Lost in Translation: Textual Criticism

One critical issue affecting Bible translation is the form of the original text used in translating a particular version (i.e. how many and which Hebrew and Greek manuscripts were used by the translators). There are over 5,600 manuscripts of the Greek NT alone; in those places where the manuscripts differ (known as “variants”), what do the translators do? If an inferior or corrupted copy of the original text is used, then the resulting translation weds itself to those problems. This is what makes older translations partially inferior to more modern translations. There have been significant archaeological discoveries and scholarship advances in the last century alone. Every time an older manuscript is unearthed, it moves us closer to an exact reproduction of the original autographs. One must understand that these textual variants do not concern important doctrinal beliefs. If a particular doctrine is taught in a passage that is under scrutiny, it is always reaffirmed elsewhere. God would never allow his Word to become corrupted to the point that salvation was in jeopardy.

With that said, it was inevitable that some errors made their way into the textual base of the Bible. The scholarly pursuit of establishing an exact reproduction of the original autographs is called “textual criticism.” Scholars pour through thousands of manuscripts, sorting out what belongs and what does not. Considering that manuscripts were copied by hand, instead of being xeroxed, one can easily understand how errors crept into the textual base:

  • Wrong Word. When scribes copied the text, they sometimes did so by listening to someone read the text. It is inevitable, then, that they occasionally heard the wrong word (cf. Rev. 1:5, lusanti [has freed] vs. lousanti [has washed]; 1 John 1:4, ēmōn [our] vs. ūmōn [your]).
  • Lost Place. As he was copying, sometimes the scribe lost his place. He would either skip down too far when he picked up the next line, or he would repeat himself by recopying the line over.
  • False Assimilation. At times, a scribe would insert into a text a phrase from a similar passage (common when copying Ephesians-Colossians, any of the gospels, etc.).
  • Marginal Notes. A very common corruption is when a marginal note in a manuscript was mistaken as original and included in the text (e.g. John 5:4; Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:7-8).

These errors lived on when they were included by Erasmus in the Textus Receptus. Scholars now understand that older manuscripts are less likely to have been corrupted, and with every discovery of older manuscripts, we are better able to weed out passages foreign to the original text. Some Christians, unwilling to temper zeal with knowledge, perceive this as an attempt to take away “from the words of the book,” (Rev. 22:19). But the exact opposite is true; scholars are trying to weed out those words and phrases that should have never been there in the first place (cf. Rev. 22:18). It would be helpful to know about a few important passages that have been proven spurious:

MATTHEW 6:13

At the close of the Lord’s prayer, the KJV and NKJV includes the following phrase which is absent in other versions (ESV, NIV, NRSV, etc.): “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” The NASU and NCV include this verse in brackets, noting that the clause is not present in earlier manuscripts. Nor is the phrase mentioned in any early Christian commentaries on the Lord’s prayer (of which there are several). The earliest this phrase occurs in the manuscripts is the fourth or fifth centuries (once), and is not prominent until the eighth and ninth centuries (in one manuscript from the ninth century, scribes specifically noted that the phrase was not found in important copies). It is believed that some scribe added the phrase from 1 Chron. 29:11-13 to make the Lord’s prayer more “flowery” for use in worship services.

JOHN 5:4

In the narrative of Jesus healing the lame man near the pool, there is included in the KJV, ASV, and NKJV this statement: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” On the other hand, this verse is absent from most every other version, and like Matt. 6:13, the NASU and NCV include it only in brackets. The verse is not found in the manuscripts of the earliest and best manuscripts available to us, and another twenty manuscripts segment the phrase with an asterisk, indicative that the scribes believed it to be suspect. Also, the verse has seven words never again found in John’s writings, and in the manuscripts in which the verse does appear, it appears in a wide-variety of forms.

ACTS 8:37

When the Ethiopian Eunuch was ready to obey the gospel, the KJV, ASV, and NKJV record this statement: “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” The NASU and NCV bracket the verse. It does not appear in manuscripts earlier than the sixth century. However, as early as the late-second century, there was a tradition that Eunuch had made this confession. We know that these very words were the common confession made at baptism for many years (and are often said today), and it is likely that a scribe sincerely believed the words belonged in the text, given their popularity in baptismal confessions and the tradition that the Eunuch had indeed said them.

MARK 16:9-20

Two passages that are less “cut-and-dry” than the previously mentioned ones are Mark 16:9-20 (known as the ending of Mark) and John 7:53-8:11 (the story of the adulterous woman). Concerning Mark’s ending, it is included in most translations, but with some sort of indication that it is not found in the earliest manuscripts. The passage is absent from two of our three most important Greek manuscripts. Some early church fathers from the late 100s-early 200s had no knowledge of the passage, others from the fourth century (including Jerome, author of the Latin Vulgate) noted that it was absent from all Greek manuscripts known to them.

Many scholars believe this passage does not belong because of the presence of several words not common to Mark’s vocabulary, and the flow from v. 8 and vv. 9-20 is deemed too awkward to have been original. It cannot be denied, that the manuscript evidence weighs significantly against the passage being original, but there are some important early manuscripts that do include it. A Christian should study the issue for her/himself and decide; this issue should not become a test of fellowship. It is important to note that no doctrine, not even baptism, is dependent upon this passage for validity (except, conveniently, one Pentecostal belief, cf. 16:18).

JOHN 7:53-8:11

This passage is plagued with even less textual support than the ending of Mark; the passage does not appear in a manuscript of John’s gospel until the sixth century, and was very slow to be adopted afterward. No Greek church father commented on the passage before the twelfth century. When the passage was included in a manuscript, it was placed in so many different locations (including after Luke 21:38!) that it is hard to speculate where it belonged originally if it is indeed authentic. When it was included, scribes noted that they had their doubts as to whether it belonged. Its authenticity is less certain than Mark’s ending but more certain than the verses mentioned previously in this lesson. Its inclusion should certainly not be made a test of fellowship.

Advances in scholarship and discoveries of new manuscripts strengthen our faith, rather than weaken it. There are 5,656 Greek manuscripts of the NT alone. In all of ancient literature, Homer’s Iliad is second with a paltry 643 copies in existence. There are only seven copies of Plato’s writings. Every copy of these secular works contains variants which significantly alter the meaning of the text. But of all the variant readings in the 5,656 Greek NT manuscripts, none concerns the fundamental doctrines of the church. This is unprecedented, and can only be attributed to the providence of God!

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