Perhaps it goes without saying, but the Bible didn’t start as the Bible we know today. It was written over a vast span of time by many different authors. “According to the traditional view, the Old Testament Scriptures were produced from the time of Moses to the time of Malachi, that is, from about 1400 B.C. to around 400 B.C.” (1). During this time the Bible, or more precisely the Old Testament, was written entirely in Hebrew.
However, while the Old Testament was written entirely in Hebrew, it was not written in the same forms of Hebrew. For instance, there seems to have been a substantial change in Hebrew grammar and script (how the letters are formed) between the time that Moses penned the Pentateuch and when Malachi finished his prophetic work (2). Unfortunately, we have no Hebrew manuscripts which were written before 400 B.C. (3). What we do have are manuscripts predating the time of Christ with uniform grammar and font. This suggests that by the time of Jesus, He and any other Jewish person who read a Hebrew Old Testament were not reading the original versions of the Old Testament. Instead they read versions with updated script and grammar intended to make the entire text more easy to read for contemporary Jews (4).
Another important clarification is needed at this point. Though it is true that Jews at the time of Jesus would likely have read from an updated Hebrew version of the OT, it is not necessarily true that this was the primary Bible they used. Instead, it appears that Jesus and His disciples were very familiar with a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and were more likely to reference this Greek translation than the original Hebrew when writing the New Testament (5).
This Greek translation is often referred to as the Septuagint (LXX). The history and development of the LXX is a complicated topic, however it seems clear that “the Pentateuch was originally translated in Alexandria around the year 250 BCE, and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures were translated within the following two or three centuries” (6). Like modern versions today, the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was met with some resistance, however, the translation’s influence in early Christian history clearly demonstrates that the early church not only accepted the translation but relied on them heavily (7). The fact that the New Testament authors regularly cite from the LXX clearly validates it as a reliable source.
It is impossible to prove any single motivation that led to the first Greek translation of Old Testament (8). Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that this translation was written to benefit people who did not know Hebrew. It is perhaps telling that this version of the Old Testament was translated into Koine Greek. Koine, which simply means “common,” was the Greek used for “commerce and communication” throughout the empire (9). Thus, the LXX effectively made the Old Testament accessible to people otherwise unfamiliar with the Hebrew language or religion.
Considering the nature of the Bible that Jesus read provides us several implications in our quest to evaluate modern English versions of the Bible.
One important implication is that knowing that they were reading from an updated version and a translation of the Old Testament did not erode Jesus’ or his disciples’ confidence in the Bible. It is Jesus who said in Matthew 5:18 that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the Law. And Paul, who often quoted from the LXX, said in 1 Timothy 3:16 that, “All Scripture is profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness.” These types of comments reveal that Jesus and his disciples did not think the changes found in the Hebrew updates or the Greek translation impaired the reliability or effectiveness of God’s word.
It is perhaps worth noting that this trust in the translation of God’s Word is quite different from some other religions, most notably, Islam. The following quote, taken from Wikipedia, reveals that Islamic teaching suggests that one can never confidently apprehend the meaning of the Koran in a language or form other than its original
According to modern Islamic theology, the Qur’an is a revelation very specifically in Arabic, and so it should only be recited in Quranic Arabic. Translations into other languages are necessarily the work of humans and so, according to Muslims, no longer possess the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original.(10)
Christians, if they follow Christ’s example, think otherwise. There is nothing magical about the script or even the exact word choices of the original Biblical authors. Instead, the power of the Bible is in its ability to communicate God’s message to us. While word choice is an indispensable tool in communication, Christians since the time of Christ have clearly believed that different words from entirely differently languages can be trusted to effectively communicate God’s message.
This is great news for the English speaking Christian. If the Hebrew Bible could be updated and translated into Greek without losing its trustworthiness or life-changing power (Hebrews 4:12), this gives us reason to believe that both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament can be translated into our native tongue in a way that does not compromise the trustworthiness of the life-changing power of God’s message.
Of course, recognizing that the Bible can be reliably translated does not mean that every translation is equally accurate or helpful. Nevertheless, recognizing that Jesus himself, along with his disciples, relied on an updated and translated copy of the Old Testament gives us sufficient grounds to believe that we too could enjoy the privilege of reading the Scriptures in our native tongue.