Lou: When I go to a religious bookstore and ask for a Bible, I notice Bibles that are advertised as helping me with a lot of explanatory notes. What about that kind of thing? Can that be useful?
Graham: Some are helpful and some are not. The notes certainly aren’t inspired. The headings aren’t either. That’s true even when the heading in the Song of Solomon says, “Christ’s Love for the Church.” That’s an old tradition, but it’s not inspired. For another example, there’s an extraordinary note in one printing of the Matthew’s Bible (around 1549) to Peter’s comment that wives should obey their husbands in all things (1 Pet 3:1). In the margin of this Bible, which has lots of helpful notes, it says, “Yet it is the duty of the husband to beat the fear of the Lord into his wife, that she may learn to obey.” Comments like this leave me in favor of having the text pure and unadulterated, so I can make up my own mind. There are also many Bibles with helpful margins, so long as you realize they do not come with the same inspiration, and you read them carefully.
Lou: Does your church, the Seventh-day Adventist church, have an official version?
Graham: I think some have rather wished so. But it speaks well of our worldwide outlook that we don’t limit ourselves to an official version. We wish to share the picture of God with every person under Heaven, in all the languages of earth. So how can we have one official translation? There’s only one thing that could be official, and that’s the original: The Hebrew, the Aramaic, and the Greek, from which all translations ultimately come. But we’re prepared to go to the world using any version, any translation. And that’s why I like to relax when I’m in someone else’s home and say, “Which Bible do you have there? Let’s use yours.”
Lou: That leads to another question. If I heard you rightly, we do not have any of the original words that the prophet Isaiah wrote, for example. We have copies of an earlier copy. And in these manuscripts there are a number of variations. In other words, a particular manuscript may add a word, leave one out, or use a completely different word. Are there any Christian beliefs, such as the picture of God, that are affected by these variations?
Graham: It’s very interesting to look through all of them and see how relatively few issues there are and then look at some of the most colorful ones. Since you mentioned it, let me pick an illustration that affects the number one Christian belief, the picture of God. John 5:3, 4, in the King James Bible, describes a large crowd of sick people gathered at the pool of Bethesda. It had five porches, and every once in a while the water would move. Now what caused the water to move?
The way the story is told here, God would look out over the parapets of Heaven, see the crowd there, call over His angels and say, “It’s worth going down again. Go down and stir up the water. And remember, first one in is healed.” And this went on for years and years and years. Can you imagine an angel saying to God, “God, we’ve been watching a man there struggling for thirty-three years to get in, and we angels are so sorry for him; could we bend the rule this once and heal him? Because there’s no way he’s going to get in.” And God says, “You know I never change. First one in is healed.”
I never did like that story. And I was so relieved to start learning Greek in 1938 and discover that the idea that an angel stirred the water is a legend that crept in later on. The older manuscripts simply say, “the water moved,” without any explanation. Superstitious readers probably assumed that an angel did it. More likely, it was drainage from the temple area, a spring, or an intermittent underground stream. In any case, that legend eventually crept into the text.
Look in the early manuscripts and you have a magnificent story there. The real truth was that on a Saturday afternoon God walked by. And the paralyzed man looked up and saw the kindest face he had ever seen. And the kind face said, “Would you like to be well?” And he said, “I surely would.” And that kind face did not berate the man for squandering his health in youthful self-indulgence. He simply said, “Then pick up your little mat and go home, and you will be well.” That’s the real picture of God.
Lou: So the angel story actually appears in a manuscript?
Graham: Quite a few, but later on.
Lou: Does that mean our more recent versions, which have taken manuscript study quite seriously, would be more reliable?
Graham: They tend to be based on the early manuscripts, which we didn’t know about at the time the King James was translated. But there isn’t a long list of these strange variations. I picked out a more colorful one. There are very few. And we could get along without every one of them. One that might seem helpful is the Trinity text in 1 John 5:7, 8 (KJV) that has no support at all in the manuscripts. But I never did think it was the best way to support the Trinity anyway. You can do that from the Gospel of John and elsewhere much better. So we don’t lose anything by going back and comparing all these hundreds and thousands of manuscripts. By looking at the evidence as a whole, there is less danger of distortion.