Welcome back to Chess, Coffee, and God: Conversations with an Atheist. This is the third in the series of articles recounting conversations I had with an atheist friend of mine while playing chess and drinking coffee. While I have tried to remember the specifics of our conversations, the goal is not literal accuracy, but rather a general recounting of the topics we covered. I have fond memories of my friend and our conversations, so it is my hope that I paint him in a favorable light.
Last week we discussed translations as they relate to the trustworthiness of the Bible. My friend's objection was summarized like this: “If the Bible has been translated a hundred times over two thousand years, how can we know what it really says?” He's not alone in this objection, as I’ve heard a dozen variations of it when speaking with non-believers from all walks of life. This single objection is really two objections in one. First, how do modern translations come to be? Second, how did the ancient scribes copy their own writings in order to preserve them? The second objection will be discussed in this article. To read about the first objection, please see a previous article written on April 10, 2021 (link below)
In my friend’s mind, Biblical translation was like a game of telephone. A group would line up, and someone would whisper, “Sally likes to go bowling,” into the ear of the first kid in the line. By the end, it morphed into, “Sailing Lake Texoma is boring,” or something even more extreme. The idea is that each time the saying in transmitted from kid to kid, it changes. My friend assumed that Hebrew scribes were essentially a line of people repeating the saying until it morphed into the Bible we have today.
For a long time, the Masoretic Text was the oldest known Hebrew Bible, dating to sometime in the 9th Century AD. Many of the books that compose the Hebrew Bible have their origins at least fourteen hundred years before that. We are quite a ways down the line in our game of telephone. If this were our only text, I could see the problem.
But we also have the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the books of the Old Testament from around the 3rd Century BC. Now, at least, scholars are able to compare the Masoretic Text with the Septuagint to find the best modern translation. The Septuagint allows us to jump back through the years several centuries, albeit in a different language.
Enter the Dead Sea Scrolls. Written around the 1st or 2nd century BC, these were found in caves near Qumran and contain various scrolls of the Hebrew Bible (in Hebrew, not Greek). Now, we are able to jump backwards in our game of telephone to roughly the same time and compare two different languages of the same material (though, admittedly, the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain the entirety of the Old Testament). Having multiple languages tell the same story has added benefits, as well, almost like we have two lines playing telephone.
So, how did we do? How accurate has our game of telephone been? What we find is a startling amount of agreement between the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Septuagint, and the Masoretic Text. This isn’t to say there aren’t differences. How could there not be, with changes to language and syntax and grammar and the passing of a thousand years?
What this demonstrates, however, is that Jewish scribes were not kids in a line of telephone with no motivation to repeat the saying correctly. They were not repeating, “Sally likes to go bowling,” while giggling at school, but rather they were dedicating their lives to transcribing the words of scripture that they believed were essentially the words of God.
This has been a bit more technical than I anticipated, though I hope that doesn’t scare people away from learning about it. Understanding how we got the Bible we read today is very important. For further reading, see the links below.
Chess, Coffee, and God: Conversations With an Atheist (Part 1, Introduction)
Chess, Coffee, and God: Conversations With an Atheist (Part 2, Translations)
Paul D. Wegner’s Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible