Textual Criticism and Bible Translation

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This sponsored post was prepared by E. Ray Clendenen.

Not everyone is excited by terms such as “textual variants,” “eclectic text,” and “Alexandrian text-type”—and that’s ok. But we all need to poke our heads up occasionally out of our neat little worlds and get smacked in the face with reality, which is usually a lot messier than we would like. Most people are aware that English Bibles are translations from another language and that different translations are possible (and exist). But many are not aware that the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text is uncertain in places, since some translations give little or no information about this. 

However, about 25,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament exist, almost 6,000 of those being in Greek. The rest are manuscripts of early translations. Our Old Testaments are based on about 15,000 manuscripts, 11,000 of which are in Hebrew. No two manuscripts are alike. The individual differences are known as “variants.” Our Old Testaments are largely translated from the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible (AD 1008). Translators waver from that codex, however, in many places and follow variants from the other manuscripts. Our New Testaments, on the other hand, translate a Greek text that is a scholarly recreation based on a comparative analysis of the various manuscripts. This recreation does not match entirely any existing manuscript.

This situation should not alarm or discourage a Bible student. In the first place, about 90 percent of the Bible is the same in all manuscripts (B. K. Waltke, “Old Testament Textual Criticism,” Foundations for Biblical Interpretation, B&H, 1994, 157). In the second place most of the variants do not concern significant differences. Douglas Stuart wrote, “It is fair to say that the verses, chapters, and books of the Bible would read largely the same, and would leave the same impression with the reader, even if one adopted virtually every possible alternative reading to those now serving as the basis for current English translations” (“Inerrancy and Textual Criticism,” in Innerrancy and Common Sense, ed. R. R. Nicole and J. R. Michaels, Baker, 1980, 98). 

Nevertheless, the “serious” Bible student should be aware that some significant variants do exist and should know how to find out where they are. Although several resources exist for scholars, most Bible students are at the mercy of their Bibles to tell them. Unfortunately, some translations are not much help with this. The King James Bible, for example, cites no variants. For modern translations, a comparison of the textual information in Acts makes an interesting study. Acts is noted for the number of textual variants. Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament lists more than 500 text-critically significant passages in Acts, whereas it lists less than 200 for Matthew. Not all these passages have significance for the average Christian, so no translation marks them all. Here is a chart that shows the number of textual variants that are noted in Acts by several translations:

New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) 4
New Century Version (NCV) 5
God’s Word (GW) 5
New American Bible (NAB) 8
New International Version (NIV) 10
New Living Translation (NLT) 13
English Standard Version (ESV) 17
Revised Standard Version (RSV) 18
New English Translation (NET) 32
New American Standard Bible (NASB) 32
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 39
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) 77

The rationale for choosing one variant over another can be found in the more scholarly Bible commentaries (the NET also gives some of that information). The variant believed to be original by the particular Bible translators will be the one followed in the text, and the rejected variant will be the one in the footnote. Not everyone who reads and studies the Bible is interested in this information, and since it is found in the Bible footnotes it can easily be ignored. But for those who are interested, it is helpful to know where it can be found. The chart above demonstrates another of the advantages of using the HCSB.

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