One of the problems with translating the Bible is being able to depend on accurate copies of the ancient biblical manuscripts. A major difficulty that copyists faced in making accurate copies is addressed by Roger R. Nicole and J. Ramsey Michaels in their book entitled Inerrancy and Common Sense. On pages 100-101, they provide the following perspective:
Why do we find variant readings on virtually every page when we turn from one manuscript to another? The answer lies in the fact that in ancient times people had to copy documents by hand. The hand is controlled by the brain, and the brain is not normally capable of the kind of precision required to produce exact, mirror images of long documents. . . . In the option between production and perfection, [the copyists] wisely chose production. Their primary interest was to produce reasonably accurate copies which could then be passed on to persons eager to read the Word of God and to benefit from its truth.
The problem of copyist errors is especially significant for the Old Testament manuscripts, since they are much older and, therefore, Nicole and Michaels state on page 99 of their aforementioned book, that these manuscripts “were subject to many more years of copying and recopying, and were translated into other languages earlier in history than were the New Testament texts.”
Nicole and Michaels also discuss one of the problems of actually translating the Bible. On page 78 of the same book, they provide the following commentary:
[I]n translation it is very difficult to provide a statement in another language which says absolutely no less and no more than the original and which conveys precisely the same impression to the hearer or the reader. Since most people do not have access to the Bible in the original languages, this may appear very disturbing, for they may fear that the human process of translating has substantially impaired the authority of the original Word of God. But . . . the argument appears to raise fears that are not warranted by the facts of the case.
Any translation is entitled to acceptance as the Word of God to the extent that it corresponds to the original. This extent is very considerable for translations executed with appropriate care and without a subtle bias. If anyone should be inclined to interpret the Scripture in some unusual way on the basis of a translation, then he should check with the original to be sure that the meaning which he perceives is, in fact, present in the text.
A unique difficulty with regard to translation of Old Testament manuscripts is that the ancient Hebrew texts, unlike the Greek texts of the New Testament documents, were originally written without vowels (i.e., they were written with consonants only). Furthermore, on page 16 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason L Archer says, “[T]here are also some consonants that are easily confused because they look so much alike. . . . Besides that, some words are preserved in a very old spelling susceptible of misunderstanding by later Hebrew copyists.”
Thus, for example, it is easy to understand how there can be errors in the names that are mentioned in the Old Testament. Also, because letters, not numerical characters, were used to express numbers in ancient times, a similar problem exists for errors in translating numbers, as indicated by several sources cited by John W. Haley on page 23 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible.
Considering the translation problems, why did God not find a way to preserve the original manuscripts? On page 38 of his same book, Haley asserts,
Suppose the original text of the holy volume had been miraculously transmitted, in the very hand of the authors, and perfect in every letter and figure. The world would have gone mad over it. Idolatry the most stupendous would have accumulated around it. . . . Men would have worshipped the letter in flagrant opposition to the spirit of the sacred book. Doubtless, with a view to counteract this tendency to idolatry . . ., the scriptures are given to us in their present condition. Our attention is thereby diverted from the external and formal features to the internal and essential elements of scripture.
Likewise, on page 77 of their previously-cited book, Nicole and Michaels declare,
If God had been pleased to preserve some autographs [original manuscripts of the writings that comprise our Bible] for us, there is reason to believe that some people might have been affected by a superstitious veneration for them. These people would have viewed the autographs as sacred relics and a kind of “bibliolatry” might have developed. . . .
