Monday, August 25, 2008

Four Approaches

(10th and last in a series on New Testament textual criticism)

As I summarize this series on New Testament textual criticism, let me mention four general approaches to the use of internal and external evidence in attempting to determine what the autographs contained. Two of these approaches are radical, and two are moderate.

One radical approach is to acknowledge that each of the manuscript traditions or text types is equally old (which is likely correct), but then to dismiss the external evidence altogether. Critics taking this approach only consider the internal evidence (which, as we have seen, is often subjective).

Another radical approach is that taken by the "King James only" folks, and consists of simply counting manuscripts. In other words, go with the variant that is found in the majority of ancient manuscripts. This always falls in favor of the Byzantine reading, since there are far more copies of that manuscript tradition (albeit from much later than the earliest Alexandrian manuscripts). Some in this school of thought believe that God would not have allowed so many copies of an error to exist, nor would He have allowed an erroneous text type to persist so long (the Byzantine tradition was the most popular one in Christendom from the 9th century right up until Wescott and Hort published their Greek New Testament in 1881).

God did see fit, however, to allow a wealth of copies to persist, all of them containing the sorts of variants we have been discussing. Moreover, any claim that depends upon saying what God would or would not do is subjective at best and may be blasphemous at worst. I believe there are many places in which the variant included in the text of the King James is the original, even though it is relegated to the margin of the other English translations. But to claim that the KJV is the only accurate translation (or even the most accurate one) does not seem reasonable (to me or to the majority of scholars who understand these issues).

Far and away the most popular approach today is that taken by Wescott and Hort. It has been called Reasoned Eclecticism. Although it considers the internal evidence and other principles of external evidence, the primary criterion for this approach is "Prefer the oldest reading." As I have shared, I believe that this approach, common though it is, places too much emphasis on the few oldest manuscripts, all of which come from the same region of early Christendom.

The fourth approach might be called Reasoned Conservatism, and is the one I have been arguing for. It would acknowledge that each text type arose equally early (and thus de-emphasize "Prefer the earliest reading"). But it would involve considering both the internal evidence and the external evidence, and particularly the principle "Prefer the most widespread reading." If you agree that this approach makes the most sense, then you can assess for yourself (assuming you're using a Study Bible that identifies the significant variants) the evidence for the best reading.

I hope this series has piqued your interest in learning a bit more about the ancient manuscripts that have survived to our day. The history of each (the circumstances surrounding its discovery or rediscovery and such) can be fascinating. At a minimum, I trust that you now have a better understanding of all that lies behind those marginal notes in your Study Bible that say, "Some manuscripts..."

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Textual Considerations Part 2

(This is the 9th post in a series. Reading the previous posts would be helpful...)

In the last post, we looked at a pretty clear-cut case (Mark 1:2) in which the Byzantine variant (the one found in the text of the KJV and NKJV but in the footnotes of the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB) was likely the scribal error and the Alexandrian variant (in the text of these other English versions but in the marginal notes of the KJV) was likely true to the autograph. But is it always this way, with the errant variant appearing in the KJV and the accurate one in these other translations? No. Almost no unbiased textual critic would say that any single Greek New Testament or any single English translation has with 100% accuracy made the correct determination with regard to every place where variants occur in the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. Let me offer an example where--in my opinion--the evidence is pretty clear-cut in the opposite direction.

There is a significant variant found among the ancient copies surviving to today of what we call Matthew 5:22, a portion of Jesus' teaching known as the 'Sermon on the Mount.' The following translation, from the ESV, is representative of the translations that adopt the essentially Alexandrian text found in Wescott and Hort and in the more recent Aland et al. editions of the Greek New Testament.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
After the word 'brother' my ESV Study Bible has a superscript directing me to a footnote that informs me that "Some manuscripts insert 'without cause.'" At this same place, a King James Study Bible has
But I say unto you that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment.
and the footnote informs us that "Some ancient manuscripts omit 'without a cause.'" So which is the original--inclusion or omission of this phrase--and which is the the result of an early scribe's having changed it (either accidentally or intentionally)? Let's consider the evidence, beginning with the external evidence.

