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Textual Criticism

(5 posts)

Bibles I Like

I like Bibles, some more than others. Here is the which and the why. Wycliffe New Testament (1385) This was the first English translation (Middle English, to be precise) of the New Testament Bible. My interest in the Wycliffe is historical. I want to maintain ties to the important people and events of the past that helped lay the foundation for the church today. John Wycliffe, the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” and his Bible are certainly among the high points of church history. I don’t actually have a Wycliffe New Testament in any form, but I hope to have one eventually. Since I probably won’t be affording the two million or so that an actual, hand-scribed copy is worth, I’ll have to settle for a facsimile edition. I might even get an updated-spelling edition, like this one. Geneva Bible (1560) Like the Wycliffe New Testament, the Geneva marks an important point in church history, and connects us to some of the greatest theologians the church has known. During the oppressive reign of Queen “Bloody” Mary, many Reformed believers took refuge in Geneva, Switzerland. There, led by Myles Coverdale and John Foxe, and under the protection of John Calvin, fugitive theologians produced the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was a first in several ways: First chapter and verse divisions. First Roman style typeface (the King James, produced fifty-one years later, retained a Gothic Blackletter style). First marginal study notes. William Shakespeare quotes hundreds of times in his plays from the Geneva translation of the Bible. The Geneva Bible became the Bible of choice for over 100 years of English speaking Christians. Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions of this Bible were published. Examination of the 1611 King James Bible shows clearly that its translators were influenced much more by the Geneva Bible, than by any other source. The Geneva Bible itself retains over 90% of William Tyndale’s original English translation. The Geneva in fact, remained more popular than the King James Version until decades after its original release in 1611! The Geneva holds the honor of being the first Bible taken to America, and the Bible of the Puritans and Pilgrims. It is truly the “Bible of the Protestant Reformation.” (source) Unfortunately, the Geneva was never updated (until just recently) as the King James was, and went out of print. Now, a new version of the 1599 Geneva, published by Tolle Lege Press with updated spelling, is available. Those are translations I like for their historical value. The following are those that I would actually carry to a Bible study (the Tolle Lege updated 1599 Geneva almost makes it into this group, but not quite). Authorized Version (King James, 1611, final revision 1769) The King James Bible is not one for which Protestants should feel any great historical affection. It was produced as an Anglican antidote to the Geneva Bible. However, it is, I believe, a superior translation, and certainly a superior literary work. When the King James finally overtook the Geneva in popularity, it made a place for itself in church history that cannot be ignored. It was my preferred Bible for years, until I discovered Reformed theology, church history, and the Geneva Bible. And contrary to popular opinion, I don’t find it difficult to understand. It is not written in Old English, as some believe, or even Middle English*. It is written in modern English, the same language we speak. Yes, some of the language is antiquated (and some of the spelling in the 1611 edition can make reading it a bit awkward at first), but any difficulty with it is easily overcome with a little effort by any reasonably literate person. That, by the way, goes for the Geneva Bible as well. New King James Version This is a good translation, but it completely fails in its attempt to “retain the beauty of the King James” while updating the language. I suspect it was produced, at least in part, as a bone to the King James Only crowd, and it hasn’t pleased them at all. This is not to discourage you from using it. It’s a fine translation in modern, up-to-date English. I’ve used it, and if you’re using it and like it, that’s just fine. Of course, when we talk about good translations, the question we have to asks is, translation of what? All the translations above are based on the best manuscript evidence available at the time, but archaeology has since given us older manuscripts. By and large, this is not a major issue (except to a small but loud cult of poorly educated nuts); the Geneva and KJV remain trustworthy translations in general. However, the older manuscripts confirm what Calvin already suspected, that some passages included in the Byzantine text are apocryphal (Mark 16:9ff; John 7:53–8:11), and others are incorrect (the “Johannine comma,” 1 John 5:7–8; “book/tree of life,” Revelation 22:19). Which brings us to the last two on my list, both based on the newest manuscript evidence. New American Standard Bible This is the Bible you should use for serious study if you’re going to rely solely on an English text. It is the most literal translation available and, especially since its 1995 updating, is perfectly readable. English Standard Version While my Reformed brethren have been convulsing in paroxysms of rapturous delight over the ESV, I’ve never gotten fashionably excited about it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good translation; I encourage anyone who likes it to use it, give it away, and promote it. I just don’t see the necessity of another translation. The NASB has everything the ESV claims to have. I like it better than the NKJV, because (in addition to the textual problem) it isn’t claiming to retain the language of a great literary work while, um, . . . not. But it reads just a little like the NIV, which you will not find on this list. Anyway, I have a couple of study Bibles in the ESV, and I like them, use them when I want the notes they contain, and have even given a few copies away. These are all essentially literal, or formal equivalent, translations—the only kind I will use. * Old English is a language you would not recognize at all, more closely related to Old Norse or modern Icelandic than English. Middle English is the language of Chaucer and Wycliffe. Click here for a comparison of the languages.

