I remember receiving my first Bible when I was about 11 years old. My grade 5 class was visited by some members of Gideons International who distributed little red, pocket-sized New Testament and Psalms to every kid in the class. For most North American schoolkids, this seems to be the most common way people in my generation were introduced to their first Bible, unless their parents had given them one sooner. I also remember while growing up, I used to sneak the Buick-sized family Bible into my room to flip through the pages. I was most enthralled by the artistic visuals of the historical paintings shown in the pages between the Old and New Testament, but once in a while I would look up the glossary in the back to read about Lucifer and Hell just to satisfy my morbid curiosity.
I reached a pivotal point in my life when I attended an Evangelical Bible camp one summer to make new friends before my first year of high school. As someone who was nominally Catholic at the time, I wanted to keep up with my Christian friends who had always brought Bibles of their own to all the youth camp functions. After my parents had given me a New American Bible for my 16th birthday, I finally felt like I was able to keep up with everyone. But I noticed the verses in my Bible were worded slightly different than what my friends were reading. I still understood what was being read, but I still felt like I wasn’t quite in sync with everybody.
In the summer before Grade 12, I made a decision to live my life for Christ. In light of this, one of the guest speakers from camp had given me a King James Version. I was told by this man to read no other Bible but that one because it was the only authentic version out there. I was confused upon hearing this, but I still accepted the gift as though there were no harm involved. It wasn’t until later that year I found out the Catholic Bible has 7 additional books in the Old Testament – known by Protestants as the apocrypha, but considered to be deuterocanonical by the Catholic Church. I was told by some of my friends the apocrypha was used to invent the idea of Purgatory as a reason to reap money from the poor who prayed for their dead, and also invalidated Christ’s sacrifice for sins. While I had only read small portions of these books at the time, I blindly took their word for it rather than taking it upon myself to find out what it really was. Since then, my views on Purgatory have changed.
For my 18th birthday, a bunch of my youth group friends had given me a New International Version as a gift for deciding to live my life for Jesus. This was the version they had been using and I was then able to read exactly what they were reading during youth group devotionals. While I appreciated the gift, I was starting to become more confused as for why I received another Bible – a different version at that. I started to realize there was a whole world of English translations of the Scriptures that were almost accommodating to personal preference. Knowing this, I would often refer to the NIV whenever I found the KJV difficult to grasp, yet I had lost interest in my NAB and left it to collect dust on the shelf.
Once in a while during my lunch breaks at school, I used to walk to the local Christian book store and browse the shelves. I one day discovered a New Living Translation that was encased in a hard metal cover with a magnetic closing strap. Because I was a bit of a closet metal-head during my school years, it felt like that book was meant for me. Safe to say I bought that Bible as soon as I saw it and began to use it quite regularly – enough that the pages began to separate from the book cover. I’m not a huge fan of Charles Spurgeon, but I do appreciate one of his more popular quotes,
“A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.”
About two years after high school, I met a few friends through volunteering at camp who hosted a weekly Bible study at their parents home. It so happened to be a KJV-only study group, and because the guest speaker from camp had a similar mindset, I decided to give this group a go – but I was not expecting such an unpleasantly hostile group of individuals. They were staunchly anti-Catholic and told me to burn every other Bible I had in my possession, including my NAB. They were very quick to jump to conclusions that anyone who did not agree with them on even the most minuscule topics were going to Hell. I was also taught that some verses which were present in their translation were omitted from other versions because of a diabolical, ‘satanic’ cover-up to deceive the world. Years later, I found out such verses like Acts 8:37 were omitted largely because they are not found in the oldest and most reliable early manuscripts, and not because of some far-fetched conspiracy theory meant to discredit other denominations. These missing verses were usually clarified in their footnotes of most Bible translations.
One person in this group went on a tirade about how there is no other Bible as accurate as the KJV. One of my friends who was studying in Bible college to become a pastor happened to be there during this conversation and politely asked him,
“What about the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts?”
The person side-stepped from answering my friend’s legitimate question as though it were completely irrelevant. He continued to angrily ramble on for what felt like an eternity of someone repeatedly slamming a KJV across my face in the 6th circle of Dante’s Inferno. Although brief, my friend’s comment was what stood out to me the most from that conversation, and continued to irritate my brain long afterwards. I wondered to myself, if most English translations of the Bible are derived from the original Greek and Hebrew sources, then what makes the KJV so special? What about the Ethiopian or Chinese Bibles? If King James ‘authorized’ this specific translation, who or what gave him divine authority to do so and what makes it far superior than every other? What about the Geneva Bible that predates it by over 50 years? If the Catholic Bible is so vile, why does it contain chapters in the book of Esther that are missing in the KJV? Why did the original King James translation contain the apocrypha?
Long story short, I abandoned this group and severed ties with all of its members. For the record, I have no issue with the King James Version. But to me, a person cannot willfully brush off the original source material without committing intellectual suicide. Anyone who is willing to defend their faith in Christ should be willing to exercise their ability to think critically about why they believe such a book is without error. I often asked myself, what makes it infallible? Who determines it’s infallibility? If Romans 3:4 says, let God be true and every man a liar, then why is the Word of God a collection of books written by men? Why are Christians so quick to defend the Bible’s inerrancy, and yet dismiss the authors and the ones responsible for the assembly of the Bible Canon as sinful people capable of lying? In order for a piece of literature to be infallible, wouldn’t it have to come from an infallible source? If this is the case, does infallibility require total sinlessness?