The oldest manuscripts, including Aleph, B, and P67, do not include the phrase at issue. It is for this reason that most modern English translations (and the editors of the Greek New Testaments from which they were translated) leave the phrase out. The vast majority of ancient copies contain the phrase, but all of these are from later (many of them as late as the 9th century). For the editors and translators who leave the phrase out (as in the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB), the principle "prefer the oldest reading" wins out here. Before coming back and arguing why I believe this is wrong, let's first look at the internal evidence.

Most critics believe that this is a case of intentional error rather than that some scribe accidently omitted or inserted the phrase in question. But as I have mentioned, internal evidence can be subjective. Some argue that the autograph did not include the phrase and that some later scribe inserted it in order to soften Jesus' teaching on anger. Others argue that the autograph contained the phrase and that some later scribe--believing Jesus to have taken too soft a line--omitted it. I believe that several other considerations make the latter the much more likely scenario.

For one thing, the 2nd- and 3rd-century church tended to be more legalistic even than the church in Matthew's time. This argues against a scribe of that period desiring to soften Jesus' teaching.

Secondly, there are several other cases in this very same sermon of Jesus' in which He qualifies His statements in a similar manner (in 5:32, for example, an exception is made to Jesus' prohibition against divorce). In these other cases, all ancient manuscripts agree--that is, there are no variants, and we know that Jesus must, indeed, have so qualified His statements.

More importantly, we learn by comparison with other New Testament passages, that anger in itself is not always sinful. There is such a thing as righteous indignation, and Jesus Himself displays it (as with the money lenders at the Temple and with the pharisees and their hypocrisy). Indeed, we are commanded elsewhere in Scripture (Eph. 4:26) to "Be angry." These examples would seem to offer irreconcilable contradictions to the bald prohibition against anger in Matthew 5:22, unless the autograph there did in fact include the disputed, qualifying phrase.

For all of these reasons, I believe the internal evidence argues persuasively to the conclusion that the autograph contained the words translated "without a cause." Let's turn back now to the external evidence.

In my opinion, there is good reason--in this specific case and more generally--to question the uncritical acceptance of the principle 'prefer the oldest reading.' For one thing, in this and many other cases, both the Byzantine and the Western text types are united against the Alexandrian in having the other variant.* That is, while we can be certain that the Alexandrian variant existed at an early date, it may very well be that the region immediately surrounding Alexandria, Egypt was the only place in the world of that time where that variant could be found. In other words, everywhere else in the Christian world of the third century, a follower of Christ reading the text of Matthew's gospel would have found at this point the words 'without a cause.'

That this was the case is made very probable by the recognition--shared by almost all textual critics, if only they would stop to think about it--that virtually all of these variants arose prior to the late third century, by which time the process of discerning the canon of Scripture had begun. When this is considered, it becomes almost a moot point as to whether we have any manuscripts surviving from that early date.

Let me put it another way... The different variants are believed to have arisen prior to the end of the third century AD, and subsequent copying is believed to be true to the variant found generally in any given region. Thus, whatever variant existed by the turn of the fourth century in, say, Rome, would have been copied with great precision from then on in that region. The variant existing in Alexandria at that time would have been faithfully copied throughout that region by every subsequent Alexandrian scribe. B and Aleph date only to the early fourth century. The fact that they survived to the present while their contemporary Western and Byzantine manuscripts (with their unique variants) did not survive is an interesting artifact of climate, but would seem to have no bearing on the question of which variant preceeded the other. Both Aleph and B--the most complete and important early manuscripts--date from after the time at which the variants are believed to have been 'fixed' (as it were) in the respective areas of Christendom.

So this is a case (and not a unique one), where I believe that the evidence (internal and external) is overwhelmingly in favor of the variant that in most modern English translations is relegated to the marginal notes or foot notes. And the problem here is an unwillingness (on the part of the editor) to examine these significant variants on a case-by-case basis.

