The Bible Behind the Bible

James W. Scott

A translation is to be judged above all by how accurately and clearly it conveys the meaning of the original text. However, what is the original text of the Bible? Different translations give different answers to this question.

The Transmission of the Text

The books of the Bible were written centuries before the invention of printing. They were written out by hand and copied by hand. The original manuscripts have long since disappeared, and we must determine the original text from the copies that have been preserved.

Due to human frailty, it is difficult to copy accurately. Down through the centuries, scribes made mistakes and then their errors were copied by others. But while one copyist was introducing an error, other copyists were presumably copying the same text accurately. Thus, unless all known manuscripts of a text are copies of the same corrupted manuscript, the original text will be preserved amidst all the errors.

By carefully comparing all the ancient manuscripts, and studying the variant readings at each point in the text, Bible scholars endeavor to reconstruct the original text. This is a complicated and vexing task. It is not easy to decide which manuscripts are more reliable than others, or which variant readings are copyists' errors. Scholars disagree on these questions, and the translations on the market reflect that disagreement.

It can be unsettling to believers to learn that the Bible in their hands may be—and no doubt is, at least in places—a translation of a corrupted text. Therefore, two things need to be kept in mind. First, in the great majority of cases, variant readings do not change the sense of the passage very much. One text might read "He said" and another "Jesus said" or "He said to them." The problem of variant readings is not trivial, but it is far from catastrophic. Second, no doctrine hangs on a variant reading. The truths of the Christian faith are firmly grounded in many well-settled texts. Only rarely are variant readings theological battlegrounds.

The Old Testament

The English translations generally available today are all based on the same Old Testament text—the Hebrew text that has existed without serious rival and with extraordinarily little variation for about two thousand years, called the Masoretic text.

Ancient versions (translations) of the Old Testament, including the Greek (called the Septuagint), differ from the Masoretic text in sometimes significant ways. Modern English versions differ in the extent to which they adopt readings from these and other non-Masoretic texts, but they all basically follow the Masoretic text.

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered after World War II, the oldest Hebrew Bibles were only about a thousand years old. But the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the Masoretic text goes back with remarkable fidelity at least another thousand years to before the time of Christ. However, they have also shown that in those days there were rival Hebrew texts similar to the Septuagint and other versions. Therefore, scholars have been more willing to adopt non-Masoretic readings.

For example, consider Deuteronomy 32:43. The New American Standard Bible, following the Masoretic text (as do the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version), reads: "Rejoice, O nations, with His people; for He will avenge the blood of His servants." The New International Version and the New King James Version say virtually the same thing, but each indicates in a footnote that the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint support the addition of "and let all the angels worship him" after the word "people." The New Revised Standard Version goes further, putting this extra line into the text (and changing "nations" to "heavens," also like the Septuagint).

Since all these English translations basically follow the Masoretic text, I would not choose an English Bible on the basis of how closely it follows the Masoretic text. However, I would like to add that, in my judgment, the church has not adequately come to grips with the fact that the apostolic church ordinarily followed the Septuagint. In Hebrews 1:6 NASB, for example, we read: "And when He again brings the first-born into the world, He says, 'And let all the angels of God worship Him.' " Now, if the New Testament finds these words in Deuteronomy 32:43, shouldn't we?

The New Testament

The various English Bibles may largely agree on their Old Testament text, but not on their New Testament text. The KJV and the NKJV follow what is called the Byzantine or received text (the textus receptus); the others follow what is called the Alexandrian or modern critical text.

How do these texts differ? Basically, the Byzantine text is fuller. Depending on one's perspective, the Alexandrian text omits or the Byzantine text adds quite a few words here and there, as well as whole clauses, verses, and even two long passages (Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11).

At the time of the Reformation, almost all of the available Greek manuscripts of the New Testament were Byzantine in character. The early printed Greek Testaments and Protestant translations (including the KJV) naturally followed this text, which was widely accepted down to the nineteenth century.

