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This article is part of the 'Ground Up' project.
The Bible as we have it today, is two collections of books. Two faith communities have created these collections, and said that these are helpful books, worth preserving and reading. The collections are referred to by Christians as the Old Testament and the New Testament, but what Christians call the 'Old Testament' is essentially a rearranged version of the Jewish scriptures.
The 39 books of the Old Testament are mainly written in Hebrew, with a few passages in Aramaic; the 27 books of the New Testament are written in Greek, with a few Aramaic words included.
In each of these collections, some passages overlap, so that we are given multiple accounts of the same events.
In Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, we have two creation stories which, if taken literally, are incompatible. We also have the book of Deuteronomy, which covers events found in other books - but has a distinctive (and sometimes incompatible) view of those events, so (for example) we have two different versions of the ten commandments.
In the New Testament, we have four different versions of the life of Jesus: three of them are very similar (so the sometimes subtle differences between them seem to be significant), and one is very different. So we are not given an authoritative life of Jesus - we are explicitly and deliberately given four different accounts of the life of Jesus, by four different people, each with their own style of language, their own perspective and priorities. We are forced to compare these accounts and ask questions about the intentions and motives behind each book.
The presence of multiple accounts is not a problem for most people: being able to approach the same material from several perspectives is generally regarded as being a helpful and enriching experience. And, in the case of the four Gospels, it supports the belief that they are essentially faithful copies of the original texts: it is a generally accepted principle of textual analysis that anyone altering the texts would have made them consistent.
However, the differing multiple accounts do make it hard for people who wish to impose a simplistic narrative, turning a reasonable belief in Divine inspiration into a less-reasonable belief in Divine authorship, as if the original writers were simply taking Divine dictation. And they do make is hard for people who desire certainty, who want to know which of the two versions of the ten commandments is 'correct'.
The texts, as passed on to us, are not intended to provide certainty about what 'really happened': they are passed on because they are helpful - and they are helpful, in part, because the multiple accounts draw us into engaging with the texts, instead of simply taking them at face value.
We do not just have a mainly Hebrew Old Testament and a Greek New Testament: we also have a Greek Old Testament, the 'Septuagint'. The precise relationship between the Hebrew and the Greek varies from book to book, but in general the Greek is a simplified version of the text, with some of the subtleties and some of the ambiguities of the Hebrew tidied up. It also includes some passages (and some whole books) not found in the Hebrew text.
This matters because the Septuagint is clearly the version of the Old Testament which the New Testament writers used. For example, in the Hebrew, Isaiah 7:14 says "a young woman shall conceive and bear a son"; in the Septuagint, it says "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son", and this is the version used by Matthew.
So, again, in reading these texts, we are forced to ask questions about different versions - to think and compare and make judgements; to engage with the text.
Typical religions often have a sacred language, but Christians have always translated their books. Scholars are needed to provide accurate translations, so that the texts can be provided in the ordinary language of the people. (Of course, this did not happen for several centuries when the Roman Catholic church insisted that the Latin translation was the correct version to use - but, to be fair, this was in a time when all educated people read Latin.)
However, while the Gospels were written in Greek, we know that the common language in first century Israel was Aramaic. A few of the original Aramaic words (such as 'abba', father) survive in the Greek text, but most have been lost. So when we talk about the original words of Jesus, we are actually talking about the first translation of the original words of Jesus. The Gospels, the most important, foundational texts of the Christian faith, are mostly translations.
People sometimes talk about the Bible as sacred writings, but from the earliest days of the Christian tradition, the texts are not sacred because there is sometime special about the actual words: they are sacred because God speaks to us through them, and we believe that God wants to speak to us in our own language. So Christians have always referred to any translation of the Bible as 'the Bible'.
Both Jews and Christians believe that their sacred tests are inspired by God, but the precise meaning of this inspiration is a matter of continued discussion and debate.
To claim that these texts - or the authors of these texts - were inspired by God does not mean that they are unique, and it does not mean that they are infallible or inerrant. But it does mean, as the two faith communities have consistently understood, that they are helpful; and through the centuries, time and time again, people have found that God has spoken to them through the texts.
It is also the case, that we can believe that God has spoken to us through these books, when we are only finding in them what we want to believe, or what we think will be useful that claim that 'God says'. We can be mistaken in the meaning, and misguided in the application.
But, while the text can be twisted and manipulated to say almost anything, that twisting and manipulation takes considerable work. There is a vast amount of scholarship which can provide a great deal of confidence in helping us understand what can be a valid interpretation of the texts, and what is not a plausible reading - what it would not have been saying to the original hearers. If we do not want to be mistaken in our reading of these books, the resources are there to guide us.
And if we do not want to be misguided in our application, we can listen to the wisdom of compassionate people who seek, not only to understand these texts, but live them as faithfully as possible.