English Translations and the Uniqueness of the Bible
What Makes the Bible Unique?
The word “Bible” means books. The title fits. Rather than being one book, the Bible is a compilation of sixty-six books arranged into two sections, both of which can be further categorized or cataloged according to each book’s content or purpose. The collection constitutes a vast library of knowledge from a variety of fields—history, philosophy, faith, psychology, science, biology, government, prophecy, and more.
I do not want to sound irreverent, but Bible is a relatively boring title for something so many consider sacred. The names of each book, though practical, are rather unimaginative. Genesis, which means “beginnings,” is about God’s creation and the beginning of everything. The book of Ruth tells the story of how God grafted an immigrant widow into Jesus’ family tree. It is a beautiful and timeless story with an apt but dull description. Each of the four Gospels tells the story of Jesus, but they bear the name of their author, not their main subject or His riveting life.
Someone, possibly to create excitement in the title of God’s book, turned it into an acronym—B.I.B.L.E. It stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Though the description is partially true, it does not do justice to the wealth and depth God placed in His Book.
God did not title His instructions, nor did He ever indicate how He felt about the book headings. Publishers normally try to create sales for a book through its title and its cover. These are the first impressions a potential consumer gets. There is nothing to grab attention in the title of God’s book, and most copies have non-descript covers, black with imitation leather binding.
Still, with all these limitations, this book is the all-time bestseller. Why? Because it is different from all other books.
The Bible is Eternal
In the process of your formal education, a teacher likely required you to read what most would refer to as a classic: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Les Misérables, and A Christmas Carol are examples. The list of books that fit into this category varies. Likewise, the definition of what makes a literary work a classic is not static or universally accepted. Generally, though, a classic is a work that society references long after its original publication, and that portrays keen and enduring insights into human behavior.
By the above definition, the Bible would be a classic. However, it is not one of the many literary classics. It stands high above all the rest. It is the standard by which all books should be judged.
Though some value the classics, others bemoan their existence. English literature teachers love them. Often, their students wish these works had never existed. The stories, though rich, tend to be sluggish compared to current literature. Increased tempo and less of the moralizing that often accompanies these classics would make them more acceptable.
Part of that reasoning is why people vehemently attack the Bible. The stories are thrilling, but the requirements the Bible places on a person’s life tend to repulse people. When there is a conflict between the Bible’s teaching and people’s preferred lifestyle, it angers them. They do not want anyone telling them that their actions are wrong.
Some attack the Bible because they believe it is dangerous and see it as a threat to society. Diocletian was the emperor of Rome from 284 to 305 AD. He hated Christianity and rightly connected the faith to the Book that contained its teachings. He reasoned that the best way to destroy the Christian religion was to destroy all copies of the Bible. Believing he accomplished his goal, he boasted, “I have completely exterminated the Christian writings from the face of the earth.” However, his successor to the throne, Constantine, made Christianity the favored religion in the kingdom. Christianity’s Book endured the wrath of the Roman Empire.
Voltaire, a French philosopher, did not see a need to attack the Bible. He felt its teachings were so antiquated that enlightened people would find it obsolete. He believed that people, would eventually discard it as they do with all useless things, and only view it as a museum curiosity. However, within a hundred years of Voltaire’s death, people set up a printing press in his house to produce Bibles. He died; the Bible remained.
These failed attempts to remove the Bible and halt its influence support the truth of what the Bible claims about itself. “Forever, O Lord, Thy word is settled in heaven.” (Psalm 119:89) “The grass withers, the flower fades: but the word of our God shall stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) “For truly I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matt. 5:18) The Bible is indestructible.
The laws contained there were not intended for a specific group of people for a limited time; they are still in force today. God’s Word, like God, is eternal. The truths in its pages are just as applicable now as when the writers penned them. That means that they can have a lasting impact on the lives of all who will apply them to their lives. The reason the Bible is eternal is that it came from an eternal source: God.
The Bible is Inspired
The Bible makes an audacious claim for itself. It states that God inspired every word of it. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
When the Bible declares that it is inspired, it is not suggesting that it can move people or that it can cause them to feel strong emotions. It will do that. The person who can read the Bible and come away unmoved is rare. However, books other than the Bible can be moving.
By inspiration, the Bible means that its content is the very statement of God given to humans for their benefit. The words are God-breathed. Few other books make this claim for themselves, and only the Bible can rightfully claim it is from God, and verify it to be true.
The purpose of this article is not to debate or argue that God is the Bible’s Source. We have other articles that communicate a fuller explanation of inspiration and the evidence to support it. Refer to them if you have questions in those areas. Here, we want to focus on the everyday ramifications of inspiration. We want to answer the question, “What does it mean for me that the Bible is from God?”
First, since the Bible records God’s words and actions, you can learn about the Author from it. It is His self-revelation to humans.
By reading the Bible, you discover that God is good, but His goodness is complex enough and visionary enough sometimes to be viewed as evil. You find that God is holy, but He limits His righteous judgment and pours out more mercy than wrath. That is what He desires to do. Among other characteristics, you learn that God is all-powerful. Yet, instead of using His power to benefit Himself or harm humanity, God powerfully blesses His people and draws them to Himself.
