Discovering the Bible
Amazing discoveries have brought to light the better-understood Bible. How can you discover this Bible for yourself?
“TRULY (good Christian Reader) wee neuer thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation”—so spoke a group of Bible translators in the nearly forgotten preface to the King James Bible. That was in 1611. In this twentieth century, when more Bible translations are being made than ever before, few persons have realized to what great degree modern-speech translations are needed. Not many years ago even Bible scholars and translators did not fully realize the pressing need. What has brought about this revolutionary view in thinking? Discoveries that have made possible a better-understood Bible; discoveries many of which are stranger than fiction.
One of the most exciting Biblical discoveries was made by a German scholar, Count Tischendorf, who journeyed to Palestine in 1844. His quest was for ancient copies of the Bible written in the original tongue. Tischendorf had spent his whole life searching for these handwritten copies of the Bible. His journeys often took him to out-of-the-way places. It was not unusual, then, for him to find himself one day at the monastery of St. Catherine, situated at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the hall of the monastery the German scholar saw “a great and wide basket,” which excited his interest. It contained old and tattered parchments. The monks were using them to start fires.
What the monks were using to kindle fires was the very thing Tischendorf had spent his life to find! Here were more than a hundred leaves—pages of a Bible in very old Greek handwriting. Because the writing was all in capital letters with no divisions between words, Tischendorf knew he had found what scholars call an “uncial” manuscript, a rare find indeed! He could not conceal his exultant joy. Surprised, the monks perceived that they had been burning something valuable; they quickly took away the basket. But they did allow him to take away forty-three of the leaves.
Tischendorf took his discovery to Germany. His find was regarded as sensational, for the parchments were attributed to the fourth century A.D. The find excited other scholars; they too wanted to obtain the rest of this Biblical treasure. Not wanting any scholars to get to the monastery before him, Tischendorf kept the location of his find a secret.
Not being a wealthy man, Tischendorf never found it easy to find the means for travel. But in 1853 he was able to go back to the monastery. The monks were uncooperative. Tischendorf left with nothing but a single tiny scrap with a few verses from Genesis.
JOURNEY OF 1859
Six more years passed before he could go back again. This time he was cautious and concealed his purpose. And even though he had now come armed with a commission from the czar of Russia, he talked about everything except Bible manuscripts. After spending several days in a chilly, dark library he was ready to leave; for there was no trace of the treasure he had once saved from the fire. Had it been burned after all? Tischendorf called for the camels to be brought to the gates the next morning.
On the last night, in a casual way, he talked to the monastery steward about Bible manuscripts. As they entered his cell for refreshments, the steward, eager to show his own learning, remarked: “And I, too, have a Septuagint,” an ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. From a shelf over the door of his cell the monk took down a bulky bundle wrapped in red cloth. Before Tischendorf’s astonished gaze were not only the leaves he had saved from the flames fifteen years before, but other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures. Trying to disguise his unbounded joy, Tischendorf asked to borrow the volume for the night. “There by myself,” said Tischendorf, “I gave way to my transports of joy. I knew that I held in my hand one of the most precious Biblical treasures in existence, a document whose age and importance exceeded that of any I had ever seen after twenty years’ study of the subject.”
How to persuade the monks to give up this treasure—that was Tischendorf’s problem. He solved it by suggesting that the monks present it as a gift to the czar of Russia, the acknowledged champion of the Eastern Orthodox churches. After long negotiation the Codex Sinaiticus, as the manuscript came to be called, was presented to the czar. In return the monks received 9,000 rubles. In 1933 the Soviet government sold the manuscript to the British Museum for $500,000. There it remains today, this priceless treasure, one of the most important ancient manuscript Bibles in existence.
