The Text of The New Testament (review)


I know that some people have questions and various opinions of the newer translations of the Bible. I have been doing some study in this area recently so I thought I would type up some comments for those interested.

This past week I finished reading Bruce Metzger's book: "The Text of The New Testament." Metzger's book is very well written, fully documented, and balanced in its presentation. I can easily recommend it to anyone concerned about the question of the ancient manuscripts of the NT and why the newer translations are the way they are. This is what Metzger has to say in the preface:

"The necessity of applying textual criticism to the books of the New Testament arises from two circumstances: (a) none of the original documents is extant, and (b) the existing copies differ from one another. The textual critic seeks to ascertain from the divergent copies which form of the text should be regarded as most nearly conforming to the original."

Part I of Metzger's book is a discussion of how ancient books were made, what they were made of, and how the process of copying took place. Most of us only have a vague idea of what was involved in transmission of writings in the ancient world. The chapters on this subject were very interesting and informative. Knowing how the books were made and copied helps us to understand why there are no extant originals available and how various errors are introduced.

The second chapter describes the various ancient manuscripts available today, where they came from, and in general what the content is. If you've ever wondered where those letter designations like A, B, p4, p67, etc. come from, Metzger's book will clear all that up for you. He also tells the story of the Tischendorf's discovery of the Sinaitacus in detail.

In Part II Metzger goes into a discussion of the recovery of the Greek text from the available fragments starting with the editions of Erasmus and the Complutensian Polyglot up to the present day.

Part III of the book goes into detail of the method of text criticism. These principles of text criticism are what are used by both ancient and contemporary scholars in studying variant texts. It's the part of Bible study that is a complete mystery to most of us. Some of the principles are obvious, but some are initially surprising. For example, one fact often stated in favor of the Textus Receptus (primary source of the KJV) is that the majority of manuscripts agree with it. That's not a good argument, however, since the majority of the manuscripts are later copies and more likely to have carried forward corruptions to the text. On the other hand, the age of the manuscript alone doesn't insure it more accurate either. What the text critical method tries to do is devise a "pedigree" (stemma) for the manuscripts and then apply a set of rules for deciding which of the variations are most likely to be original. How you develop the pedigree, which rules you use and how you apply them will then determine what you wind up with as the final text.

One of the most surprising rules of text criticism is, "the shorter reading is preferred." At first that sounds backwards, but Metzger goes into the reasons for that rule and why it is considered so fundamental. One of the most common ways a manuscript gets changed is by the accidental incorporation of marginal notes. Sometimes marginal notes are corrections or proof-reader's instructions, but many times the marginal notes are actually a gloss on the text. A scribe copying the text may not know whether the marginal note is a correction or a gloss. The famous Comma Johanneum (1 Joh. 5:7) is one example of text that is most likely a gloss that later got inserted into the main text. In addition, scribes would sometimes "correct" the manuscript based on the prevailing interpretation or in an attempt to harmonize parallel passages in the Gospel. The passage in Matthew 5:22 is one example. In another book, Metzger explains it this way:

"Although the reading with eike [without cause] is widespread from the second century onwards, it is much more likely that the word was added by copyists in order to soften the rigor of the precept, than omitted as unnecessary." (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament)

I think that sounds reasonable. After all, the point of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5 is that the correct outward behavior is not enough. You can't avoid condemnation just by not murdering someone. A hateful heart is every bit as much a condition of sin.

Once you understand what the text critics are doing you can see why many newer versions have various words and phrases left out. The translators apply their basic rules of text criticism and the resultant English translation follows along. There's no big conspiracy here, in other words. There are good scholars on both sides of the issue and some do argue in favor of the "Majority Text." In short, there is plenty of room for intelligent debate without any need to call people heretics and apostates over the choice of Bible version. Another Metzger book, "The Bible In Translation" gives the history of various English translations. I recommend it as well.

I also picked up a copy of Riplinger's book "New Age Bible Versions" at a used book store this week in order to get another side of the argument. I know some people have a high opinion of this book, but I found it almost useless. The book fell apart on me both literally and figuratively. (The glue had dried out and pages kept coming loose from the cover making it difficult to read.) Overall, I can't imagine anyone who understands the nature of text criticism taking arguments such as hers seriously. To me it's an admixture of ad hominem attack, misstated facts, and circular reasoning. Ironically, she seems to give more credibility to Theosophists than Christian scholars! But, I suppose that's beside the point since I just wanted to understand WHY there is an argument and what the argument is about. Riplinger's book will give the basic arguments that a lot of people use in attacking the new translations. It has a wide variety of quotes from "New Age" writers that are useful. However, I have to warn people that many of her historical statements, especially about the history of Alexandria the Alexandrian texts, are blatantly wrong. It's a very unbalanced presentation overall, but does give you one side of the argument.

The main thing to understand is that the text scholars are not arguing theology. They will only apply doctrines of Christianity when to not do so would produce an obvious error. Thus attacking them on the basis of theological disputes doesn't get us anywhere. These are two separate issues. Someone with questionable doctrines may still be an excellent and accurate scholar. I think it's much better to understand the text critic's method and reasoning before making a judgment on which translation is the "True Word of God". That, after all is what we want, right? The assumption being that the original text is a better source of understanding than just trying to filter through centuries of dogmatic arguments.

FWIW: I tend to use a variety of English versions along with an Interlinear Greek NT and lexicons when studying, but use quotations from the KJV when writing simply because more people are familiar with it.

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