A Plea for Realism: The Version Debate Lives On, Part 2

In our initial post on the version issue, we concluded by noting the importance of two key issues: (a) the nature of the Greek or Hebrew text used in translation and (b) the philosophy or methodology employed in translating from the biblical language (Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic) to the receptor language (English, German, French, etc.).  It is important to note in this context that no translation ever made has avoided, directly or indirectly, these two fundamental issues. With respect to the first, the question is one of determining which Greek and Hebrew texts (and which corresponding readings) best represent the autographs. This involves evaluation of the manuscript evidence and, in instances where there are textual variants (differences among the manuscripts), the use of text-critical principles in determining the original readings.

For the OT, there are relatively few text-critical challenges as the text appears to have been passed on in a fairly homogeneous form through the Masoretic text tradition (This is not meant to imply that there are no OT text-critical issues – just that they are relatively few as compared to the NT).  While the focus of this posting will be on the NT, I would be amiss if I did not mention the 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their importance in corroborating the stable preservation of the OT text through the millennia.

Regarding the Greek NT, the church is blessed with over five thousand individual manuscripts containing all or part of the twenty-seven NT books.  While there is a remarkable level of agreement between the manuscripts, the fact remains that no two are in perfect agreement on every count. This is not to suggest that the manuscripts are riddled with errors – such that we are left in a helpless situation.  In fact, most of the variants simply result from differences in spelling or word order and are inconsequential in determining meaning of the text.  In other cases, the variants are readily explained by common scribal errors of sight and/or hearing. Finally, in a relatively few instances, there are substantive differences, necessitating the discipline of textual criticism. In such instances, we affirm an eclectic method in which all internal and external evidence are evaluated in making text-critical determinations.

Specific to the version issue, it should be noted that Erasmus, the individual often associated with the Greek text behind the KJV, had less than eight Greek manuscripts (all Byzantine in character and none earlier than the 10th century) when he prepared his now famous Greek NT.  Even so, in evaluating the limited manuscripts he possessed (with no two identical in every reading), Erasmus had to make text-critical decisions.  Furthermore, the 1611 King James translators made extensive use of two of Beza’s Greek NT editions, both of which reflected text-critical decisions. Thus, the King James Version, like virtually every translation before and since, is based upon a text whose preparation involved text-critical decisions.  That is not meant as a criticism, but merely an oft-overlooked fact.  What has changed since the much-esteemed work of the 1611 translators is that we now have Greek NT editions based on an amazing wealth of manuscripts reflecting a wide geographic distribution, with some dating to as early as the 2-4th centuries.  Consequently, when confronted with variants, we are in a much better position to evaluate the evidence and ascertain the original readings.  When it comes to determining what God said through the writers of Scripture, it simply will not do to ignore the wealth of manuscript evidence.  Ignorance is not bliss!

In the next and final post on the version issue, I will consider the importance of translation philosophy and method.

About Al Huss
I am a professor of New Testament at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA

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