The Preservation of the New Testament

Some time ago, I came across an old copy of Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism by J. Harold Greenlee. Recognizing it as one of the books on The Master’s Seminary 850 Books for Biblical Expositors list, I snatched it up put it in my stack of new books, to be forgotten until just a few days ago when I was updating my LibraryThing. I have been meaning to do some studying of the science of textual criticism for some time and, having the book in hand, now seemed like the right time. Everyone who studies the Bible will eventually ask, if there are no surviving original manuscripts, if every manuscript we have is a copy or a copy of a copy, how do we know the available manuscripts are reliable? This is undeniably a vital question. If the ancient texts we possess are not accurate, how can we know the Bible we have is really the Word of God? In his introduction, Greenlee offers three basic reasons to trust the texts from which our Bibles are translated: the vast number of manuscripts available for comparison, the age of the surviving manuscripts, and the consistency of the surviving manuscripts. [T]he number of available mss. of the N.T. is overwhelmingly greater than those of any other work of ancient literature. . . . The earliest extant mss. of the N.T. were written much closer to the date of the original writing than is the case in almost any other piece of ancient literature. . . . The plays of Aeschylus are known in some fifty mss., the works of Sophocles in one hundred, the Greek Anthology and the Annals of Tacitus in one ms. each, the poems of Catullus in three hundred of independent value; while there are a few hundred known mss. of works of Euripides, Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil. In the case of the N.T., in sharp contrast, there are over 4000 extant mss. in Greek, 8000 in Latin, and 1000 in other languages. As regards the time interval between the extant mss. and the autograph, the oldest known mss. of most of the classical Greek authors are dated a thousand years or more after the author’s death. The time interval for the Latin authors is somewhat less, varying down to a minimum of three centuries in the case of Virgil. In the case of the N.T., however, two of the most important mss. Were written within 300 years after the N.T. was completed, and some virtually complete N.T. books as well as extensive fragmentary mss. of many parts of the N.T. date back to one century of the original writings. Since scholars accept as generally trustworthy the writings of the ancient classics, even though the earliest mss. were written so long after the original writings and the number of extant mss. is in many instances so small, it is clear that the reliability of the text of the N.T. is likewise assured. In the N.T. and in other ancient literature as well, there is no question concerning the reading of most of the words. Textual criticism needs to operate in only a limited portion of the text. . . . the main body of the text and its general sense are left untouched . . . textual criticism engages in turning a magnifying glass upon some of the details. —J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Eerdmans, 1964), 15–17.

John Calvin, Bible-Perverter

Just an interesting side note today gleaned from Calvin: apparently, the controversy over John 7:53–8:11 is not new. For those who aren’t aware of it, modern textual criticism based upon texts that were unavailable until long after the publication of the KJV demonstrates that the story of the woman taken in adultery is a later addition not found in the original text. I had always excused the earlier translators for including it by virtue of their ignorance. But Calvin, writing in the sixteenth century, knew it didn’t belong. He writes: It is plain enough that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage. —John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVII, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Volume I (Baker Books, 2009), 319. He then introduces John 8:12–14 with these words: Those who leave out the former narrative, which relates to the adulteress, connect this discourse of Christ with the sermon which he delivered on the last day of the assembly. —Ibid., 324. So the “modern perversions” were not the first to cast doubt upon, and even omit, this apocryphal text.