But even before Tischendorf’s time the long parade of ancient manuscript finds had begun. We may go back many years to one day in 1628, several years after the King James Bible had appeared. A package from the East was unloaded at an English port. It was from the patriarch of Constantinople to King Charles I. Unwrapping the gift, the king found a very old handwritten Greek Bible consisting of nearly eight hundred vellum leaves. The king turned the book over to scholars. It was a Greek manuscript of the fifth century. It came to be called Codex Alexandrinus. This treasure sparked new interest in ancient manuscripts. All over Europe scholars searched old libraries. Before long other Bible treasures came to light.
One of these finds is the Codex Vaticanus, known also as Vatican manuscript 1209. Like the Alexandrian manuscript it is believed to have been made in Egypt at Alexandria, but it was written many years earlier. Scholars date it before A.D. 350. No one seems to know its long history and how it came to rest in the Vatican Library. Though there is no fascinating story connected with its discovery, there is an interesting enough story of the attempts of scholars to examine the manuscript so we could have a better-understood Bible. But for generations the officials of the Vatican Library put every kind of obstacle in the way of its being studied.
NOT AVAILABLE TO KING JAMES TRANSLATORS
What meaning do these and other Bible discoveries hold for us? The significant thing is this: The translators of the King James Version, the Bible most widely used in the English-speaking world, did not have access to these ancient manuscripts. Even the Alexandrian manuscript did not get into the hands of Bible translators until 1628, after the King James Bible of 1611 had been published. So the foundation for a Bible far more accurate and understandable than the Authorized Version has been laid since 1611.
The King James translation of the Greek Scriptures, for example, rested on manuscripts of the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. What a difference from the fourth-century manuscripts now available! And, of course, the earlier a manuscript is the more likely it is, as a general rule, to be free of errors. Throughout the centuries the copying of the Bible by hand made it inevitable that copyists’ errors would creep into the text. The King James translation thus was based on a Greek text marred by mistakes that could have been avoided had the manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries been available to the translators.
Despite the need for new translations of the Bible into English, intense activity in this regard did not get under way until the beginning of the twentieth century. Since 1900 almost every year has seen the publication of a new translation of the Bible into English. Why did not this intense activity begin earlier? Primarily because the most sensational discoveries have come during the latter part of the nineteenth century, as well as during our century. For instance, a most extraordinary find was made by Egyptians digging in an old graveyard near Fayum. They dug up jars filled with papyrus books. An American living in England, Chester Beatty, bought most of these papyri. When their contents were announced in 1931, scholars were amazed. Here were three codices or booklike volumes of manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures! Here was a Greek text a hundred years older than the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus! These papyri, containing fragments mostly from the epistles of Paul, are known as the Chester Beatty collections.
NEW LIGHT ON BIBLE LANGUAGES
Another important reason why the need for new translations was not fully appreciated until recent years is this fact: Until about the turn of the century scholars had a somewhat fuzzy understanding of the Greek in which the Bible was written. In the 1890’s archaeologists uncovered all kinds of documents in Egypt. From long-buried rubbish heaps outside ancient towns flooded forth papyri of all kinds—letters, bills, deeds, contracts, petitions, invitations, even copies of plays and poems. These papyri were written in Greek. Not until about 1895 did scholars realize what kind of Greek this was. It was the same kind of Greek in which the Bible was written.
Why was this a vital discovery? Because scholars had thought the Greek of the Bible to be of a special kind. They knew it was not classical or even the literary Greek of the first century A.D. They called it “Biblical Greek.” So thoroughly did many scholars believe Bible Greek to be a unique jargon that one German scholar even declared that the Greek of the Bible was a miracle language, a language devised by the holy spirit. But the discoveries in Egypt showed otherwise!
The documents of everyday life dug up in Egypt provided the clue to understanding Bible Greek. It was found that the Greek of all these documents was not classical or literary but the Greek of the Bible! And the Greek of the documents was the everyday language of the people of the first century! So the Christian Greek Scriptures were written in the koiné or common Greek of the people. Bible Greek was not a unique jargon after all. The Bible writers had put God’s message in the simplest language of all, the language of the common people.
