Text translations may change view of Bible's truth

August 27, 2011 

One would think it would be enough for the clergy and religions in the Judeo-Christian world just to debate the meaning of the Hebrew Bible.

Everyone's tradition has a different perspective and viewpoint about what the words and the ideas mean and the message they carry. We discuss those differences in our houses of worship, clergy sermons, adult education classes, retreats and in the comfort of our own private reading of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. We are used to that kind of ongoing dialectic.

What most of us are not used to doing is discussing the authenticity of the texts themselves. And it is time we devote our attention to the scholars who sit in the small corners of university departments of religious studies and research the actual text to determine that what we are reading, in fact, is the real and legitimate text of Scriptures.

The question might arise, "Are there variances between ancient Biblical texts that our in our possession?" The truth is, yes. It is no surprise that this kind of discussion should remain beneath the radar because if scholars could find ancient biblical texts that are not consistent with the time-honored texts that we read in our translations of the Bible, then how would we know that our version is the correct one? Then we would have to question whether the meaning of our specific interpretation was correct if, in fact, our Bible had words that were not the right ones. Remember, if we believe that every word is from God then what do we do if ancient texts show that God said something different in one text as compared to another?

A recent MSNBC article discussed the more than 50-year-old Bible Project sponsored by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The original members of the team have all passed away. The project's goal is to produce the most authoritative Hebrew text -- or in academic parlance, critical edition -- of the Old Testament. The project has produced three of the Bible's 24 books. And I understand that Christians count the books in a different manner, which would equal 39 books.

The point is that these scholars are meticulously studying the most ancient manuscripts that preceded the invention of the printing press. They are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek translations, parchment texts written by hand, and texts written in Aramaic and Latin.

They are searching all these ancient sources for every variation and potential scribal errors and comparing them to see what is the most consistent reading of every word. The truth is that there are differences. That might be insignificant to some and cataclysmic to others, depending on their belief system. According to the MSNBC article, for example, the Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Does that mean we should change all the Hebrew Bibles now to account for these textual emendations?

All this started in the late '50s when, according to the story, a cheese merchant from Aleppo, Syria, smuggled out a text of the Hebrew Bible. It turned out that it was the oldest (1100 years old) and most accurate biblical text in history. This became the foundation text that spurred the scholars to establish the Bible Project. There are other scholarly centers trying to create a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, for example, in Stuttgart, Germany, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

Is it hard for religiously observant people to accept the possibility that the text we are reading might not be an accurate? Would some part of our psyche just prefer to ignore it and carry on with whatever we are used to reading in our religious movements? Then how do we reconcile that the word of God is sacred and inerrant while we know that the text we received is not necessarily 100 percent accurate?

The answer to this question requires us to first separate ourselves from the world of modern technology. We must remember that the ancient world depended on the tradition of scribes who wrote, for example, on lambskin, goatskin, deerskin or papyrus. Everything was handwritten then, and we inherited those texts over the centuries, which ultimately contributed to the compilation of the most authoritative and accurate text over time. I still haven't decided whether the inconsistencies or the actual consistency of these texts in the history of the Israelite Bible are the truly miraculous aspects of studying these ancient texts.

Some treat the Hebrew Bible as a theological text and others see it as strictly a historical literary document representing a literary tradition for the Israelite religion. That debate is not the point. What matters is recognizing that we cannot ignore history or theology. They both play a role in our hearts and our intellect about what the truth means when we make statements like, "The bible is true."

We will have to wait and see what the scribes and scholars of the Bible Project produce in the years to come. Research takes time, and we will have to be patient with the outcome of their work. Our descendants will one day read the most authoritative text of the Bible and then the English translations will change as well.

Just imagine that our progeny will be reading a different text of the Bible than we read today and the possibility of new interpretations that will arise from the efforts of a small cadre of religiously observant and secular scholars in an obscure office in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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