Fortunately, any serious student of the New Testament can fairly easily (and without knowing Greek) determine for herself (on a case-by-case basis) how persuasive is the textual evidence for and against the decision made by the editors of a particular version with regard to the choice among significant variants in the ancient manuscripts.

*In 1881, Wescott and Hort argued that the Byzantine text tradition was a conflation of the Western and Alexandrian. In support of this thesis, they identified 8 sets of variants in which the Alexandrian and Western texts were in agreement with one another and against the Byzantine. But this line of reasoning can be demonstrated to involve special pleading. A greater number of cases can be identified where it is the Alexandrian (Wescott and Hort's preferred text type) that stands alone against the Western and Byzantine traditions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Textual Considerations

(This is the eighth post in a series. Reading the others would be helpful in understanding this one.)

So, in our modern English translations of the New Testament, we tend to have either an essentially Byzantine set of variants (King James and New King James) or an essentially Alexandrian set of variants (NIV, NASB, ESV, RSV, etc.). Remember that no essential Christian doctrine depends upon any of these variants. Indeed, if we were to eliminate every passage in which variants occur--and use only those passages in which all the relevant copies agree completely--what would be the result? We would have the very same picture of Jesus--a miracle-working, divine Son of God who died by crucifixion and three days later was raised in a glorified physical body.

But which is better, the Alexandrian set of variants or the Byzantine? Do both have their merits? What are the criteria that would help us decide?

Let's review the sorts of evidence available to textual critics and the principles involved in assessing that evidence, and then I'll discuss four approaches to using that evidence (identifying where the various editors seem to fall).

Textual criticism looks at two types of evidence, internal and external evidence. The primary principle of internal evidence is that we should prefer the reading that best explains how the other readings arose. This principle summarizes others (like prefer the more difficult reading or prefer the shorter reading). Here's an example...

Two variants are found in Mark 1:2. Some ancient manuscripts read "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet...", whereas others read "As it is written in the prophets..." The Scripture that is subsequently quoted is found in both Isaiah and Malachi. Considering the internal evidence, most scholars would agree that the autograph (what Mark wrote) was probably "in Isaiah the prophet" and that some early scribe 'improved' the verse by changing it to "in the prophets." It is more difficult to understand why any scribe would have changed it the other way--from "in the prophets" to "in Isaiah the prophet."

Consideration of external evidence involves looking at the number and date of the manuscripts associated with each variant. The two main principles here are 1) prefer the oldest reading and 2) prefer the more widespread reading.

In the case of Mark 1:2, the oldest manuscripts (Aleph and B and the early papyri) have "in Isaiah the prophet." Moreover, this is also a place where both the Alexandrian and the Western text types are characterized by that reading. Only the Byzantine type has "in the prophets." This case is thus a pretty clear-cut one: the internal evidence supports the reading "in Isaiah the prophet," and this reading is both the more widespread of the two variants and the one attested to by the earliest extant manuscripts.

Other cases are not so clear. For example, sometimes the internal evidence would lead to a different conclusion than the external evidence. In those cases, most scholars place more emphasis on the external evidence, since the internal evidence can often be subjective. More problematic are the cases where the external evidence itself is contradictory. That is, frequently the reading that has the oldest attestation is the less widespread one. While we can tell for certain (based on what is contained in, say, the Chester Beatty Papyri) that a particular variant dates to at least the third century, the evidence of the earliest Western and Byzantine manuscripts would suggest that Alexandria and its immediate surroundings may have been the only locale where that variant was found.

By and large, Wescott and Hort--and the many subsequent scholars who have followed them (somewhat uncritically, in my opinion)--allow the principle "prefer the oldest reading" to trump the principle "prefer the most widespread reading." This bias leads to instances where I believe that those translations (NIV, RSV, NASB, ESV) that accept the "oldest is best" thesis of Wescott and Hort have included in the main text the errant variant and have relegated to the margin or footnote the variant that was likely found in the autograph.

