Have you ever wondered how a book, like the Bible, could be the word of God, yet there be so many translations of it? I think most of us have, even believers. It would seem to me that a book inspired by an omniscient and omnipotent being should be written in such a way that interpretation could never become a problem.
Problems With Language
When we communicate, we expect that there is some commonality between the way the person we are talking to understands what we are saying and what we understand of what we are saying. In fact, I am sitting here typing this to you, believing that your interpretation of what I’m saying will be a reasonable facsimile of what I am actually saying.
As anyone who has had textual discussions over the internet knows, there are many times where the “tone of voice” you are saying something in is misinterpreted, and bad things can happen. I have gotten into more arguments than I can ever imagine counting over what were actually agreements, because someone took what I said wrong. The reason for this is that text can only convey so much meaning, and the rest is left to the imagination of the person reading it.
Language doesn’t stop at the words either. Even if you and I were having a discussion in person, where you could hear the tone in my voice, and see my body language and facial expressions, you would still be at a disadvantage in understanding what I am saying, simply because you aren’t in my mind. I can only attempt to convey the meaning I have in my head to you, and even when your and my definition of the words I say are identical, words can only convey a certain amount of what’s going on in my mind to your mind, and your mind fills in the rest of the gaps.
This lack of ability to perfectly convey our thoughts and feelings shows in ways that are much more overt than I am talking about. If you’re from California, what you call a drinking fountain is called a bubbler in Wisconsin. If I want to “knock you up” in the morning in the UK, it means I will be stopping by your house in the morning, but in the US you could get slapped, unless the woman really liked you. These are problems of differing definitions for the same words and phrases, and they are all over the place.
Even when we use the same word for the same thing, the ideas we each have in our head about what they mean can be very different. Words and phrases can have similar meanings, but still mean very different things depending on the culture of the person saying them. Etymologists run into these things all the time.
In ancient times, where communication was slow across distances, there were many more different dialects than there are now. In fact, as those dialects get more and more different, new languages would erupt. Almost all of the words of most any language are cognates of a sort with words of other languages. They move across borders and change both meaning and pronunciation over time, until the word used now is often, not only changed in sound, but changed completely in meaning.
What this means is that even though the words spoken by a person were written down, and people at the time and in the general place of the original writer would have a reasonable understanding of the words, the more time, distance, and language differences that separate the writer and the reader, the less of the original message is conveyed, no matter how well the person translating it does their job. There is no way to convey, with certainty over time, what the translation should be in order that it be translated into modern language properly, and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that it’s impossible to transfer a thought exactly through language.
Is it God’s Word?
This whole problem with language really rears its head in terms of holy books. These books are supposed to be the inspired word of God, yet it is painfully obvious that there are so many different interpretations of what was originally meant that it is impossible to say who is right, who is wrong, or if anyone is right on anything as far as translations go.
In Christianity there are 38,000 different denominations, which means 38,000 different interpretations of the book. One would think that a supreme being would understand that limitation and do something different with his word, so that there would be no question what he wants. Why use language to convey such an important message that misunderstanding it could damn you to hell for eternity, when language is so faulty as a way to convey meaning?
A deity that wants to make sure we obey certain rules would be much better off if it implanted those rules in our minds from birth so that we don’t have to be taught. There should be no question about what is right and wrong. No parent should even find it necessary to teach a child the difference either, since any language used by the parent would only serve to murk up the rules that are there already.
The idea that an omniscient/omnipotent being would make a rule book that nobody could possibly properly understand seems rather improbable to me. It makes no sense. If a being has a set of extremely important rules, and that being knows that those rules will be misinterpreted, it should have never left those rules in the form of language at all, much less in the sole form of written language. This tells me that either the rules aren’t all that important, or that they weren’t inspired by a god. Either way, it leaves little reason to abide by them.