26. Evaluation of Variant Readings.
Every believer would like to know what God had written in His Word to us. Therefore every believer considers the Bible seriously.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. Since Greek is not our home language, we are dependant on a translation to know Gods Word. Every translation is an attempt to render the original as true as possible. Some put the emphasis on the meaning, others on trying to bring forth something of the form or wordplay of the Greek, but no translation can do all. We also do not have any of the original autographs, only copies of copies to our avail. But it was Gods decision to utilize the imperfect man to write down in imperfect words, and to copy and bring forward through the ages His prefect Word to let us know His will. And even now He speaks to each of us anew in our imperfect living environment.
When I personally look at the Bible in my hand, there are certain cases in which I would like a clearer answer from God. There are certain verses I would like to alter. Some people quote assertions or claims that supposedly go around, but that I cannot find in my Bible. There are “quotes” that I would like to add to my Bible, and some verses that I would rather omit from it. The challenge for the devout Christian is to find a text that renders the original as close as possible; a text free from manipulation, inclusion or omission by some priest, copyist or translator of the Bible. Whatever the reason for the alteration, how well it might be meant, if it differs from the original, I do not want it in my Bible! I want the word of God as true as possible to what God originally let have written down, and as understandable in my home language as possible. Even though a verse might be very dear to me personally, if it is proven that this is a creation by someone else and not coming from God, I do not want it in my copy of the word of God. And likewise if some proclamation offends me, and I hate the demand or claim it has against me or my conduct, if it had been part of God’s proclamation, I don’t want anybody to remove or alter it on my behalf! Rather let me deal with it in prayer and supplications to my God and Savior who in a loving relationship with me, will help me deal with it. That is why I would like to know what really God willed be written down in the Bible.
Another question is what should be reckoned as word of God in the Bible. Are only the words uttered by God or Jesus word of God? In some Bibles these words are printed in red. In some cases in the Greek, it is difficult to discern where a quotation ends, and the words of the Evangelist take up again. In these cases the translators have to make their choice. What if some words of Jesus are left out, or words of the Evangelist are put in Jesus’ mouth? The question arises whether the words of the general narrative and the circumstances in which Jesus uttered something is on a lower level, or is it still word of God?
The idea of having certain words in other colors goes back to minuscule codex 16 of the Gospels, dated about 1350 A.D. “The general run of the narrative is in vermilion; the words of Jesus, the genealogy of Jesus, and the words of angels are in crimson; the words quoted from the Old Testament, as well as those of the disciples, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon and John the Baptist, are in blue; and the words of the Pharisees, the centurion, Judas Iscariot, and the devil are in black. The words of the shepherds are also in black, but this may well have been an oversight.” (Metzger, p.66)
Equally important is the question concerning the writers of the documents of the New Testament. Are only documents written by known apostles or evangelists to be accepted as word of God with Biblical authority? How then should we judge the epistle to the Hebrews of which we do not know the author? Most certainly we could not reject this document on such grounds! There is almost complete consensus under learned Bible scholars that the incident between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery as reported in John eight was not written by the author of that gospel. The incident and especially the way Jesus handled it, the sinner and her accusers is absolutely typical Jesus’ way. But the manner in which the report was written, the vocabulary and grammar does not correspond with the rest of the gospel. We could also not reject this report only because it was written down by someone else than the Evangelist! The same is true of the long ending of the gospel according to Mark. (Mark 16:9-20) We will look at each pericope in more detail later on.
Another question of importance is whether we should accept or reject words that have somehow been added to Scripture many years later. What date or incident should we accept as the final conclusion of the written word of God? Should we accept the year 100 A.D., or should we conclude with the writings of the original disciples and evangelists? When we now discover that some proclamation by a church father had been included into some manuscripts and had become part of the source edition from which the early printed translations were made, should we canonize and include, or reject and remove it from our Bibles? These represent the more important differences between the KJV and the NIV.
Though there are many differences between the two forms of texts represented by the KJV and NIV, yet when we critically examine every difference, we find that except for Rev.22:14, no Biblical truth or doctrinal principle had ever been in the balance by these differences. In most cases, the differences are trivial, or represent logical elaborations that are not crucial to the understanding of the true meaning of that particular verse. No truth in the Bible hangs on one single piece of Scripture or a single statement. Some people feel that the elaboration on 1John 5:7-8 of some late medieval priest in an Old Latin Version is needed to clarify the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet long before that verse had been elaborated, all serious Christians accepted the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a golden thread coming from Genesis and continuing right up to Revelation!