In the next post, I'll examine one such case, that of Matthew 5:22. Did Jesus say that "everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment" or did He qualify that anger with the phrase "without a cause"? In preparation for that discussion, look it up in your study Bible and see how its editors have chosen to treat this set of variants.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

NT in the "Original" Greek

(7th post in a series...)

In the last post, we discussed the Textus Receptus, a 16th-century attempt at reconstructing the autographs of the New Testament. This work (or, more precisely, one of several editions of it) is the base text from which the King James and New King James Versions were translated.

Since the publication of the Textus Receptus, other ancient Greek copies of the New Testament have come to light, many of them older than the 9th-century texts from which Erasmus worked. These include three important sets of papyri, the John Rylands Manuscript (or P52, which contains portions of John's gospel and is dated from AD 117-138), the Bodmer Papyri (P62, P72, and P75, containing most of Luke and John and dating from AD 200), and the Chester Beatty Papyri (P45-47, dated at AD 250 and containing nearly all of the New Testament). These ancient copies also include several uncials, parchments whose writing is all capital letters. The earliest of these are Codex Sinaiticus (also known by the Hebrew letter 'Aleph') and Codex Vaticanus (referred to simply as 'B'). Aleph contains all of the New Testament and dates to AD 340, whereas B contains almost the entire Bible and dates from between AD 325 and 350.

As you might imagine, this wealth of new evidence eventually led to other attempts to compile a Greek New Testament that accurately reflects what the autographs contained. The most important such effort was produced in 1881 (Aleph was discovered in 1859) by the scholars Wescott and Hort, and bears the title The New Testament in the Original Greek.

In choosing this title, the authors claimed for their work much more certainty than was warranted, and textual critics today do not believe that they were 100% right. Nonetheless, most modern editors accept Wescott and Hort's primary thesis, which was that the oldest surviving manuscripts are most likely to be free of error--that at the places where variants occur among manuscripts, choosing the variant appearing in the papyri and in Aleph and B is the wisest course. Thus, nearly all of the important recent English versions--including the NIV, RSV, ESV, and NASB--were translated not from the Textus Receptus but from The New Testament in the Original Greek or newer Greek New Testaments that follow Wescott and Hort's lead.

And what does this mean with regard to the text types (or manuscript traditions) that we discussed earlier? Just this... that all of these other modern English versions reflect not the Byzantine text type that characterized Erasmus' New Testament but the Alexandrian text type. And this is because all of the ancient papyri and both Aleph and B are essentially Alexandrian in character. And though the translation of the New King James and (especially) the King James involve the choice of English words quite different from those chosen by these other English versions, the more important difference between the two sets of translations is from which Greek New Testament they were translated.

Does this mean that the KJV and NKJV are less reliable than these others? Many modern critics would say 'Yes!' But I've never been one to follow the majority view uncritically. So, in the next post, I'll argue that the KJV remains an excellent Bible, that the editors of no single modern English version made all the right decisions (with regard to choice of variants), and that the individual reader that understands what I have been sharing in this series can actually get even closer to the autographs by analyzing the variant readings on a case-by-case basis.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Greek New Testaments

(Sixth post in a series; understanding this post may require reading the others first.)

In the last post, I shared that most modern English translations begin with one of two Greek New Testaments. The first is the Textus Receptus, first published by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1518. At that point in history, Erasmus had available to him six Greek manuscripts from which to make his decisions about what the original New Testament books contained. Each of the six was representative of an essentially Byzantine text type, and each would have dated from no earlier than the ninth century AD.

A couple of things are important to note here. First, the Textus Receptus is an excellent Greek New Testament, and basing a modern translation on it remains a valid option.

Second, the Textus Receptus and the Byzantine text tradition are not the same thing. There existed variants even within those six manuscripts, and Erasmus would also have had at his disposal a number of early translations (especially in the Latin) and the quotations from several early church fathers with which to compare them as well. Thus, he undoubtedly made decisions much like those made by textual critics today, deciding among variants on the basis of both external evidence and internal evidence.