Inspiration also tells us something about the content of the Bible. You can believe it. The Bible’s story begins with the creation of all that exists in six days—something no human witnessed. You can believe it; God was there, and He recorded it. His word is sufficient.
When the Bible speaks of a 450-foot long boat, floating on water that was higher than any mountain, carrying what remained of humanity and at least two of every land animal species, you can believe it. You can even believe it when it speaks of the God-man, Jesus Christ, dying on a cross and rising from the dead to deal with the sin problem humans brought on themselves and for which they had no other cure.
Inspiration also means you can trust the Bible. Every promise, every historical account, every prophecy, every piece of counsel—you can trust it all. Belief is not enough. Trust puts belief into action.
Many capable authors have written excellent books: cookbooks, home repair books, biographies, self-help books, books about writing books, flight instruction, car owner manuals – all based on the author’s credentials and the reviews of other experts in the field, you can (probably) trust them. However, to be safe, you must restrict your trust to the book’s limited scope. No one author has expertise in every field. Unless, of course, your Author is God. Because God wrote this one Book, you can trust its content with every area of your life and with your death.
You will die one day. It is a sobering thought. No matter how many books on diet, exercise, and health you read and apply, you will die. You will face God and the consequences of your choices. Because God inspired the Bible, you must obey it. Though you would be wise to follow human expert advice, the consequences of not doing so are minimal.
Depending on your area, and the weather conditions in Spring, you might get away with planting strawberries before the gardening book suggests. If you leave out a spice or substitute sausage for ground beef, your family will not incur the wrath of the cookbook’s author. She might even congratulate your creativity.
Not following your car owner’s manual and mistakenly putting transmission fluid where the oil should be will bring some embarrassment at the repair shop. Though costly, the loss is temporary, not eternal. You can handle the consequences of dismissing all books but one.
The Bible is unique. It is the only book God requires you to obey. You must forgive your enemies. You must freely give of your resources to God and others. You must tell others about Jesus and what He can do for them. You have no choice but to abstain from sexual sin.
God will evaluate each of us one day (Rev. 20:12). He will not use any earthly book. Our eternal fate will be determined based on our submission to what God said in the Bible.
The Bible is Unchanging
The more successful a book is, the more edits it goes through. Unpopular books may see only one printing and remain frozen in their original form. There is no market for more, new edition nor sequel.
A few revised books show up on Amazon. Authors think of better ways to say what they already said. Readers have questions that the original book did not answer. If enough readers ask, authors may amend or clarify. New situations or objections arise that neither the author nor the publisher anticipated prompting the re-writing of an old section or the addition of a new one.
None of these reasons is sufficient justification for changing the Bible. It remains the same regardless of culture, personal bias, or time. While some would prefer that the Bible change its standards to fit the culture, others find comfort in the Bible’s stability. Society’s constant bent toward change is only accelerating. In contrast, the Bible is a solid, unshifting foundation on which we can safely build our life (Matt. 7:24-25).
Other faiths have changed their doctrinal statements to fit the current scenario. When their prophecies failed to materialize, when their adherents and their contributions started to dwindle, when outside attacks became too much to bear, they adjusted their version of the truth. You could say the same of individual Christians, even churches, but not of the Bible.
God gave a stern warning to anyone who might consider deleting or adding anything to His perfect text. “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:19). The Bible says and does what God designed it to accomplish. There is no need for alteration.
The messengers are not perfect; some deliver God’s truth poorly or alter the message to fit their agenda. The Bible prophesies that because people want to hear only what is pleasant, speakers in the last days will distort the Bible’s words and message (2 Tim. 4:3). They will attempt to make it more palatable. The message of God’s Word is a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23). Some hearers will be offended. To remove its offense is to drain its power.
Some people look at the incredible number of Bible translations, English and otherwise, and use that information to suggest that the Bible has changed. The Bible’s translation into languages other than English speaks simply to the unchanging global hunger people have for what the Bible offers. They need it in their vernacular to appropriate its truth for their lives.
The scores of English translations and paraphrases are primarily a response to the changes in language. Word meanings differ based on culture and the passage of time. For example, the word ‘charity’ meant ‘love’ when men first translated the Bible into English. Because the connotation for this word and others have changed, a new rendering was appropriate.
Should scholars update the translation? Yes. Does that or should that change the message? Emphatically, NO! The greatest justification for revising the English translation of the Bible or creating one in a different language is to communicate God’s unchanging, unique message more effectively.
The Bible is Cohesive
One of my favorite movies is The Goonies. It tells the adventures of several kids as they elude counterfeiters. In the process, they discover a pirate ship loaded with treasure, thereby saving their families’ soon-to-be-foreclosed homes. The movie ends with a reunion between the parents and their missing children.
The kids, in rapid succession, tell of the perils they faced, one of which was fighting off an octopus. The problem with this statement is that the scene with the octopus was cut and did not make the final version of the movie. There is a discrepancy between what the audience hears and what they’ve seen. The movie lacks cohesion—a consistent, unified message.
