a study edition; you can learn a lot from the accompanying notes.”
“OK, but don’t think this is the last time I’m going to talk to you about it,” Arnold said.
“Fine with me, my friend. Anytime.”
-- Richard L. Jeske, Vicar