PM3110: On the Bible

The Bible refers generally to either:

  • the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Tanakh, consisting of 24 books (although Christians divide the same texts into 39 books instead)
  • the Christian Bible, containing an Old Testament (abbreviated OT) which is the same as the Tanakh (although some branches of Christianity add further books to their OT which are not in the Tanach), and a New Testament (abbreviated NT) containing 27 books

Occasionally, the term is used to refer the scriptures of other religions - but that is not a common usage. It is also used figuratively to refer to an authoritative text on a topic - thus a book about golf might be called a "golfing bible".

Many people treat the Bible as if it is a single work, but it is not. It is a collection of many texts, written over many centuries, which were not assembled into one book until long after the time of their original authorship. The Bible does not have clear boundaries, since Christian groups today disagree on which texts are part of it and which aren't - and, if we go back through history, we will find an even broader range of views among both Jews and Christians. Although, unlike Christians, Jews today are in agreement on their biblical canon, that was not always the case; many of the disputed books in Christianity today (the Deuterocanon or Apocrypha) were originally written and used by Jews. These books were accepted by many, but by no means all, Jews around the 1st century CE, although all Jews today reject them as biblical (even while often valuing them in other ways.)

The Bible is the whole of scripture for almost all Christians, although a few groups within Christianity have additional scriptural texts - e.g. the Mormons also have the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants - but these groups are viewed by the majority of Christians as heretical, or even outside the pale of Christianity entirely. (Some branches of Christianity have sources of authority other than scripture - such as tradition - but they do not consider these extra sources scripture). By contrast, almost all Jews have additional scriptures beyond the Tanach - such as the Mishnah and Talmud. Although these texts are not considered to be on the same level as the Tanach, they effectively function as additional scriptures nonetheless.

Maratreanism believes there is much of value in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Those who wish to believe that these texts have their origin in true scriptures by true prophets authored will receive our approval of Maratreanism for their view, even as Maratreanism does not consider such an opinion to be among its required doctrines. But, there can be no doubt from a Maratrean viewpoint that significant parts of the Bible are products of false prophecy; some parts must either have been written by false prophets, or else have been tampered with by false prophets to impair their original glory. Maratreanism encourages, through the appropriate auxiliary ecclesiae, efforts to recover the original text prior to any corruptions the false prophets have wrought.

Translations

A distinction is sometimes made between versions and translations - the term version being reserved for ancient translations of the Biblical texts into other languages, and the term translation used for translations from the mediaeval and modern periods. However, this use of terminology is not universal; more common it must be said is to use the two words interchangeably. This distinction is actually very important to observe, even if it is not respected on the terminological level - from a scholarly perspective, the study of ancient translations is a very different enterprise than the study of later ones, with different expectations for the kinds of results that might be attained. Scholars study ancient versions because they believe it can shed extra light on the original texts - they can record variants of the original language text which may no longer be extant, and can provide evidence for how the text was understood in a time much closer to its original authorship than our own. No one expects the study of modern translations to shed light on the ancient texts at a scholarly level - although certainly the history of e.g. English language translations is interesting for the light it sheds on the evolution of the English language, and the evolution of theological thought and translation philosophies in the English-speaking world.

Ancient versions

The original language of the Tanach is primarily Hebrew, with some small portions in the Aramaic language (another Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew). With the expansion of Hellenistic culture through the empire of Alexander the Great and its Greek-speaking successor states, and then the adoption of Greek as the chief language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, many Jewish communities outside of Israel became Greek-speaking. There was thus felt a need to translate the Tanach into Greek - the result was known as the Septuagint or LXX (based on the legend of a team of seventy translators having produced it: according to some versions of the legend, the seventy translators translated independently, and discovered at the end that they had all miraculously produced the exact same text). The Septuagint also included extra books not accepted by today's Jews - some of these extra books were translated from Hebrew (the full original Hebrew survives for none of them, although we have parts of the Hebrew version of Sirach), others were originally composed in Greek. This is the primary origin of some Christians having additional books in their Old Testament - they accepted the additional books in the Septuagint even though the Jews ended up settling on rejecting them. The Septuagint varies from the Hebrew a bit - in parts it represents a different Hebrew textual tradition from that later adopted by Judaism as the official one (the Masoretic text) - in some parts it is closer to Hebrew variants preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Samaritan Pentateuch, and in parts it is a less than literal translation, often due to the fact that the Greek-speaking culture of the day disliked terminology that suggested that God might have a body. As a result, there were a number of subsequent translations into Greek, which used a more mainstream Hebrew text and were more literal.

