Behind the Bible
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Source: James W. Scott
Mr. Scott is the managing editor of New
Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1995.