People have often criticized the Catholic Church for locking up Bibles away from public access. Before the printing press was invented, books were painstakingly handwritten and often took several days (even years) to complete. Contrary to popular belief, the priests and bishops weren’t trying to prevent the public from reading the Scriptures. People could not sign out a Bible and take it home like we would sign out a book from the library nowadays, lest it be damaged or stolen. Books in those days were extremely valuable and irreplaceable, and copies of them (if any) were a rare luxury. Nowadays, the thrift store shelves are littered with Bibles of almost every translation and are so freely given away. This isn’t to say that the mass production of Bibles is necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it has certainly helped with spreading the Gospel throughout the world. The Catholic Church in modern times encourages its followers to regularly read Scripture, which is something I wish was more prevalent in the parish I grew up in. But like almost every other material item in this industrialized society, Bibles have become practically disposable. The Word of God was once held to such high regard and value, and has now been reduced to merely a replaceable object meant to be recycle bin fodder.
During the days before the printing press, people had to attend church in order to hear the Scripture readings, and there was something unifying about communities getting together under one building. Nowadays, many people have resorted to watching a preacher on a television screen or even reading their Bibles within the comfort of their own home rather than going out and involving themselves in a local church. It’s not unreasonable to say that the unlimited accessibility to Scripture could be one of the contributing factors why churches have had dwindling attendances. When a church feels the need to get creative in order to draw people inward, it’s compelling to wonder whether the central attraction is to hear God’s Word or to be entertained. Is it a Gospel-centered model, or a money-driven business? And with every trendy, popular church that comes out of the woodwork, how many of them are willing to risk offending their fanbase by tackling the more controversial portions of the Bible?
Martin Luther, one of the early Protestant Reformers, took it upon himself to translate the Latin Bible into his local German language so as people could read the Scriptures for themselves. While he was well-meaning when it came to his concerns about abuses in the Church and making the Bible accessible to the public, the problem with translating a non-source is that it turns into a game of telephone. For a text originally written in ancient Hebrew and Greek to be viewed through a 16th century lens, there is much historical context that is lost – even more so for the 21st-century reader.
I once had a roommate who carried a Bible that sported the cover ‘Jesus Loves Porn Stars.’ It was one of his ways of reaching out to his co-workers from the oil-patch. I can certainly agree that the Gospel should be shared in a language that is easy to understand, which is how evangelism really should be done. But on the flip side, does such a title build an entire theology on such a small portion of Scripture? Jesus certainly does love porn stars, just as he loves all human life. But sometimes a trendy catchphrase such as this can be taken the absolute wrong way. I need not expand on that into further detail.
The other problem I see is when people take idiomatic translations such as The Message as a literal translation and not as an interpretive commentary. Sure, it’s easy for Christian scholars and academics to understand this. But for the average person who isn’t an academic, it’s quite easy for the verses in these versions to be taken completely out of context. This is one of the reasons why I have a difficult time accepting a literal ‘priesthood of all believers’ as interpreted by many Protestants from 1 Peter 2:5. Does this mean an average guy like myself can have a deeper understanding of Scripture than a pastor or priest with a doctorate in Biblical studies? The student is not greater than the teacher, as mentioned in Matthew 10:24. This is why people need to be taught, and wisdom is not merely ‘downloaded’ into a person’s brain unless it’s a divine revelation sent directly from God (Sirach 34:1-7, Proverbs 3:5) – but that’s another topic meant for a separate article.
The Holy Spirit and human nature are constantly at war with each other. Even if a person reads the Bible regularly, their own personal biases and limited knowledge will always affect the way they interpret Scripture – and I’m guilty as charged as well. This is not to say that God is unable to work past our finite understanding to reveal His truth to us. The spirit of division is a relentless one at that, and the fact that human language is flawed and continuously evolving has been a hindrance to collective unity since the Tower of Babel.
I have a couple Evangelical friends who studied Greek and learned how to read and translate the original New Testament manuscripts. Using their precious spiritual gifts of interpretation, they currently pastor a small-town Protestant church. As a Catholic, I have the utmost respect for any Bible-believing follower of Christ who proactively seeks the source material as opposed to the translation that sounds the most trendy, modern or appealing to their personal preference.
Just like a sequel to just about every movie out there, you can never top the original source. The Empire Strikes Back is definitely my personal favorite, but A New Hope will always be the quintessential Star Wars film that is the base story for every other sequel and prequel to come hereafter. I’ve also heard people tell me that Dante’s Divine Comedy is best understood in its original Italian language as it was written, as opposed to reading a bastardized American-English translation. Similarly, no matter how many new translations of the Bible that will come, they will never surpass the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.
In my honest opinion, if anyone wants to experience the fullness of God’s Word as it was meant to be understood, it can be done in one of two ways. For those like myself who have enough trouble with their own language, they could read multiple English translations of the same verse with an open, prayerful mind to see what other interpretations reveal about it; and possibly discover which translations are off-base in the process. Or if some feel really ambitious, they could learn the language it was originally written in and learn how to understand the historicity of its context. Such a procedure demands a lot of time and education, but is definitely a worthwhile vocation for anyone who is passionate about the preservation of biblical truth.
But one thing is for certain, you can never top the original source.