Where did our Bible come from? Part 3: Defining which Bible we’ll use
Disclaimer: This is really long compared to some of my posts, so you might not want to read it all in one sitting (it’s right around 3,000 words). I decided to keep the length so that I could go ahead and get on with answering the other parts of the question in my next post.
Having discussed, briefly, the overarching direction this mini-series will take, and having addressed why a KJV-only attitude is misguided. Today’s post will focus on some of the other versions available for what constitutes the bible and why I reject these. To reiterate, it is important, at the outset, to define exactly what it is we mean by the bible before we get into the detail of determining how we got the present form of our (the Protestant) bible. That being the case, let’s first look at one of the more controversial versions that is related to yesterday’s KJV-only view.
The Joseph Smith Translation (or the Mormon Version) of the Bible
Joseph Smith, for those who are unaware, is the primary founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). While it is debatable to what extent this constitutes a Christian church, they nevertheless both claim to be Christian and claim to use the bible. However, there are two separate issues involved with the Mormon understanding of Canon, or Scripture. The first is specifically what the LDS church considers canonical, and the second is how they treat what the Christian church (non-Mormons) consider canonical.
For Mormons, there are four holy books, not the one. These four books are the Bible, which I will discuss their view on below, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Mormon is “another testament of Jesus Christ” according to their theology and, according to their theology, was translated by Joseph Smith using divinely given viewing method from golden tablets written in Ancient Reformed Egyptian and found by him through the instructions he as given in an vision by the angel Moroni. It details what happened, according to the LDS church, to the “lost tribes” of Israel. The Doctrines and Covenants contains what is essentially the history of the LDS church, and the Pearl of Great Price contains some additional books (or parts of books) of the bible that are the result of Joseph Smith’s Translation (again see below), which do not appear for any other bible, as well as some other creedal statements. While the Doctrines of Covenant and the Pearl of Great Price have a certain amount of authority, they are not near the level of the Bible and Book of Mormon, so I’ll leave those to one side, particularly since their authority rests almost entirely on the assumptions the LDS church makes about the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the other main source of authority: the current prophet.
The role of the prophet for the LDS church is essentially the same as it is for the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. However, in general the prophet for the LDS church has been more active and, at some points, has radically changed the doctrinal position of the LDS church. There are some inherent problems with resting authority almost entirely in one person, but it is also the case that the assumptions about the Book of Mormon are integral for the authority of the prophet.
If you haven’t caught on yet, the Book of Mormon really is the supreme authority for the LDS. While most Mormons don’t believe there is any contradiction between the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in general they also believe that the Book of Mormon is nevertheless more complete and more doctrinally clear than the Bible and so it has the highest authority. While I’m not intending this series to “debunk” other ideas of Scripture, I cannot in good conscience simply let this lie. There are some severe problems with the Book of Mormon, both its claims and the way in which it was formed.
First, the Book of Mormon’s formation is highly dubious. Leaving aside the fact that there never has been observed the language Ancient Reformed Egyptian and that all evidence for these plates has been removed from our world, the very assumption behind it as a holy book is highly questionable. The assumption is that a single person could find, accurately translate and promote accurate history that seems to contradict everything else we know about history. The Bible that the Christian Church uses (the non-Mormon church) was composed by a variety of persons over millennia and was accepted as having authority as part of a canon over an equally lengthy and gradual process (and all of this attended by a perfect God). Further the translation work was done collectively, not as individuals, thus allowing every translation to have some built in checks against a single person’s error. By vesting the authority of their primary religious text and its translation is a single (fallible) human, the LDS church takes what appears to be an outrageous position that very few other religions would take (sidenote: yes I am aware this position of reliance upon a single figure for a sacred text is remarkably close to that of Islam, and I think that is equally problematic for that religion as well). Not only this, but Joseph Smith’s idea of history contradicts the work of numerous other historians. In contrast to that, the Bible from which I am operating has found widespread verification of the historical events it describes. Simply put, we know the Bible is historically accurate, while we have every reason to doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But what about their use of the Bible?