External evidence is that involving the manuscripts themselves. The two main principles regarding external evidence are 1) prefer the oldest reading and 2) prefer the most widespread reading. As we will see (in the next post), Erasmus did not have as much external evidence (as many manuscripts, translations, and writings of church fathers) as is available today.

Internal evidence refers to issues regarding what type of "error" occurred. Several principles are used, things like "prefer the shortest reading" (though this is not always appropriate) and "prefer the more difficult reading." But all of these principles can be more or less subsumed by or summarized under the principle "prefer the reading that best explains how the other variant(s) arose."

The primary English translations in use today that are based on the Textus Receptus are the King James Version and the New King James Version.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More on Textual Criticism

(This is the fifth post of this series. Understanding this post will likely require reading the previous ones...)

Now, as you might imagine, the thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament vary in other ways, like age and distribution. The Alexandrian text type is represented by many of the oldest manuscripts, but this manuscript tradition is also deemed to be the most localized of the three. What goes this mean? Well, if at a particular place in Scripture we find only two variants, one represented exclusively in the Alexandrian text type and the other shared by the Western and the Byzantine, two conclusions follow. First, we can be certain that the variant found in the Alexandrian is a very old reading.

On the other hand, that variant may have been found (at that early date) only in a very small portion of the Christian world, the area immediately surrounding Alexandria. This is true because (as you'll remember from the last post) scholars believe that virtually all of the variants arose by the middle of the third century. (This paragraph foreshadows a point I'll argue a bit later.)

Now, in the process that leads to an English translation of the New Testament, most of the significant textual criticism--the wrestling with the issues we've been discussing--does not occur at the translation phase, but rather is done by those who have previously worked up an entire Greek New Testament. The translators, of course, are conversant with the issues, and have decisions to make about whether to include (as a footnote or marginal note) a particular alternate reading. But by and large, an editorial team will begin by choosing a Greek New Testament from which to translate, and will make very few (if any) amendments to the textual decisions made by that Greek NT's editors.

Two such Greek New Testaments far surpass in importance any others, and all of the major English translations are based upon one of the two. These are the Textus Receptus, published by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1518 and another, The New Testament in the Original Greek, published by Wescott and Hort in 1881.

In the next post, we'll take a look at what textual evidence was available to these editors and the decisions they made in compiling their respective Greek New Testaments.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Three Text Types

(Fourth post in a series...)

So, textual critics seeking to reconstruct the original Greek of the New Testament have at their disposal a wealth of evidence, including more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts, some 8,000 early Latin copies, important copies in Syriac and Coptic, and voluminous quotations from the early church fathers.

The problem is that none of these represent exact copies. Rather, they contain variant readings, and though the majority of these are insignificant, about 2,000 are not.

How did these variants arise? Well, as I shared (with examples) in the first post in this series, some were accidental and some were intentional. But what's important to understand is that virtually all of these variants arose by the middle of the third century. Because from that time onward, the texts in question were recognized as Scripture--as the Word of God--and so great care was taken in subsequent copying. Prior to that, however, some scribes believed that they were merely copying letters, biographies, and such (albeit ones that were important to the church). That being the case, such scribes apparently took greater editorial license than did later scribes working after the canonization process had begun.

So, in any reconstruction of the Greek New Testament (and in any subsequent translation--as into English--of those Greek reconstructions), decisions have to be made as to which of any set of variants was likely to have been the original. Again, for most sets of variants, such a decision is easy, or the ramifications insignificant. For the significant variants, any good Greek New Testament and any good English Study Bible will make the existence of variants (at that particular spot) apparent to the reader. That is, the editorial team will make its own call as to what was likely the original (and represent this in the main body of the text) but will share (usually as a footnote or marginal note) the variant reading(s).

