The English Language Bible

“If God wrote the Bible in English, it’s good enough for me.” This quote showed up spreading across Facebook recently, attributed to Michele Bachmann. I knew as soon as I saw it that Bachmann did not really say that, and I was correct.

A little research showed me that quote has been going around the Internet for years, by email and now also in social media. It has been attributed to Bachmann, Strom Thurmond, Miriam Ferguson, Robert Byrd, and Sonny Bono.

When you see an outrageous quote attributed to many different people, usually in an effort to make them look stupid and/or foolish, you can be certain that it is false.

Yet, even though it is wrong in so many different ways, the quote seems to appeal to people. Let’s look at some of the ways it is wrong.

First, God did not write the Bible. People, inspired, by the Holy Spirit, wrote the various documents that are now the books of the Bible. Modern scholars believe that at least 39 authors wrote the 66 books of the Bible.

Confusing the issue for us is that ancient writers did not feel the need to proclaim their authorship as we do today. Textual analysis indicates that probably three different people wrote the book of Isaiah. Adding new writing to a scroll that had a lot of blank space at the end was common in those days, and identifying the new author was not.

The first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, are traditionally credited to the authorship of Moses, but since Moses’ death and events after his death are recorded in Deuteronomy 33 and 34, it seems unlikely that he wrote or transcribed all of these five books.

The oldest stories in the Bible, for instance the creation stories in Genesis, are older than written language. They were passed down orally for generations before writing was invented.

When these stories were first written down, they were written in ancient Hebrew, which at first had only consonants and no vowels, although vowels were later added. A few passages of the Old Testament were also written in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew.

The New Testament was written in “koine” (common) Greek, the language spoken and understood throughout the Roman Empire.

So, the Bible was not written in English, but in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. To read it is it was originally written, you would have to be able to read all three of those languages, a daunting  challenge for most of us.

In the New Testament, we find several different authors named Paul or John. One of the Pauls is Paul the Apostle who was blinded by the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, and who, after having his sight restored, became the most ardent missionary in speading the good news of Jesus Christ to the gentiles. The identities of the other people named Paul are not certain, but scholars believe that they are not Paul the Apostle.

Another misconception is that all the books of the Bible were written by the authors to be included in the Bible. They are thinking that the Bible is like a modern anthology, where an editor called for manuscripts and selected the ones to be included.

The Bible would actually not exist until 325 C.E., when the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to determine which religious writing would be in the Canon. Many ancient texts were left out, and some, for instance the Book of Revelation, were almost rejected.

Some people ask why some ancient writings were rejected. The answer is another question: How do we determine what goes in the Bible? If Pastor DanaLee preaches one of her awesome and inspiring sermons, do we put it in the Bible?

Even after the Council of Nicaea, the books of the Bible existed separately and were read individually.

So, if the Bible was not written in English, how did it get to be in English?

In the next couple of months, I plan on writing about the history of the translation of the Bible into English, and about the King James and the New Revised Standard Versions of the Bible.

Until then, may the road rise up to greet you, and may the wind be always at your back. Amen.

Note: This article also appeared in “The Scribe,” the newsletter of Elim Lutheran Church, Volume 64, Issue 4, April 2014.

 

For further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations_into_English

 

http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/

 

http://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2012/06/what-was-the-original-language-of-the-bible/

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wessex_Gospels (This article contains the Lord’s Prayer in Old English)

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius

 

http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=32;t=000448;p=1

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6 Responses to The English Language Bible

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Good stuff, Dave.

  2. Zen Wordsmith says:

    Should the “first ecumenical effort to attain consensus through an assembly, representing all of Christiandom”, [Nicaea Council of Christian Bishops] Christian Equivalent {CE: 325} prove to be of any credence?

    The primitive {fusion} of Christian/Hindu in [Thomasian] Culture had already laid ground work for a promising future {Circa’ CE: 02} in sub continent [India].

    As Jehovah of the Old testament, and Messiah of the New testament,
    [Jesus Christ] is presented fundamentally, yet miraculously in virtually every format it is called for.

    Thanks for the study aides Brother Dave.

  3. Fr. John W. Morris says:

    The First Council of Nicaea in 325 had nothing to do with the development of the canon of the Scriptures. The records of the council do not even mention a discussion of the canon. The canon developed in various stages, by 150, the Church had recognized the canonical status of the 4 Gospels by accepting the argument of St. Irenaeus of Lyons who was a pupil of St. Polycarp, who was a pupil of the Apostle John. The Muratorian fragment from about 200 gives a list of canonical books of the New Testament that is almost identical to the present canon. The canon reached its final form with the acceptance of the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius in 367, which successfully argued for the inclusion of the Book of Revelation. The Council in Trullo in 692, considered a continuation of the 6th Ecumenical Council, Constantinople III in 680, by the 7the Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II in 787, approved the canon from St. Athanasius giving it ecumenical authority.

  4. mike topp says:

    The 66 books of the Bible?????

  5. I don’t think you give the writers and transcribers of the Bible enough credit. The Hebrew Old Testament scribes in particular were fanatic about their transcriptions. When a scroll wore out, they would meticulously copy it to a new scroll, using the ancient equivalent of a checksum to verify that the copy was accurate. (The ancient Hebrew letters had numeric values, and by “adding” up the letters, you could tell if a word was missed or not.) If they made a mistake during the copying, they would throw out the whole scroll and start over. Still, over time, words and verses were lost, and whole books that did not match the groupthink of the time. As a result, the modern Bible is like Swiss cheese – very tasty, but full of holes.

  6. Deseret JIM says:

    Kurt. Good point taken in that we don’t give the scribes, ample enough credit, for the generations they have influenced in centuries gone by.
    As far as I can detect, English Versions of the bible were transposed somewhere between the 5th and 11th century {C.E.}.
    The name of the work is known as the Wessex and Haffen Gospels collectively. Now in the 21st century a myriad of a pyramid of transcribes latter, I have garnered the following, interesting “reeds” for your textual consideration. They are as follows:

    World English=English Standard=Todays News International=
    New English Translation [NET]=New English transliteration of the Septuagint=Orthodox Study Bible=The Voice Bible=Common English Bible=W.G.C. Illustrated=Apotolic Bible Polyglot=Open English Bible=
    Eastern Orthodox Bible Aides=Lexham English Bible

    Hope that furthers the discussionary forum, Brother Thomas.
    May the God of Abraham Bless.

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