I’m halfway through an interesting book on the subject of the Trinity. I have recently read several books on this fundamental Christian theme, and the subject continues to fascinate me. However, in the book that I am currently reading, I came across a facet that has a much broader scope, namely what happens to biblical thought when the original biblical text is translated. In this book the author points out that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament contains many references to a diversity in the Godhead, which can be interpreted as hints to the existence of God as Trinity. These hints were lost in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), which was the prevailing Bible version in the days of Jesus and the apostles and was also much used in later times.
Anyone who has some experience with doing translation work knows that a translation always contains an element of interpretation. The translator understands the text in a particular way and then tries to find the best possible equivalent in the other language. This is no different with Bible translations. Even if it says in the front of a Bible that the translation was made from the original languages (Hebrew, Greek and a few small pieces of Aramaic) this is the case.
It is good to realize this when we read our Bible. However, we have to go back quite a bit further before the translation phase. Between the time the Bible books were written (over a period of many centuries) and the moment we read our English Bible lies a long and complicated process. It starts, most Christians believe, at the moment when God ‘inspires’ the writers. In most cases we don’t know exactly how that happened. But people somehow were guided to report certain events and write down particular thoughts. There are many different theories about what exactly happened to those different ‘sources’ from there on. It seems certain, however, that over time fragments of text have been passed on to others, preserved in certain circles, and revised by ‘editors’, before they eventually got on their present form and began to play a role in the religious life of Israel and then also of the early church. Finally, a choice was made from the many writings that were in circulation, and thus the biblical canon was decided upon. Whether or not some of the writings actually belong in the canon remained a matter of discussion for a long time.
Initially, the biblical writers used parchment. None of the original documents has been preserved. We must be satisfied with copies of copies, and copies of those copies, and so on. Copying mistakes were made, and words or sentences have been omitted, or added ‘to clarify’ particular issues, advertently or inadvertently. There are many thousands of text fragments, belonging to different textual families. There are also various ancient translations that sometimes go back to manuscripts that are now lost but were older than the oldest ones we now possess. It is a science in itself to compare all these manuscripts and to get as close as possible to what the original text must have been. The work of the scholars who have been doing this has resulted in a ‘received’ text that has become the starting point for the ‘modern’ translations of the last few centuries. The translators face many challenges, because not all languages have the same richness of vocabulary and certain nuances are difficult to reproduce in other languages. Older manuscripts of parts of the Bible have been discovered over time and knowledge of the ancient languages has increased. Therefore, newer translations are generally better than, for example, the Dutch seventeenth-century translation or the King James Version.
We are fortunate to have several translations of the Bible at our disposal, which, moreover, are so cheap that they are available to everyone. (In the Middle Ages, however, this was a different story and the possession of a Bible was only a privilege of the very rich.
It is often said that the Bible is a unique book because it was written by about forty people, with totally different backgrounds, over a period of about fifteen centuries and yet is a unity with a consistent message. I think the real miracle of the Bible is that, in the year 2020, I can listen to what God has to say to me by reading a book that has gone through such a strange, complicated history. That realization cuts through every thought of verbal inspiration and through what these days in Adventist circles is often referred to as ‘plain reading’. This does not diminish the value of the Bible. The miracle happens over and over again as we open our Bible and experience while reading in this unique book, that has gone through such a remarkable history, that God speaks to us.