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I've heard many people assert that the Bible we have today is unreliable because of a long chain of translation-of-a-translation. This seems false, because new translations can use ancient manuscripts as their source. What is the origin of this fallacy? Is there any one organization to blame in propagating it?

Here's a link to my basis for the question.

  • Welcome! Thanks for contributing. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel Jan 18 '17 at 20:35
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    For what it's worth, even Christians dedicated to the inerrancy of the Bible admit that, technically speaking, only the originals (the copies handwritten by the authors, or autographs) are inerrant. The history of this distinction is addressed here: Who first distinguished between the inerrancy of the Bible and the inerrancy of the original autographs? Your question is different though, because it deals with "retranslation," which is largely irrelevant for the reasons you mention. – Nathaniel Jan 18 '17 at 23:44
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    You might want to look into the LDS 'Age of Apostasy' doctrine. They are proponents of this idea. This would be a great question for Biblical Hermeneutics SE. – Abstraction is everything. Jan 19 '17 at 0:36
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    The idea is false, since nearly all translations, especially into major languages such as English, are done from the original languages of the Bible, not from other translations. However, it would be interesting to know where this fallacy came from, if it is traceable to any particular source. – Lee Woofenden Jan 21 '17 at 12:46
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    I suspect, now, that this claim of corruption may have origins here: "Muslims proclaim that the actual texts have been changed; that not many of Allah's original words remain in them" "The Qur'an ... clearly states that The Jews and Christians knew what their texts said, but that they deliberately distorted the commands and meanings in their oral recitations." wikiislam.net/wiki/Injil – SteverT Jan 23 '17 at 19:30
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At the risk of being overly pedantic, we need to understand what Pastor Litke means by "reliable" and perhaps what he even means by "the Bible".

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines "rely" as (1) "trust fully; have faith in" and (2) "be dependent on". But these definitions suppose an object: to trust fully for what? to depend on for what? Do we expect, for example, that the Gospel accounts convey the literal meaning of what Jesus is purported to have said, or simply the sense of what he said? Do we expect that the creation account(s) are scientifically accurate or in some sense allegorical?

In the article you linked, Pastor Litke seems to define "reliability" as the extent to which the true meaning of a particular verse or phrase is conveyed. Paraphrases, he writes for example, are "less reliable, because you only know what the person doing the paraphrase thought a particular verb or phrase means." He defines a paraphrase as:

a less literal rendering of the Bible – restating the text to give the original sense but not attempting to literally translate each term in the original language.

He contrasts "paraphrases" with what he refers to as "translations":

a rendering of the Bible in a language different than the one in which it was written ... intended to be as literal as possible and still be easily read

"Translations" of this sort, he maintains, are more "reliable" than paraphrases.


The following is an interesting example to consider in the context of Pastor Litke's argument.

The Greek text (Textus Receptus) of John 5:27-28 reads:

και εξουσιαν εδωκεν αυτω και κρισιν ποιειν οτι υιος ανθρωπου εστιν μη θαυμαζετε τουτο οτι ερχεται ωρα εν η παντες οι εν τοις μνημειοις ακουσονται της φωνης αυτου

The 1900 revision to the King James Version reads:

And [the Father] hath given Him authority to execute judgment also,
because He is the Son of Man.
Marvel not at this

According to Pastor Litke's definition of reliability, this translation is reliable in the sense it conveys the literal meaning of the each phrase:

  • και εξουσιαν εδωκεν αυτω και κρισιν ποιειν literally means "and authority gave to him also judgment to execute"
  • οτι υιος ανθρωπου εστιν literally means "because son of man he is"
  • μη θαυμαζετε τουτο literally means "marvel not at this"

But, since the original manuscripts had no punctuation, these same words can be arranged to form a different set of phrases altogether:

He hath given Him authority to execute judgment also.
That He is the Son of Man,
marvel not at this

According to Pastor Litke's criteria, this also would be a "reliable" translation, since it conveys the literal meaning of the underlying phrases.

Theologically, however, there is a great gulf between these two different translations. The ambiguity in the Greek was understood and addressed in antiquity by Byzantine Church Fathers, but seems to have been lost in most English translations. Nor is it an ambiguity that can be addressed through a mechanical appeal to dictionaries, concordances and lexicons. John Chrysostom recognized the pitfall in reading the verse incorrectly and highlit the problem in his 39th Homily on the Gospel According to John:

That He is the Son of Man, marvel not at this

Paul of Samosata rendereth it not so; but how? “Hath given Him authority to execute judgment, ‘because’ He is the Son of Man.” Now the passage thus read is inconsequent, for He did not receive judgment “because” He was man, (since then what hindered all men from being judges,) but because He is the Son of that Ineffable Essence, therefore is He Judge. So we must read, “That He is the Son of Man, marvel not at this.” For when what He said seemed to the hearers inconsistent, and they deemed Him nothing more than mere man, while His words were greater than suited man, yea, or even angel, and were proper to God only, to solve this objection He addeth,

Marvel not [that He is the Son of Man] for the hour is coming in the which they that are in the tombs shall hear His voice and shall go forth, they that have done good to the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

As a result, I would say that Pastor Litke is correct in his assertion that the King James Version and the other translations he cites are "reliable", but only in the narrow sense he suggests.

There is also a somewhat insipid issue regarding what "the Bible" actually is. Why, for example, is the Gospel according to John in any of the versions that Pastor Litke cites in the first place? If a particular version of the Bible contains a faithful translation of the Shepherd of Hermas, would that particular Bible be considered "reliable"? Hermas was included, after all, in the Codex Sinaiticus, which is considered by scholars to be one of the most reliable manuscript sources and is either the oldest or second oldest complete codex we have of the New Testament.

