Initially anybody who required a copy of the original autographs of the epistles, gospels or any other part of the New Testament had to make his own, or employ a scribe to make a copy. These copies were usually made on papyrus, the common writing material, or sometimes on parchment, a much more expensive but more durable material. We call all handwritten material manuscripts to distinguish them from printed copies that originated centuries later.
Distributed all over the world, in monasteries, libraries and museums, and even in private possession more than 5800 manuscripts of the New Testament are found. Some of them comprise of only a small fragment of a single page including only a part of a verse or two. Other are more complete, containing a whole book or two, or the four gospels, or the epistles of Paul et cetera. Others contain the whole New Testament with or with some apocrypha and some even the complete Old and New Testaments, again with or without some apocrypha.
As with all work where man is involved, faults, corrections and alterations by the scribes slipped into their copies. Therefore no two manuscripts correspond completely with any other. People have always made notes in the margins of their Bibles. Often these notes were mistakenly seen as something missing in the manuscript, left out by a careless scribe, and then added into the text where the present scribe saw fit. It is also obvious that any alteration, whether intentional or by mistake, would be carried over to the next copy and further copies. It is no wonder then that most of the later copies are as a rule longer than older manuscripts. But how could we discern which exact words were originally written by the Bible authors as inspired by the Holy Spirit? It would really be irresponsible to declare one specific manuscript as containing 100% the exact words of God, without fault or corruption.
Probably the most important choice any translator of the New Testament, is the choice of the manuscript he would use as source manuscript to make his translation. How would he discern which exact word(s) would present the greatest possibility to render the original?
The choice of a source text for the New Testament.
The New Testament had been written in Greek, the Lingua Franca of that time. In the prologue of most Bibles are written something like: “Translated from the original Greek Texts.” To make a translation the translator therefore has to choose a Greek text as source for his translation. In the past the Textus Receptus, being the common printed Greek text of the New Testament and readily available, had usually been used without questioning its accuracy. But since 1898 Bible Societies and independent translators preferred the Nestle – Aland text, and since 1966 the text of the United Bible Societies. The Greek Orthodox Church uses their own text for their official Bibles.
What is a Source Text?
As Christians we would like to have a copy of the New Testament as it had been written down by the original authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But no original autograph survived. Therefore we have only copies.
The oldest complete New Testament that survived is the Codex Sinaiticus, copied around 350 A.D. Then the Codex Vaticanus from the same time, but lacking several folios. Revelation had probably never been included in this manuscript, and the one found there is a much later addition. Then we have the Washingtoniensis from about 380 A.D. and the codex Alexandrinus around 450 A.D. But all these manuscripts differ from one another in several instances. It would be irresponsible to declare any manuscript from what ever period to be the perfect copy containing the original words.
Therefore it is of paramount importance to study all available texts and variations to discern which words have the greatest possibility to correspond to the original autographs. More than 5800 Greek manuscripts are available. Some are only a fragment containing part of a verse or two, while others have more, even complete books or the whole New Testament. But each has it’s own unique value. When a single word in question is contained in a fragment dating from around 125 A.D. we know that that specific word had been part of the preceding, even older manuscript from which that fragment had been copied! This has great value in evaluating the accuracy of the later, more complete manuscript. The practical problem is that these manuscripts are spread out through the whole world. How could anybody visit all the places to study all the variations found in these manuscripts? That is the huge advantage that Nestle and Aland gave the Christian world when they over many years compiled text apparatus containing all the variations found in the manuscripts at the bottom of each page of their text. This work was expanded even further in the United Bible Societies Text with more than 18000 manuscripts of ancient translations. A translation gives us the assurance that that specific variation or word had been part of a Greek manuscript in use at the time and place where the translation had been made. They even added variations found in the writings of more than 200 Church Fathers, again confirming that that person had the use of a manuscript containing that specific variation. If someone from the first century would have written “Paul wrote to the Romans that they had to abstain from this or that”, we can be sure that that requirement had been present in the manuscript he used. These three resources help us to discern the variation that has the greatest possibility to present the exact words of the original autograph.
By utilising these three sources, the United Bible Societies present the Bible translator with a proposed text while providing all the alternatives in order to allow him to evaluate their own choice, or to choose another version, if so he wished. But now he can make an informed decision.
Which texts are available to serve as source text?
There are four texts available.
- The official text of the Greek Orthodox Church.
This text had been published in 1904 by the Ecumenical Patriarchal of Constantinople. It is mainly based on the minuscule manuscript 1495 (±1350 A.D.) containing the gospels, 1 Corinthians and the ecumenical epistles. It was expanded and supplemented by several other late mediaeval manuscripts. It is presented as a text without any motivation given for their choice, or any variations given. Though this text is used within the Greek Orthodox Church, it is not used by other translators outside that Church.