For the most part the mainline LDS Bible is the same as the bible Protestants use. However, there are some notable differences (and some more significant differences with the second largest LDS group the Reformed LDS (RLDS)) between the two. First, after completing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith began “translating” the bible. There are a few problems with both the translation itself and the assumptions Smith made. Smith had assumed that after a variety of English translation, each one had been corrupted because (in his view) they were each based on the previous English translation. That is simply not the case. Every major English translation (not paraphrases), from the early Tyndale all the way to present day English Standard Version were translated independently from the Greek and Hebrew, languages that Joseph Smith did not even know, nor make an effort to learn until long after he began his “translation” work. Nevertheless he created what amounts to a “corrected” version of the KJV. While the RLDS uses this text exclusively, the LDS uses it primarily as a secondary text, except for a few points where they overtly prefer Joseph Smith’s work. While this may seem minor it has two primary problems.
1) The changes have no basis in anything other than offering support for Joseph Smith’s theology. In other words it was a post facto (after the fact) translation. Anytime your translation is made expressly to offer support for a preconceived theology, rather than act as the basis for your theology, its objectivity (and thus validity) should be questioned.
2) The second issue is the same as what was addressed in the last post. Simply put, there should not be an assumption that the KJV is in any sense “inspired.” Many Mormons will be quick to point out that though Joseph Smith’s “corrected” version of the KJV is seen as somehow “inspired” they do not mean “inspired” in the same sense that non-Mormons use the term. Rather than be a reason to accept the Joseph Smith version, though, this should give us all the more reason to reject it as it undermines the very idea of inspiration and any authority (at all) that comes from it. But I’ve gone on for long enough about the Mormons.
New World Translation/Watchtower Translation (The Jehovah’s Witness Bible/NWT)
The NWT used almost exclusively by Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) is highly problematic. While non-JW scholar Bruce Metzger notes that in many places the translators show that they are “well-equipped,” he nevertheless criticizes many of its renderings as “intellectually dishonest.” We could nitpick about the rendering of “cross” as “stake” (even though that makes little sense given the verbal form of “crucify” for which there are no other options) and that the divine name should be said closer to Yahweh, not Jehovah (a misunderstanding of how the Hebrew vowels work), but by far the most controversial passage is the rendering of John 1:1. While most translations read something like “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The NWT renders it “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a God.” While the change is subtle, it reveals the underlying assumption of Jehovah’s witnesses: namely that they are anti-Trinitarian and Jesus, rather than being co-eternal with the Father, was the unique creation of Jehovah. While the standard reading of John 1:1 would seem to prohibit such a thought, the NWT seems to endorse it. The problem is, that is a common 1st or 2nd year Greek mistake, but not one that should happen with biblical scholars (hence Metzger’s allegation of “intellectual dishonesty”). [For those interested, this involves a fairly common ‘anarthrous’ use of the article indicating a true predicate nominative, meaning that the English indefinite article “a” is not a valid rendering]. Further, the general lack of transparency regarding the translators (all names were withheld, even from each other) seems to cast suspicion on its use. As such, no other major group outside of the JW seems consider the NWT a valid translation. Therefore, it is also to be rejected.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches
While the bible used by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and Eastern Orthodox Churches (EOC) is, for the most part, virtually the same as the bible used by Protestants, there are some key differences that stem from their understanding of the Scripture itself. These understandings go back to the understanding of authority in each group and some of the specific differences related to the Bible are due to some facts of history. Also while the bible of various EOCs and the RCC differs slightly, in drawing the distinction between their bible and the one used by Protestants some very similar things can be said. However, first let’s briefly distinguish the EOCs from the RCC.
While today there are a variety of (minor) doctrinal distinctions between the EOCs and the RCC, most of these can be traced back, largely, to a single distinction. The primary distinction is an understanding of where authority comes from. The RCC argues that the primary source of authority, like the EOC, is the Church. For both groups this means tradition, particularly the church fathers, and the bible, though its authority is derived, to large extent, from the Church and not inherent in it (as it is for most Protestants). The main distinction between the RCC and the EOCs is that the principle modern day expression of that authority in the RCC is the Pope, but for the EOCs it tends to be slightly more democratic and focused upon various patriarchs (what we might call bishops). Thus it is a difference between a single person with various advisors (RCC) and a small group of leaders, who also have advisors (EOC). While in the RCC the authority is more absolute than in EOCs, it is also used less frequently. In both groups, though, the bible is the bible as it is used and accepted in the Church.
Since for both the RCC and EOCs the bible is not inherently authoritative, but derives its authority from the Church, the general attitude toward the bible is that it is a received text. Hence the bible that the church uses is, for them, the most accurate bible and there is little need to talk about some lost original in the same sense as in fiercely conservative Protestantism. This also means that the bible includes some works in addition to the Old and New Testament accepted by Protestants: what is usually termed (even by those in the RCC now) the “apocrypha.” While this section differs between some EOCs and from the RCC, they are very similar. However, while I suspect it functions the same way in the EOC as in the RCC, I do not know this, and so will limit my following comments to the RCC only.