With the coming of the first printed New Testament, it was accepted unconditionally at first. Only when it was compared with other manuscripts were the many deviations from the standard text and especially from older more reliable manuscripts acknowledged and discussed. Only then was it seen that it had not been based on reliable texts. During that time, people accepted a manuscript as correct, and all that differed from it were seen as deviations.
Here follows an extract from the Critical Notes given on Acts 8:37, as is published by the text of the United Bible Societies.
We will look into the inclusion or omission of verse 37 at a later date.
At present the Bible Societies do not accept one single manuscript as source for the translation of the New Testament. Instead they weigh all variations found in manuscripts and compile the most likely representation of the original autograph. Even so all the textual evidence is given on all variations and printed at the bottom of each page, enabling the translator or student to verify for himself the evidence. The compilers of the text also evaluate their own choice with a scale of A-D. A means they are absolutely sure of their choice, B, that there is some doubt, C, even more doubt and D means that there choice and the alternative both have even probability to render the original.
Acts 8:37 The Ethiopian and the requirements for baptism.
Papyrus 45 is one of the very oldest witnesses on the Gospels and Acts, dating about 200 A.D. But how important is such a witness in deciding between variations? Let us look at Acts 8:37
Acts 8 records the meeting between the Ethiopian eunuch and Phillip. After explaining the Christian religion derived from Isaiah which the Ethiopian had been reading, the Ethiopian asked this very important question: “What would keep me from being baptised?” (Common English Bible) Then in verse 37 the King James Version gives the requirements for baptism. It records one of 5 different versions found in manuscripts, each with further variations. Most modern translations are without verse 37, but immediately go over the baptism itself.
Apart from Papyrus 45, (200 A.D.) 10 other Uncial manuscripts (350 – 950) and at least 16 Minuscules (850 – 1200) are without this verse. This applies also to 5 Ancient Translations (250 – 600).
Verse 37 is present in only one Uncial Manuscript (550) and 6 Minuscules (950+) as well as 3 Ancient translations (450) up to 500 A.D. and again in some later translations.
With verse 37 almost totally absence from the Greek Manuscripts, one can be sure that it is not authentic to the original autograph.
But where could this verse come from?
We notice that 7 Church Fathers (200 – 500) mention the requirements for baptism in their writings. It is almost certain that their notes in the margin of their personal manuscripts were copied into the texts at a later stage. This also explains the many different versions of the requirements found in the later manuscripts. The manuscript Erasmus used when he compiled the text for the first printed edition of the New Testament in 1516, included this verse. Therefore it was present in the Textus Receptus which was used to translate the KJV and many of the older translations.
But what is the effect of this deviation?
What was the question of the eunuch? Not “What are the requirements for baptism?’ but “What HINDERS me?”
And indeed there are things that could hinder this Ethiopic Eunuch on his way from Jerusalem to Ethiopia!
1) Most probably he had not been circumcised. At that time the question concerning circumcision in the Christian community had not been handled.
2) Deuteronomy 23:1: “He that is emasculated or has his penis cut off, shall not enter in the congregation of the LORD.” Is this also applicable to the Christian faith, or would Isaiah 56:3 – 5 hold ground?: “…neither let the eunuch say: Behold, I am a dry tree. For this is what the Lord says to the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths … even unto them I will give my house and within my walls a place …”
3) It is possible that the Ethiopian could see himself as a descendent of Ham (Gen.10:6), a Cushite. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots… ?” (Jeremiah 13:23) Or he could be a descendent of Ammon or Moab. “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord; even to the tenth generation …” (Deuteronomy 23:3)
4) During that time there was the general understanding that a God or Deity had been bound to a geographic area or a specific nation. That is why Naaman asked for “two mule loads of earth …” to take with him on which he could worship the God of Israel. (2 Kings 5:17)
But Jesus cancels any possible hindrance in the great commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit …” (Matthew 28:19 – 20)
There was no hindrance, so Philip proceeded immediately to baptise the Ethiopian!
In the compilation of Acts, the history of the baptism of the Ethiopian forms the pivot point from the establishing of the Christian Church in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. The rest of Acts is mainly concentrated on the ministry of Paul. Luke shows that the spread of the gospel to non-Jews was not some special interest of Paul. Therefore Paul’s conversion is only recorded in the very next chapter.
Whenever the original autograph is altered or elaborated, even with sound biblical truth, the emphasis could be diverted away from the real essence of the incident or message. How the Holy Spirit breathed the authors to write the Word of God, is always the best.
To help us to establish the very words of the original autographs, we thank God for keeping safe ancient manuscripts like Papyrus 45.
The modern translator has a huge responsibility in making a choice, for anyone can ask him to explain his choice.