I think the problem with the basis of your question is that Pastor Litke's treatment of Biblical "reliability" is too superficial. (I am not criticizing your question. I personally think it is excellent.). The King James (and other) translations of John 5:27-28, are "reliable" in Pastor Litke's understanding, but convey a teaching (of Paul of Samasota) that was considered heretical by the Church in its 3rd century of existence (and is still considered heretical within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches at least). The Bible versions he lists exclude some books that were initially considered but later rejected by the Church for inclusion (e.g. Hermas) and exclude others that were prescribed for inclusion by the Church canons, but later excluded by reformers (e.g. some of the Deuterocanonical books). Pastor Litke's framework for "reliability" doesn't accommodate differences of canon at all.

  • user33515; Thank-you for your thoughtful answer. I'm sorry, I can see that I was not clear on the emphasis of my question. The point of my question was that there are people who proclaim that the reason why the (what is commonly referred to as) Bible is unreliable is because it is a "long chain of translation-of-a-translation". I'm interested to find the origin, and (if any) the group behind this kind of promotion. – SteverT Feb 27 '17 at 13:50
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The most plausible answer (sorry for answering my own question) is that the modern day notion of errors due to re-translations comes from the fictional character Sir Leigh Teabing (from Dan Brown’s novel, "The Da Vinci Code")

"The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven. . . . The Bible is the product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book."

I have not personally read Dan Brown's novel, however, here are a couple of related articles:

  • Also, it appears Dan Brown's fictional work has some basis on this (controversial) book: "Holy Blood Holy Grail" Baigent, Leigh. Lincoln, 2004. – SteverT Jan 25 '17 at 19:08
  • I'm not sure this really is "the most plausible answer" - is the notion of errors due to re-translation truly "a modern day notion" or is there some historic precendent (even if thoroughly critiqued). It doesn't sound like you've truly done the research, I'd probably bet that Dan Brown's work is more a symptom of the fact that some people believe the Bible is unreliable for this reason - not the cause of such an idea. – danl Apr 27 '17 at 7:34
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There are many parts to the Bible. The Old Testament, certainly the Pentateuch, is over 3000 years old. Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew.

The basis for my answer is specific to books written in Hebrew as the primary source. The problem with (biblical) Hebrew is it doesn't translate well. Here are some of the problems

  1. There is no tense; verbs are left unconjugated

  2. There are no "be" verbs in Hebrew: am, are, is, was, were, will be

  3. Pronouns can be skipped, but not always

  4. -ly adverbs can appear as their adjective roots

  5. There are no indefinite articles {a, an}, and definite articles can be skipped--same thing with conjunctions

  6. Written Hebrew contains no vowels or punctuation; they weren't invented until the 11th century and still aren't used today in Israel (with native speakers)

Pick up any two Bibles from different publishers and compare just Genesis 1:1-5

Now compare this to the Jewish website chabad.org

1. In the beginning of God's creation of heavens and earth: 2. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the water. 3. And God said, "Let there be light." And there was light. 4. And God saw the light that it was good, and he separated between the darkness and between the light. 5. And he called the light day, and the darkness he called night. And it was evening, and it was morning--one day.

As you can see, a great portion of the above can be translated differently, even with a competent translator. What I really like in this translation is how the Spirit of God and the Darkness square off mono y mono--one looking down, the other looking up--and all of creation becomes a buffer between good and evil in between, battling it out every day on the surface.

Some translations simply miss the beauty and potency of Genesis 1:2. And that's just going from Hebrew to English. What about Hebrew to Greek to Latin to German to English? Small translational changes at the Hebrew end cam create massive changes in third or fourth generation translation.

There really is no blame. We are just trying to understand God to the best of our abilities. Scripture is just one of those avenues.

  • The original question is not about the difficulties of translation. The question is specifically directed at the false claim of errors due to translations of translations. (An off-take of "the telephone game:".) – SteverT Jan 26 '17 at 17:24
  • @ Stu W. Why would you want to translate ' Hebrew to Greek to Latin to German to English' , when you can translate directly from the original manuscripts? – SteverT Jan 26 '17 at 17:32
  • Indeed. I believe that's the crux of the OP's question. To my knowledge, (Christian) Bibles use the Septuagint for the primary source of the Pentateuch. That is already Hebrew to Greek .... My 2002 New American Bible (Catholic) is quite a bit closer to the Hebrew (at least the Orthodox Jews' translation of the Hebrew), than my 1966 New American Bible. I found this intriguing and looked into it. – Stu W Jan 26 '17 at 20:42
  • ..(Christian) Bibles use the Septuagint for the primary source of the Pentateuch. -- nope. For most Catholic and Protestant Bibles, MT is primary. The claim that Hebrew is peculiarly "untranslatable" also strikes me as unfounded. ...verbs are left unconjugated -- nope. There are no "be" verbs in Hebrew... -- nope. -ly adverbs can appear as their adjective roots -- not sure what that means, but nouns and verbs (not adjectives) are most often used for adverbial ideas. ...definite articles can be skipped--same thing with conjunctions -- nope. Etc. – Susan Feb 25 '17 at 15:09
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    Honestly, much of this answer (in addition to not really answering the question) strikes me as third and fourth generation myths that were probably originally reasonable statements but have been propagated by people who don't know Hebrew and in their current form have little connection to the language. – Susan Feb 25 '17 at 15:12

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