Is it true that there is no perfect Bible?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Is it true that there is no perfect Bible? How come? 

Answer: There is indeed a perfect Bible… that is, there is a perfect God’s Word. It underpins every good translation that we have in our hands. But you are probably wondering about the Bibles that we do have in our hands — isn’t it true that none of these is the perfect single volume? That is correct; no translation could ever bring God’s perfect word forward in its full perfection — at least not in the way that you probably mean by the word perfect. But let me show you why that is not even desirable.

When people ask these types of questions, they usually understand a “perfect Bible” to be a flawless and extant book in which each word, the order of each word — and perhaps the very fonts — were written, collated and selected by God himself. And since an omnipotent God can do anything, this book should be available at bookstores everywhere. But this vision has a fundamental flaw. It assumes that God’s word, in all its syntactical exactness, could (or should) be contained in one version of a physical book.

Sensible Christians understand that God’s Word is inerrant in the original manuscripts — but that he has preserved his word sufficiently for us in its many good translations. But the process of translation is always imperfect since all languages differ in structure and in cultural underpinnings to some degree. Therefore, no translation can boast the exact perfection of the original manuscripts, but all credible translations give us a functional perfection which is sufficient for developing doctrine and for instruction in living the Christian life.

The fact that there has been rigorous debate supporting the development of the various English Bible versions should not give us pause; this is rather an advantage because these processes have helped to protect God’s word up through the centuries. First, these processes were transparent. We get to look over the shoulders of great thinkers as they come to terms with difficult issues of Bible translation. Second, the process of debate clarifies issues that might otherwise not have been touched.

True, this process was often fractious — splitting even nations — but clarity is worth the cost. Third, the Bible bills itself as a lively book (Acts 7:38). As such, it is ideally fitted to us for our study and engagement. The alternative would be for us to have a stodgy old book, one that would have more value as a paperweight than as a living tool for engaging God. Yet strangely, some people prefer that sort of thing.

Joseph Smith, the founder Mormon cult here in the USA, claimed that an angel directed him to a repository of Golden plates (ostensibly written in the “reformed Egyptian” language) and that he used these pages to translate the book of Mormon. But the original golden pages are “no longer” extant, having been given back to the angel after the translation was completed. This myth demonstrates that, on some level, people desire a single and unquestionably magical book. But God gave us better than that… because we need better than that.

In like manner, the extreme end of the King James Version Only movement tries to inject that same kind of magic into the Bible by insisting that the King James version — and none other — is the inspired word of God. This strange type of fundamentalism hobbles Bible study, and it is a pox on scholarship. We should be free to choose the best translation for the job at hand. I call Christians everywhere to abandon this aberrant view of Scripture and to study prayerfully any of the standard versions with the confidence that they, too, are God’s word.

There are about 50 English Bible translations — but there are about 7000 non-English languages! The problem is that we only have about 1300 non-English translations of (at least parts of) the Bible to cover this gap — and we need to address this — but it is this sheer number of human languages that testifies to a need for a liveliness in God’s word.

As such, I count its non-exactness-yet-sufficiency across the translations as the gold standard. By comparison, a fixed word would be a dead word. Can you imagine having to learn some ancient language like Akkadian, replete with cuneiform script, before you could study God’s word? With the “perfect Bible” posited in your question, this is where we would be. Since no single perfect volume could ever survive a translation intact, then being stuck reading the Akkadian version would be the price of “perfect.”

But God knew that language and culture would change through the millennia, so any “Bible” that needed to be a single book, rigidly fixed to a language, time and place, would have been counterproductive because only a tiny percent of the people in its purview would have been able to read it. Furthermore, if we had such a volume today, it would likely become a religious relic—visited and kissed by pagans who think that they are Christians — rather than a repository of information. (cf. Hezekiah and the serpent of bronze. 2 Kings 18:4.)

If you will indulge me in a demonstration, I’d like you to visit the following link for a moment:

This link brings up 21 different versions of Matthew 24:34 in my browser and a quick inspection shows that there is not a huge difference between them. This is true for most verses you would try — although sometimes you will receive a unique insight from that one verse that says the same thing in a slightly different way. But to your question, the fact that 2000 years of Christian scholarship has produced so many English translations that are essentially the same argues against the need for a single perfect Bible. But here, we need a word of caution: consensus does not guarantee correctness… but one would be foolish to ignore it. That being said, a prayerful personal study is our continual safeguard.

So, two things we do not have to worry about are the absence of the single perfect Bible and the notion that our many translations could be problematic. Would you like some insight into the biggest problem in studying any version? Although the words across versions are largely the same, the interpretation of those words can vary broadly, and I’ve chosen Matthew 24:34 to demonstrate this.

There is not much linguistic debate about the term “this generation” in Matthew 24:34; it is translated straightforwardly in most versions. But there is division about which group of people takes the focus of that phrase. Does “this generation” refer to the people whom Jesus was addressing? Many say yes because the language says so plainly… but this causes a problem for some people — because Jesus did not come back in that generation. So, if a person required Jesus’ return to conform to a certain eschatological model, then the Bible would be in error.

One way to fix that would be to abandon the common use of language and teach that Jesus changed his target audience in the middle of this teaching and began referring to a generation that would not be born for another 2000 years. But such a shift makes us question the value of this teaching for his immediate audience. As you can see, interpretive types of problems would persist even if we had that single perfect Bible, because such a volume would only stabilize the words—and not what they meant when strung together. That will always vary as expositors wrestle with their better (or worst) angels.

When Jesus returns, however, we will have God’s Living Word with us again — and debate about his written word shall cease. Until then, he wants us lively and engaged with his word, but pining for a “perfect book” wastes everyone’s time. Instead, we must engage our minds, our souls and our physical selves in pursuit of God by studying the word that he has put before us because it is pure as it stands (Proverbs 30:5).

For more information on Bible versions, visit the following links:

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