I have repeatedly heard the claim that the Bible has been translated many times, and that as a result of this, one cannot be certain of what it says. This is used in two different ways. First, skeptics claim that one cannot rely on the Bible because such translation will introduce errors. Second, there are supporters of the scientific reliability of the Bible who will claim that if it is just translated correctly, then we will discover scientific accuracy. In this second view, most or even all claims of scientific inaccuracy are the result of translation errors.
Let’s look at the basics of the process of translation, and the history of the Biblical text to see if these claims are justified. I’m largely interested in the second claim, which is often used in arguing in favor of creationism of one sort or another.
Distinguishing Copying and Translation
To someone who has studied the process of textual transmission and translation, this claim appears naive on the face of it, because it tends to combine two portions of the process into one. Very often the answers to it are equally naive. Before answering, we must define it more precisely.
When an ancient text was written it was copied by hand, if at all. Copying by hand has a strong tendency to result in errors, and in fact in all cases in which we have a substantial number of copies of a single text, we find that there are significant errors in copying. We have no autographs (original manuscript as penned by the original author or his scribe) for any of the Biblical texts, and thus all copies we have will contain some errors.
Christians respond to this reality by pointing out the very large number of manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament that are available. This does indicate that there is a strong likelihood that we have a fairly accurate representation of the text of the New Testament. But because we do not have the autographs, we cannot attain absolute certainty. I also need to digress here just a bit to touch on another argument that is frequently used in favor of Christianity, which is simply that the number of copies of the New Testament text in some way indicates that the contents of these texts are reliable. But one can have perfectly accurate copies of a totally false document. The number of copies indicates something about the popularity of the source text, but not about its accuracy.
Both Orthodox and some conservative Jews will maintain that the texts of the Hebrew Bible were copied under tightly controlled conditions, with strict rules, and thus are to be absolutely trusted. This argument fails for two reasons. First, the texts in question were written well before there were rules for copying them. Any claim that places the Rabbinic rules for copying earlier than the 2nd century (and this may be optimistic) must be regarded as a faith claim, and not one supportable by objective evidence. I do not mean to disparage such a faith claim, but it clearly will not have impact on someone who does not share the same faith. At the least, documents of the Hebrew scriptures were likely copied over a period of centuries before such tight controls were created. Second, there is strong evidence based on the Dead Sea Scrolls combined with the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) that indicate that there were substantial variations between different versions of the Hebrew text. These variations were comparable to those of Christian New Testament.
The second part of the issue is translation. If the Bible had been successively translated from one language into another, with each new translation made from a translation, rather than from the original languages, then indeed this complaint about the accuracy of the current text of the Bible would be justified. Certain translations of the Bible have been made in precisely that way. The Douai-Rheims version long used by Catholics was a translation of the Latin Vulgate, which was a translation from the original languages.
Most modern versions, however, are made from texts in the original languages. Note the difference here: I did not say original texts, I said texts in the original languages. This is an important distinction. It is quite possible that errors have been introduced in copying, and indeed we have good evidence that such errors have been introduced. Textual criticism is to some extent an art, but it has many scienfic aspects, and it allows us to examine the texts and provide the most probable readings, but it also can show us that there have been a substantial number of errors in copying.
So how accurate is translation? Any translation introduces some inaccuracies. Words in different languages have different semantic ranges, and thus the translation can, and indeed will, introduce ambiguity. There will also be some difference in the understanding of even a modern person who reads the source languages. I read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, but my context cannot be identical to that of an ancient person who was writing the text. I can easily misunderstand their intent, because an overwhelming portion of my life differs radically from theirs.
Coming to the Point
In graduate school I started to study other ancient near eastern cultures. I took courses in Ugaritic (a predessor of Phoenecian), Akkadian (Babylonian/Assyrian), and Middle Egyptian. A number of things about the literature of the Bible, especially as it relates to creation stories, became much clearer to me when I did so. It became clear to me that one could explain all of the Biblical references to facts about the physical universe in terms that related to the ancient near eastern cosmology.
And this is my point. Irrespective of what possible errors in copying and translation one may assume happened to the text, they need to be corrected using the best evidence possible, and not based on the assumption that they must be in accord with modern scientific understandings. Under normal conditions, we assume that a person uses a word in a way that relates to their own context, their own world, as they understand it. If the Biblical references can be understood in the same way, there is no reason to try to force them to mean something else.
For example if we have waters above the heavens, and waters below, that makes excellent sense under a system in which the earth is round and flat (like a dinner plate) and the heavens are above it as a dome, with some of the waters held above. Since all the symbols and statements make good sense within that cosmology, why should one try to force the meanings of individual words to fit a modern scientific understanding?
The fact that the Bible can be understood fully within the context of its own world makes it totally unnecessary to find modern scientific explanations. The Bible is a prescientific document, and their is no need to try to force any other sort of meaning on it through claims of translation errors or copyist errors. Both of those varieties of errors do, in fact, exist, but they are not likely to help make the Bible into a scientific document.
For more information on Biblical criticism, see What is Biblical Criticism?.