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Relevant Verses: Nehemiah 8

Leading question: In an age when reading seems to be less important, can the example of long hours of reading make a difference for good in today’s world.?

Nehemiah 8 is a remarkable chapter that features long hours of the public reading of Scripture. Four key issues are worth exploring here: 1) What are the gains and losses that come from the interruption of hard work for the public reading of Scripture? 2) To what extent is the public reading of Scripture in Nehemiah’s day comparable to the “oral” model for the modern Contemporary English Version, the first modern version to be heard by the ear? 3) How does one know when to weep or rejoice when seeking the Lord? 4) This event was triggered by lay people: Is that model for today?

Questions: Nehemiah 8 suggests that the returned Jews dropped all their other activities to spend several mornings in the public reading of Scripture.

  • What were the real benefits of such a dramatic break in the work routine?
  • Does the Sabbath represent the same kind of break from our work routine? Would it have the same kind of positive benefit.

Questions: The public reading of Scripture appears to be something unique. These questions come mind:

  • Could this form of public worship be made into a “habit”?
  • In our day a recent Bible translation, the Contemporary English Version, is the first translation designed to be heard by the ear. Has the electronic explosion changed the social situation enough to make the Bible Society’s rationale obsolete? If everyone has their Bible on their cell phone, what does that men for the “unifying” role of the reading of Scripture?
  • What are the plusses and minuses of having the Bible on our phones?

Questions: In Nehemiah 8, the people wept when they heard the reading of Scripture. Nehemiah rebuked them and told them that it was time to rejoice. These questions present themselves:

  • When is it appropriate for a church leader to call the people to account for their emotional reactions to the reading of Scripture?
  • Is it possible to “command” our emotions to take a different course?
  • If nearly a half of the psalms in our Bibles are laments/complaints, what does that suggest about modern forms of “be happy” religion? Was Nehemiah the forerunner of the prosperity Gospel and all its feel good offspring?

Questions: In Nehemiah 8, the public reading of Scripture was instigated by lay people. There is no recorded rebuke of Ezra and Nehemiah, but these questions come to mind:

  • Is there an implied rebuke of the leaders when the laity took the lead?
  • Is this chapter a model for the church today when the leaders seem to have neglected their proper role?
  • In Adventism, a crucial turning point for the church was the year 1888. Are there points of contact between 1888 and Nehemiah 8 represented by this EGW quote?

Peter exhorts his brethren to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” [2 Pet. 3:18]. Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word and discourage any further [706/707] investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.

The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what. (Testimonies 5:706-707 [1889]; also in GW 297-98 and CWE 38-39])

Questions: Nehemiah 8:8 is generally seen by biblical scholars as a clear example of the development of the “targum,” an Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Scriptures. The people could no longer understand Hebrew, since it was no longer the spoken language of the returned exiles. In Jesus’ day the everyday language was “Aramaic,” not Hebrew. A few phrases of Aramaic are included as transliterations of the original Hebrew. When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter for example, his words were transliterated (as well as translated): “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mark 10:41, NRSV).

Interestingly enough, when Luke tells the same story, he drops the transliteration of the Aramaic and only gives us the translation: “But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’” (Luke 8:41, NRSV). All that gives rise to these questions:

  • Could the difference between Luke and Mark help resolve the differences between those who want only the KJV and those who want a modern translation?
  • Does the turn to Aramaic in Nehemiah 8:8, link up with the two versions of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 10, Luke 8) in such a way as to justify both the use of the “formal equivalent” translations (KJV and its many offspring: (e.g., RV, RSV, NRSV, AV, NASB, NKJV, ESV), those that seek to stay as close to the language of the author’s day, and the “dynamic equivalent” translations, those that seek to adapt to the language of the receptor readers (e.g. NIV, CEV, Message, NLT)?

What follows is a sequence of three articles on Bible translations, originally published in the NPUC Gleaner. Nehemiah 8:8 raises the kinds of questions that this cluster seeks to address.


“Longings, Fears, and Suspicions”
By Alden Thompson
#1 of 3 on Bible Translations, North Pacific Union Gleaner, 1994.06.20

At the editor’s request, Bible translations are on the docket for my next few columns. The topic is hazardous – like last day events or music – but still worthy, for not since the Reformation has there been such a blizzard of new translations as we now see. And we owe much to the Reformers for paying the price for us. Someone has noted that of all the sixteenth century translators of the English Bible, only Miles Coverdale died a natural death in his own bed.

Though my own position will become clear, I want most of all to address the topic in a way that will help us understand why convictions are so divided on the issue. For starters, I would note that Ellen White was not speaking of any one translation when she said, “Cling to the Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticism in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost” (Selected Messages 1:18).

