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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Textual Basis of Modern Translations

There has been a significant shift in the textual basis of the translations of the Bible, especially the New Testament. As mentioned above, the Catholic versions of the Bible had traditionally been based upon the Latin Vulgate, which meant that translations into English were translations of translations. As faithfully as these were made, they were bound to introduce wording and understandings that reflected the Latin rather than the original Hebrew and Greek. This was further complicated by the fact that various editions of the Vulgate underwent textual emendation and alteration, resulting, in the opinion of some, in an increasingly corrupt text, reflecting Byzantine and medieval readings. For those translations that returned to the original languages, however, there were still a number of issues to face.

In the study of the Hebrew Bible, the text has been relatively well established since the Reformation. Because Jewish scholars maintained the Masoretic text during the Middle Ages, this text was available for publication in the Renaissance, beginning in the early sixteenth century. In fact, the text by Daniel Bomberg in 1516–17, revised by Jacob ben Hayyim and published in 1524–5, provided the basis for the Hebrew text used by most scholars, up to publication of Kittel's Biblia Hebraica in its third edition in 1937 (followed by the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia in 1977), when the St Petersburg manuscript (tenth century) became the basis of that and subsequent Hebrew texts. For the Apocrypha, most translations use a standard edition of the Septuagint, such as Rahlfs, and the Göttingen volumes where available, supplemented with Latin texts for certain books (e.g. 2 Esdras).

Debate over the Greek text to be used in translating the New Testament has had more widely diverging opinions, however. With the re-discovery of classical learning during the Renaissance, and the advent of movable type printing, there was impetus to publish the Greek text of the New Testament, despite the firm ecclesiastical hold of the Latin Vulgate. In a race to have his edition appear before that of Cardinal Ximenes and his Complutensian New Testament (printed in 1514 but not issued until about 1522), Erasmus published a text of the Greek New Testament in 1516, with a second edition in 1519, and a further three editions during his lifetime. This text was based on only a limited number of late Byzantine manuscripts (mainly two, supplemented by three or four others, dating to about the twelfth century), with some portions of Revelation a retroversion from Latin because none of his limited texts had all of the Greek text. In the preface to the second edition of their printing of a Greek New Testament in 1633 (this text resembled that of Erasmus but was based on one of Beza from 1565), the Elzevir printers referred to the text as the one that was ‘received’ by all. The textus receptus, or Received Text, as it became known, was used until the nineteenth century as the text for New Testament Greek scholarship. In the nineteenth century, owing to the discovery and publication of the major early codex manuscripts (fourth and fifth centuries), as well as the beginning of discovery of the Greek papyri (although these were not fully appreciated until the twentieth century), the textual basis of New Testament scholarship shifted. Constantin Tischendorf was one of the first, and arguably the most important, in establishing the importance of these recent textual findings, himself editing more Greek biblical manuscripts than any other person, before or after. He himself issued eight editions of the Greek New Testament, in the eighth edition especially utilizing Codex Sinaiticus, which he had discovered in St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai (1844, 1859). B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, however, were probably the most important systematizers of the principles of textual criticism. Their system of textual criticism is still widely used in creating what is called an eclectic text, that is, one that does not exclusively print one manuscript but collates a number of them. Their text relied heavily upon two major codices, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, as the base against which other variant readings in other manuscripts were assessed. They published their text of the Greek New Testament, reflecting many of the recent manuscript finds, and their principles of textual criticism, in 1881. Since then, there have been other eclectic texts developed. In 1898, Eberhard Nestle created a hand-edition by collating the readings in Westcott and Hort's, Tischendorf's, and Bernhard Weiss's editions, with the result being a completely eclectic text. This edition has provided the basis of the Nestle–Aland New Testament (27th edn., 1993). In the early 1960s, in an effort to provide a Greek text with the interests of the Bible translator in mind, Eugene Nida instigated a project by the American Bible Society to publish an eclectic Greek New Testament, a project which soon had the support of many other Bible societies, and is published by the United Bible Societies (UBS). That edition, although originally independent, is now the same text as the Nestle–Aland text since its 26th edition (1979) and the third edition of the UBS text, which itself has reached four editions (1966, 1968, 1975 corr. 1983, 1993). This text now clearly dominates textual criticism of the Greek New Testament.

The Dean & Chapter of Durham.

Despite the current pre-eminence of the Nestle–Aland/UBS editions, there are a number of texts that have formed the bases of the New Testament portions of versions of the Bible discussed above. The textus receptus formed the basis of the Authorized Version. We do not have the exact text that was used, but the reconstructed text was issued by F. H. A. Scrivener in 1881 as part of the revisions for the Revised Version, and is thought by him to reflect the fifth edition of Beza's text, published in 1598 (others have thought it reflects an edition published by Stephanus in 1550). Organizations such as the Trinitarian Bible Society have continued to keep editions of the textus receptus in print. Recently, an edition of the majority text, relying upon the Byzantine textual tradition and in many ways resembling the textus receptus, has been issued by Zane Hodges and A. L. Farstad (1982). There have been numerous revisions of the Authorized Version through the years, with at least two major revisions of this edition being made in the period with which we are concerned, both maintaining their reliance upon the textus receptus. The first of these is the King James II version, by Jay Green. An American project, the publication of the King James II in 1971 was a response to various modern translations, wishing to preserve the Bible that people were used to reading (undoubtedly meaning the Authorized Version, as if no others were being used). As a result, in places it attempts to make some of the archaisms of the Authorized Version more understandable to modern readers. The results are not convincing. A more serious effort is the New King James Bible. Rather than being the product of one person, which the King James II essentially was, the New King James Bible reflects the work of over 100 scholars from various denominations. They undertook to revise the Authorized Version in order to give access to the many ‘spiritual treasures’ of that version. It is unclear how creating a mongrel translation, combining modern and seventeenth-century English, can produce such a result. In any event, these two editions do not adequately address the crucial question of what text is being translated. They choose instead to stay with what is clearly an inferior text on the basis of modern text-critical principles, because of its limited basis and late manuscripts.

