Can an ancient text actually be authentic?

I have never torn down and then rebuilt a house with my own hands, but I imagine that I understand the general principles involved.  One of the first steps, of course, is to carefully verify the structural integrity of the existing foundation before the new house is built on top.

If the old foundation is insufficient, the house that is rebuilt on top is guaranteed to have major problems (at the homeowner’s expense, of course!).  A good builder will either rebuild the current foundation or start all over again from scratch; simply placing a new foundation on top of the old deficient foundation would be nonsense.

How is rebuilding a house related to religion and spirituality?  The answer may surprise you.  One of the comments that I have frequently heard is that modern translations of the Bible are significantly corrupt due to the accumulation of errors and bias that have crept in through translation after translation.  In statistical terms, this is referred to as cumulative error.  Similar to the faulty house foundation analogy above, the assumption is that each new translation is built upon a previous translation, and therefore modern translations contain thousands of years of accumulated errors (similar to building a new foundation on top of, rather than replacing, an insufficient foundation).

But is this assumption accurate?  The methodology used by many modern translations would indicate otherwise.  Although there certainly were periods in history when a “new” translation was simply a “rewrite” of an already existing one, thanks to many archaeological and linguistic developments during the last hundred or so years, most current translations of the Bible are based on the “original” languages.  In effect, these modern translations have bypassed previous translations and more than a thousand years of potential errors, and have instead gone as close to the original source documents as is currently possible.

In a previous posting, we identified about the three original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and most often it is these ancient languages (and the oldest manuscripts) that translation teams base their work on.  At the risk of dating myself with this example, I think that the best modern Bible translators are a lot like Indiana Jones – they go as far back in history as possible, and base their work on ancient manuscripts that are written in strange looking languages!

A translation of any document from one language to another should have at least two core elements in order to be considered “good”.  It must be faithful to the original language (ie, the language(s) it was written in), and it must be faithful to the receptor language (ie, the language of the modern reader).  Thankfully, as we explore religion and spirituality today, we can be confident that good modern translations of the Bible authentically represent what was written thousands of years ago.

Questions to ask ourselves and others …

  1. Whether reading the Bible is a new experience for you, or you’ve read it for decades, how often have you thought about how reliable it is?
  2. In terms of the credibility of a sacred scripture, how describe the importance of being aware of how authentic or reliable it is.
  3. Is there someone in your life with whom you could have a conversation this week about the authenticity of scripture?

I hope you are enjoying this Talking about God series!


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