I am convinced that any translation can point to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Some translations are better than others; some are better for particular purposes; some are clearer; some are safer; and yes, some can be misleading in certain passages – but never so misleading as to cost an honest person a place in God’s kingdom.

In the early history of the King James Version, for example, careless typesetters left a remarkable trail of “misleading” errors. The “Wicked Bible” (1631) dropped the “not” out of the seventh command, making it “Thou shalt commit adultery!” – a slip that cost the King’s printers, Barker and Lucas, a three hundred pound fine from Archbishop Laud. The “Murderers’ Bible” (1795) read “Let the children first be killed” (instead of “filled”) for Mark 7:27. The “Wife-hater Bible” (1810) read “wife” for “life” in Luke 14:26: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother…yea, and his own wife also.” The “Sin on” Bible (1716) reads for John 5:14, “Sin on more” instead of “sin no more.” – F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1978), p. 109.

But for all the embarrassment that such errors have caused, I can’t imagine an honest soul mistaking the true teaching of Scripture. The very fame of the “errors” indicates how obvious they were. In time, as Edgar Goodspeed noted, the King James Version became “one of the most accurately printed books in the world.” – Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Translators to the Reader: Preface to the King James Version 1611 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935), p. 2.

Maybe that very accuracy helps explain why “new” translations arouse fears and suspicions: Don’t put my anchor at risk! We’ll consider those fears and suspicions below and several times before we’re through. But first a look on the positive side:

1. LONGING. The Lord has used new translations to satisfy a deep longing for the Word of God, something hard to grasp amidst our feast of Bibles. During the time of the Reformers, however, owning an English Bible could mean a fine, imprisonment, or death. In 1546, for example, a royal decree from Henry VIII declared that “No man or woman of what estate, condition, or degree, was after the last day of August, to receive have, take, or keep, Tyndale’s or Coverdale’s New Testament.”

A plaintive human response appeared on the flyleaf of a copy of Polydore Vergil’s History of Inventions (1546):

“When I kepe Mr Letymers shepe I bout thys boke when the Testament was oberragated, that shepeherdys myght not rede hit. I pray God amende that blindness. Wryt by Robert Wyllyams, keppyng shepe upon Seynbury hill, 1546.” – Cited in H. Wheeler Robinson, ed., The Bible in its Ancient and English Versions (Oxford, 1940), p. 180.

2. FEAR. On the negative side, fear is perhaps the most widespread reaction to new translations – fear that a novel translation could twist biblical teachings, undermine Adventist landmarks, or simply introduce change. One newsletter put it this way:

“The faithful are being harrassed by those who are determined to change our church, our beliefs, and our way of life. They are trying to change our worship, our music, and our thinking. They are trying to change what we do and why we do it. They are trying to change our very morality.”

I believe modern versions can actually make Adventist landmarks more secure. Yet my answers may not work for you. That’s alright. Just “cling” to your Bible “as it reads” and “obey the Word” (cf. Selected Messages 1:18).

3. SUSPICION. Unresolved fears can intensify and turn into suspicion. That is now what haunts the translation debate, for some see new translations as part of a “Jesuit” or “New Age” plot. The troubling dilemma is that any attempt to refute a “conspiracy” theory can simply be written off as part of the conspiracy itself. Clifford Goldstein told me that when he addressed the “Jesuit” issue (Liberty Alert 2:2 [March/April 1993], p. 14), he was deluged with letters and phone calls accusing him of selling out to the enemy or simply being deceived.

I worry about literature that is critical of any translation of the Bible. A struggling soul could question the very words that God has sent to help them. And as far as our discussions here are concerned, I hope we can hear Ellen White’s counsel to A. T. Jones to treat “the bitterest opponents” with “respect and deference” and every person as “honest” (Testimonies 6:122). By God’s grace both the alarmed defenders of the King James Version and the alarmed defenders of modern translations can view alternate convictions as sincere attempts to be honest before God. We should by all means try to convince each other of what we believe is true. But along the way, trust brings us closer to the kingdom than suspicion.


“Still the King’s Speech”
By Alden Thompson
#2 of 3 on Bible Translations, North Pacific Union Gleaner, 1994.07.11

Ellen White warned against “learned men” who “unsettle minds” about the Bible’s inspiration. “Brethren,” she wrote, “let not a mind or hand be engaged in criticizing the Bible” – Selected Messages 1:17.

Amen! But now my dilemma: How can I avoid “criticizing” the Bible in the debate over the King James Version and modern translations? Defending one side easily turns into criticism of the other and defending both offends those who believe “God wrote only one Bible.” Anything I say could “unsettle minds”!