- The Textus Receptus.
This text had initially been compiled by Desiderius Erasmus in 1516 using two manuscripts each for the gospels, the Pauline and general epistles and one incomplete manuscript on Revelations that he hastily acquired from the Roman Catholic monastery in Basil, Switzerland. All five these manuscripts are late mediaeval documents. Therefore they contain most of the alterations and additions that were included through the ages of repeated copying of the New Testament. To be in accordance with the Roman Vulgate, Erasmus made several alterations to the Greek text, and added or omitted as he saw fit. He even created his own personal alterations that are found in no Greek manuscript at all. This text differs in more than 2000 instances from the standard Greek text. But when it was published it addressed a long felt need and was widely distributed. Though many shortcomings and corruptions were pointed out from the very beginning, many were never corrected. No reason for the choice of a variation is given and no indication of variations is given. It is presented as a final product containing the personal choice of Erasmus, as later altered and elaborated by later publishers of this text. Due to the availability of this text, it had unquestioned been used for many translations, including the King James Version of 1611.
- The Nestle – Aland Text.
In 1898 Eberhard Nestle compiled a text using the oldest and most reliable manuscripts available. He also published all variations known to him as a footnote on each page in a text critical apparatus. His work was later elaborated by Kurt and Barbara Aland, hence the name Nestle – Aland Text. The text critical apparatus has constantly been updated with all known manuscripts from all over the world. Now the Bible translator was no longer delivered to a finished work of a single person. He had a summary of all variations and which word, sentence or even paragraph is supported by which manuscripts. The Bible translator could now decide for himself whether he accepted the choice of Nestle and Aland, or whether he would prefer another variation. Now he has the opportunity to evaluate the variations that do exist in the manuscripts and choose the variation most likely to render the original autograph. Unfortunately the text critical apparatus is difficult to understand because they use complicated symbols and markers.
- The United Bible Societies Text.
During 1955 the Union of Bible Societies decided to compile their own text which was published in 1966. For this publication all known Greek manuscripts (5800+) were taken into account, as well as more than 18000 manuscripts of antique translations as well as the quotations of more than 200 Church fathers. They even provide a rating of the relative degree of certainty of their own choice based on the weight of the manuscripts. The letter A signifies that the adopted text is virtually certain, down to D that indicates that there is a very high degree of doubt whether the selected text or the variation in the apparatus contains the superior reading. With an international and interdenominational committee to do the compiling, the chances of a choice being ideologically or denominationally influenced are negligible. The text critical apparatus is easily understandable and very complete. Once again the Bible translator is presented with a compiled text, but with all the variations in manuscripts in an orderly way given on each page. Hereby the translator has all available information to enable him to make an informed decision.
According to the above information it is clear that the official text of the Greek Orthodox Church might be influenced by their own dogmas. In essence it also consists of mainly one late mediaeval manuscript, elaborated with manuscripts of the same period. Unquestioned it contains several alterations and additions that exist due to repeatedly copying the New Testament. The translator is confronted with a text that had been chosen by some committee leaving the translator no room for his own choice.
The Textus Receptus is also presented as a fait accompli containing the personal choice and alterations of a single man, Desiderius Erasmus. He wrote to Pope Leo X that he made his own alterations to “improve” the Greek text. He also altered the text to agree with the Roman Catholic Vulgate. The manuscripts he used were all late mediaeval with the same danger of containing most of the alterations and additions and adopted without study or evaluating their authenticity.
The Nestle – Aland Text presents a text where the motivation for a certain reading can be assessed. The text critical apparatus gives the translator an overview of all relevant variations present in manuscripts spread all over the world to enable him to make his own choice.
The United Bible Societies Text also presents the translator the choice presenting an even greater elaborated and easily understandable text critical apparatus. Not only the variations in the Greek manuscripts are included, but also antique translations and quotations of Church fathers.
The choice of a source text.
When a Bible Society or any independent translator of the New Testament would like to present its translation as “translated from the original Greek” the choice of a source text is of paramount importance. That many Christians are used to the King James Version is understandable. But so are some used to other versions of the New Testament. Any deviation from that which we love and are accustomed to, can cause uncertainty and even suspicion. But a Christian should ask himself whether he would like a version based on the personal choice and alterations of a single person, or would he rather have a version taking into account the many manuscripts available to the translator to enable him best chances to render what the Holy Spirit had inspired the original authors to write down.
Because we are not all able to read Greek, or to have access to al the manuscripts and variations, I provide the relevant information on my blog at www.bibledifferences.net With this information I would like to facilitate my readers to understand the reasons behind the differences and to make an informed decision. I myself hate to be delivered out to the propaganda of any version without having the real facts before me. That is what I would like to empower my readers with. I am also busy to compile a book to be published during 2016 on this subject.
Comments are welcome at the bottom of this page, or via e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org