During the nineteenth century, manuscripts came to light that were considerably older than the Byzantine manuscripts, notably Codex Vaticanus (which had been hidden away in the Vatican) and Codex Sinaiticus (which was discovered in a monastery at Mt. Sinai). Then, mostly in the twentieth century, even older papyrus texts were discovered in Egypt (where they had been preserved by the dry climate). These older manuscripts generally agreed with each other against the Byzantine tradition, and their type of text became known as Alexandrian (since they were of Egyptian origin). Textual critics, both evangelical and liberal, increasingly embraced the Alexandrian text, and it lies behind most of the translations made in this century. (A third type of text, known as Western, is known mostly from Latin manuscripts, but has not carried much weight outside Roman Catholic circles.) However, various evangelicals have revived interest in the Byzantine or "majority" text during the last generation.

Arguments for the Byzantine Text

Should we follow the Byzantine or the Alexandrian text? In my judgment, the arguments advanced by both sides are inconclusive.

In favor of the Byzantine text, it is pointed out that the overwhelming majority (perhaps 90%) of Greek manuscripts are Byzantine in character. However, it could just be that Byzantine manuscripts were copied more often. After the Western church turned to Latin and the Middle East was subjugated by the forces of Islam, only Byzantine areas were left to copy large numbers of Greek Bibles. Besides, if the majority rules, we should follow the Western text, since there are more Latin manuscripts than Greek ones.

But, it is argued, God would never have allowed a defective Greek text to pervade his church. However, this supposition is not supported by Scripture. Passages like Matthew 5:18 may imply the preservation of Scripture, but they do not help us evaluate variant readings. It is a fact of history that God has allowed non-Byzantine texts to pervade large areas of the church for long periods. The Latin Vulgate dominated the Western church for over a millennium; the modern critical text has reigned supreme for over a century.

Arguments for the Alexandrian Text

One would expect earlier manuscripts to be more reliable than later ones. And, indeed, nearly all of the earliest surviving manuscripts (A.D. 200-400) are Alexandrian in character. Some show Western influence, but not one is Byzantine. However, a fair number of Byzantine readings have been found in the papyri.

Furthermore, since all these early manuscripts come from Egypt, they show us only what kind of text was current there, not necessarily what text was being used elsewhere. The earliest manuscripts from Greece and Asia Minor—the leading areas of the postapostolic church—are Byzantine, and they were copied from earlier Byzantine manuscripts now lost.

But, it is argued, all the Christian writers of the second and third centuries used either the Alexandrian or the Western text. However, these few writers lived in areas where those texts were used. There were no writers at that time in Greece and Asia Minor who quoted the New Testament extensively and whose writings have survived. But there were such writers in the fourth century, and their New Testament text was Byzantine. They must have had access to manuscripts at least as old as the papyrus texts extant today.

It is argued that the Byzantine text looks like a conflation of the Alexandrian and Western texts. But this evidence can just as easily be explained by saying that certain words dropped out in the Alexandrian tradition while others were dropping out in the Western tradition. There is no historical evidence that a conflated text was ever imposed on the Eastern church, and the manuscripts do not indicate a gradual process of conflation.

Sometimes, when words are present in the Byzantine text of a Gospel, but not in the Alexandrian text, those words are present in the parallel account of another Gospel. This supposedly shows that Byzantine scribes added words from one Gospel to the parallel account of another Gospel (harmonization). However, if in fact Alexandrian scribes were carelessly omitting words, some of them would have been words present in the parallel account of another Gospel.

It is also argued that, as a general principle of textual criticism, the shorter text is to be preferred. However, this "principle" has not been proved by an examination of the actual copying process. Besides, modern critics rarely give preference to Byzantine readings that are shorter than Alexandrian readings.

Finally, we are told that Alexandrian readings more easily explain the rise of Byzantine readings than vice versa. But this is basically wishful thinking. Ordinarily, one can plausibly argue either way.

Reaching a Decision

The definitive work on the New Testament text has yet to be done. In the meantime, I will give you my thoughts on the subject. Over the years, my work has often involved checking authors' quotations from the Bible and other sources. I have carefully observed the nature of copying mistakes, and I can report that accidental omissions—even of whole clauses and sentences—are much more common than additions. My acquaintance with the actual copying process, then, leads me to think that the Alexandrian text is a corruption of the fuller Byzantine text, resulting from accidental omissions (and some deliberate editorial work).

On the basis of its New Testament text, then, I would favor the New King James Version over the others, since it follows a form of the Byzantine text and has good textual notes. But compare other translations, too.

Dr. Scott is the managing editor of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1995.

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