The other day Deb brought in an online advertisement from Christian Book Distributors offering ESV Bibles in Hardcover, and Imitation Leather for 52% off the listed price because they were “Slightly Imperfect.” She was quick to see the irony in this, and I was quick to dibs the advertisement so that I could use it in this essay. There are so many good speakers and writers here (her husband for instance) that one has to snatch a great idea as soon as one sees it.
Just what does “slightly imperfect” mean anyway. Were a few pages missing from the end of Revelation? Perhaps a typesetting error turned every John to Joan. Maybe the word “not” was left out of the Ten Commandments (it has happened before), and so the LORD commands, “Thou shalt bear false witness.”
Upon reading the fine print one finds that “slightly imperfect” means these Bibles may include: “wrinkled pages, stray marks, missing dust jackets, dented corners or spines, dusty page edges, or cracks in CD cases.” So Deb ordered one of these slightly imperfect Bibles, and apart from the green sticker which reads “DA” (I assume that means “damaged”), this particular ESV is perfect, so far as I can tell.
Almost from the beginning scholars, translators, and evangelists have sought to tinker with the text. Papias, Marcion, the Muratorian Canon, and Martin Luther sought to exclude some texts, and sometimes embellish others. Thomas Jefferson famously took a blade and cut up two New Testaments, keeping only the parts he considered authentic and excising everything miraculous. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, in their New World Translation try to rewrite every passage that refers to Jesus as divine. Today, evangelical missionaries to Muslim countries want to take out any reference to Jesus as the “Son of God” to prevent their listeners from being offended at the notion God and a human woman shared in the parentage of an offspring. Every one of these tinkerers sees the Bible as “slightly imperfect.”
In a more subtle (and thus more subversive) way, those “experts” who tell us that only this or that translation really should be accepted see the Bible as imperfect. So also those who tell us that we are lost without their expertise to really understand the text. Each of these “experts” see the Bible as missing something – their intellect, their insight – without which the Bible is powerless to communicate to the unschooled masses.
I want to state unequivocally that I reject all tinkerers. The Bible is perfect, and is God’s tool to make us so (II Timothy 3:16-17). It survives any honest attempt at translation to communicate truth because it is not inanimate, but alive with the breath of God (see above), an active participant with us in changing our lives (Hebrews 4.12). Anyone who holds a Bible holds a living thing. Besides, the Bible is itself, largely a work of translation – Jesus didn’t have private conversations, or preach publically in Greek, but in Aramaic. Yet if one picks up the most ancient texts of the Gospels, there He is, preaching and teaching in Greek. The Gospels are themselves translations.
When one opens a Bible one engages a perfect communication from God. All of us are reading texts or translations that have been prepared by men and women like us who might have chosen a better adjective here or there in their native language – but the Bible survives all this to speak the word of God plainly. Whether one is holding an ESV, a KJV, an NRSV, an NIV, an NASB, or any of the new translations that come on the market every year – and whether or not it has wrinkled pages, stray marks, a missing dust jacket, a dented corner or spine – one is holding something perfect, something that makes us perfect.