Over time, Jews ceased to speak Hebrew as their everyday language, although the retained Hebrew for religious use - the everyday language in much of the Roman Empire was Greek, as discussed above; in Israel, Hebrew was replaced by Aramaic, as it was in Babylon (where Aramaic had originated). As a result, Jews translated the Tanach into Aramaic - these translations are known as Targums. They were more in the nature of paraphrases than translations, and often added additional elements drawn from the Jewish tradition.

The original language of the New Testament is Greek - more specifically koine Greek, which was the everyday dialect of the Eastern Roman Empire. Koine Greek has a number of differences from classical Greek (the Greek of e.g. Plato), which in that time was no longer the language of everyday speech, although it was still in use among the educated. In the Western Roman Empire, however, the primary language was Latin - hence, there was a need to translate the Christian Bible into Latin. The first such translation is known as the Vetus Latina (Latin for Old Latin), which is more a collection of many efforts at translating the Bible into Latin than a single unified translation. Due to its deficencies, Jerome created a new translation called the Vulgate (Latin for common), which mostly replaced the Vetus Latina, and was the primary translation into Latin up until the modern period. Christians on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, and beyond its eastern border, spoke Aramaic, and developed their own dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac. The Bible was translated into the Syriac as the Peshitta. There are reports that the gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic, and some would even claim that the Peshitta version is that original. However, most scholars think that Matthew was originally written in Greek; and even if it was originally in Aramaic, the version in the Peshitta is not that original but rather a translation from Greek.

Other important ancient versions include the translation into Coptic (the language spoken by Christians in Egypt, the descendant of the ancient Egyptian language), into Ge'ez (a Semitic language used by Ethiopian Christians), into Armenian, into Georgian, and into Gothic (the first translation into a Germanic language).

Vetus Latina

The Vetus Latina, or Old Latin, refers to translations of the Bible into Latin which predate the Vulgate.

Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire - the predominant language of which was Greek. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek; the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (along with some small portions in Aramaic), but a Greek translation (the Septuagint) was in common use among Greek-speakers.

However, already by the time of Paul Christianity had spread to the Western half of the Roman Empire. The predominant language in the West was not Greek, but Latin - knowledge of Greek was common among the educated, but not among the common people. So the need arose to translate the Bible into Latin.

There was not a single single translation of the Bible into Latin. Translation likely took place piecemeal, as needed, and by many different translators in parallel. As a result, no two manuscripts of the Vetus Latina are alike. So, the Vetus Latina is not so much the name of a single translation, but of a collection of many related translations.

Pope Damasus I commissioned Jerome to make a standard Latin translation of the Bible in 382 CE, the Vulgate, to replace the Vetus Latina. The biggest difference between Jerome's approach and the Vetus Latina was in the Old Testament - Jerome preferred to translate directly from the original Hebrew, whereas the Vetus Latina was mainly made from the Septuagint. The Vulgate also benefited from a uniform approach, being the work of a single translator, rather than a combination of the work of many independent translators, who all had their own personal styles.

The Vulgate largely displaced the Vetus Latina - however, the displacement was not complete. Many scribes, when copying Vulgate manuscripts, unconsciously slipped into the Vetus Latina wording with which they were familiar. Thus there survive many hybrid manuscripts, which are mixtures of the Vetus Latina and the Vulgate. Passages of the Vetus Latina survived in Latin hymns, in the Latin liturgy, and in quotes in the Latin fathers.

Jerome had particular difficulty in having his translation of the Psalms accepted. In part, this was likely because the Pslams were in those days the most recited part of scripture, being one of the major forms of prayer. As a result, people felt particular discomfort at having their wording changed from what they were used to, even if it was a better translation of the original. Jerome actually translated the Psalms twice - once was an attempt to revise the Old Latin to make it closer to the Hebrew; the other was a fresh translation from the Hebrew originals - but neither was widely accepted, so the Vetus Latina remained the Latin Psalter in common use for centuries to come.

Modern translations

In modern times the Bible has been translated into countless languages. It is without doubt the most oft-translated work in world history. The entire Bible has been translated into over 400 languages, and over 3,000 languages have partial translations. However, since this is an English-language encyclopedia, we will concentrate on the Englsh ones primarily.

Later Latin translations

In the early modern period, Beza and Tremellius each produced fresh Latin translations of the Bible. However, already Latin was declining in use - and especially so for Beza, among his target audience of Protestants. In the 20th century, there was a revision of the Vulgate by the Roman Catholic Church (the Nova Vulgata), although it has had little impact - given the Bible is no longer commonly read in Latin, and those Catholics who still cling the most to Latin (traditionalists) tend to prefer its predecessors instead - but it remains, nonetheless, the official Latin translation of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

Preferred Bible translations

From a Maratrean perspective, the best translation would be one which removes the corruptions of the false prophets. However, at the current time such a translation is not available.