A Monumental MacArthur Milestone

Monday··2011·06·06 · 1 Comments
Title in honor of John MacArthur’s penchant for alliterated points. Yesterday, John MacArthur finished preaching through the New Testament, an odyssey he began in 1969. I feel like I should stop everything today in honor of this great accomplishment. As uncalvinistic and irreverent as it is, part of me wishes I could have been fifteen or twenty years older and sitting in Grace Community Church when MacArthur preached his first sermon there. I can’t help wondering who I would be today, after forty-plus years of such excellent biblical exposition. But as I said, it is irreverent, and even blasphemous, to wish for a different life than the one that God, in his unsearchable wisdom, has given me. Besides that, I can listen to every one of MacArthur’s sermons here, no charge, no time machine necessary. I watched his final sermon on the Gospel of Mark last night on the Grace Community Church live stream page. It was actually a postscript to Mark’s gospel, the final verses having been finished that morning. When I say “final verses,” I mean Mark 16:1–8. Last evening’s “Postscript” dealt at length with textual criticism. MacArthur explained how answering the questions raised by the apocryphal ending of verses 9 and following and similar passages, should increase our confidence in the biblical text. Read or hear that message here. I thank God for John MacArthur’s long ministry, and pray that God will give him many more fruitful years.

About Those “Missing Verses”

A few days ago on Facebook, concern was expressed over “missing verses” in modern Bible translations. The following is my response. (It was a quick response. I will happily accept correction* if I have erred in any of the details or omitted any indispensible facts. The general point, however, stands.) I’m glad to see you thinking about this. I considered the same questions myself, probably at about your age. These are important issues, and we need to have good answers for them. I think it’s very unfortunate that most Christians don’t give them much, if any, thought. The question I eventually had to ask, and that you should be asking, is, How do I know these “missing” verses are actually missing? How do I know they aren’t actually additions to the text? Isn’t adding to Scripture is just as bad as subtracting from it? The answer is found in the science of textual criticism (TC), the process by which scholars judge the authenticity and accuracy of texts. Some of what you might have heard or read from “King James Only” (KJVO) advocates probably dismisses TC as an ungodly practice, but that fails to recognize the fact that the KJV is also a product of TC (KJVO proponents are, in general, very poor scholars, no matter how many honorary “doctorates” they boast, many scoffing at the legitimacy of scholarship itself). Dismissing TC fails to understand how we got the texts and translations we now have, including the KJV. The KJV New Testament is based on the Textus Receptus (TR), which is based on the text compiled by Erasmus, first published in 1516. Erasmus drew from the very limited selection (about a half-dozen, vs. the 6,000 we now possess) of Greek MSS available to him at the time. To these he applied TC to determine which were the most accurate. However, he didn’t have Greek MSS of the entire NT. Those he lacked, he drew from the Latin Vulgate, and translated them back into Greek. Let that sink in for a minute: the KJV consists in part of passages whose oldest source is a Latin translation. But Erasmus was a competent textual scholar (in other areas, not so) who did the best he could with what he had, and produced a good text upon which our earliest English translations (most notably, the KJV) and Luther’s German translation are based. Time passed, and older MSS were discovered. These MSS added to the pool from which textual critics drew, enabling them to produce more accurate texts. Hence, we get translations that “omit” verses not found in the oldest MSS. However, they cannot rightly be called “omissions” if they were never there in the first place. There is a lot more to be said about this, especially about the “original” MSS (e.g., we actually possess no true originals, only copies, which is why TC is necessary), but this is a good start, and probably longer than you wanted to read. Note well, I’m not saying any modern translation will do. Paraphrases (The Living Bible, The Message, etc.) are not translations at all, and therefore, not Scripture. “Dynamic Equivalent” translations (NIV, etc.) are of varying quality, mostly bad (the original NIV was accidentally pretty decent—later incarnations not). “Essentially Literal” translations (NASB, ESV) are the ones to trust. In short, contra KJVO propaganda, those “missing verses” are not part of a liberal conspiracy or satanic plot to undermine God’s Word. They are the product of the best textual scholarship, which seeks to transmit God’s Word as accurately as possible—just as Erasmus, in his day, did. On this subject, here is how John MacArthur handled Mark 16:9–20. (The applause at the end is not usual at Grace Community Church. After forty-three years of preaching, MacArthur had just finished his verse-by-verse exposition of the New Testament.) If, like me, you find audio/video too time-consuming, the transcript is here. * Corrections from those who understand the issues involved, that is. I’m not interested in engaging with serious KJVO advocates. I know too well what a fool’s errand that is.


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