But the mailbag has convinced me that the church needs a clear defense of both old and new translations. I have been surprised at the widespread feelings against modern translations. Adventist publications have long assumed that the debate was over. It is not.

Are the complexities of the translation debate essential for salvation? No! The Bible is a powerful guide to salvation, but is not essential for it. If Christ commends in the judgment those who have “known little of theology” but have “cherished His principles,” if those “ignorant of the written law of God” “will not perish” (Desire of Ages, 638), then a particular understanding of complex passages of Scripture cannot be central even for those who have the Scriptures. Simplicity is our word. “If one had no other text in the Bible,” Ellen White exclaimed after quoting John 3:16, “this alone would be a guide for the soul” (Testimonies to Ministers, 370). “We thank God that the Bible is prepared for the poor man as well as for the learned” (Selected Messages 1:18).

That same love for ordinary people compelled Wycliffe to brave the ire of the church and translate the Bible into English (1380). “No man was so rude a scholar,” he declared, “but that he might learn the words of the Gospel according to his simplicity” (cited in H. Wheeler Robinson, ed., Ancient and English Versions of the Bible [Oxford, 1940], pp. 137-38). Ellen White said that through his translation he “placed in the hands of the English people a light which should never be extinguished,” doing “more to break the fetters of ignorance and vice, more to liberate and elevate his country, than was ever achieved by the most brilliant victories on fields of battle” – The Great Controversy, 88.

Which version did he translate? The Latin Vulgate, the “Catholic” Bible. And here we must face B. G. Wilkinson’s theory that the KJV belongs to a “pure” line of manuscripts that goes back through the Reformers, Erasmus, and the Waldenses to the Apostles, while the versions differing from the KJV represent the “corrupted” line of “Catholic” manuscripts (Benjamin G. Wilkinson, Our Authorized Bible Vindicated [Washington, D. C., 1930; reprint, Leaves-of-Autumn Books, 1993]). Even outside of Adventist circles, Wilkinson is known and cited by the more flamboyant supporters of the “KJV only” (See, for example, David Otis Fuller, ed., Which Bible? [1990 (1970)] and G. A. Riplinger, New Age Bible Versions [1993]).

While historical research does not support the theory, I am more interested here in practical matters. Why, for example, would Ellen White wholeheartedly praise Wycliffe’s Bible if it was “corrupted”? She knew its shortcomings, stating in her comments on Tyndale, the translator of the first printed English New Testament (1525), that Wycliffe’s Bible “had been translated from the Latin text, which contained many errors.” She also noted that with Erasmus’s Greek New Testament (1516) “for the first time, the word of God was printed in the original tongue.” “In his work many errors of former versions were corrected” (Great Controversy, 245). In short, she praised Wycliffe for his translation and Tyndale and Erasmus for correcting it!

The KJV translators also readily claimed both “good” and “better” Bibles as God’s Word. They affirmed that the Greek Old Testament, the Bible most often quoted by the New Testament writers, was still the Word of God. But because it “dissenteth from the Original in many places” (Edgar Goodspeed, ed., Translators to the Reader [Chicago, 1935], p. 29), they unhesitatingly based their translation on the Hebrew original, faithfully following the two great principles that drove all the Reformation translators: 1) Back to the best manuscripts in the original languages; 2) Forward to the current language of the people.

Today, the Bible Societies continue the work of the Reformation translators. Like Erasmus, scholars examine ancient manuscripts in order to come as close as possible to the original. Then faithful translators follow in the footsteps of Tyndale and Luther, bringing God’s Word into the language of the people. As of the end of 1993, at least one book of the Bible was available in 2062 languages and dialects with some 400 additional projects underway. Still, one billion people, 20% of the world’s population, are without the Word of God in their own language.

Tragically, however, because of supposedly “corrupted” manuscripts, the “one-Bible only” reasoning calls in question all that Bible Society work. Recently I heard of a Korean campmeeting where the believers were alarmed to hear that the only Korean Bible available was based on “corrupted” manuscripts. Think of it: over 100,000 Adventists in Korea, plus myriads of other Christians – all won and nurtured by a “corrupted” Bible? Please no! Undoubtedly the Korean Bible could be improved just as Tyndale and Erasmus improved on Wycliffe. But don’t dismiss it as “corrupted.”

I like the way the KJV translators compared the Bible to the King’s speech before parliament, for in whatever language the speech appears, they declared, and however poorly translated, it “is still the King’s speech” (Goodspeed, p. 29). Oh that those words could be in every KJV Bible. Those godly translators have much to tell us. Even today – especially today – we would do well to listen.


