Question: At our Oblate meeting the speaker told us that the Bible contains a number of errors, and that the only way for us to be sure of what it says is to read it in the Aramaic original, for that is the language which Jesus and the Apostles spoke. Don’t Catholics believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God?
Answer: This is the second time this business about Aramaic has come up here in six months. It must be the latest fad in Novus Ordo scholarship. While Jesus and the Apostles and Evangelists spoke Aramaic as their native language, the books of the New Testament were all written in Greek, for Greek was the one language that most literate people could read in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. It is conjectured that Matthew may have written notes or a draft in Aramaic, but, even if he did, no copy exists. Translating the Greek text into Aramaic would risk introducing errors rather than eliminating them, and would be useless for readers other than those well schooled in that language. If there are errors in a given edition of the Bible, they have arisen either through translation or in being copied.
Translation is a difficult thing to do well, for many languages use idiomatic and slang constructions that cannot be deduced simply by knowing the word meanings and the grammar. Sometimes – particularly in translating religious material – a knowledge of cultural matters is necessary as well. Translation can also be subject to ideological bias. There is, for example, an edition of the Bible called “the Raisin Cake Bible,” because its “blue-nosed” Protestant author felt compelled to substitute the words “raisin cakes” wherever the original referred to drinking or making wine. And, without the teaching authority of the Church, even men of genuine good will can disagree as to which books make up the canonical Scriptures.
Apart from translation, errors may occur in copying. A lapse in attention can cause the copiest to leave out, or copy twice, a section of the manuscript. Many early manuscripts employed no spacing between words, and no capitalization (manyearlymanuscriptsemployednospacingbetweenwordsandnocapitalization). Hebrew was written without vowels (slwvthtwnttrwswwrbh) on the theory that the reader would know them. The copiest also had to be able to distinguish marginal notes, comments, and aspirations from the actual text. Even with modern methods, manuscript copying can introduce errors. Most of us have seen what can happen when a spell-checker runs amok, and when optically scanned copy is “a bit off.”
When we say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God,” we are saying that God inspired Its human authors to write down, in language and terminology common to their time and place, the things that would be useful to their readers in working out their eternal salvation. It is not necessarily biography or history as twenty-first century people understand those terms. The quotations are not necessarily literal and exacting (although there is often surprising correspondence between the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Sometimes the same event is presented differently in each of these parallel Gospels – and some times the same event is found at different times in our Lord’s public life. Whereas modern people are accustomed to date and time stamping everything they write – when the Evangelists wrote “in the reign of Tiberius Caesar … during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas,” they were dating more precisely than the average writer. The Evangelists were inspired by God, more to reveal the things necessary and useful for salvation, and only secondarily to write our Lord’s life story.
The Bible is not a science book, but that doesn’t mean that it is erroneous. Had the sacred writers phrased things in terms of the physics of Galileo and Einstein and the Mathematics of Newton and Leibnitz, no one of their time -- including the writers themselves -- would have understood what they wrote. For that matter, many twenty-first century Americans would be just as lost! The science may not be any more scientific than what the common man of the twenty-first century admits to knowing when he speaks of “sun-rise” and “sun-set,” but that does not make it erroneous. (When was the last time your TV weatherman spoke about “the planet rotating in (or out) of the cone of illumination of its primary star? And, if he did it often, might you not find another weatherman?)
In his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII quotes the ever appropriate Saint Thomas Aquinas: "In Scripture divine things are presented to us in the manner which is in common use amongst men. For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error” (para. 37).
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