The RCC “apocrypha” does not hold the same authority as the rest of the bible. The proper term for this collection is actually the “deutero-canon” or second canon. It is meant as a supplement and to have a secondary status to the rest of the bible. Nevertheless, it does hold significant authority (much moreso than for any Protestant), though in general the bible is not the absolute authority, only the church is. The bible is merely part of the church and so, while it may have more authority than other sources of tradition, it is nevertheless a single voice among others.
There are some assumptions about inspiration and humanity that Protestants hold to which prevent them from accepting this view, and instead hold the bible as the sole supreme visible expression of authority on earth (as opposed to one among many voices). But I will need to reserve those comments until towards the end of this series. However, the practical implication of this view of the “apocrypha” mean that Protestants have a lot in common with RCC and EOC members in their daily use of the bible, and as a result their understanding of many doctrines are similar (i.e. all believe in salvation through Jesus, who was God incarnate, and the Trinity).
The historical fact of the where the apocrypha/deutero-canon came from is that it initially appeared as part of the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible (the LXX) which became the Christian Old Testament. It is in that sense a “received” text. Its historicity, however, is very doubtful, for most of it there are no early Hebrew Manuscripts, and it was rejected by early Jews as canonical, despite containing information about one of their more important Jewish festivals: Hannukah. It is for all of these reasons that Protestants, who do not operate on a “received” text basis in the same way as the RCC and EOCs do, but instead argue for a “critical” text. I’ll get to what that means in a later post.
“Other” non-Protestant Bibles
I will only briefly say something about these “other” bibles. I am not really concerned in this series with books from other religions that make no claims on the Christian bible, but there is a surprisingly large group of those who are “spiritual, but not religious” who want to make some claim about the bible, and a second group of expressly “non-religious” people who make yet another claim.
The first group, those “spiritual, but not religious” either want to claim the bible is one among many perfectly valid religious texts, or want to add many additional documents to the bible. The first group does not respect the message implicit and explicit in the bible. Simply put, the Christian Bible is exclusive. You cannot say it is equally valid to other religious texts without saying that all such texts are invalid. That option is not available. The Old Testament makes an exclusive claim about the chosen nature of Israel alone, with YHWH alone as their God. The New Testament makes an exclusive claim about the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises exclusively through Jesus who is the exclusive means of gentile inclusion in the people of God.
Those who want to include other pseudo-Christian literature in the bible also fail to understand what those manuscripts imply. Leaving aside their considerably later dating compared to the New Testament, many of these (mostly Gnostic) manuscripts are problematic. These are things that comprise the “Other” bible, or the claim the Christian faith was edited and chosen at a council (again that is not an honest description of how the Scripture work or were chosen). These other texts are meant to be non-sensical for the most part. Many of the extra gospels are difficult to read precisely because they were meant to be hard to read. They weren’t meant to be uplifting spiritually, but to induce a state of confusion and bewilderment in the reader. Those that weren’t this way are so fundamentally contradictory to the Christian Bible that they can in no way be held together. As such the “spiritual” understanding of the bible should also be rejected.
I will also say a brief word about the Atheist Bible. This was put out by noted atheist A.C. Grayling as the atheist alternative to an influential book like the KJV bible. While it some great excerpts from literature, it was a categorical flop and shouldn’t really be considered anywhere near the same level as the Christian bible. On a practical level, although Grayling did not compose anything new, he failed to note what sources exactly he was cutting and pasting from (which is essentially plagiarism). Second, it was really poorly constructed and some found it entirely unreadable. Finally, it displayed Grayling’s fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is and how it works. It doesn’t just inspire emotionally and intellectually. The Bible is a call that demands a response. This is the reason it is so much more powerful than other works of literature. This is why it has been studied and continued to influence us.
Ok, this has been a bit lengthy (and slightly piecemeal), but I have, I hope, at least begun to point out why it is that I am rejected all versions except for the protestant version of the Christian Bible: namely the Old and New Testament without apocrypha. In the next few posts, I will talk about the how and why we accept this particular version of the bible. First up: the Old Testament.
Question: Are there other considerations I should have looked at? Do you think I’ve been fair in my assessments?