This vital knowledge of Bible Greek was not available to the translators of the King James Bible. Hence many passages in that version sound odd or are hard to understand. For example, 1 Peter 2:2 speaks of the “sincere milk of the word.” Now from the papyri unearthed in Egypt it was found that the word here translated “sincere” was very often used in koiné Greek to characterize food or drink as pure. Hence modern translations give us a more understandable reading, rendering it “unadulterated milk belonging to the word.”
Another example is Matthew 6:27, where, according to the King James Bible, Jesus asks: “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” Do normal persons worry about growing a full foot and a half taller? Actually this rendering is weak. What happened? When the King James translators came to the Greek word they consulted their dictionaries of classical Greek and came up with that word “stature.” According to classical Greek they were right, but they did not know the Bible was written in common Greek. Today’s scholars know that this particular word was in common use after classical times and that it then meant “life span.” So modern translations, such as the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, render Jesus’ question: “Who of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his life span?”
There has been new light not only on the Greek language but also on the Hebrew as well. The knowledge of Hebrew available to scholars today is vastly greater than that which was at the command of the translators of the King James Version. So Bible translators today can also give us a better-understood translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“A PHENOMENAL DISCOVERY”
Discoveries have also cleared up errors and obscurities in the Hebrew text by giving us scrolls or fragments older than those on which the King James Bible is based. Until recent years scholars had no manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were dated earlier than the ninth century A.D. For 336 years, from 1611 to 1947, practically no new evidence to correct already available sources on the Hebrew text came to light. Then in 1947 came what one archaeologist called “a phenomenal discovery.”
Two Bedouins were out searching in the wild and stony desert toward the Dead Sea for a strayed goat. They tossed a rock into a small opening in a cliff and heard sounds that suggested a room. They found a cave; inside they saw three large jars. Peering inside they saw long, round objects in a linen wrapper. Hoping for treasure, they tore off the wrappings and to their disappointment found scrolls instead of jewels. In time they sold them to the archbishop of the monastery of Saint Mark in Jerusalem.
But the 1947 discoveries were just the beginning. In 1949 the cave was rediscovered and explored. Hundreds of scroll fragments were found. In 1952 to 1953 other caves were explored. So many manuscript fragments have been found that every book of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the possible exception of Chronicles, was represented.
Most important of all the scrolls was a complete scroll of Isaiah from about the second century B.C. There was also a commentary upon the book of Habakkuk; it gives us the oldest text of that book that we have. Indeed, the scrolls are about a thousand years older than the Hebrew manuscripts on which the King James Version is based.
The scrolls have already been put to use. For example, thorough study of the Isaiah scroll enables today’s translators to correct a copyist’s error at Isaiah 3:24. The King James Version says: “There shall be . . . burning instead of beauty.” Modern translations made before 1947 often use the word “branding” instead of burning. Still it is not clear. As the 1956 edition of The Encyclopedia Americana explains, the word “branding” “assumes a meaning for the common Hebrew word ki, . . . which it has nowhere else in the Bible. The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah contains an additional word to the last line, which makes it possible to render it as follows: ‘for instead of beauty (there will be) shame.’”
Some questions now confront us: Are we to take advantage of all this amazing wealth of new knowledge about the Bible? Is it to be brought to bear toward a better understanding of God’s Word? How, then, can we individually discover this better-understood Bible?
Much of the new knowledge has already been applied. Modern-speech translations not only use the common language of the people today, but they also are providing us with more accurate Bibles, and that means more understandable ones. So you can discover the better-understood Bible by obtaining a modern-speech translation for your own Bible study. Do not let a supposed desire for familiar words or a poetical effect bind you to the exclusive use of the King James Version. In the words of the King James translators themselves, to quote again from their almost-forgotten preface—“Is the kingdom of God become words and syllables? Why should we be in bondage to them when we may be free?”
[Picture on page 132]
Monastery of St. Catherine