Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Variations in the Bible

When I was a youth, our church leaders encouraged us to memorize scripture, likely in accord with the prayer of the Psalmist: “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee” (Psalm 119:11 KJV). They even ran contests for memorizing scripture with rewards at the end. At that point in my youth, I only knew one translation, the King James Version, written in 16th century English. It was not until my later teenage years that I even became aware of multiple translations. I discovered that even if the translators are working from the same critical Greek text, all translations are somewhat different.

I suppose one can be comforted that the translations generally sound the same. If one reads closely, however, the differences subtly suggest different meanings to the reader. For example:

In the Revised Standard Version, Ps 119:11reads: “I have laid up thy word in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” In an American Translation, it reads: “I have stored thy message in my heart, that I may not sin against thee.” In the English Standard Version, it reads: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” In the New American Bible, it reads: “Within my heart I treasure your promise, that I may not sin against you.” In the English translation of the Septuagint, it reads: “I have hidden thine oracles in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

To point out one subtle difference: “treasuring your promise,” “storing thy message,” and “hiding thine oracles” in one’s heart do not sound like one is memorizing the words of the Bible.

On the other hand, if one always reads the New Testament using two different translations, one is sometimes surprised because the translations occasionally contradict one another! It is not that a slightly different meaning is being suggested, it is a clear contradiction. For example, in 2 Thess 2:13 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) the translation reads: “…because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit…” whereas the Revised English Bible (REB) reads: “From the beginning of time God chose you to find salvation in the Spirit who consecrates you….” This disagreement is not a case of different translators translating the same Greek text differently. This is a situation where the ancient Greek manuscripts of Second Thessalonians disagree between themselves by using different words. Some Greek manuscripts read απαρχην (first fruits) while others read απ απρχης (from the beginning). The critical Greek text used by most scholars (Nestle-Aland 28th edition) reads “first fruits” in the text and gives as an alternate reading “from the beginning” in the apparatus.1 The translators of the REB preferred the alternate reading.

            Sometimes the contradiction is more extensive. For example, the Revised English Bible skips from Matt 16:2 to 16:4. Verses 2-3 are missing in the REB. The text reads: (verse 2): “He answered them: (verse 4) ‘It is a wicked and godless generation that asks for a sign and the only sign that will be given it is the sign of Jonah…’” The NRSV on the other hand includes verses 2-3. (Verse 2) “He answered them. ‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather for the sky is red. (Verse 3) And in the morning, “It will be stormy today for the sky is red and threatening.” ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’” Most scholars regard verses 2-3 as a later insertion into the Greek text from a source similar to Luke 12:54-56, or from the parallel Lukan passage itself.2 The Nestle-Aland critical Greek text includes verses 2-3 in the text but place it in square brackets indicating: “that textual critics today are not completely convinced of the authenticity of the enclosed words.”3 Hence the translators of the REB disagree with the Nestle-Aland critical text, and the NRSV agrees but omits the verses entirely. This disagreement between modern scholars raises the question, who is correct? Is Matt 16:2-3 a part of the Bible or not? These verses are after all in some Greek manuscripts.

            I stumbled across the latter two discrepancies in the preaching services of the church following along in the Greek text with the minister who was reading his text for the day in English. No mention was made of the problems that existed in the text. Should ministers inform their congregations of these kinds of difficulties existing in the biblical text?

            These discrepancies leave a “wanna-be-true-to-the-core-but-not-really-succeeding” Baptist pondering the situation. It appears that the Bible we read today does not spring unaided from the mind of God, but, in the final analysis, the versions of the Bible that eventually reach the hands of the reading public are products from the desk of the text critic and the translator.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The apparatus consists of notes at the bottom of the page of Greek text. It was a committee decision to make the text read “first fruits.” For the rationale see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; 2000), 568.

2Metzger, Textual Commentary, 33.

3Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, page 9*.


bobinberea said...

Nice to see this, Charlie. Thanks! I wonder if you have dived into the new NRSVue? I'll confess that I have it available in my Bible software, Accordance, but I haven't taken a deep dive into it yet. I've read a few intriguing reviews of it, but haven't taken the plunge yet. I need to!

Unknown said...

I see it the same as you.
And I would add:
essentially the same phenomena of textual variations applies of course to the Hebrew Bible. But in the reception of Jewish scripture a somewhat different standard—the Masoretic Text—was taken as the traditional beacon for guided reading among variations.
In any event, at Psalm 119:11 Rashi has this comment:
[לא נתתיה להשתכח ממני] “I did not allow myself to forget it.”

Anonymous said...

Good Morning Bob, I have not taken a look at he NRSVue. From what very little I have read, it is not a new translation.

Thanks Unknown one for sharing the Rashi comment.