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Faith According to the Bible(s)

What is faith? Why does its meaning change so dramatically in the Bible?

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." So runs the celebrated line in Hebrews 11:1, the rationale that underpins so much of the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to that rationale, as the writer of the Epistle puts it, faith is a summation of hope and evidence apparently lies in "things not seen"—in the invisible and ineffable.

Considering the importance of the line in Hebrews as an anchor to Judeo-Christian belief and faith, it's worth noting—as websites detailing various editions of the Bible underscore—that even minor changes in translation have dramatic implications for the way people view and understand their faith. The line I quoted was from the King James version of the Bible, dating from the 17th century and treated as current at least until the end of the 19th. But when the English Revised Version appeared between 1881 and 1885 (with the New Testament appearing before the Old), after an army of scholars labored to render the Hebrew, Greek and Latin Vulgate more reliable than before, the celebrated line in Hebrews appeared quite differently. Faith became "the assurance of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen." This upped the stakes in empirical terms, in seeming to make "the evidence of things not seen" unequivocal and unambiguous, even if such things were by definition invisible to the human eye. Hope and assurance, evidence and proof, were similarly rendered more tightly bound than before—a largely defensive response to exacting debates on these subjects that had aired throughout the 1860s and '70s.

In the 1901 American Standard Version, by contrast, the emphasis shifted from "substance" and "assurance" to "things" as a whole: "Faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen." In 1973, the New International Version decided to render that idea even more conspicuously: "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see," a statement that thoroughly transforms the meaning of the King James Version, equating faith with the certainty of hope as if the two were identical. In the space of seven decades, in sum, the stress had changed from conviction to being certain, a dramatic change in emphasis and stance.

Websites that reproduce different versions of the Bible along side each other are especially effective (even if they don't intend to be) in demonstrating how much of its meaning hinges on translation decisions. Such differences do not bother every religious denomination, many of which welcome more colloquial renderings, but the differences do bother denominations, including evangelical ones, that continue to represent the Bible as infallible, as the literal Word of God.

The translators of the English Revised Version saw their task as one of "adapt[ing] King James' version to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary," an assumption that's informed most updated versions of the Bible, but the above renderings of Hebrews 11 underscore how impossible it is to adjust vocabulary without affecting idiom and meaning. The translators also saw their task as one of "adapt[ing the Bible] to the present standard of Biblical scholarship," much of which, stemming from the German Higher Criticism of the early 1800s, stressed precisely the unreliability of the manuscripts comprising the Bible, including that the version of Genesis relayed in each of the above editions of the Bible is likely just a fraction of a much longer creation story.

Given the advances that occurred in 19th-century science and textual studies, as well as the ongoing reliance that many Victorians continued to place on biblical literalism, it's worth noting that the doubt and skepticism that came to define so much of 19th-century society also focused intensively on the very lines that Hebrews 11:1 tried to render unambiguously. To no avail. As I show in The Age of Doubt by focusing on the number of Victorians who began with that Epistle as their starting-point, their doubt quickly expanded in focus from the Creation story, the Flood, and the existence of miracles to the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ and, ultimately, the very existence of God.

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for" became a psychological proposition, as William James made clear in The Will to Believe (1896), even as he defended that stance and worried about faith trying to express itself "in the language of the gaming-table." As James well-knew, the devout understandably want to view their faith as inevitable—as existing beyond chance, contingency and debate. Close examination of key passages in the Bible underscores, by contrast, that the book they worship is far from reliable, its meaning altered by successive generations of translators, each hoping to put their indelible stamp on it, to cast its ever-changing message as fixed and eternal.

© Christopher Lane 2012 Follow me on Twitter @christophlane

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