1. Introduction to Unit Four

Of all the material in this module, this section on “The Bible in English” has dated most quickly. The material was first issued in Spring 2009 and the written material revised in Spring 2013. However revising the DVD will take much longer so, for now (Summer 2016), where there are discrepancies between the DVD and the written material it is the written material that is correct (unless we have made a mistake). The Bible has not changed: it was and remains the inspired word of God. But as time passes everything else changes and of particular relevance for this unit are the following:

  • Newly discovered ancient manuscripts
  • Increased understanding of how languages work
  • Changes in the way English is used
  • The publication of new translations (as printed books and / or on-line).

We need to say a little about all four points before we go any further. As ever, these thoughts can only be first thoughts and not the last word; everything is covered in much greater depth in other modules.

Newly discovered manuscripts

While it is true that there has been a constant stream of newly discovered manuscripts over the last few years it is equally true that none have been of overwhelming importance. Indeed the state of play in the transmission of Scripture is such that even if a manuscript comparable to, say, Codex Sinaiaticus had been found it would only be one voice amongst many. Look at Mark 16 in your study Bible. You will see that there is a shorter and a longer ending and probably some small print notes at the foot of the page to explain why. Now imagine that our hypothetical new codex has one of the two endings. Does this make a difference? No, the latest translations will continue to note that there are different endings according to different ancient authorities and one more codex will not tip the balance either way. Indeed the only discovery that could decide would be either Mark’s original (and how would we know for certain that this is what had been found?) or an unambiguous reference by an ancient authority that explains why one ending is authentic and the other spurious. Certainly nothing as significant as this has occurred since 2009. And if our hypothetical codex contained a completely different ending to Mark then it would be noted as such in new translations and we would now have a choice of three rather than two principal conclusions to Mark. But all this is hypothetical.

Understanding of languages

Our understanding of how languages work has changed since 2009. Not a lot, to be sure, but more evidence is available to scholars now than was the case last year. Take the Dead Sea Scrolls as one example among many. The first discoveries were made at the end of 1946 but further discoveries were made over the following years and it was not until the start of the new millennium that the majority of those found so far have become widely available for all to study, either in print or on line. The Scrolls give us a remarkable insight into how one particular group of devout Jews lived and worshipped at about the same time that Jesus lived. The Scrolls and the New Testament sometimes speak about the same things and thus the Scrolls help us to have a better understanding of how the contemporaries of Jesus may have understood Him.

In a more general way the development and increased use of computers has enabled linguists to compare and contrast data from different languages much more quickly than used to be possible and although we are still a long way short of the “Universal Translator” beloved of science-fiction writers we can begin to see that such a thing could be possible (although for as long as the Babel prohibition remains in place the U-T will remain fiction).

How English is used

The most notable changes have occurred in the way English is used. The King James Bible of 1611 almost sounds like a foreign language to those who did not grow up using it and even the Revised Standard Version of 1952 sounds “churchy”, especially in the Old Testament. English is now probably the closest we have to a global language and it does not take long to realise that the way a South African, a New Zealander and an Indian use English are all slightly different. We have to be aware that English is being changed by opinion formers who have an agenda. It is now deemed unacceptable to refer to those that follow in the sin of Sodom as Sodomites and gay no longer means happy, bright, or colourful.

It is, though, the issue of gendered language that has caused the most changes in English Bibles. A generation ago most, if not all, understood that the chairman of a meeting did not have to be male; today we would have to be specific. Not that there are chairmen or chairwomen in the Bible but there are more than enough places where older translations say “men” when they mean “people”. “If any man would follow me . . .” surely includes all followers of Jesus and modern English translations will be expected to say so.

Published Bibles

Since 2009 the most significant changes in published Bibles in English have been:

  • A major revision of the New International Version with older editions of the NIV being 
 taken out of print and off-line;
  • The increasing popularity of the English Standard Version, The Message, and, in some 
 parts of the English-speaking world, the Holman Christian Standard Bible;
  • Increasing ease of access to many different Bible texts and tools on-line.

The 2009 version of this module was aware of the ESV but did not anticipate its commercial success, made no mention of the HCSB, and although we had heard of the proposed revisions to the NIV did not predict the scale of them nor the fact that they would be passed off on readers with very little warning – so much so that many NIV users are unaware that this revision has occurred. We did mention some of the Internet tools and translations in 2009 but the 2013 module is much more up-to-date (although we recognise that things move quicker in cyberspace than our ability to keep these notes updated). We are, up to a point, guessing which new versions and revisions will take root and which will fall by the wayside. As of June 2016 it seems clear that King James remains popular as does the NKJV. The NIV (in its 2011 guise) is readily available and older NIVs are still read throughout the English-speaking world. The ESV seems to be growing in popularity and the NRSV is still widely used in academic circles. For other, newer, versions it is too soon to tell. I have yet to see a HCSB in the UK but am told that it is popular in the States. Perhaps in the next edition of these notes we will be saying much more about HCSB or ignoring it completely and perhaps some recent versions we mention will also be forgotten and others will have come along in their place. We will make our Bibliography as current as we can and many of the resources listed there will point you to other sources that should continue to remain contemporary.

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