In any case, there are many Bible scholars who believe that the manuscripts of the Bible that we have today are basically reliable, despite copyist errors. One of these scholars is Basil Atkinson, Ph.D., who on page 98 of his book entitled Is the Bible True? makes the following comments:
[I]t would not be correct to suggest that the various ancient versions of the Bible are in hopeless disagreement with one another, or that the percentage of textual corruptions [changes from the wording of the original manuscripts] is so high as to render questionable large blocks of Scripture. Rather, it is fair to say that the verses, chapters, and books of the Bible would read largely the same, and would leave the same impression with the reader, even if one adopted virtually every possible alternative reading to those now serving as the basis for current English translations. In fact, absolutely nothing essential to the major doctrines of the Bible would be affected by any responsible decision in the area of textual criticism. Certain of the individual passages supporting a given doctrine might be subject to different interpretation if a different text were postulated, but in no case would all the passages relevant to a given doctrine be transformed in meaning by decisions about the wording of the texts.
A comparison of sample verses from several popular modern English versions of the Bible will give . . . a general idea of what the range of differences between texts might be. . . .
Archer arrives at a similar conclusion regarding the reliability of the translations of the Bible. On page 30 of his previously-mentioned book, he says,
The real question at issue in regard to scribal error is whether an accumulation of minor slips has resulted in the obscuring or perversion of the message originally intended. . . . Is there objective proof from the surviving manuscripts of Scripture that these sixty-six books have been transmitted to us with such a high degree of accuracy as to assure us that the information contained in the originals has been perfectly preserved? The answer is an unqualified yes.
[C]ollation of many hundreds of manuscript copies from the third century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. yields an amazingly limited range of variation in actual wording.
And, there are other reasons to believe that the current manuscripts of the Bible are substantially correct transcriptions of the original manuscripts. Greg L. Bahnsen, on pages 185-186 of Inerrancy, a book edited by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., offers the following argument:
How can we know that our extant copies are substantially correct transcriptions of the autographa [the original manuscripts of the writings that comprise our Bible]? The answer . . . is twofold: we know it from the providence of God and from the results of textual science.
If we do not assume that God has spoken clearly and given us an adequate means of learning what He has actually said, then the entire story of the Bible and its portrayal of the plan of God for man’s salvation makes no sense whatever. . . . [B]ecause the preservation of the text of Scripture is part of the transmission of the knowledge of God, it is reasonable to expect that God will provide for it lest the aims of His revealing Himself to men be frustrated. The providence of God superintends matters so that copies of Scripture do not become so corrupt as to become unintelligible for God’s original purposes in giving it or so corrupt as to create a major falsification of His message’s text.
Faith in the consistency of God – His faithfulness to His own intention to make men wise unto salvation – guarantees the inference that He never permits Scripture to become so corrupted that it can no longer fulfill that end adequately. We can conclude theologically that, for all practical purposes, the text of Scripture is always sufficiently accurate not to lead us astray.
However, there is another problem that apparently few, if any, Bible scholars discuss with regard to English translations of the Bible. That problem is that these translations do not adequately distinguish between the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek terms in the original biblical manuscripts that are translated into English as love, heaven, hell, and perhaps some other words. As a result, people who want to know the precise meaning of the original terms need to consult other sources (e.g., Bible footnotes, a Bible concordance, etc.) to get such information. But, those who do not consult other sources may not get from the English translations a proper understanding of the meaning of the original terms.
Our article entitled “Are Christians Supposed to Love Everyone?” focuses on agape love, which is the highest form of love. [Note: That article and each of our other articles that we cite in this article can be read by clicking on their title.] However, in the English translations of the Bible, there is no clear distinction between agape love and other forms of love.
Likewise, our article entitled “What Is Hell Really Like?” focuses primarily on gehenna, which is the place or state of everlasting punishment. But, in the English translations of the Bible there are usually no clear distinctions between this type of hell and the other types of hell.
As for the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated into English as heaven, the uncertainty of their precise meaning seems to be a less serious problem, primary because the potential adverse implications of a misunderstanding are not as significant as for the terms love and hell.
Despite problems in translating the Bible, there are ample reasons to believe that the current manuscripts of the Bible are substantially correct transcriptions of the original manuscripts. Nevertheless, we believe that the understanding of the Bible for many people would be improved if English translations provided clear distinctions regarding the meanings of several basic Hebrew and Greek terms.