“Gored by Every Sharp Tongue”
By Alden Thompson
#3 of 3 on Bible Translations, North Pacific Union Gleaner, 1994.08.01

The KJV translators expected to be gored by sharp tongues. That’s what happens to those who meddle with a person’s religion, they said.

Edgar J. Goodspeed discovered they were right when his “American” New Testament appeared in 1923. Amazed by the comments of otherwise educated people, he began urging publishers to again include the original “Translators to the Reader” in printed KJV editions.

No, they said. Too scholarly, too controversial, too obscure. Precisely the point, exclaimed Goodspeed when he himself published the preface. If it were known that “university professors and scholars” produced the KJV, it would help overcome the “rift between piety and learning that is most dangerous to the church.”

Was it controversial? Of course. But why leave the impression that the KJV “descended like the gentle dew from heaven,” fully accepted by all?

Was it obscure? Yes, as are long passages from Paul and the prophets in the KJV. Why fault the Bible for not being clear when the problem is in the translation?

Goodspeed felt the preface would help correct two widespread impressions. First, that the KJV is “the original.” How many know that numerous Bible translators and revisers, beginning with William Tyndale, produced 95% of what now stands in the KJV? Second, that the KJV is “the ‘authorized’” Bible, meaning “authorized” by God. But “authorized” simply means approved for use in public worship. The first “authorized” English Bible was the Great Bible of 1539; the second was the Bishops’ Bible of 1568; the 1611 KJV was the third.

But now from the original preface, let’s let the KJV translators remind us of the problems facing all Bible translators:

1. Change is hard, especially in religion. The preface opens by discussing change. Anyone meddling with Religion, especially the word of God, “setteth himself upon a stage to be gloated upon by every evil eye, yea, he casteth himself headlong upon pikes, to be gored by every sharp tongue.” Translators have a hard life. The KJV people knew that.

2. How can you meditate on Scripture if you don’t understand? The translators tell why they are risking the evil eye and the sharp tongue. God’s Word cannot bless in an “unknown tongue.” Translation opens the window “to let in the light,” breaks the shell so “we may eat the kernel.” Without it, ordinary people are “like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket.”

The preface explains that the New Testament used a translation that needed “correction,” the Greek Septuagint. Yet the writers used it because it was in the people’s language and was “for the greatest part true and sufficient.”

With an eye on Catholic foes who opposed giving the Bible to the people, the translators argued from Catholic history in favor of popular translations. Because the Romans spoke Latin, many Latin Bible translations soon appeared, but “too many to be all good,” says the preface, quoting St. Augustine (d. 430). And since the OT translations were “out of the Greek stream,” not the original Hebrew, when the Greek fountain was not “altogether clear,” the Latin derived from it was bound to be “muddy.”

Enter Jerome (d. 420) to bring order out of the Latin chaos. Still hammering away at Catholic critics with good Catholic weapons, the preface praised St. Jerome as “the best linguist of his age or of any that went before him.” He produced the Latin Vulgate, “out of the very [Hebrew] fountains themselves” with such “great learning, judgment, industry and faithfulness, that he hath forever bound the Church unto him, in a debt of special remembrance and thankfulness.” And Jerome was down-to-earth, too, producing a people’s translation in the Dalmatian tongue. The preface cites many more examples of popular translations in the Catholic tradition. No, “to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up,” says the preface.

The translators chide Rome for her “motherly concern” for “her children,” allowing them to have the Bible, but only with a written “license” approved by “their Confessor.” As for the Catholic version in English (Douai, 1609-10), Rome is “not ashamed to confess that we forced them to translate it into English against their wills.”

Finally, let’s note how the preface responds to three specific objections (from both “brethren” and “Adversaries”):

1. OBJECTION: Does the new mean the Church has been deceived all along by the old? No. “We never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better.”

2. OBJECTION: The authors were heretics. If it’s good, it doesn’t matter who did it, declares the preface, citing both Tertullian (d. 225) and St. Augustine. For years “Origen [d. 254] and the whole church of God” used OT translations produced by “most vile heretics,” Symmachus and Theodotion.

3. OBJECTION: “Altering and amending our Translations so oft.” Is it a fault to go back and improve one’s work? Jerome and Augustine did it. So will we, declares the preface. That’s what it means to be “sons of the Truth.”

To sum up, how tragic to cherish the Bible while rejecting the very principles and ideals that brought it into existence. The KJV is a good translation. Sons and daughters of the Truth will reverence it – along with the labors of all those who have taken a good work and sought to make it better.

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