Can we really trust the word?

If you missed the intro to this series we’re exploring the idea of God, Bible, fact, fiction, and everything in between. Because our opinion about the Bible shapes our belief systems, it’s important that we go in to our quiet time with a clear understanding of exactly how we read Scripture. I want to be able to tell you that after we dive in to this topic you’ll come away with a “right” answer for how to read the Bible… but you won’t. The best I can do is tell you “read it.” As for everything else, you have to make your own decisions on that. I have a diverse group of friends and this is just another topic that after hours of research we all disagree on. My point being, it’s not for me to tell you. It’s for you to pray about.

If you missed the first blog in the series read it here. Once you decide what you believe about the Bible the next question we have to answer is “can we really trust the word it contains? Before you slam your laptop down in fury, let me explain. A lot of people like to argue that the Bible must be complete fact because “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1). Because God is the Word it has to be perfect. Well, that’s completely true if that’s what the word “word” means. However, the “word” was God doesn’t necessarily mean Bible. We have to remember translating scripture from Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew to English is not as simple “logos =word.” Like English, words in other languages can have multiple meanings. When the Bible began to be translated you had a group of people who took the text and used their best judgment to decide what definition of a certain word fit in various passages and depending on what the word was and what the context was, it could have been a complete coin toss. And believe me, I know, God is God and he could have made sure that the exact right translation was used for the correct passages and you would be right. He COULD have done that. But have you picked up various Bible translations lately? It doesn’t seem like even though He could do it that He chose to.

Now again, before you start writing me a hate email let me explain. We still have ACCESS to original translations. A little Google search can give us a huge background in to original translation. So even if the translators got a few things wrong we have the capability of finding the right answers. That said, it’s important that we understand the significance of translation. Let me show you a great example. Let’s look at the word “table.” Table has multiple meanings. It can mean:

  • a flat surface (a kitchen table)
  • a set of facts or figures systemically displayed (like a diagram of stats),
  • postpone consideration of (we tabled that discussion),
  • a meeting place or forum for formal discussions (they brought that to the table).

For all of you non-word nerds I apologize for the dictionary segway. I promise I’m going somewhere with this. If we think about the biblical writers we have to remember they didn’t write with long descriptors of anything. It wasn’t like today where you can type a thousand words in two minutes. The writing process was tedious and therefore they were fairly concise. So if I was a biblical writer and I said something as simple as “When I came to the table I had no idea the decision I was going to make.” I could mean

1) I went and sat down at a physical table and was conflicted.

Or

2) I was headed to a meeting where a formal discussion was to take place.

If I’m writing to a group of friends who are from the same time and culture as me I don’t really need to provide any other context clues because they know exactly what I mean by that simple statement. While that’s fine for today, it’s problematic for future readers. At this point you may be thinking, “It’s not problematic at all because either definition would suffice” and while both definitions do suffice they can also dramatically impact future arguments. If that simple statement “When I came to the table….” was a piece of scripture it could easily have set up a baseline thesis for two very different view points. The first group of people would think I meant that I went alone to a literal table and they would form the conclusion that you make decisions alone. The second group of people would argue that what I meant was that I went to a table like a meeting and therefore you need to be surrounded by wise counsel to make decisions. Are you starting to see the challenge here? This doesn’t mean Scripture is wrong, it just means we have to be aware of how we’re reading things. Not everyone can study Greek and Hebrew full time but we live in an age of worldwide knowledge found at the click of a search bar. You can easily look up “original Greek translation of xyz text” and find a certain word i.e. “logos” and then subsequent definitions for what that word “logos” can mean depending on the context.

Now don’t get me wrong, you can spend hours lost in that never-ending spiral. I’m not saying you can’t read past Genesis 1:1 until you dissect every correct Hebrew translation. What I am saying though is that it’s important that we recognize the complexity of translation so that when we’re faced with a particularly challenging piece of Scripture we know some of the things we need to research. So can we trust the word…. well that really depends on how we define the word now doesn’t it?