Now, while variants exist between any two copies (at least of any substantial length), textual critics have identified three different manuscript traditions or text types, each of which is associated with a different part of the ancient Christian world. These are the Byzantine type (originating in Greece and Asia Minor, the Western (from Italy, Spain, Gaul, and North Africa), and the Alexandrian (associated with Alexandria, Egypt). That is, the Byzantine manuscripts, though differing from one another slightly, tend to have the same set of variants as one another, whereas a different set of variants is common to the group of manuscripts originating from Alexandria, and yet a different set is held in common by early copies from the West.

Each of these manuscript traditions is supported by its own set of Greek manuscripts. Each is also supported by its own set of early translations (Byzantine by Syriac and Latin translations, Western by other early Latin manuscripts, and Alexandrian by Coptic and some Latin translations). Each tradition is also supported by its own set of writings by church fathers (e.g., Chrysostom's writings attest to the Byzantine type, Polycarp's and Tertullian's support the Western, and Origen's support the Alexandrian tradition).

I trust you're hanging with me here. Although you usually have to be in seminary to be given this stuff, it's pretty interesting and not all that difficult. My real point is to explain the main differences between the New King James Version and other modern English translations, and we're only a couple posts away now...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Attestation of the Early Church Fathers

(This is the third post in a series.)

I've already shared that there exist an astounding 5,366 ancient Greek manuscripts that are copies of the books of the New Testament. I have also alluded to the fact that there are thousands of ancient copies of translations of the New Testament writings. The most important of these are Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, and these, too, help textual critics gain certainty about what the autographs contained.

But there is a third line of evidence that leads to a correct understanding of the content of the original New Testament writings. That is the quotations of those books that are found in the writings of the early church fathers.

As Christianity began to spread (against all odds, humanly speaking), post-apostolic Christian leaders wrote letters, sermons, treatises, commentaries, and defenses of Christianity. And in these writings, they liberally quoted the gospels, letters, histories, and apocrypha that make up our New Testament. In fact, so extensively did they quote those writings that it is said that if we had no copies of the Greek manuscripts themselves, we could still piece together the entire New Testament simply by compiling the quotations of it in these writings.

Who are these early church fathers? They include men like Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Origen, and Augustine. Their writings provide important additional information for textual critics attempting to reconstruct the New Testament autographs with certainty.

In the next post, I'll begin to discuss how these separate lines of evidence--Greek manuscripts, early translations (Latin, Syriac, Coptic), and quotations from church fathers--are used by those seeking to make an accurate modern English translation of the New Testament.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Variants in NT Copies

(This is the second post in a series, whose overall aim is to understand the differences among our modern English translations of the Bible.)

A couple of days ago, I shared that there is overwhelming reason to conclude that the New Testament was reliably transmitted from the original writings to the copies (the Greek manuscripts) that still exist. We need to acknowledge, nonetheless, that the thousands of manuscripts available to us do contain variants, places where they disagree with one another. Indeed, there are literally tens of thousands of such variants among these copies. That being the case, isn't the charge of tainted transmission a valid one?

No, not at all. For one thing, the vast majority of these variants are completely insignificant. They amount to nothing more than an alternate spelling or the fact that a single place or person was known by two different names. So the issue of the reliability of the copying comes down to approximately 2,000 places where variant readings that are not insignificant can be found among the manuscripts. Most of these will be identified (by footnotes or marginal notes) in any good study Bible.

Let me share two examples of significant variants, one accidental and one likely intentional. In Romans 5:1, the Greek word εχομεν or εχωμεν appears in the different ancient copies. The difference is the third letter--did the original contain an omega or an omicron (the two different Greek 'o's)? In English, the verse reads
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Is Paul telling us that peace is an accomplished fact or something that we should be striving to appropriate? In this case we have a very minor alteration that leads to a rather significant difference in meaning. The incorrect insertion of the wrong 'o' would have been an easy mistake to make, especially if the scribe were listening to someone else dictate the letter.

