Question: Does the eighth Article of Faith statement about believing the Bible "as far as it is translated correctly" imply that Bible translators are trying to hide God's truth?

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Question: Does the eighth Article of Faith statement about believing the Bible "as far as it is translated correctly" imply that Bible translators are trying to hide God's truth?

Latter-day Saints believe that only by the Spirit of God can we make these determinations

Some who are critical of the Church try to show that by the term translation in the eighth Article of Faith, we really mean transmission. For example, one writes:

Some Mormons have recognized that the word translated as used in the Articles of Faith is not entirely correct. Knowledgeable Mormons who have studied the methods of translating languages admit that the transmission, not the translation, of the biblical texts concerns them.[1]

Said one LDS student of the scriptures:

Speaking as a 'knowledgeable Mormon who has studied the methods of translating languages,' I respectfully disagree. The Articles of Faith were written by the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was not interested in the transmission at all, but rather in the translation. He studied Hebrew and Greek in an attempt to come closer to the original language of the Bible. When we do this, we become aware of some startling problems with the translation of the New Testament.

Take for example, a passage from Paul used to support the doctrinal teaching of celibacy in the church (1 Corinthians 7). One of the fundamental problems with interpretations of this chapter revolve around the topic's introduction in the first two verses. The following are two separate translations of the text as found in popular translations of the Bible. The KJV, and those Bibles that follow the more traditional reading, use the first line of text as an introduction, and then have Paul raising the subject of discussion:

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.[2]

In other words, as a response to the things which the Corinthians wrote to Paul, his response is "It is good for a man…" It thus puts the concept of a man not touching a woman into the mouth of Paul. Other translations move the first line of text into the introduction, as the words of the Corinthians to Paul, as in the following text:

Now for the matters you wrote about. You say, "It is a good thing for a man not to have intercourse with a woman." Rather, in the face of so much immorality, let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband.[3]

In other words, the Corinthians asked Paul if it was good for a man not to touch a woman. And Paul responds negatively. Two completely different interpretations, both being absolutely correct translations syntactically from the exact same passage in Greek. Yet, it has a profound change on the message that Paul is giving in this passage of his epistle. Is this an issue of translation or transmission? McKeever and Johnson earlier stated that "Translation means to take words from one language and put them into the words of another."[4] This is an oversimplification that does not do justice to the subject. At the very least, some concern should have been given to the idea that translation also means to preserve, as closely as possible the intent of the author.

In cases like the example above, where an original text (which might have given more information) is not available, the translation will largely be determined by the predisposition of the theology of the translator. In this case, it is the doctrine that determines the translation. If this were an isolated incident, it would not be such an important factor. But it becomes important when we realize that many of these difficulties are found in core doctrines of the Church. Raymond Brown, a well-known Catholic theologian, only finds three verses in all of the New Testament where Jesus is clearly called God, the rest being questionable on either syntactical grounds or because of manuscript evidence presenting significant challenges to originality.[5]:171–195 He then adds that of these three, none show a predisposition towards a doctrine of the trinity.[5]:195, note 20 This is not to say that I (or Brown) question the divinity of Jesus Christ. Merely that translation and interpretation play a much larger role than the one suggested by McKeever and Johnson. As Brown puts it: "Firm adherence to the later theological and ontological developments that led to the confession of Jesus Christ as 'true God of true God' must not cause believers to overvalue or undervalue the less developed NT confession."[6]

Is translation important? Clearly it is. Latter-day Saints believe that only by the Spirit of God can we make these determinations. Scholarship often cannot help us answer questions concerning the effect of doctrine on translation, particularly in ancient documents where the source is not available.

The challenges of textual criticism—an example

Consider now a published study entitled "Asyndeton in Paul: A Text-critical and Statistical Inquiry into Pauline Style."[7] The authors of the study were working with an ancient rhetorical device called asyndeton, the practice of leaving conjunctions (like the word 'and') out of the text to add impact. It was generally used in oration-an indication that Paul's works were meant to be read aloud. The authors identified more than 600 instances of asyndeton in both epistles to the Corinthians and in the epistle to the Romans. They then tracked these asyndeton through the available manuscript history, and tracked how many were lost when copyists and scribes inadvertently changed the text because they did not recognize the rhetorical device.

The results were fascinating. First, it was clear that the older a manuscript was, the fewer changes could be found. Even more interesting was what they discovered within textual apparatuses available to translators. An apparatus is a combination text with variant readings, used to create the base text from which a translation is made. These include the Nestle-Aland text, the UBS text, and the Textus Receptus prepared by Erasmsus from which the King James Version was translated. What they discovered was that even the earliest manuscripts had been modified in more than thirty percent of the instances, while the latest texts had lost as much as fifty to fifty-five percent. The Textus Receptus, as a majority text, had lost almost seventy percent of the instances of asyndeton. The best of the apparatus texts, that used by the UBS, was still worse than the worst of the earliest manuscripts. The authors of the study left the reader to draw their own conclusions.

What this means is that textual criticism of the Bible is still in its infancy. While it brings us closer to the original texts, there are no guarantees, and no way of telling how far we still have to go. Until then, we are in the same situation with regards to an original text as some critics claim of Mormons:

However, this is an argument from silence, since the same detractors cannot produce any untainted manuscripts from which to measure the "tainted" ones.[8]

If this is true, then it is also an argument from silence to speak as though we have a good replica of the original autographs, which consequently do not exist. If this isn't an argument from silence, then from what source the critcs are speaking, if not pure conjecture?

Notes

  1. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 101.
  2. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2 (both the KJV and NIV).
  3. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, REB and NRSV.
  4. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 101.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1994).
  6. Benjamin McGuire, responding to chapter 7 of McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101 (See "A FairMormon Analysis of Mormonism 101: Response to Chapter 7: The Bible)
  7. Eberhard W. Güting and David L. Mealand, "Asyndeton in Paul: A Text-critical and Statistical Inquiry into Pauline Style," Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity, No. 39 (Mellen, 1998), xiv, 203.
  8. McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 101.