The provenance of the Bible
The Bible extends back to 6th century BCE, and some parts may even have been written as far back as 10th century BCE. Written so far before the printing press, the Bible went through many rewrites, copies, and translations before it was mass produced, likely more so than anything else in the Western World.
As referenced by Ælfric, Preface to his translation of Genesis, the translator has to decide how to interpret certain words and phrases that don’t directly correspond to the target language. As such, the meaning behind Bible passes can easily change a little bit each translation. After a multitude of said translation, it’s entirely likely we are reading a Bible entirely different from the one first written “as God intended”.
- Google translate provides a nice example of this: try putting a complex sentence through several iterations of translations then back to English.
One major problem with translating the Hebrew bible was due to a characteristic of Hebrew. In script, as it is written in the Torah, the letters don’t include vowels. As such, it is up to the interpreter / translator to determine the meaning of words with several different meanings (depending on the vowels).
Variations between versions of the Bible is also notable in sections, where different missing / lost sections can even lead to alternate endings, as is the case with “Mark”.
In order to help prevent the slow degrading of the original Bible, scribes would attempt to correct others’ mistakes (as would have been necessary for anyone copying the works we reproduced in class). In order to maintain the integrity of the copy, scribes would often make said corrections in the margins. This led to its own problems, as later scribes would sometimes be unsure what is a correction or margin note and what is part of the original, removing and adding incorrect text.
Furthermore, such a major text was vulnerable to political influence. A leader commissioning a new translation could make the aforementioned translation decisions in ways that uniquely benefit them and their rule. Given the sheer length of time that the Bible has been around, it is also inevitable that versions of the Bible and various original scripts have also been destroyed, either through deterioration, war, or intentionally purging. Without anyone commissioning new copies of these variants before they are destroyed, humanity effectively picked which ones should continue on.
Researchers are currently trying to compile different copies and versions of the Bible in order to translate the changes made between scribes.
Most of the the time, they find little errors along the way, but every now and then, they notice important changes, such as the insertion in John’s Gospel introducing the phrase from Jesus: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”.
- The researches are confident this was an intentional addition that wasn’t in the original in order to highlight forgiveness in Christianity
While the very original iteration of some biblical stories was likely oral (such as the creation of the world in seven days), historians have found and studied what is possible the first scripts that attempted to write these down. From these, it appears that the seventh day wasn’t actually reserved for rest, as God finished his work then, and rested instead only in the “afternoon”, so to speak.
Recent changes have also been recorded in the Bible, and they have clear political intent. For instance, in 1995 a passage in Exodus in the New American Standard Bible was changed to prevent pro-choice interpretations. Originally, the passage claimed that if, in a fight with a pregnant woman, a man causes her to miscarry, he shall be punished as her husband demands (essentially not a big deal, especially in regards to the state, if a fetus dies). Now, thanks to a push from the Christian-right, it instead refers to if the attacker causes a premature birth, completely changing the subject of conversation.
While it’s likely that much of the modern Bible still touts a similar story and message as the original, despite the potential changes and errors, it is important that we recognize and learn from the ways it may have varied over the years. Fortunately, the Bible is one of the most printed, copied, and studied texts, and there is a wide swath of resources to use to study it, with many of the ancient scribed copies still around today.