We hear this a great deal don’t we? “The Bible is clear on ________________” (whatever it is). Of all the statements shouted out at rallies or within synagogues and churches, with poundings of fists on pulpits, the thumping of bibles, the raised painted signs, this might be the most frustrating. It is also revealing.
When you hear “The Bible is clear on this,” (whatever you define as ‘this’) in reference most recently to the debate on LGBTQ rights, Creationism vs. Evolution, slavery, or other hot topics, it reveals just how little the speaker understands of the text and its origins.
The “Bible” is not clear on anything.
The “Bible” (the Christian Bible or the Hebrew Bible) both originate from languages other than English. The Tanakh’s original language was Hebrew, and the Old Testament/New Testament’s origins are from the Greek. I’ll add that the Tanakh (in Hebrew) was translated into Greek (becoming the Old Testament) which was then translated into English; whereas, the Tanakh was translated from Hebrew to English.
Besides the obvious problem of the “telephone game,” you have bronze age text written in Hebrew on a manuscript, which has been handled by humanity for thousands of years, copied and translated, and transferred and translated, and copied and copied.
Some important points that emerge from this revelation (no pun intended):
- In the Tanakh, even the Hebrew is unclear at times. Hebrew, like any language, is alive. The words can have multiple meanings. This is to say nothing of the incidents in the Tanakh in which we read the footnote all too often: “Meaning of Hebrew Uncertain.” This usually denotes a scribal error of some kind, some error which was made long ago and preserved in the copying process of manuscripts. Further, the original manuscript, whether from Sinai or man-made, had no vowels. The Masoretes (between the 6th and 10th century CE) had to choose how words were pronounced. This is especially important because many Hebrew words look exactly the same but with different vowels have different meanings. A quick Wikipedia of the Masoretes reveals another important aspect: “The ben Asher family of Masoretes was largely responsible for the preservation and production of the Masoretic Text, although an alternate Masoretic text of the ben Naphtali Masoretes, which has around 875 differences from the ben Asher text, existed. The halakhic authority Maimonides endorsed the ben Asher as superior, although the Egyptian Jewish scholar, Saadya Gaon al-Fayyumi, had preferred the ben Naphtali system.” That’s right, two manuscripts with over 800 differences! These are to say nothing of the other manuscripts that were floating around with God knows how many other differences! For example, we know that the Septuagint (the Christian translation) was from an entirely different manuscript, which is now lost.
- We should be wise to remember that even if we believe that the Torah was handed down from Sinai, it was given to human hands. If we believe Sinai to be a metaphor or story to give the Torah creditability, all the more so should we remember human fallibility. As the Torah and the Tanakh were transferred from Oral to Written accounts, and as the scribes copied the texts, to say nothing of the translators, mistakes can and have been made. It would be ridiculous to think otherwise. While God is perfect, humans are certainly not. In regards to translation, some of the imperfections make their way into the text solely by accident. A Jewish translator looks at the Hebrew and sees his/her theology, and thus translates it that way. A Christian translator looks at the text and sees his/her theology and translates it moving towards his or her belief system. This is, as Foucault states, “at which the oeuvre emerges, in all its fragments, even the smallest, most inessential ones, as the expression of the thought, the experience, the imagination, or the unconscious of the author, or, indeed, of the historical determinations that operated upon him.”
In other words, the “Bible” is not clear on anything. The translator, on the other hand, has been very clear. But the translator is not the authority, nor is he/she our God. We would be remiss if we did not remember this important aspect when we open our texts.