It is reasonably common on the interwebs to come across people complaining (vigorously) about Bible translations.
There’s one aspect to these debates that I’ve often found peculiar but I had been unable to pinpoint the problem until recently; statements like this:
“KJV Joh 6:47 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.
NLT I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life.
The NIV, NLT, NASB, ESV and more bibles leave out the phrase “on me”. These Bible are removing the deity of Jesus. If we take out the “on me”, what exactly are we to believe? I believe the sky is blue. Does that get me everlasting life?” From Godmadeus.com.
There is much that could be said linguistically about this page (the writer seems confused about implied information and differences between languages) but the point that interests me is the claim that when a Bible translation makes a translation choice, then that changes something about God (whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit). That is quite a startling claim. Wrapped in a cloak of respect and conservatism it actually flirts with blasphemy and becomes the closest thing to biblolatory (bible-idolatory) that I have seen. I do have another blog post in progress about the oft-warned-against issue of biblolatory, but that’s not finished yet.
What’s going on here?
The problem as I see it is of conflating the report of reality with the reality itself. It’s straightforward confusion that often happens between sign and signifier. The bible IS vital as a reliable record of what God is like through his dealings with people and his words to his people, but the bible itself is not God and it is not the word of God in the way that Jesus is.
Some years ago I realised that the easiest way of tidying up the rather scruffy appearance of our church building was some simple Photoshopping. But that didn’t actually change the appearance; it just looked better on the website and anticipated the long-delayed paint job! Tampering with a photo does not actually change the person pictured in it, does it?!
Neither the original authors nor the translators of the Bible call on us to worship it – whether in KJV or any other version – but to learn from it and worship the God who cannot be limited to a temple or a book. This calls for calm then. If the God we worship is actually the creator of the universe, and not just a creation of our imagination, then we don’t need to go on a religious rampage physically or electronically when someone makes some claim or other about him, or when some Bible translation comes out that we don’t like. But of course if you actually are worshipping a smaller god who is defined by and limited to a book you read, then he is indeed weak enough and vulnerable enough to need a good amount of defence.
Do you see how easy it is to slip into the error the Israelites often committed? They treated the Covenant Box like a pagan deity or box of magic, thinking it would make them win a battle… and God was big enough to allow it to be captured. The Philistines thought the same way as the Israelites and thought they had captured Israel’s god! Both Israelites and Philistines were actually insulting God by thinking too little of him, and both suffered severely as a result.
And so Solomon was very wise in dedicating the Temple to pray publicly (for the avoidance of all doubt) recognising to God and his people that the temple was a symbol of his presence, and access to God, but it was not itself the reality. But time and time again people actually prefer to focus on what is tangible and limited rather than the God who is relational and unlimited.
I’m no Islamic scholar, but one very stark difference between Islam and Christianity in general is that the physical copies of the Qur’an are revered much more than the physical copies of the Bible. This is no bad thing, in my own view, and speaks volumes. The fact that the Bible can be translated and still called the Bible tells us that it is not the same thing as the Qur’an. Change the Qur’an and you do actually change the substance of the faith. Change the Bible and you (merely) misrepresent God and deceive people… but you haven’t damaged God and he doesn’t need our protection from such damage.
Incidentally I think it’s better to see the Qur’an as a knock-off of Jesus, not a knock-off of the Bible. Jesus was and is the Word of God come down from heaven. However, there does seem to be a disturbing tendency amongst many of us in the name of conservatism and respect to tame, limit and domesticate God, so that the tangible word of God that we delight in becomes the end and not the means of knowing its ultimate author.
Perhaps I’m misrepresenting our author and his ilk here. It is most likely that he is not an idolator, that he does not actually worship the Bible, that he does not really think that when we change something in a Bible translation we are actually changing the nature of God himself. Perhaps the language he uses just falls short and the underlying theory he expresses is inadequate to represent what he believes. But there is a grave danger in this case that anyone reading or learning from such writing would take the theory at face value and end up in pious-sounding bible idolatory.
Most often we respect God by respecting what he says. But if we ‘respect’ his words at the expense of his nature… see Mark 7:9-13: “You cancel God’s word with your conservatism.”
Not every charge of biblolatory is warranted, but it is a danger worth avoiding and those who care about handing on a true knowledge of God to the next generation should be careful with the way we talk. ‘Conservatives’ should carefully conserve the right things.