There's an example of an intentional error in the second verse of Mark's gospel. Some copies read, "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet..." This is followed by an Old Testament quote, a quote which can be found not only in Isaiah but also in Malachi. So other copies read, "As it is written in the prophets..." It would seem that some first or second century scribe, in copying Mark's written account of the events of Jesus' life, decided that Mark hadn't been on his game when he wrote "in Isaiah the prophet." The scribe 'improved' the text by changing it to "the prophets." Both variants, of course, are correct, but the first is likely what Mark actually wrote.

There is an entire field of scholarship called New Testament textual criticism that seeks to recover the autographs by careful scrutiny of the wealth of copies in existence. Scholars in this field examine external evidence (including the dates and locations of the variants in the Greek manuscripts, in the early Latin, Coptic, and Syriac translations, and in the citations from the early church fathers) and internal evidence (such as 'which variant best explains how the other arose?'). The result is a level of certainty about the originals that exceeds 99% accuracy.

It is important to note that no Christian doctrine is undermined by any of the variant readings. If we were to ignore all of the passages in which variants are found--and use only those passages in which all the relevant copies agree completely--what would be the result? We would have the very same picture of Jesus--a miracle-working, divine Son of God who died by crucifixion and three days later was raised in a glorified physical body.

The existence of errors in copying--some of them significant--should cause us no concern with regard to the reliability of the New Testament. We do need to recognize, though, that the referent of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (and of the implied doctrine of inerrancy) is not a particular set of copies--much less a particular English translation--but the autographs. These we don't have, but--through the reasoned application of New Testament textual criticism--we have a great deal of certainty about what these originals contained.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Is One English Translation of the Bible Best?

Some serious young Christians I know have been confused by claims that there is only one reliable English translation of the Bible--that being the King James Version. Those who make this claim are likely well-meaning, but are themselves confused about the issues regarding transmission (copying) and translation of the originals (autographs) of the Old and New Testament. Because I think these issues are important ones for anyone interested in studying the Bible, I'd like to address them in a series of posts. It shouldn't be difficult to make this complex topic fairly understandable. For now, I'll stick to just the New Testament, written originally in Greek.

Let's begin by acknowledging that none of the autographs of the New Testament books have survived to today. This is not surprising. The papyri (or even parchments) on which they would have been written could not be expected to last long, especially as these particular texts would have been passed around and read with great regularity. The fact is that we don't have the autograph of any such ancient text, biblical or otherwise.

So, the issue with regard to the reliability of any ancient document is not whether or not we have the autographs. The questions are 'How many copies do we have?' and 'How close are they to the date of the original?' So how do the books of the New testament compare (on these criteria) with other ancient manuscripts accepted as reliable?

Caesar wrote Gallic Wars between 100-44 B.C. Ten copies exist today, with the earliest dating to A.D. 900, about 1,000 years after the original.

The Athenian general Thucydides wrote his History of the series of wars between Athens and Sparta between 460 and 400 B.C. There are only 8 extant manuscripts, the earliest dating to A.D. 900, 1,300 years after the autograph.

Tacitus wrote his Annals in about A.D. 100 (at approximately the same time as the last NT book was written). Twenty copies have survived to today, with the earliest coming from A.D. 1100, 1,000 years after the autograph. Historians consider the copies of each of these books as providing reliable evidence for what the originals said.

The New Testament books were written between A.D. 50 and A.D. 100. An astounding 5,366 copies (in the Greek) survive to today. The earliest (a fragment) dates to A.D. 125; whole books are found as early as A.D. 200; most of the New Testament is represented in copies from A.D. 250, and copies containing the entire new Testament date to A.D. 325, only 225 years after the last autograph! The conclusion of scholars in this field is expressed by F.F. Bruce...
There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.
In brief, the fact that we don't possess the originals of the New Testament books is not a barrier to our understanding what those originals said. Nonetheless, the copies we possess do contain variant readings. And the most significant differences among the various English translations are not based on choice of English words or style, but rather on which set of Greek manuscript copies the editors chose to work from when translating.