To make a movie consistent and cohesive requires multiple takes of the same scene from different angles and at different times. It requires a great deal of coordination in the details. An actor can’t be wearing a hat tilted to the left in his close up, but in the wide shot, it’s the opposite. To prevent these problems, movie producers have people on set whose one job is to ensure consistency. That person is called a continuity secretary.
Publishers likewise have editors who check for inconsistencies in a book’s storyline. In a long book, a series, or a movie with multiple sequels, it can be difficult for an author to keep all the details straight, especially when the story is complex.
The Bible is complex. It covers over 6000 years of history. It tells the story of shepherds, kings, prophets, missionaries, husbands, children, the sick, the powerful, miraculous victories, and humbling defeats. God took 1500 years to complete the Bible, and He used over forty men to record His words, most of whom did not know each other. There was no general editor of the Bible other than God to tie the story together. These facts prove the unity of the Bible’s message is a miracle.
You could argue that it is natural for some of the books to show consistency. Moses wrote the first five. Since they have one author, it would not take a miracle for them to present a historical account free of discrepancies or deliver a cohesive message. As another example, the Gospels have four different authors, but the agreement of their details and message might have come from the fact that the men were contemporaries. They could compare their content among themselves.
But what about those writers who did not know each other, who lived outside of Israel, or who perhaps disagreed with each other on some issues? There is no reason to believe that Job knew who Abraham was, but Job’s writing shows that the two shared the same faith. Esther and Daniel spent most of their lives in a foreign land, but their message matches what came before and after them in the native land of their forefathers.
There was a time in Judah when the people forgot and quite literally lost the Law; it was buried under layers of conquered cities and hidden in caves. Though the people did not live according to the message, it did not change. Jeremiah’s contemporaries, including the priests, hated him. He could not compare his words to the Law written by Moses, and yet, the two do not contradict each other.
These writers did not have equal access to what was already written, but they shared a common God who revealed a singular message through various means to multiple people across time and geography (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Inconsistencies point to a book’s human source. That’s one way we know the Apocrypha (a series of books written in-between the Old and New Testament eras) is not inspired Scripture. They are literary works, poetry, and record events during biblical times, and some contain historical records. So do many other books composed during those several thousand years, but that does not make them part of the Bible. Several Apocryphal books contain glaring inconsistencies. They disagree with each other and with other established and documented history.
People make the same accusation against the Old and New Testaments. Admittedly, some troubling instances appear, at first, to be contradictions. However, with careful study and increased understanding of language, syntax, geography, history, and culture, virtually all of these have a satisfactory resolution. Just about the only thing left to debate are some name spellings and variations in numbers.
The word Bible means ‘books.’ It could just as easily be titled The Book. It has one unified message: God’s efforts to redeem humans and develop a deep and lasting relationship with them. Every small story the Bible contains is a microcosm of this overriding theme. Through the many books, the message gets clarified, amplified, enhanced, and explained, but it never gets changed.
Though other books also have a unified message from beginning to end, none of them share the Bible’s characteristics: many writers, much time, sixty-six books, two Testaments – one story. The Bible’s cohesiveness makes it unique.
The Bible is Life-giving
An art book can teach you to draw or paint, show you how to mix colors, and help you properly portray a three-dimensional environment. More importantly, as you create, the book that started your process can help you appreciate God’s beauty surrounding you. The book that radically changed your world as a teenager was the manual that prepared you to take your driving exam. Passing that test gave you new freedom to explore without your parents.
A book on health can motivate you to exercise, eat more vegetables, and lose weight. As a result, your blood pressure will decrease, your energy will increase, and your dependence on some medications will vanish. A book on history could provoke a profound interest in World War II, leading to additional study. You might earn a higher education degree, publish a book, and be hired as an adjunct professor at your local college – all that because of one book.
One book can change your life. The Bible is the only book that can give you life.
- Turn my eyes from worthless things, and give me life through your word. (Psalm 119:37)
- “…the very words I [Jesus] have spoken to you are spirit and life…” (John 6:33)
- “These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them, you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River.” (Deut. 32:47)
- “Moses was with our ancestors, the assembly of God’s people in the wilderness, when the angel spoke to him at Mount Sinai. And there, Moses received life-giving words to pass on to us.” (Acts 7:38)
The Bible is special. By now, you should have come to that conclusion. The characteristics we demonstrated put the Bible above all other books. Still, it is only a book. We should not worship the Bible. Do not make it an idol.
Do not memorize its words because they are beautiful; memorize them because God spoke them. Do not meditate on the Bible’s thoughts because they accurately describe the human condition; meditate on them because they are God’s thoughts. Do not obey its precepts because it promises success when you do; obey them because you ache to please God.
The Bible’s most significant contribution—the one you cannot do without—is that it points humans to the one true God. Without this, the Bible would be empty, just another book.
“The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63)
“Simon Peter replied, ‘Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:68-69)
“For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23)
“We proclaim to you the One who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw Him with our own eyes and touched Him with our own hands. He is the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1)
It is not the Bible itself that gives life. The Book’s power lies in its ability to bridge the gap between living people and the Life-Giver. It gives the Gospel. It presents Jesus and elevates Him. That, above all, is what makes the Bible unique and what gives it its supreme value.
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