We have a preference for the KJV. Yes, it is harder to read, but it has the advantage of being respected yet copyright-free (outside the UK at least). The ASV is another good version, also copyright-free, with slightly easier language than the KJV. The NIV is a popular version, and is quite easy to read, but is unacceptable to us because it is under copyright. The Message is a total paraphrase in quite colloquial language - good for getting a good idea of what the text might be saying (at least, according to one guy's interpretation of it), not so good to find out what it actually says. We are interested in the World English Bible (WEB), since it is public domain; but it still isn't finished, and isn't well-known either.

It is always important, however, to check the original languages. This is because the Bible is subject to two types of corruptions by false prophets:

  • the false prophets of yesteryear have corrupted the original texts into the deficient texts which survive today
  • the false prophets of today translate the Bible in accords with their own mistaken theological agendas, adding even further corruption in the progress

Sadly, the Bible in translation is doubly-corrupted. But checking multiple translations, and the original languages, can help us to overcome this double-corruption.

2 Maccabees

2 Maccabees is a book in the Old Testament in the canon of the Bible of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, but it is not accepted as part of the Bible by Protestants or Jews, who count it as Apocrypha instead.

It claims to be an abridgement of a longer work which has not survived, written by Jason of Cyrene. It describes the successful Jewish revolt against Seleucid rule, led by Judas Maccabeus (hence its name). The evidence suggests that the Greek version surviving is the original language of its composition.

Part of the reason why Protestants rejected it, is that some of the passages in it appear to support the Catholic idea of prayer for the dead, for example 2 Maccabees 12:45 (KJV): For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. This is in reference to when, after a battle, they discovered that all of Judas' men who had been slain were in possession of idolatorous amulets; thus, they concluded their death in the battle was punishment by God for sin. So Judas gathered up a collection to be sent to the Temple to offer sacrifices, and arranged prayers, that God would forgive the sins of their comrades who had died. However, others dispute whether this passage really supports the Catholic doctrine of purgatory (see for example this blog post).

Knowledge of this work is useful to attack claims that the Bible is authoritative — those who make this claim have picked and chosen which books to include in it, so why can't we do that too, and take out even more? Or add some texts of our own in?

Apocrypha

Apocrypha is used in Christianity in two ways:

  • Protestant usage: Those books which have historically been claimed by churches to be part of the Old Testament (especially those who relied on the Septuagint), dating from a similar period and in a similar style, but rejected by Jews and Protestants. Several of these books are still accepted by the Catholic and Orthodox churches
  • Catholic usage: Catholics prefer the term deuterocanonical, derived from Greek for "second Canon". In this terminology, "protocanon" refers to those books which were never disputed in the Church, "deuterocanon" those books which were disputed initially but which (Catholics believe) the Church later decided to adopt. Catholics then reserve the term "Apocrypha" for what Protestants call "Psuedipigrapha".

Orthodox usage is broadly similar to Catholic usage, although terminology differs slightly, and they accept a few more books than the Catholics do.

For the Old Testament, the term Apocrypha is usually restricted by Protestants to refer only to those books which are accepted by Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, while the term Pseudepigrapha is used to refer to those books ancient works in a biblical style but never had the same acceptance that the Apocrypha had. By contrast, Catholic usage is to call these books Apocrypha. For the New Testament, the two terms are equivalent, since there exists among Christians a consensus on the canon of the New Testament which is missing for that of the Old.

Pseudepigrapha

Pseudepigrapha refers to books written in a similar style as the biblical books, and dating from a similar or somewhat later period, but which were never accepted by mainstream Christianity. Many of them were written by particular sects or heresies to advance their views (such as Gnosticism). Others were not necessarily heretical, and some were valued in the early Church, but not considered to be of the same significance as those books which became part of the Bible.

Pseudepigrapha comes from Greek for "falsely ascribed writing", in other words a book not written by who it claimed to me. It was a common practice in the ancient world for authors to claim their works had been written by others who lived long before them. Thus, the Pseudepigrapha includes books which claim to be written by Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, etc., although it is certain the books were written far later by others in their names. But the term has been extended to include other works which make no such claims of authorship.

There is pseudepigrapha of both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, there is a distinction between Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha - the Apocrypha are those books accepted by some mainstream Christian groups (Catholics, Orthodox) but not others (Protestants). The Pseudipigrapha are those books which no mainstream Christian group has accepted, although some unorthodox groups accepted some of them. For added confusion, Catholic usage is to call what Protestants call "Apocrypha" the "Deuterocanon" instead, and to call what Protestants call the "Pseudipigrapha" the "Apocrypha". The same confusion does not exist for the New Testament, since all mainstream Christian groups agree on the contents of the New Testament, and thus the terms "Apocrypha" and "Pseudepigrapha" get used interchangeably with respect to the NT.

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