Among the other versions mentioned in the survey above, there are four texts, or kinds of Greek texts, that are used for translation of the New Testament. The first are those versions that use the Westcott and Hort edition. The Revised Version and American Standard Version in effect use Westcott and Hort, as originally did Phillips. The relationship between the text that Westcott and Hort were producing during the time that the Revised Version was being produced, and that version, has often been discussed and debated. The general thought is that they had a very strong influence, sharing their results with the translation committee and often voting in support of the Greek text based upon the two great Alexandrian codices, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. This was much to the dismay of others, such as Scrivener, who apparently wished to retain more of the textus receptus. In 1881 Scrivener published the reconstructed text that the revisers thought lay behind the Authorized Version, with an appendix noting where the Revised Version had decided to follow a different reading. The second text to note is that of Hermann von Soden (1913), used by Moffatt for his translation. Von Soden performed a great feat in his compilation of his Greek text, but later scholarship has found fault with it at numerous points. Moffatt's is, to my knowledge, the only major version to follow this text for a modern English translation. The third Greek text to note is the one that follows the eclectic text of Nestle (beginning in 1898), first revised by Kurt Aland and now by Barbara Aland. Since the Nestle–Aland text has become the standard text for scholarly use, with the largest number of textual variants noted, it is not surprising that it has been used by a number of translations. The Revised Standard Version appears to have used the sixteenth and seventeenth editions (1936, 1941) of this Greek text, with consultation of a number of other editions then available. The New Revised Standard Version makes it clear that the Nestle–Aland/UBS text is used, which (as mentioned above) since the third edition of the UBS Greek New Testament (1975) is identical with the Nestle–Aland 26th edition (1979). The New American Standard Bible is based upon the 23rd edition of the Nestle–Aland edition of the Greek New Testament, and Phillips used the UBS text in his revision in the early 1970s. The fourth category is those versions that have created and used their own eclectic New Testament Greek text. Weymouth published the Greek text that he translated (The Resultant Greek Testament, 1886), which was based upon a collation of the major published editions available in the nineteenth century, including those that followed the textus receptus and the Alexandrian textual tradition. Besides Weymouth, however, since Scrivener in 1881, so far as I know only the New English Bible has issued the Greek text used. Tasker in 1964 published the Greek text followed by the New English Bible, with appended notes regarding variant readings. Other translations are usually content with notes that indicate where there are serious variations in the text and the reading they have accepted, although usually noted in English. Regardless of whether one can determine the exact text followed in every instance, it is clear that since the time of the Revised Version, there has been a definite rejection of the textus receptus as the basis of modern English translations, and the acceptance of the Alexandrian textual tradition in the form of various eclectic texts. This is a significant change in the basis of New Testament translation, and is bound to have implications, even if the translations themselves only reflect them in changes and deletions in certain passages (e.g. Mark 6: 9ff. ).

The disjunction between the use of the (non-eclectic) Masoretic text in Hebrew Bible studies (essentially the St Petersburg manuscript) and the clear predominance of the eclectic text in New Testament Greek studies raises important questions, however. These questions cannot all be answered here, but some merit brief comment. One notes immediately that there are two apparently contradictory principles at work within biblical textual criticism. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947), as well as knowledge of other Hebrew manuscripts and versions (e.g. Targumim), it would be possible for Hebrew Bible scholars to create an eclectic text of the Old Testament for study and use in translation. On the other hand, with the number of complete or nearly complete early codices, such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, it would be possible for New Testament scholars to use a single manuscript as the basis of their study and translation. In fact, early complete New Testament manuscripts are much closer to the time of writing than are any of the Hebrew manuscripts, making at least a prima-facie case for their use. In any event, it is an oddity that two different principles of textual criticism coexist in such a way. Some have recently suggested that an eclectic text should be used for Old Testament study, utilizing the recent Dead Sea Scrolls more heavily in reconstructing the original Hebrew text. Another way forward might be to utilize single manuscripts for both Old Testament and New Testament study and translation. An advantage of using a single manuscript is that it represents an actual text that was historically utilized and transmitted within a faith community, something that cannot be said about the modern eclectic text. This text is the product of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, and was never a text used by an ancient church or synagogue. Although textual eclecticism has the goal of reconstruction of the original text, this is a goal that can never be convincingly attained, short of discovering the original manuscripts themselves. In future translation work, attention perhaps should be paid to the issue of eclecticism versus single text traditions.

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